Another Religion is Possible




This article is about the possibility of another way of being religious or another relationship among religions, or of believers of religions. It is not about another new religions as such. The title “Another religion is possible” is given to me so as to be part of the Latin American Agenda on “Another world is possible”.

Religions deals with the human effort to seek ultimate meaning in life and of life, of its origins and its destiny. Religions motivate humans towards the good for persons and for communities, inspiring them toward what makes them happy and fulfilled. They help individuals and groups to try to restrain and overcome what is not good for their spiritual being.
The world religions begin with a primordial intuition or experience of the founder/s or seers of a religion. This is usually a liberative experience that is an intuition of the meaning of life, of the nature of life’s problems, their causes and the paths towards liberation from them. This intuition shows a way towards self-realization and fulfilment, generally in this life and possibly in a future form of existence beyond death. This process of liberation is other-centred, at the same time making for personal and collective human growth and is self-validating.
The path of liberation can be expressed in terms of core values that the religions propose as good and desirable. Though these values are expressed in the language and idiom of different cultures they have a similarity in content when thought of in relation to practical life in given situations. A possible way of trying to identify the core values of the world religions can be found in the five main precepts of the Buddha. Each of them teaches giving up of a basic evil and promotes goodness in an important sphere of life and action. The five precepts can be expressed briefly in relation to modern times.
The first is respect for all life, non-violence, and the cultivation of compassion. It teaches the ability to remove suffering and transform it by protecting and promoting lives of people, animals, plants and minerals. It is against killing and hence the production of armaments. It includes also the care for nature that nurtures human life.
The second precept is generosity, loving kindness at a personal level and in structures of society. It is the intention and capacity to bring joy and happiness to another person or living being and to communities. The practice of loving kindness requires that we see the situations of exploitation, social injustice and oppression. It is against the stealing of what belongs to others. Individuals and groups are invited to share their time, energy and resources with those in need to make one another happy and have the basic essentials for living. This precept motivates us to resist injustice and prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on earth. This promotes the giving of one’s time and resources for others, especially for those suffering and in need.
The third precept teaches sexual responsibility to protect and promote the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families and society. Sexual relations are to be based on love and a long-term commitment. The welfare of children is also to be safeguarded and children preserved from sexual abuse. Children should not be made to suffer due to sexual misconduct. Sexual relations with love and long term commitment can heal persons, families and society. Such a behaviour promotes the capacity to bring joy and happiness and transform pain and suffering. It is good for all and brings about understanding, stability and peace in society on the basis of equality in dignity and rights of persons.
The fourth precept is respect for truth. It promotes deep listening and loving speech. Negatively this precept is against the speaking of untruth and the promotion of suffering and conflict by lies. Positively it encourages speech that is truthful, and brings joy and happiness to others and relieves others of their suffering. This requires mindfulness in speech, the effort at understanding others and helping resolve conflicts by reconciliation. The truth has to be found by each one without assuming that it has already been discovered and is possessed exclusively by someone. Encouraging the truth is very important in relation to the mass media which have a vast influence nowadays due to rapid and widespread global communications.
The fifth precept promotes the healthy diet for body and mind and discourages intoxicating drinks and excess in food and drink. It promotes mindfulness and consciousness that leads to good thoughts and good actions, unlike liquors and drugs that reduce mindfulness and lead to waste, anger, and violence. Hence the importance of cultivating good health, both physical and mental for oneself, one’s family and for society, including the global society.
(cf. Thich Nhat Hanh : “For a Future to be Possible”; Parallax Press, Berkeley, California; 1993 pp 1-83.
The practice of the five precepts is helped by meditation, the growth in awareness or mindfulness. Their practice is interconnected. Practising one of them helps the following of the others. On the contrary going against any one of them leads to the others: violence, greed, selfishness, untruth, and lack of self-control. The basic vision of the Buddha is that existence involves suffering or dukka. The cause of dukka is thanha or attachment to things which are illusory. The path to liberation from dukka is detachment from thanha or undue attachments. The path to liberation is the following of the eightfold path of right thought and right action. In this humans have to rely on their own enlightenment which is realised by meditation and mindfulness.

Consensus on Core Values
Hinduism through its long tradition and varied schools of thought is a search for the divine in human and earthly relationships. The Hindu traditions have a teaching of detachment, liberation from ignorance and delusion, respect for all life, peace, non-violence, meditation, mindfulness and worship of the Transcendent God who is also within all reality. The Hindu tradition also includes the possibility of a plurality of Gods with different relations to humans.
Reflecting on the core values of Buddhism, we can see how close they are to the basic teaching of Jesus. The central message of Jesus is that God is love and we must love one another. This love is to be in real life especially in the service to the needy and oppressed. Jesus expresses this in Matt.25: 31 et sq. in his judgmental statements approving the good and condemning the unjust and deceitful, and in numerous other sayings as in Luke 4:18. His basic message is one of non-violence, of loving kindness, of genuine and authentic love in sexual relationships, of truth and of temperance in the use of food and drink and detachment from possession of material things. The beatitudes and the ten commandments have a similar message. Being genuine disciples of Jesus is a path to liberation of persons and the building of the reign of God which Jesus constantly advocated. The reign of God is to be one of sharing by all in its abundance, rather injustice and the exploitation of some by others. It is remarkable how much there is agreement between the five basic precepts of Buddhism and the principle command of Jesus to love God and neighbor though expressed in a different cultural context.
Islam has a message of monotheism, God is one, merciful and compassionate. Islam teaches submission to God, (Allah), regular daily prayer, penance and fasting especially during month of Ramazan, sharing in community with a special care for the needy, distribution of Zaqat, and pilgrimage to Mecca. Islam teaches the oneness of humanity, unity in diversity, peace and the freedom of conscience. The substance of the teaching is obedience to God and passage from selfishness to selflessness and community. There is the need of sacrifice, which is mainly in sharing of one’s well being with the needy. These five elements: submission to Allah, regular daily prayer, penance and fasting, sharing with the needy and pilgrimage to Mecca where feasible, represent liberation in Islam: the passing over from darkness to light, from the worldly to the otherworldly, from wrong to right, from evil to good. They are also points of contact between Islam and the other world religions. (Cf. Michael Rodrigo : Liberation in the Living faiths of Asia ; CSR, Colombo; Quest 54; January 1973 pp 74-81)
The core values of these four world religions are similar in relation to their ethical teaching on action concerning moral life. They all advocate loving care and concern for the other, especially the one in need. The religions teach universal love, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, truth, equality, justice, non-violence and peace. Their differences are generally concerning ways of explaining issues of the origin of the universe and of the origin and final destiny of human life. These are due to philosophical positions, and to doctrines evolved depending on such philosophies and power holders in a social context. These differences are further widened due to differences in language, culture, forms of expression, and mind-sets. The religious communities that are formed around these founders and core teachings are influenced in the course of time by their own self-perceptions and interests. These religions were a reaction against the drawbacks of the previously existing religions. Thus Jesus was a reformer of Judaism of his day.
The bells of the temple and the church are different, they may ring at different times, calling their faithful to different services led by different priests. But the tune, the music are the same, the liberating song of the divine reminding us of the eternal truth, all of us are the children of God. (Swami Agnivesh in Foreword to Albert Nambiaparambil: “Pilgrims on the Seashore of Endless Worlds”, Asian Trading Corporation, India, 2002 p. iii)
Throughout their long and chequered history, each of these world religions has inspired noble lives of spiritual dedication and engendered cultures of great excellence and meaningfulness. Each has its saints and mystics its spiritual leaders and committed social apostles. Hinduism has shown tolerance of other religions and inspired non-violence as a way of life as witnessed by Mahatma Gandhi. Buddhism is attractive for its meditative humanism, sense of social equality and respect for human freedom in choosing and following a path of liberation. Christianity has inspired much social service and action of human liberation. Islam has fostered peace, learning, the arts, science and culture during many centuries when much of the world was in relative underdevelopment.

Historical Deficiencies
Alongside these spiritual heights and practical contributions to civilized living, the religions have been also agents of division and conflict among peoples during several centuries. Hinduism has accepted the caste system, said to be divinely sanctioned, and discriminates against large sections of the Indian population who are considered untouchables. Buddhism has not been able to be rid of discrimination based on caste within the Sangha itself. Christianity has a long history of intolerance of dissent leading to violence towards persons of other faiths and also those considered heretics, schismatics and witches within the Christian community. Islam has still problems of opening to the positive values of the modern world such as democracy, human rights of all citizens of a country. Historically many of the conflicts and wars, such as the Crusades and the European wars of the religions, have been inspired by the differences of religion. Christianity and Islam as missionary religions resorted to military power and invasions to spread their religion. The present map of the world is marked very much by the colonial expansion of the Western European powers with the blessings of the churches.
All the religions have not accepted the equality of women within society and in the religions themselves. They have a similarity in discriminating against women even in matters of religion. They have been a legitimizing basis for sexism and patriarchal dominance. The religions have generally allied themselves to the ruling social elites, accepted and even legitimized the inequalities in society. They have succumbed to the temptations of alliance with the wealthy and the powerful. They have tended to interpret their central message in favor of the dominant persons and forces in society, being limited by the deficiencies of their cultural ambience. Thus religions have often lost their cutting edge of equality, justice and sharing.
The religions such as Christianity and Islam have tended to interpret their message of liberation in an exclusive manner. This is partly in claiming their path to be the only way or best way to liberation/salvation. Or it may be in affirming that the other religions are false. Christianity has been conspicuous in affirming a monopoly over the divine, as the unique and universally necessary path to salvation. Religions have tended to accentuate rituals and external manifestations rather than the core values of love, sharing, justice and equality. The rituals ensure the power of the clergy who have to perform them. These are generally males and tend to become the interpreters of the message of the religion, often to the advantage of the powerful including the clergy. The alliance of religious leaders with the politically powerful or the dominant ethnic majority in a country has often been a cause of the neutralizing of the founding radical messages of the religions.
When a religious community has been a majority in a country they tend to be rather intolerant of the other religions. This takes place even within the modern democratic systems. Nationalism may become an ethno-religious phenomenon when the majority community is an ethnic group of one religion.
This can be seen in the way voters favour candidates of their religion at general elections in democratic countries. Thus the Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka, the Hindu majority in India and the Islamic majority in Bangladesh would generally vote for the candidates of the majority community for the leadership of the government of the country. The minority communities, be they religious or ethnic, would then want constitutional safeguards for their rights ensured by a federal system or a devolution of power from the Centre to the States, provinces or regions. Sometimes there may be a coincidence of ethnic and religious communities and this may give ethnic contest and conflicts a religious flavour.

Another way of being religions, religious is possible
There are certain aspects of religions concerning which their togetherness or agreement may not be possible:
a) religions may not agree with reference to what they teach about the origins of human life on earth, or about what happens to humans after death (in so far as there is an after life). These are issues concerning which each religion has a teaching and position. But humans cannot have apodictic evidence about them as no one comes back after death to inform others of the situation thereafter. These are part of the still unexplored mystery of life. There may be evidence that contests certain positions held by some religions: e.g. whether all humans are from one pair of first parents. Or some past views may now be no longer held, such as the existence of a limbo, formerly held by some Christians
b) Religions may not agree with reference to the interpretations of the nature and functions of the divine – the ultimate transcendent reality. These may be doctrines, called dogmas in Christianity, for which certitude is claimed on the basis of a divine revelation received or made by founders, seers, or leaders. Thus there may be no agreement, or understanding of the Christian teaching that God is a Trinity with different functions for the three divine persons. Even attribution of concepts such as that of “person” or “substance” to the divine may be limited to a certain language and cultural framework.
c) There may also be no agreement concerning the stories, myths, symbols, stereotypes, prejudices that one religious group proposes or entertains about itself or others. These are the causes of much of the lack of understanding among the members of different religions. The cultures of the communities often carry these differences from generation to generation. These may need clarification for good inter-religious relations. The cultural filters often condition the understanding of terms used by the different religions in different cultural environments.
d) An exclusivity claimed by a religion concerning its interpretation of life, the paths to salvation and special privileged position in relation to the Divine is also a source of division and mutual incompatibility of religions. There should be no competition among religions concerning the salvation of persons, especially after life.
e) There would be differences concerning the institutional arrangements within religions, the structures for their management, the patterns of authority, the legal systems for administration of the communities.
f) The forms of worship, the rituals of a religion depend very much on their languages, cultures and art forms and would not necessarily be understood by other religions.

These differences can be also occasions for the members of religions in dialogue to seek to understand their different languages, systems of logic, metaphors, presuppositions and assumptions used in expressing their beliefs. The religions have to be recognized as communities that emerge from a distinct cultural milieu and have advantages and limitations due to such a context. This is true not only among religions but also within each religion from different cultural contexts. Thus the variations in the interpretation of Christianity in the Roman and Greek traditions, and of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Japan. The differences of religions can be a challenge to the openness of participants in an inter-religious dialogue. They can help also to develop the humility of such partners on dialogue. Since the discussions are about the ultimate mystery of human life and the Transcendent such divergences must be expected and duly respected. Criteria would have to be evolved as to what is essential for genuine human relationships among religions. Here our perception is that the acceptable core values held by all of them regarding the human common good may be a valuable criterion.
For “another religion” to be possible we must know what religion has been: what the essential identity of a religion is, and what it should not be in the future. We have to be conscious of the merits and limits of our religions, and try to live their basic message while correcting their wrongs. Can we maintain the identity of our religions in what is good in them and find a way of cooperating in the common good of all. There are positive approaches which though interpreted differently by the religions may have a similarity and could be helpful in inter-religious understanding:
i) we can appreciate the commonality of teachings and practices that advocate the avoidance of evils that harm persons and communities. Thus all world religions disapprove of evil forces such as greed, untruth, lust and lack of temperance in food and drink, hatred, violence and the destruction of life and nature. Unfortunately none of the world religions still condemns the discrimination against women especially within the religions. None of them sees women as equal in the mediation of the transcendent/divine.
ii) On the other hand they encourage the positive values of love, sharing, truth, justice, respect for life and the dignity of all persons and communities. These may be understood as loving service, karuna metta, universal love, a core value, proposed by all religions. This is expressed in the statement “do unto others as you would like others to do unto you” – the golden rule common to all religions.

Purification needed
The religions have thus been agencies of much good as well as partners in wrong and injustice even to their members and to others. Hence in order to fulfill their declared role in society they need to be purified of their undesirable elements. One of the best ways of doing so is by an internal renewal through a return to the primeval inspiration, and spirit and core values of the founders or foundations.
All the religions have teachings and methodologies for self-correction, such as through recognition and confession of one’s faults, asking pardon from those offended, making reparation to those damaged, correcting wrong perceptions, and avoiding wrong associations as with the unjust. There are periods of self-purification such as the Hindu rites of purification, Buddhist full moon days of meditation of the five precepts, Islamic month of fast, Ramadan, the Christian forty days of Lent and periods of spiritual retreat. All these could inspire a transformation of each religion. All these require an unselfishness and humility and is not easy for those who may benefit from injustic e and inequality.
It is not enough to ask pardon for past wrongs, it is necessary to make reparation for the victims and investigate into the causes as to why a religion participate in such wrongs. The confession of faults made during the millennium 2000 by the Pope, good as far as it went, does not seem to have changed adequately some of thinking of the Vatican Curia concerning openness to dialogue with other faiths on a basis of equality
Inter-religious dialogue, undertaken in a spirit of openness and humility, can be a great help to self-purification and for the common service of the religions toward the common good of all. For this the partners in dialogue have to respect each other as equals before the Transcendent, God and in the search for spiritual advancement. This is a special challenge to the leadership of the religions to accept publicly that they may have been often mistaken or wrong on important matters such as salvation. The mentalities of believers will have to change where necessary to be understanding and respectful of each other, in their otherness. Such changes require much patient effort, time, courage and perseverance for mindsets to change and new relationships and structures to evolve. Inter-religious dialogue is an essential dimension of the relationships among peoples in the coming decades, partly due to the opening up of the world due to the communications revolution. The present conflict of the USA and its allies against what it terms terrorism and Iraq has heightened the possibility of clashes of religions. In this situation the persons and groups of good will within the religious traditions can contribute much to world peace and inter-human understanding by fostering friendly and open dialogue and action for peace.

Need of the Religions
The persons and communities of the modern world need the religions for resolving many of the issues faced globally. This is partly due to the inner message of the religions, and also because the religions still have a widespread influence on peoples’ lives and on countries. Thus Islam and Christianity are the religions of well over half of humanity. The religions are the largest and oldest peoples’ movements in the modern world. They have an influence on persons and powers, unparalleled by any other mass agencies. They have networks of communication that make them a most influential mass medium even with, or be cause of, the modern communications revolution. If the religions concern themselves with the human common good their liturgies, and other gatherings could be a very great influence on the communities. While regretting the past conflicts due to religions we must recognize and have recourse to their immense possibilities for good in the present and future. The relationship of the religions should by built on open dialogue with genuine respect for each other, without any hidden agenda and with preparedness to work together for the good of all humanity.
The great spiritual and even political leaders of the 20th century were persons who were influenced by the religions and appealed to the spirit and core values of the religions. Thus Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. They were prepared to suffer for a cause and forgive their opponents who oppressed them.

Another relationship of religions is possible
Leaving behind the sad history of inter-religious animosities of the past, it would be possible to forge another relationship among persons of different religions, among the religious institutions and among the religions as whole bodies or movements.
i) For this each religion must return to an emphasis on an effort to live its primary intuitions, core values, and basic teachings. This would require an internal reform, self-purification and renewal within each religion. For this within each religion its core values would be a criterion for its self correction. For instance any teaching or practise going against the primary and unique commandment of Jesus to love God and neighbor would not be admissible as Christian. Likewise for the other religions in terms of their core teachings. Externally a criterion common to all religions would be the common core values and considerations of the common good of humanity, if such an agreement is possible. It would also require a soft-pedaling, or acknowledging the relativity, of the philosophical and cultural expressions that often make for differences in interpretations of the core values, even to the extent of leading to misunderstandings, antagonisms and conflict. It would generate more reflective persons both young and old.
ii) Religions cooperating for the common human good could evolve studies, reflection, mediation, empowerment and participation in common action that would be fulfilling for all. Common meditation can be a powerful means of building togetherness in thought and action.
iii) The religions can together be linked in networks among themselves and with other agencies for realizing the core values of the religions and the common good of humanity. This would require an understanding of the events, issues, trends, values and needs of persons, of a community and of the larger world to which they belong.
iv) In the modern world of global inter-relatedness, the religions can come together to uphold the common cause of humanity with agreed moral guidelines against the trends towards inequality, injustice and conflict and violation of human rights.
v) The religions, (through religious leaders, as believers, and as institutions) together can participate in building a new international order of justice to all, overcoming the evils of greed, untruth, violence, hatred, exploitation of peoples and destruction of nature.
vi) These would not be without suffering for those who stand courageously for truth and justice in the presently unequal and divided world. This would imply a great responsibility for the leaderships of the religions to actively participate in this common human endeavor.
vii) Asia can be a significant learning ground in the search for this approach to religion, due to the history of past tolerance, the lessons of past and present conflicts and the evolution of contemporary thinking and practice among the religions and our rather peaceful co-existence in many Asian countries.
All these would be perhaps be best expressed as the pursuit of a spirituality that is more truly human and divine; this would be the finest in the religions without their deficiencies. Modern persons respond better to the spiritual inspirations even without the externals of the religions. This may be one of the messages of contemporary secularization prevalent in many developed countries. Religions deals with the mystery of life and of ultimate meaning in life. Each one can be open to mystery, no one has a monopoly of it, as the mystery is infinite. Mystical intuitions of the transcendent mystery are not open to rational definition and debate or perhaps even comparison, as these would deal with intensely personal experiences with an element of the incommunicable in them. The dialogue of religions hence would not a mere dialogue of concepts, but of life in humility and respect for the other, not merely of specialists but also of ordinary persons and of cultures.
Our further searches in inter-religious dialogue could have a more positive agenda also concerning the cooperation among religions. Relating thus, they would not be competitive for expansion at the expense of others. There would be no social conflicts among the religions. Religions would be a healing influence among social and ethnic groups. All these would be a way in which religions could be related to each other in as different way – in this sense another way of being religion/s is possible.
“The need of the hour is a shift from religion to spirituality. Religion divides, spirituality unites. Spirituality is the outbreak of truth, the sunrise of justice”. While maintaining the identities of our religions we must go to the basic core message of each of them and relate to issues of love, truth, justice and equality in the actual circumstances of our lives. This “could pave the way to a state of spiritual solidarity. It could provide the key to open our respective prison doors. But it is up to us to walk out and forge a new spiritual solidarity that would impact and transform our society and set the agenda for a brave, new world.” Swami Agnivesh op.cit.



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