I am a Muslim, and a Hindu, and a Christian and a Jew…
and so are all of you!
All of us start out our lives with a very childish conception of God. We adopt the religion of our family, friends or community without question. If we are lucky, it will be akin to Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Good Tooth Fairy. If we are unlucky, we will learn about Noah’s Ark, that a furious God chose to drown the vast majority of humanity, along with almost all of the animals.
Early on, we learn that other religions are most definitely wrong, and we, and our own religious community, have the only right view of God. For example, before I was even 12, I learned that all Catholics were going to Hell. As a Protestant, I was uncomfortable about this, but I wasn’t capable at that age of putting up an adequate defense.
If we study the mythology of various religions, God is portrayed all too often as a petty tyrant. His way or the highway. God is basically beneficent if you seek His blessing, but He has a quick temper and can easily throw a thunderbolt that will ruin your whole day. As the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, quipped, “Picking up sticks on the Sabbath is definitely out!”.
The tragedy for all too many of us is that we dump the Baby Jesus out with the bathwater and reject our childhood faith. Some of us continue with the faith but never take a second look at the nature of God until we grow old and cynical. We maintain deep fears and prejudices that we can never really shake off. For example, in the United States, it is shocking how, according to recent polls, the majority of the public still clings to some notion of Hell, despite an abundance of alternative perspectives.
A few of us, however, dare to change our childhood faiths. For many, it is disconcerting and a deeply painful experience.
From Islam to Christianity
Nabeel Qureshi was a young, vibrant Pakistani-American deeply devoted to a minority sect of Islam, the Ahmadi’s. As such, Nabeel mastered every single chapter and verse of the Quran at an early age. Nabeel particularly loved his family and was utterly convinced that they had the only correct version of his faith.
In his best-seller, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel recounts his experience in college with an articulate Christian roommate. They spontaneously develop a deep friendship and start a multiyear debate as to whether the Qur’an or the Gospel is the Truth. Nabeel starts out confident that the Qur’an is an unshakable revelation and that the Bible is full of errors. Deep research into the accounts of the resurrection of Christ shake up his complacency, as he finds they are based on substantial evidence.
After delving into the history and formation of the Qur’an, Nabeel discovers that this sacred document took much longer than he had suspected to come together. Many passages that he intuitively trusted were highly questionable. Nabeel then had a series of mystical dreams that induced him to convert to Christ. As soon as he did, his parents were shocked and profoundly distressed. They acted as if Nabeel had stabbed them in the back. He broke their hearts.
From Judaism to Christianity
Jason Sobel is a Rabbi from New Jersey. He is, however, no ordinary Rabbi. Jason is a Messianic Jew deeply convinced that Jesus of Nazareth is, indeed, Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. This realization took a long time to emerge.
Jason was active in his Conservative synagogue and studied the Torah, convinced that the Jews, and nobody else, were the Chosen People. He studied very hard in school and developed the practice of Buddhist meditation for hours at a time.
During one particular meditation, Jason had a shocking vision of Jesus Christ being exalted on a great throne, much as in the Book of Revelations. Mortified, he began questioning everything. Jason picked up the New Testament for the first time in his life. His dad came into his bedroom, saw the book, and threw it out, threatening to disown him.
Jason’s father felt that he had utterly failed in his efforts to instill deep distrust of the Gentiles, for their long history of persecuting the Jews, culminating in the Holocaust in Germany. Despite all this, Jason held his course. However, in contrast to Nabeel, he actively sought to combine his Judaism and Christianity. You can see the fruit of this work in the book: The Rock, The Road, The Rabbi, an exploration of the Holy Land’s contribution to Christianity.
If one explores all the Great Religious traditions, we find both Healthy and Unhealthy versions, based on how traditional or contemporary their orientation. Unhealthy versions stem from the ancient tribal days when people had just gone beyond the caves and began to form cities in the great river valleys, such as the Nile, Euphrates and Indus Rivers.
Things were very different then. Each city had its own god, and that was the only one you dared worship. Religion was a collective experience focused on ritual and conforming to socially acceptable practices. All differences were settled by the sword, and salvation was thought of only in literal terms, salvation for this life. The next life was totally out of your hands.
Healthy religions emerged as the traditions became more inclusive, especially Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, which recognized converts from their very beginning. They focused on heaven and hell in the afterlife. While you had to be a member of their faith, you could be of any race, nation or gender. Only recently has the Interfaith Movement emerged with the idea that ALL faiths could reveal the true nature of God.
As we see from both the accounts of Nabeel Qureshi and Jason Sobel, their childhood faith only permitted their families conditional love, and that only if their sons adhered to the shared belief system. To disbelieve, or even worse, adopt a new and conflicting faith, was not only heresy, but family betrayal. This, in spite of our U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom.
No matter how much love Nabeel and Jason’s childhood faith professed, the reality is that much of it was fear-based and exclusionary. Heaven and Hell were interpreted literally, and there was only one way out. In their cases, they went from Islam and Judaism to Christianity. However, there are many cases of people going in the opposite direction.
The danger is to go from one exclusionary, fear-based religion to another, either to assert yourself as an adolescent, or marry a partner of a contrasting faith. You end up stuck in the very same dilemma from which you were trying to extricate yourself. The irony is that EVERY Great Tradition has a love-based, higher expression that is deeply inclusive.
Nabeel rejected his Islam. However, had he studied Sufism, he would found a form of his faith profoundly appreciative of Christ. Jason was more fortunate, in that Christianity really grew out of Judaism. He could find many ways they complement each other.
In the United States, you can legally change your religion. While this might result in a severe disruption of your social life, it is doable. In a few countries, especially Islamic, you may actually risk death. What people often find is that somehow their childhood faith reappears. They can’t move on until they acknowledge the perfection of their own tradition.
More importantly, you will find that the Stage of any tradition can be far more important than the doctrines of that faith. All Great Traditions at a low level are locked in tribalism, with its fear and hatred of differences. They can share a heart-warming camaraderie. However, none of them has any choice but to either convert the unbeliever or consign him or her to hell.
Today, a hopeful sign is emerging, not only in the Christian Ecumenical Movement and the World Parliament of Religions, but also in how each of the Traditions, due to an ever more heterogeneous urban population, is developing elements of the other. With the World Wide Web and Google, it is increasingly difficult to deny other cultures their voice. A typical U.S. city now has hundreds of different faiths represented from all the world’s Great Traditions.
As you trek up the mountain of Self-Realization, climbing from the base in Religion to the middle ground in Spirituality to the apex in Mysticism, you begin to see the various paths get closer and closer. When you get to the top of your own Mount Everest, you will find everyone a mystic who knows God within, and who sees God in everyone and everything. He or she need no longer try to love. They find that they ARE love.
The irony is that the mystics at the top are a whole lot more like each other than they are like other people in their tradition. A delightful book exploring this topic is The Book of Joy, by both the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Both are Nobel recipients and exceptionally gifted leaders who withstood extensive persecution and triumphed at the end. They have developed a deep friendship that knows no boundaries. The Dalai Lama remains a Buddhist, and Archbishop Tutu remains a Christian. In their case, it doesn’t even matter!
The mystical perspective reveals both the advent and destiny of all religions. Unity, love and perfection lie at the very heart of creation. This is not something you can figure out. The realization of this begins to dawn on you. There is nothing outside of you, not even the billions and billions of galaxies. They all spin within the ultimate context of your own Absolute Being. Here, you are not “you.” There is only God. Always has been. Always will be.
Humanity is facing a global crisis primarily because we have entertained far too long gods that alienate us from ourselves, each other, and the precious creation we inhabit. Idolatrous conceptions of God are very costly. However, the way out is straight forward. Stop looking out, and start looking within.
The more mystical, the more like Krishna, Buddha and Christ you become. Have you ever considered that this is exactly why they were born? WE are to be Avatars, Bodhisattva’s and Messiahs. That is the whole point!
As a start, you might join me in my decade-long practice. As a Christian, it is my mission to help Muslims become better Muslims, Jews better Jews and Hindus better Hindus. I lovingly embrace their traditions. Only in this light will they embrace me, and deeply appreciate what I have.
Mahatma Gandhi put it so well in his advice to a profoundly distraught Hindu torn in the civil war in Calcutta after the partition of India and Pakistan:
I know a way out of Hell.
Find a child, a child whose mother and father were killed
and raise him as your own. Only be sure that he is a Muslim
and that you raise him as one.