Difference, Sameness, Process and Goals.
It is my experience that people of an open-minded and intellectually curious persuasion go through various stages when approaching the question of world religions and whether or not "all religions lead to God"... As I have written in the past (for example, in my post about my personal process of accepting Christ), I have come to terms with my own relationship with the Divine through the holy person of Christ and, from a broader perspective, the Trinity of Godhead, Christ, and Immanent Presence. I have come to terms with the truth that I can be both essentially Christian and accepting of the inherent value and holiness of all religious paths, even those I do not walk. Coming to this understanding was, like all things, a process. I went through many phases and stages which I often see reflected in those around me who, for their own reasons, on our journeys of their own... I thought, just for the fun of it (and to give Jeff Downs something to ponder), I would talk a little about my own journey and the stages along the way. (Be forewarned, this goes on far too long and gets a bit melodramatic by the end.)
Having been raised Catholic by a man who had grown up the oldest son in a large, poor Catholic family, for a long while, I knew only Catholicism. What I knew of Catholicism was what I had been taught in Sunday school, during Mass, and during gentle talks with my ever-patient and soft-spoken father. This was a stage of innocence, where I was not aware of alternatives and the struggles of difference and sameness that I would confront later on. What I knew was that God was Love, that He was all-loving and all-forgiving, and that He was always present in the same way that "nowhere" was also somehow mysteriously "now-here." I knew that I could feel Him in warm sunlight and taste Him in the wind; that I could hear Him in the disembodied voice of the old man who stood, dressed in funny clothes, at the front of the church while I was still too short to see him through the forest of adults standing in front of me. No one ever warned me not to lose faith, not to stray away from the Church, not to trust those shifty-eyed non-Christians... It was understood that, if God was Love, no reasonable or good person would ever willingly leave that Love behind, and that Love would never abandon them, even when all the rest of the world had. My father told me stories of growing up lower-class and ignored by most of society, finding comfort in the arms of his local Catholic community among people who never plagued him with shame or guilt at growing up poor and imperfect. This was the truth of the Christian faith as I knew it as a little girl--a community of loving friends held together not by fear of what was bad "out there," but by love and kindness towards one another and devotion to a God of Mercy.
It was during this stage that I began to read poetry, and much of the poetry I read came from poets of other religious traditions, some Buddhist, some Muslim, some Hindu... Though the names of different deities struck me as odd sometimes, I took them in stride the way I took references to Zeus and Diana and the legends of Greek heroes in English Romantic poetry--as poetic motifs, not dangerous religious doctrines to be feared or ignored. At the heart of every great poem, I found the awe, beauty and power of the God I had been raised with, the God I had always known wasn't just some old white man watching from the clouds, but was deeply present in the world and in other human beings, just as He had been in Christ. Only slowly did I begin to realize that there were other Christians who believed no value or truth about love and praise could be found in such non-Christian works. I began to understand that, according to these people, even great men and women who had loved deeply, served humbly and praised joyfully were "condemned" because of the names by which they had done so. But did the sunlight and wind have names? Did the moments of God's presence all demand to be called "Jesus"? Weren't there times when, in grief or gratitude, I had called out wordlessly to the nameless Divine Love that pulsed through me like living water? Would I end up in hell for such moments of pure worship, when I forgot to label myself strictly "Christian" and instead opened my soul to the truth that transcended me? Ridiculous! I did not even have to ask. I was young, and I knew they were wrong, these other Christians who thought everyone with a different name or skin color was already damned. I laughed them off, and with it, the Christian label. And so, for many years, I longer to be an angel, to be genderless, ageless and religion-less, to serve my Lovely God purely and without distracting words.
Some time later, I came across the writings of Gandhi (here, I give much thanks to my older cousin, who lent me his college text books while I was still putzing around in grade school). For the first time, I was introduced to the idea that "all religions are one" and "all religions lead to God." Enthusiastic for a system of beliefs as all-loving and all-embracing as the Divine itself was, I leapt at this idea, taking it to mean that I was utterly free to be any religion at all, to be simply "religious" without the need to be Christian and (so I still thought) automatically intolerant. In short, I thought this idea meant that all religions were basically the same, and any differences were minor and unimportant. This attitude buoyed me through high school, as I came to terms with the landscape of conservative suburbia and found companionship in the geeks and artists who were often more concerned with their work than what people thought of them. To care about the work I did, as a student and a growing writer myself, as well as a musician, would-be photographer, and hopefully-hopeless-teenage-girl romantic crafting herself into an ideal of her grown-up self--to focus on this work instead of on the realm of beliefs and ideas was to feel free to live and grow naturally. Still I laughed at the idea of a hell where I would burn forever for being the girl God had created and that I, with His guidance, would continue to create.
Upon entering college, I decided to study Comparative Religions formally. Blessed with a brilliant professor who, having just graduated with his Ph.D. from Harvard, was young enough to be approachable and honest enough to admit his own continuing questions and unending learning and pondering, I confronted for the first time the question, "What is religion, anyway?" I still do not have an answer. Academically, I began to discover how the concept of a "religion" as a thing unto itself had grown out of the Reformation when, for the first time, Western culture faced the notion of having real choices (until then, as with some religious groups still today, the world was divided simply into "believers" and "atheists," in which wise-women, scientists, alchemists, philosophers and superstitious farmers were as likely to be "believers" as not). I confronted the fact that all religions were not fundamentally the same, but often involved vastly different core beliefs which stemmed from and interacted with the anthropological, historical and cultural roots of the tradition. This was true, I learned, even of Christianity--flipping through a textbook of collected works by various Christian theologians, saints and theorists throughout history, I found on one page the denunciation of Reason as the misleading work of the devil, and on the next the familiar love-swoonings of a saint's poetry, and on the next the step-by-step logical proof of God's existence demonstrating reason as the defining gift from God to man. All of these things were, technically, "Christian," and yet they bit and fought amongst themselves across the centuries and throughout the world of changing politics and culture. Not only was my pleasant notion that all religions had a core structure based in Divine reality shattered beneath me, but I even when I turned back to Christianity as my home and root, I discovered that accepting the term "Christian" was really the acceptance of a non-term, a name with no meaning, a word that has meant almost everything in the past and that today has no clear, agreed-upon doctrine amongst its many splintered denominations... For the first time, I found myself afraid of hell. In all this academic rigor, theological nitpicking and fiery condemnation--where was God, and where was the way to Him (or Her)?
Then one night, I came back to myself in a dream. In the dream, I wandered a strange party full of strangers, alone and frightened, sobbing that I had lost the Love of my life. And there he was, sitting on the floor near a coffee table in a crowded living room, sipping soda out of a plastic cup and watching television--Christ. And he was young, and everyone ignored him, and he was very lonely, and he loved them all. I sat down beside him and told him my confusion, and he told me the story of realizing he was bisexual (yes, I said it--Jesus told me he was bisexual), and the pain and confusion it caused, the self-doubt that ensued. Surely, the thought of being able to love everyone must somehow be an illusion. How could you love everyone when everyone was so different, sometimes so much that they seemed to lose all common ground? To claim an abstract love for humanity-as-a-whole was just another way of not loving anyone in particular at all, he explained... And so it had been for me, as well--loving an abstract, untouchable God through all-religions left me defenseless and unprepared for the onslaught of difference and separation and ultimately isolation that came with true complexity.
The truth, of course, was just this: I had forgotten the childhood faith of which I had been so sure, when I had known that God was in the rain and the wind and the sunlight as well as in other human beings and in the church. I had known then, but not understood, that God is in the entire world, and yet the entire world is everywhere distinct, different and unique. To know and love God, then, was to know and love the mystery of unity within the mystery of difference. Christ sipped from his soda and nodded. To love your neighbor as yourself did not mean to love only the part of your neighbor which is the same as yourself--it is to love you neighbor in the same way as you love yourself, which is to say as a whole and unique and valuable being, utterly different and yet united in love. And likewise with God--for God is not only the Ideal, but also the Reality, and both the Ideal and the Reality must be loved and valued not for their sameness, but for their complexity, difference and on-going evolution. This was the Mystery of the Trinity, which denies that God is everywhere and always the same and simple while declaring in the same breath that exact truth.
And if every religion is different, and even every believer within each religion traveling different paths in pursuit of different goals, these goals are different and conflicting only insofar as the Divine Itself embraces all contradiction, paradox and mystery. God is Love, and Love is a process, not an end-product. The lesson of Christ is that to be fully human is to be fully divine, and to be fully divine is to be fully human; to be utterly united is to be infinitely unique, to come together in love is to follow a new and wholly different path, for every person loves every other person in a wholly new and unique way, just as each person loves God differently and God, as Love, manifests to and through each moment, each breath and each ray of light in a way utterly unique. Each religion is true to the extent that each is true to itself; each leads to God to the extent that it leads a person both into her own heart and out into the Heart of creation, however those hearts are conceived. Each person finds God to the extent that he finds himself. As a vine supported by but not confined to the structure of the fence... in winter, I may loose a few of my leaves, settle down into quiet contemplation and discover the crosshatches of that fence spell out the structure of Christianity, or perhaps that of Druidry, or perhaps only the ancient and forgotten language written by rain and moss into the barks of old trees. But regardless, the leaves and veins and stems and roots are my own, and as I am true to them, so I am true to Christ, which lives not in the names and doctrines of difference and alienation, but in the thriving diversity and change of uniqueness and love.