Religion, Comparatively Speaking

by Robert Brow   (web site -

This article originally appeared in His Magazine [March, 1973], pp. 12-14.

Many textbooks of comparative religion can give us guided tours through Buddhism, Islam or Confucianism. But the mass of information they offer is often dead and irrelevant if we're after a simple way of getting at the religion of the fellow doing Zazen in the next room, the student from India who quotes the Bhagavadgita or even the good guy who says he is a Christian but doesn't fit the part.

 Religions are like plants. There is no end to learning botanical names to classify them. Yet most of us can tell evergreens from those that drop their leaves in the fall. We know ferns, grasses and cacti, and we can name at least roses, tulips and dandelions.

 It is no more difficult to learn to recognize some basic varieties of religions. For this I suggest a four-point classification system which goes to the heart of the religion in question without your mastering centuries of historical detail. This classification system can take care of political ideologies and man-centered isms as well as the faiths that to a greater or lesser extent believe in God.

 The method can best be used by asking questions about an individual's religious beliefs in a personal contact.


The first question to ask is, "If you succeed perfectly in your religion or ideology, what will you attain?" This clarifies what your friend seeks to achieve at any price. Some answers might be "a happy life in this world," "heaven in the world beyond," "a classless society in every country," "oneness with the world soul," "love and brotherhood among men." In some cases an honest answer will be "I guess I haven't got a goal in life: I just drift along and do what I feel like at the moment." This kind of person is not religious in our sense of the term. He has no goal, end or ultimate purpose in life. On the other hand, anyone who has an ultimate goal, however atheistic it may sound, can for our purposes be called a religious man. "I want to make as much money as I can" is not irreligious, but mammon worship (see Matthew 6:24)


Once the goal is clear it should be easy to see, in the light of that goal, what is wrong with man. Whatever prevents the attainment of the ultimate goal is "sin" according to that religion. To some Hindus sin is essentially ignorance. For Muslims sin is disobedience to the laws of Allah, because failure to obey those laws makes the attainment of heaven impossible. For some Marxists sin is the selfishness caused by class distinctions. The only way to eradicate this is by forcing a classless society. For the fellow who has no goal in life and merely does what he feels like at the moment, sin is a meaningless term. Sin is always defined in relation to an ultimate good or goal.


With the goal in sight and the diagnosis of what prevents the attainment of that goal, we are then ready to ask, "How do you propose to attain your goal?" Here are some answers: "by trying to obey God's laws"; "by a revolution to overthrow the existing system"; "by deep meditation through Yoga"; "by offering the sacrifices that the witchdoctor prescribes." There can, of course, be identical means for quite different goals. Yoga might be practiced as a means to improve one's health for a happier life in this world or as a way to oneness with God. A revolutionary overthrow of the present system is the prescribed means for both Marxists and anarchists, as well as for some whose goal can be described as "Christian social righteousness."


The great perennial religions often use a governing image to explain their point and to clarify the relationship between the means and the goal. A famous example is 'Plato's cave in The Republic. In Christian theology the fatherhood of God is an important image. For Muslims the key picture is Allah the Judge holding up the scales to weigh our good and bad deeds. If someone says he is a Christian but tries to pile up good deeds to satisfy God on the day of judgment, his governing image is hardly distinguishable from that of Islam. Careful questioning would reveal that the only significant difference between a Christian of this kind and a Muslim is the list of good deeds to be performed. For Marxists the governing image has often been that of a class struggle, but for those influenced by Erich Fromm, the governing image would probably be the alienation of man from his true social nature.

An exotic example

Armed with our four-point classification system, let us try some examples. I will begin with an exotic variety rarely found in our Western world, and I will label it "original Buddhism." Whether or not this was the original way as taught by Buddha (c. 563-483 BC) is irrelevant. We are not studying history, and so it is not important to know exactly what Buddha taught. We are looking at a live specimen who claims to be a true Buddhist (as opposed to a Zen or Mahayana Buddhist) and says something like this: "All the miseries of life are because we want things. If you look back at your unhappiness in the past few weeks, you will find that it was caused by wanting this and that and being frustrated at not getting what you want. If only you could lose all your desires you would be happy. The state of having lost all desire is Nirvana or heaven. To lose all desire is no easy matter, but there is a course of discipline taught in our monasteries where you can eventually attain Nirvana. Why don't you come to our monastery tomorrow? You will never be happy till all your desires are eradicated."

To clarify our Buddhist friend's religion we go straight to our four basic questions: what are the goal, the diagnosis, the means and the governing image? Our task is first to listen and to describe objectively. We do not treat the faith of our friend as stupid, nor do we start an argument about losing the desire to lose all desires. (Good Buddhists have had answers to that one for twenty-four centuries.) In our attempt to understand we avoid looking for debating points. Like a botanist we attempt to classify this exotic religious variety with sympathy and exactness. If our classification is successful, our friend should be able to check it and agree, "Yes, you have understood my religion exactly." Perhaps our descriptive analysis will end up something like this:

Then, and only then, having carefully understood some main points of his religion, we are able to say: "Your religion is very interesting. Would you be interested in seeing the main points of my faith and comparing them with yours?" Here again it will be important not to argue, but merely to show and describe. Jesus Christ is like the pearl of great price. We are to hold him up and show him as a merchant shows precious stones. If a girl has been shown a $1000 diamond and a two-cent piece of quartz, but she chooses the quartz for her ring, what more can the boy say? The function of argument is limited to clarifying what the Christian faith is and showing how different it is from the other. But at the point of persuading a man to change from the goal of losing all desire to the goal of being changed by Jesus Christ to love and desire aright, we should beware of letting argument intrude on the work of the Holy Spirit.


We turn to look at another species, whose habitat used to be in the East but is now taking strong root on our campuses. I will label it "Modified Monism," which is one variety of Hindu Vedanta.

 "I practice Yoga because I want to attain oneness with the Absolute. You see, this Cosmos is obviously not reality. We are as in a dream, and while dreams are real, they are not reality. What we must do is get beyond the illusions of this world's unreality to ultimate reality, which is the Absolute. Our situation in this world is like that of a drop which has left the ocean. In the ocean it was at peace, at one with all other drops. Now it is being swirled around in the clouds. It falls on the Himalaya Mountains and begins its long trek back to the ocean. Sometimes it goes over a waterfall, then gets frozen in a lake, melts down into a paddy field, is absorbed in a stalk of rice, is eaten and goes back into the earth. That's why our lives are not at peace. We will never have shanti until we get back into the Absolute. If you would like to join me this evening, I will introduce you to a meditation class. You will learn to sit, to breathe, to withdraw your senses from this world's unreality, and then experience oneness. It may take time, but once you have had that experience this world won't bother you any more. You will know your oneness with the Absolute. Your Jesus said, "I and the Father are one," so he must have been a true Yogi who knew that oneness."

 Having listened carefully and asked questions to clarify our analysis, we might set out this form of religion as follows:

Having checked that this is a good account of the faith of his friend who practices meditation, a Christian can then show how his own faith is different. Thus in the book of Revelation heaven is pictured as a city, not an ocean. The drop in the ocean loses its individuality, but the children of God are to retain and even intensify their personality as persons. The oneness of Jesus with the Father was a oneness of persons, not an absorption into an Absolute. To Christians, relationship with Jesus and others is a great reality, not a dreamlike illusion. At this point one can ask whether our Vedantist thinks that persons and personality are ultimately illusions to be discarded. Often the attitude to persons and personality will be totally different from what this faith demands from its adherents.

Taoist naturalism

For a third example let us hear this presentation. "You people are just like the Chinese in the days of Confucius. Your lives are unnatural because you try to follow a mass of rules and codes of behavior. I find my happiness in being natural. I try to be one with Nature. Every kind of creature has its own Tao or way of being itself. Thus the Tao of a snow goose is to fly south in the fall. If some well-meaning protector puts it in a cage up in Canada, feeds it, saves it from the cold and other enemies, that snow goose has lost its freedom to be natural. You people are snow geese in captivity, except that you enjoy your wretched cage and food and comfort. How does one become natural? Obviously you have to reject all the rules that bind you. You must be free, spontaneously yourself. The snow goose has its Tao: you must find yours by being one with Nature, letting your natural self express itself. But that takes time. You don't know how many rules society has programmed into your system. You need the friendship of other free men and a teacher to show you some of the ways in which you are bound."

 These thoughts are usually attributed to Lao-tzu, an older contemporary of Confucius (c. 551-479 BC). They sound remarkably modern because ancient religions are perennials that reproduce themselves wherever the climate is favorable. As in the previous cases, we concentrate on trying to describe rather than discuss. Whether the religion is young or old, whether or not Lao-tzu ever lived, and who first exemplified these ideas in Western literature are not important for our undertaking. As a first attempt we would perhaps classify as follows:

Now in comparing this way with Christian faith we could agree that it is not by rules and codes (the Law) that we are saved. We look to the Holy Spirit to free us to be ourselves. An important difference is that sometimes the Holy Spirit will guide us to do what at first sight seems totally unnatural, such as loving an enemy or turning the other cheek. We might then compare the end of naturalism, which has to be death and dissolution back into nature, with God's plan for us as his children. The comparison will inevitably focus on the difference between the two images: a bird freed from its cage and a human being freed by being adopted into a loving, eternal family.

We need not claim that our method will guarantee the conversion of Buddhists, Vedantists and Taoists to faith in Jesus Christ. It does, however, prevent useless arguments based on the failure to understand the other's total world view. If we can learn to hear and understand the other with sympathy, we will often help him to expose himself in turn to a Christian view. One such presentation of the gospel might be set out as follows:

If this outline of the gospel is inadequate, it can be sharpened up as necessary. The more its diagnosis, means and image are compared with other religions, the more different and beautiful it will be seen to be.

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