A peculiar truth of human life is that men often fail to accomplish what they set out to do, and achieve by accident and indirection something else entirely from what they intend — and there are times when this accidental achievement is of far greater value than the originally intended one could ever have been! An interesting and happy example of this perverseness of fortune occurred some 150 years ago, when Napoleon sent a military expedition to Egypt. His project was a complete failure from a military point of view, and the scientists and scholars who had accompanied Napoleon found themselves with plenty of time on their hands. They used their time in making a survey of the monuments and inscriptions which ancient Egypt had left in profusion to puzzle modern man. The results of their work became the first thorough description of the monuments of the Nile Valley which awaited the spade of the excavator — a most happy circumstance for the future of man's knowledge of the rich, ancient culture of the Near East.
It was on this expedition, moreover, that one of Napoleon's officers found the now famous "Rosetta Stone," a slab of black basalt measuring about 4 feet by 2, which proved to be the key to the interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, before then a closed book to students. On it was found a decree of the Egyptian priesthood, inscribed in hieroglyphics, in Greek, and in demotic, furnishing thereby a means by which at long last the language of Egypt was opened for translation. This in turn meant that the world soon knew that in the long buried civilization under the sands of Egypt there had been a great religion, highly advanced in moral and spiritual insight.
Why was this such surprising information? Because when this discovery was made, the civilized Christian world simply did not know that there were other great religions besides its own. If it knew of other religions, it did not consider them genuine religions.
This condition was soon changed when the age of expansion got under way. Travelers came back from China, for instance, speaking of how impressed they were by the Confucian faith, its wisdom and nobility of vision. More and more men began to take these reports seriously. It was dawning upon the Christian world that its particular religion was not the only possible faith, that good and wise men all over the world had their own faiths, and that these faiths were deeply worthy of the attention of any who considered themselves civilized. Gradually, as the channels of knowledge widened into every field of human interest, religion began to be liberated from its dogmatic prison house, and men began to regard it as something to be studied and thought about as well as blindly believed. They began to take the Bibles of the different great religions and set them beside each other. They took theologies, moral codes and worship rituals, and compared them as they appeared in Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Mohammedanism, Christianity and Judaism. Thus was the science of comparative religion born.
No account of free religion and its living sources would be complete without a solid tribute to the rich contribution to the religious freedom we now enjoy that has been made by this recent interest in comparative religion. This interest did two important things of value for free religion. First, it struck a blow at religious intolerance. The new comparative point of view was solidly opposed to the single-track mind which assumes that God has given the peoples of the world but one way of salvation, one path to happiness, one avenue to the truth about life. The intolerance born of this ancient assumption of religion was vigorously attacked by men who were caught up in this new interest. And secondly, this new approach aided the growth of free religion by urging men to move beyond mere tolerance, with its frequently condescending attitude, to an active, eager appreciation of the richness, the beauty and the moral splendor of the great religions of the world. A minor revolution in attitudes was called for by this new way of looking at our own religion and at the faith of others.
This new point of view is well symbolized by the old fable about the Forester and the Lion. Walking through the woods, discussing "Which is the stronger, a lion or a man?" they could come to no agreement. They happened upon a statue showing a man in the act of throwing down a lion, and the woodsman cried "There, you see, the man is the stronger!" "Yes," replied the lion, "but their positions would have been reversed if the lion had been the sculptor!" Naturally, Christian sculptors of history have placed their own faith in the superior position. From their point of view, only the obstinacy and sinfulness of man keep the rest of humanity from embracing their revealed faith. But the lesson of the new outlook was that no single religion in the world can be taken as the standard for all the others, no matter how nobly it seems to excel in the eyes of its own believers. Each human faith must be studied and appreciated in its own right as having grown from its own special soil and its own set of experiences.
The story is told of a religious convention of different faiths, held in Boston a century ago. A prominent Christian clergyman was defending his own version of the faith as superior to all the others; he quoted several passages from the Christian Gospels, claiming that these could not be matched by the sacred writings of any other religions in the world. Ralph Waldo Emerson was in the audience, and when the minister was done, he rose to his feet and said "The gentleman's remark proves only how narrowly he has read."
In spite of the deliberate ignorance of orthodox religion, which somehow manages to survive in a world completely alien to its cozy beliefs, the facts have long since been established beyond question, so that all who open their minds may know the magnificent truth about the religions of the world: that all the great historic faiths of mankind have deep and vital things in common, beneath all their surface differences. This has been one of the great discoveries of the age, and has utterly destroyed, for intelligent men, the possibility of believing that there is but one true religion. If there is any one true religion, it is certainly not one of the partial, fragmentary faiths we know as Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism. It is the religion of broad humanity, the religion that speaks through all the limited faiths that rise and fall from age to age, but is greater than any or all of them; it is the religion of humanity which rises eternally in the human heart wherever man lives and seeks to make life good, joyous and meaningful on the earth. This is the glorious insight suggested by what we have learned about the religions of the world.
Long ago Confucius said "The broadminded see the truth in different religions; the narrowminded see only the differences." This has proven the key to what comparative religion has revealed about the religions of mankind. We have been enabled with its help to seek out from the immensely varied and trivial details of the religions the solid kernels of nourishment which each contains at its living heart. First of all, we learned how remarkably similar are the outward acts and rituals of the various religions.
But more important than any conclusions drawn from the outward acts of the religions are the implications found in their inward spirit. Here a truly amazing thing has come to light. Most of the great cultures of the world grew up in the ancient past without any close contact between them, aside from occasional bold travelers or traders. The great religions of the world developed in virtual isolation from each other. Except in rare instances, they did not copy or borrow ideas or learn from each other, until later centuries, when the cultures of the world began to mingle. Yet somehow, as if by telepathy, many of the deepest things in these ancient religions turn out to be practically identical!
During the past half-century, various "World Bibles" have been published, bringing together the sacred writings of all the great religions of the world. We learn from these, when we compare them, that long ago, when the connection between the cultures of the world was uncertain and intermittent, and in some cases non-existent, human aspirations nevertheless kept striking the same chord. It was as if, at some long-lost place and time in antiquity, representatives of all the world religions that were to be, met together and consulted upon what the fundamental teachings of each faith should be, and agreed that all the religions should go their own way, adopting the garments of the different cultures of the world, but that they should hold to one common core of an idea, and never lose their hold upon it no matter how far their religion might develop. What was this common idea? Its most familiar version, to the minds of Christians, is found in the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am nothing." This Christian teaching of the inward spirit of love has often been claimed by Christian preachers and theologians as absolutely unique among the religions of the world, Christianity's supreme contribution, equaled by none, approached by few, the sure proof that God had made Christianity his special vehicle of revelation. But again, this proves only "how narrowly the gentlemen have read." If they had included in their daily devotional readings, or spent a little time actually studying, not only the treasures of the New Testament, but also selections from the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Vedas, the Tao-Teh-King, the Dhammapada, the works of Confucius and Mencius, the Zend-Avesta or the purely Jewish scriptures, they would know beyond all their claims to Christian superiority that in every great faith there can be found affirmations similar to this beautiful Christian statement of the ethical primacy of love. It would be difficult, indeed, to find a culture in man's civilized history which did not produce such a conviction. The religions of the world appear to be at one in this, that they affirm the inward spirit, the quality of a man's heart, to be more important than anything else in life, more than fame, power, wealth, words or creeds.
As the Shinto faith expresses it, "Both heaven and hell are in your heart," and the Hebrew echoes "Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life. . . . Create within me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me." When the Christian prays "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God," he is but echoing what the Buddhist, the Hindu, and indeed the Confucianist have known for centuries before the birth of Jesus: "Many millions search for God, and find him in their hearts," says the Sikh, and the Hindu adds "He is the light of all lights, luminous beyond all the darkness of ignorance. . . . He is seated in the hearts of all." This is the rock bottom of religious faith wherever it is found, the reality of what is within and its power in human life.
Then, too, religions, despite their external differences, appear to be quite as unanimous when it comes to expressing what kind of conduct this inward spirit requires of man. Again, the Christian version is the most familiar, but not unique: "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them," the famous Golden Rule which Christians confidently attribute to Jesus. But do we forget, or do we not know, that six centuries earlier the Chinese sage Confucius taught exactly the same thing, in negative form? — "What ye would not wish done to yourself, do not do unto others." Do we forget, or do we not know, that a thousand years earlier than that, in the supposed darkness of ancient Egypt, men were sufficiently aware of this ethical truth to inscribe it upon the tomb of a revered one? — "He sought for others the good he desired for himself. Let him pass on." Literally every one of the great religions, ancient and modern, has taught this principle of mutuality, of reciprocity in goodwill. "Do as ye would be done by," says the Zoroastrian. "Let no one treat his brother in a way he himself would dislike to be treated," says the Mohammedan. "One should seek for others the happiness desired for oneself," says the Buddhist, and so on.
If there is a truly universal moral principle, it is this. It certainly differs in the details of its application in different societies and cultures, but the essential, basic reality of human interdependence has been perceived by all the great faiths, and has been taught by them as the essence of morality. They envision in common a society on earth which embodies this mutuality, a society based not upon force but upon cooperation for the common good, a world brotherhood without barriers. For what does the Golden Rule mean, if not brotherhood, a respect for the selfhood of others equal to one's respect for one's own?
The great religions stand together in affirming, each in its own tongue, that mankind is basically one, that the barriers which divide men are not as important as the fundamental unities which bind them into one family of mankind. The remarkable fact is that these deep insights into the truth were achieved by thinkers, seers, mystics and religious leaders widely separated in time and place, before the age of transportation, communication and printing which has made such unity nothing more than common sense — long, long before the threat of atomic destruction which has made such human unity absolutely imperative for the survival of the race!
Nor is this all that the objective, comparative study of religion has revealed to strengthen and quicken the current of free religious thinking in the world. Free religion owes a debt of gratitude to it for striking its blow at intolerance and superiority; for spurring us to new and deeper appreciations of the riches of religious cultures not our own; and for revealing to us with startling vividness that both outwardly and inwardly the religions of the world have a tremendous amount in common. But we are not yet done with the impact of comparative religion! Perhaps the most important thing of all that it has done to free modern religion from its bond of dogmatism and superstition is that we have had laid before us an unforgettable picture — a picture which shows us that every religion in human memory has existed on at least two different levels. Each religion has its low level of superstition, magic and immaturity; and each religion has also its higher level of ethical demands, human responsibility for man's own salvation, and an intelligent facing up to the realities of the world. These two distinct levels, which are actually two different qualities of spirit, are to be found clearly marked in every religion the world has known, sometimes separated by ages in time, sometimes existing side by side in the same age.
The fact in all this growing knowledge, which offers the deepest inspiration for free religion today and for the future, is that when we climb from the lower levels of any religion to its higher plateaus of thought, insight and challenge, we find ourselves in a world where barriers melt and misunderstandings begin to vanish. Why is this so? Because there, on that upper level in every religion, men stand face to face with life's reality without the interference of any wishful illusions about supernatural protection, without any sanctified dogmas, holy priesthoods, cumbersome rituals or confusing mythology to divert them from the reality of the human situation. There men face life, and seek honestly to answer its questions, be they Parsees, Christians, Jews or Japanese. There, on that higher level which every faith offers, the jealousies and superiorities of small minds are left behind as men join with each other in their common humanity, seeking to comprehend the mysteries of life and to practise their finest insights in daily living. There one can almost forget that religions are many and varied; one remembers above all that religion is one wherever men and women seek purity of heart, industry in welldoing, and honesty in thought. Then one can most readily understand why Dr. Haydon described religion the world over as "the quest for the good life."
It is on this upper level of religion that we of a free, growing faith would pitch our tents. We would build our house of faith of the finest materials that the entire human race, with its vast experience, has hewn out, and we would keep the doors of that house forever open, so that new insight and sharper challenge might enter to keep the dwellers in that house alert, alive to the adventure of being human.
There will be no welcome in that house for the spirit which elevates itself in spurious superiority and demands obeisance of all others because it alone has the divine trademark upon it. A universal religion of mankind is in the making today, wherever men in the various faiths and of no traditional faith at all are looking eagerly and questingly beyond the limits of their own religions and cultures for wider truth upon a broadly human basis. In that universal religion man will be more eager to search for new truth than merely to contemplate the old. Men will ask not "How is my faith better than his?" but rather "What can I learn from him that is truly human, and therefore mine?" There men will hold before themselves relentlessly the testing question, before which all the religions of the world must struggle to be worthy if they are to survive, the question which challenges and searches them all: "How shall man's life be made happier, more secure, and more responsible upon the earth?" Only a faith which can effectively answer such a question is, in the end, worthy of man's devotion.
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