Across the globe, seekers have yearned over the millennia to fill an emptiness that comes with being human. We all seem to have a hole in our hearts that only faith can satisfy.
Through the world’s many religions, that yearning has been pursued in a myriad of ways. For example, on the Indian subcontinent, thousands of Hindu deities are worshiped amid very little rivalry between diverse theologies. Differing and even contradictory religious philosophies are accepted as merely being different pursuits of truth.
However among some of India’s neighbors, such tolerance is not a tradition, particularly if Islam is the only legal religion. There fundamentalist Muslims refer to the Dar al-Salaam, or “House of Peace” wherever submission to Islam is the law. The rest of the world is the Dar al-Harab or “House of War.”
Islam speaks of of two rival groups, “the People of the Book” and “polytheists.” If the latter, believers such as Hindus or animists who worship multiple deities, reside in an officially Muslim nation such as the religiously strict Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Iran, they are subjected to special taxes and are afforded fewer legal rights than Muslims. In some areas, resident Christians and Jews – the “People of the Book,” are allowed more privileges than the polytheists – even though all are regarded as infidels who need to convert to Islam.
Such black and white terms – truth versus deception – are found in Christianity as well. Eighteenth Century writer Daniel Defoe declared, "Religion is properly the Worship given to God, but 'tis also applied to the Worship of Idols and false Deities." In Defoe’s Christian Europe, the Almighty Father described in the Bible was the only true God.
Today, the followers of Jesus Christ make up our planet’s largest faith group -- 2.2 billion believers, roughly one third of all inhabitants. Many Christians still hold that other deities are demonic imposters and manmade counterfeits. That belief remains an official tenet of faith of Christianity’s largest group, Roman Catholics, as well as members of the Eastern Orthodox churches and many denominations of Protestantism. Only non-fundamentalist sects such as Universalists and Unitarians, and theological liberals, ponder a more Hindu attitude – that maybe everybody is following different paths to the same truth.
No, insists traditional Christianity: such a position of acceptance is blasphemy, apostasy and heresy. Christ proclaimed bluntly in the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
So, given Christ’s rejection of other religions, what can the believers of other faiths learn from Jesus?
Actually Islam accepts Him
The 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide are taught to view Jesus as an equal of Adam; both were created by Allah without an earthly father. Islam’s holy scripture, the Qur'an, teaches that the sole purpose of human existence is to worship and obey Allah. Muslims believe that Islam’s truths were revealed throughout the centuries by Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and, yes, Jesus.
So, Jesus was not a new name for Palestinian teenager Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of the extremist group Hamas’ co-founder Sheikh Hassan Yousef. As early as age 8, he wanted to be a Muslim freedom fighter. He was first arrested at age 10 for throwing rocks at Israelis. As his father's eldest son, he was considered his heir apparent and had important leadership duties with the Hamas organization.
However as a teen, Yousef began having doubts about how he had been raised. He began questioning how he could be doing Allah’s will by killing people, particularly other Muslims. When given a copy of the New Testament in 1999 in a Ramallah marketplace by a visiting British businessman, Yousef read it and became convinced of the truths taught by Jesus that we must love our enemies. As a result, despite his father’s high standing in Hamas, Yousef secretly became a Christian and offered to serve as an informant to the Israeli secret service Shin Bet. He is credited with saving thousands of lives by tipping off authorities to planned attacks, bombings and suicide attacks. Today, he lives in exile, rejected by his family as an apostate.
But should they take Yousef as a role model, what can Muslims – particularly militant Islamists who do not adhere to any “religion of peace,” but instead are joining ISIS, Boco Haram, the Taliban and al-Qaida – learn from Jesus Christ? Yousef says it is the commandment that most professing Christians have enormous difficulty following: To turn the other cheek. Not to live by the sword. To love instead of hate.
What about Hindus?
Hinduism’s 1.1 billion believers make up 13 percent of all religious faithful worldwide. The term “Hindu” was actually coined by British occupiers and refers to the broad range of philosophies. Some scholars refer to it as Sanātana Dharma, "the eternal law" or the "eternal way." Its hundreds of sects venerate a variety of deities. Hare Krishnas, who have more followers in America and Europe than in India, revere a blue-skinned deity named Krishna whose story told in the Bhagavad Gita scriptures has many parallels with the story of Jesus in the Bible. Other Hindu sects include Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism.
Rather than one simple religion, Hinduism is actually a family of interlinked cultures sharing history, rituals, philosophies and world views. Hindus often call themselves the "oldest religion" in the world. Hinduism has no founder. Some Hindu groups claim to have 330 million gods. However, most Hindus worship a trinity not unlike Christianity’s: Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma are viewed as three parts of one whole. Brahma is the creator; Vishnu is the preserver and protector; and Shiva is the destroyer. A unifying concept of Hinduism is the unity of all life – that a single divine essence encompasses all people, all deities and nature.
One belief of Hinduism is that we are all assigned our proper level in a divinely ordained caste system. Whether we are a king, a beggar or an earthworm, we are participating an endless, eternal process of life, death and reincarnation. In each lifetime, we can advance to a higher level through our good and bad deeds. Thus, our goal in life is to climb the rungs of the caste system and eventually be absorbed into the divine essence.
The father of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi, once proclaimed that he was a Hindu and a Muslim and a Christian. He ultimately rejected Christianity, but not Jesus. Why? He pointed to the British occupiers who refused to leave India. They claimed to be Christian while oppressing Indians. So did the white South Africans he encountered during his early years in that country. They were “Christians” who enforced apartheid or racial separation – giving privileges to whites, but denying education, good housing and employment opportunities to brown and black people. His experiences with such “Christians” stymied his embracing Christianity. At one point, he told a missionary, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
But Gandhi believed that every Hindu could benefit from Jesus’ words: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” And he also found inspiration from the Epistle of James 1:22 – “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.”
Can a Shintoist be a Christian?
Shinto, “the way of the Gods,” is the ethnic religion of Japan. It focuses on traditional practices, including dress and ritual, that must be followed diligently in order to connect present-day Japanese people to their ancient past.
Strict Shintoists revere “kami” which are regarded as deity – the energy and the sacred essence of rocks, trees, rivers, animals, places and people – particularly ancestors. There are 81,000 Shinto shrines throughout Japan – served by an estimated 85,000 priests.
Many Shinto faithful are also Buddhist – and see no contradiction in following both. When Christianity arrived in Japan during the 1500s, thousands of Shinto converted to it – but were led by missionaries to denounce their Shintoism. That spawned a backlash of brutal suppression in the 1600’s. Officials outlawed Christianity and martyred many believers, sometimes in public crucifixions.
Today Japanese Christians say that they can be a secular Shinto and enjoy the spirituality of their homeland’s countryside, architecture, forests, beautiful calligraphy, ancient castles, gardens, handicrafts, holidays, music, poetry, ceremonies, theatres and traditional costumes – all which are very Shinto – without being unfaithful to their Christian faith.
A Shinto might remember Jesus’ analogy of light to the world. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works …” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Jesus’ words could easily be applied by patriotic Japanese yearning to demonstrate to the world the beauty of their culture, tradition and achievements.
What does Jesus have for Confucianists?
For centuries, the people of China have followed the teachings of Confucius – often mixed with Chinese folk religion. Today, although all religion is officially discouraged in the People’s Republic of China, there are an estimated 750 million Confucianists and followers of traditional Chinese religious practices on the Chinese mainland. They venerate nature and ancestors – and regularly exorcise evil spirits and harmful forces.
Followers believe in a rational order of nature and share four spiritual, cosmological and moral concepts: Tian, Heaven, the transcendent source of moral meaning; Qi, the force that gives life in and to the universe; Jingzu, the worship of ancestors; and Bao Ying, which is moral reciprocity – much like the Hindu concept of karma. If you do good, others will treat you well; if you do evil, others will do evil to you. Many traditional Chinese believe in the Yiin and the Yang – the polar opposites of the universe and all things in it, which are held in balance by various forces.
Throughout the centuries, Chinese government officials – whether feudal warlords, ancient emperors or Communist dictators – have been wary of religion. The Ming and Qing dynasties only tolerated faith if it bolstered social stability. After revolutionary leader Sun Yat-Sen took power in 1911, his democratically elected government remained skeptical of religion – instead promoting "modern" values instead of "feudal superstition." Repression grew during Mao’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960-70s.
However, religion has experienced a revival in China with a resurgence of Mazuism and Sanyi teaching and such folk religions as Huangdi, Longwang, Pangu and Caishen.
Christianity also is surging in popularity – although on the Communist mainland it is still officially discouraged. "By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon," sociology professor Fenggang Yang at Purdue University told the British newspaper The Telegraph. "It is going to be less than a generation."
China's Protestant community, which had just one million members in 1949, has already overtaken a number of traditionally Christian countries. In 2010 there were more than 58 million Protestants in China compared to 40 million in Brazil and 36 million in South Africa, according to the Pew Research Centre's Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Professor Yang believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025. That could put China ahead even of the United States. By 2030, China's total Christian population, including Catholics, may exceed 247 million, placing it above such heavily Catholic nations as Mexico, Brazil and the United States – making China the largest Christian nation in the world, Yang predicts.
"If everyone in China believed in Jesus then we would have no more need for police stations,” a churchgoer told The Telegraph. “There would be no more bad people and therefore no more crime."
What about Buddhists?
There is no shortage of Buddhists in China, as well as neighboring Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and other Indo-Chinese countries. Buddhism has 500 million adherents worldwide, about 6 percent of all believers.
They follow the teachings of Indian prince Siddhartha Gautama who, perhaps five centuries before Jesus, grew weary of luxury. He left his family to seek enlightenment and took the name Buddha, meaning "awakened one."
Today Mahayana Buddhism aims at achieving Buddhahood or enlightenment and includes the sects of Zen, Shingon, Tiantai and Nichiren Buddhism. Theravada Buddhists seek the sublime state of Nirvana, achieved by practicing what is called “the Middle Way” to flee reincarnation’s cycle of suffering and rebirth. Neither group accepts any creator or deity, but believes everybody is trapped in lives of physical and emotional pain, attached to material goods, and consumed by unimportant things like entertainment, sex and food.
Buddhists believe that suffering is just part of life – a teaching shared by Christians. Jesus suffered one of the cruelest deaths imaginable. His followers, according to the Apostle Peter, should expect to suffer as well (1 Peter 4:12-13).
Popular Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh writes in “Living Buddha, Living Christ,” that his home’s prayer corner shrine includes images of both Buddha and Jesus, whom he deems spiritual brothers, both worthy of veneration. "Jesus taught a gospel of nonviolence,” he observes.
Perhaps the most famous Buddhist in the world, the Dalai Lama, authored a book, “The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus,” and calls Christ the model of a "spiritually mature, good, and warm-hearted person." He writes that Christians and Buddhists alike embrace the importance of meditation and “good-heartedness.”
In “The Zen Teachings of Jesus,” author Kenneth S. Leong calls Jesus "an anonymous Zen Buddhist." He says Christians fail to appreciate Jesus' sense of humor and are far too serious about Jesus. He applauds what he sees as Jesus’ opposition to the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of His day.
All three authors see Jesus as one of the world's great religious teachers. They see the richness of Jesus' message as a wealth of wisdom for Buddhists. The Dalai Lama writes that he respects Jesus' good heart. Hanh views Jesus as a human liberator. Leong says Jesus was a Zen master.
Terry C. Muck, a professor of religion at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas and editor of “Buddhist Christian Studies,” recalls how as a graduate student at Northwestern University, he studied with a Buddhist scholar from Sri Lanka, Walpola Rahula.
“After two years of study with him, I asked him one day at lunch, ‘Have you read the Bible?’
“‘I have read the Gospels,’ he replied.
“‘What did you think?’ I asked.
“‘When I read the story of Jesus,” the Buddhist scholar answered. ”I cried. He was a great, great man."