Chapter 11: What about the Other Great Religions?

Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Person Perplexed about Religion
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 11: What about the Other Great Religions?

Dear Ted Brown:

You certainly have presented a good excuse for postponing your definite decision to be a Christian. No, I do not really mean "excuse," for the question you raise is important, and I confess that it confirms my respect for your intellectual integrity. You say that, seeking a religious faith which you can honestly accept, you have been exploring Christianity only, and you ask whether in all fairness you ought not to explore the other religions also before you make up your mind. I have read your letter about this with sympathy, for when I decided to become a minister, I intended at first to be not a preacher but a teacher, preferably in the field of Comparative Religion. That plan never panned out, but I have always been interested in the relationships between the world’s major faiths, and indeed I regard that problem today as one of the most crucial that mankind faces.

Eleven living faiths still claim man’s devotion: Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. So far as you are concerned, however, most of these are not live options. You are never going to join the Zoroastrians, now called Parsis. About 140,000 of them are left, a well-educated, admirable group, still centering their faith around two gods:

Praise be to Ahura Mazda.

Damned be the devil, Ahriman.

The will of the Righteous One is worthiest of praise.

Nor are you going to become a Japanese nationalist and a convert to Shintoism, nor acclimate yourself religiously in India and accept Jainism or Sikhism. All these eleven religions have fascinating histories and many estimable qualities, but most of them have so definitely a local and national background that they would not solve your problems or invite your allegiance.

Even Hinduism, with its 300,000,000 adherents, would seem a strange country to your mind, were you to try to understand it. One recent authority, very sympathetic with India in general and with Hinduism in particular, writes,

A Hindu is one who is born of Hindu parents, who marries a Hindu, who respects Brahman priests and depends more or less directly upon their ministrations, who respects the cow as a sacred animal, who holds the ancient Vedas in reverence, who practices cremation, who accepts the distinctions of caste, who obeys the rules prohibiting marriage between persons of different castes and dining with persons of inferior caste and the eating of forbidden foods such as beef, and who believes in one immanent all-inclusive Supreme Being, Brahman, and in the universal operation of karma and the transmigration of souls.

Even such a statement, however, is not inclusive enough, for Hinduism is open-minded to all sorts of heresies and many diversities in practice. One can be a monotheist, a polytheist, or an animist and still be a good Hindu. Indeed, I have just received a letter from a physician in India who writes: "I am a Hindu but, if you could apply arithmetical terms, I would say that I am a follower of Christ up to 95% and a Hindu only 5%." In a word, Hinduism is difficult to define, except in terms of certain common social ideas and practices in India. It would not solve your problem.

I know marvelous Hindus -- one especially, Dr. Radhakrishnan, vice-president of India, a man of distinguished intelligence and character, a convinced monotheist in his faith and an outstanding public servant. As for the sacred writings of Hinduism, here is my favorite passage from the Bhagavad Gita as translated by Sir Edwin Arnold:

. . . humbleness,

Uprightness, heed to injure naught which lives;

Truthfulness, slowness to wrath, a mind

That lightly letteth go what others prize,

Equanimity and charity

Which spieth no man’s faults; and tenderness

Towards all that suffer; . . . a bearing mild,

Modest and grave; with manhood nobly mixed;

With patience, fortitude, and purity;

An unrevengeful spirit, never given

To rate itself too high -- such be the signs

Of him whose feet are set on the fair path which leads to heavenly


If that is good Hinduism, I am sure you will agree that it is good Christianity too.

Just as Hinduism is rooted in, and is pretty much limited by, the history, culture, and customs of India, so is Confucianism, along with its companion, Taoism, in China. Confucius (551-479 B.C.) was a towering personality, and he profoundly influenced every aspect of Chinese life. When you have opportunity to study his teachings you will find in them much that is permanently admirable. His statement of the golden rule is famous. One of his disciples asked, "Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?" "Yes," answered Confucius, "is not reciprocity such a word?" And then in explanation he added. "Do not unto others what you would not want done to yourself." His emphasis on the sacredness of work, the importance of education, upon filial loyalty and reverential manners, and upon his "five noble virtues" -- dignity, generosity, mercy, tolerance, sincerity --built enduring strength into Chinese life and character. To be sure, Confucius would not help you much in answering your theological questions. "To give oneself earnestly to the service of men," he said, "and, while respecting the spirits, to make no great to-do about them -- that is wisdom." Nevertheless, he was profoundly convinced that an all-pervasive and all-controlling moral law was alike "the ordinance of Heaven" and "the law of our being."

When I was in China many years ago I remember some Christian missionaries telling me that they used Confucianism as a Chinese Old Testament. They started with the truths of Confucius and made a roadway of them, leading up to fulfillment in Christ’s gospel. No one can do that now in China. Confucianism is in desperate straits as communism assails its ideas, destroys its observances, smashes family solidarity in the communes, and puts a premium on giving antireligious Marxist doctrine first place. I am all for Confucianism against communism, but here again this ancient faith, saturated with the special culture and customs of China, is not a live option for you.

What I am getting at is the fact that of the eleven great religions only four can be called really international -- Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Your problem -- canvassing the world’s religions before you decide which will be your chosen faith --boils down to those four. Light and help from the others -- yes! But conversion to them for a man like you -- incredible!

Before we go further, let’s see if we can agree on certain basic attitudes toward the problem presented by the world’s various faiths. First, you would agree, would you not, that we cannot accept the traditional, orthodox notion that, if Christianity is true, then all the other faiths are false? This white vs. black division of the world’s religions -- Christianity true, all the others false -- is faced at once by the question, which Christianity are you talking about? Roman Catholicism or Christian Science, Eastern Orthodoxy or Mormonism, Anglicanism or The Society of Friends, and so on through more than two hundred Protestant sects in the United States -- which kind of Christianity is the one true religion? Of course a fundamentalist has an answer to this question: his own ideas are the one true faith and all others are false. I take it, however, that you and I would find that kind of arrogance impossible.

Moreover, this attitude -- Christians saved, all others damned --runs into head-on collision with the whole concept of God in the New Testament as the merciful Father of all mankind whose will is that not a single "one of these little ones should be lost." I remember sermons in my boyhood whose logical conclusion would be that Socrates and Plato, Moses and Jeremiah, Buddha and Confucius, were all in hell. That seems to me stark blasphemy against the character of God. One missionary from Asia, who has seen some Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims leading exemplary lives inwardly sustained by conscious fellowship with the Divine, says that, returning home and reporting the facts, he has found some Christians very much upset. They wanted to believe that only Christians have any truth in their religion, while God has left all others helpless, hopeless, doomed. "I submit," writes the missionary, "that practically this is just not Christian, and indeed is not tolerable. It will not do to have a faith that can be undermined by God’s saving one’s neighbor, or to be afraid lest other men turn out to be closer to God than one had been led to suppose." I am sure that we both agree with that. The non-Christian world cannot be summed up in the words of the old hymn: "The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone." Anyone who reads the scriptures of the world’s religions, or who has the privilege of friendship with some of their admirable devotees, finds there spiritual truth and quality of life that are often enviable.

C. E. Andrews, one of the most influential missionaries who ever went to India, said of his approach to Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, there, "I always assume that they are Christian; and, after I have talked with them awhile, I sometimes see the light of Christ in their eyes." What did Andrews mean by assuming that they were Christian? Clearly, he meant that if Christian faith and experience are true -- as he believed them to be -- they cannot be merely local, isolated, shut in by boundaries of race or special formulations of religion. They must have universal ingredients which men everywhere, in one degree or another, seek after and sometimes find. As another Christian missionary put it, "How is it possible to hold a firm, deep, vibrant Christian faith, wholehearted and committed, without knowing that God meets other men in other ways?"

Having written this, however, I wonder whether we can now agree on a second matter -- namely, that what we have said does not mean that one religion is just as good and true as another. No one could think that unless he first believed that the whole realm of spiritual truths and values is illusory, so that it makes no difference one way or another what anyone thinks about it. Here, let us say, is a primitive tribe where illness is attributed to demonic possession or witchcraft, and where cure is sought by magic spells. Is that just as good as modern scientific medicine? Or here is primitive agriculture, faithfully carried on in utter disregard of soil conservation, rotation of crops, and all modern techniques. Of course, that is not just as good as scientific agriculture. That is to say, wherever we think we are dealing with realities, we do have to distinguish between better and worse ways of conceiving them and dealing with them. So, because God and man’s spiritual life are so real to me, I cannot suppose that utterly different ways of conceiving them are equally true. This need not involve any arrogant supposition that I know the whole truth, nor any unfriendly condescension, but it does mean the necessity of discrimination between better and worse in religion.

Sometimes this is obvious. A United States marine in World War II was accidentally cast adrift on a South Sea island, where the natives a generation before had been cannibals, but where missionaries had won them to a Christian way of life. He wrote home, "Thanks to the missionaries, I was feasted, and not feasted upon." But when we are dealing with one of the world’s great religions, wise discrimination between better and worse calls for a high degree of both intelligence and understanding sympathy.

Consider Buddhism, for example. In certain areas the teachings of Buddha and of Jesus are identical. Jesus condemns those who see the "speck" in their brother’s eye, but fail to notice the "log" in their own. Buddhism says, "To see another’s fault is easy; to see one’s own is hard. Men winnow the faults of others like chaff; their own they hide as a crafty gambler hides a losing throw." Jesus says, "He who is greatest among you shall be your servant." Buddhism says,

Live on,

for the good and the happiness of the great multitudes, out of pity

for the world,

for the good and the gain and the weal of men!

Jesus teaches love for enemies and says that when we are reviled we are not to revile again. In passage after passage Buddhism says the same:

Worse is he who, when reviled, reviles again.

He who, when reviled, doth not revile again

A two-fold victory wins.

Or once more:

Not hating those who hate us,

Let us overcome anger by kindness, evil by good, falsehood by truth.

Or again:

Never does hatred cease by hating; hatred ceases by love.

When, however, we move back from those ethical similarities to the basic philosophies of Buddhism and Christianity, what a contrast! Gotama Buddha, born about 560 B.C., got at his gospel of salvation by a route utterly different from that of Jesus. Born a royal prince, he spent his youth in luxury and self-indulgence, spared even the knowledge of the world’s suffering and misery. Then, the story runs, riding abroad in his chariot, he was challenged by four sights: "a decrepit old man, broken-toothed, grayhaired"; "a diseased man," repulsive with running sores; a dead man; and a holy monk who had renounced the world. That vision of the essential misery of human life, its inevitable pain, decrepitude, disaster, and death, seized control of his thinking, and in his twenty-ninth year he left his family, gave up his luxury, and began his search for an answer to man’s calamitous sorrows. In the background of Gotama’s thinking was the Hindu doctrine of transmigration, holding that souls are endlessly reborn and, according to the law of karma, suffer in each new reincarnation the just punishment or reward of their previous life. How to escape that wheel of rebirth, with its endless pain and distress --this was mankind’s central problem as Gotama saw it.

No wonder Christians commonly think of Buddhism as pessimistic! It starts from and centers around pain and sorrow as life’s basic realities. But it is also hopeful, in that it proclaims a gospel of salvation. Here, all too briefly put, are the four "Noble Truths of Buddhism." First, "all is sorrow, pain, and suffering." Second, the cause of this misery is "desire, craving, and thirst." Third, to escape from his misery man must rid himself of desire, stop his craving, conquer his thirst, until he no longer desires even to exist or to be reborn. Fourth, a man can thus overcome the cravings which cause his ills by following the eightfold path: right views, high aims, discipline of speech, right action, right living, right effort, watchful-mindedness, concentration. The goal sought through this conquest of desire is nirvana. The word means extinction, and in Buddhist teaching it signifies various things: cessation of all lust and hatred, inward escape from the world of sense, blissful freedom from the fear of rebirth, and sometimes it seems to mean "the peace of a candle that has been blown out."

Well, Ted, I heartily agree with much that Gotama Buddha taught in his "noble eightfold path," but I find the total philosophy of life underlying it completely unacceptable. Buddhism is negative, a gospel of escape, its most characteristic symbol a monastery or a statue of Buddha, lost in contemplation. Christianity is positive, an affirmation of life’s abiding values, a gospel of God’s ultimate victory over evil, and of personality’s expanding fulfillment. Buddhism says, Crush your desires; Christianity says, Elevate and intensify your desires, for the goal is not nirvana, but a kingdom of righteousness, and an ultimate triumph of the eternal purpose which God purposed in Christ. I cannot imagine your becoming a convert to any of the many sects of Buddhism. I have been trying to picture you a devotee of Zen Buddhism, for example, sitting cross-legged on a cushion, every part of your body in a prescribed position, banishing all thoughts of physical sensation, all recollections and perceptions, making no distinctions between right and wrong, just sitting in abstracted meditation, until you win enlightenment. The picture just does not fit you! To be sure, there are Western versions of Zen which have attracted followers and which have elements of value in them, but their side-stepping of philosophical argument, their fatalistic attitude toward existence, their obsessive emphasis on achieving a special kind of mystical experience which is supposed to answer all questions, make them, it seems to me, intellectually and practically irrelevant to your problems.

With regard to Judaism and Islam I should think that your problem would be simple. Christianity sprang from prophetic Judaism and cannot be understood apart from it, and Islam’s basic ideas are saturated with Judaeo-Christian influence. Surely every truth in the theology and ethics of Judaism and Islam which commands your respect and allegiance you will find in Christianity and, I must add, much more beside.

So again I invite you to decide to be a Christian, but the kind of Christian who will help to bring the world’s varied religions closer together in mutual understanding, respect, and co-operation. In this divided world, rent and torn by prejudice and strife, it is a tragedy that religion, instead of being a unifying force, should add to the confusion and ill will. It is sickening to think of the bloody persecutions and wars for which religion has been responsible in the past, and to see the alienation and hatred which are fostered today by religious intolerance. It is a hopeful fact that when intelligent representatives of the most sharply divided faiths -- Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims --talk together seriously with mutual respect, they discover, beneath the estranging factors which separate them, profound areas of common ground where they share like experiences and can co-operate for the world’s good.

Just as around our bodies there is a physical world, so around our souls there is a Spiritual Environment -- all the major religions teach that. They vary widely in their descriptions of this Spiritual Environment; even monotheism, polytheism, and pantheism do not exhaust their endeavors to picture it. Confucius had little use for the "gods" familiar in his land and time, but the Spiritual Environment which he called "Tien" -- Heaven -- was central in his thought. His commission came from beyond himself -- "Tien has appointed me to teach this doctrine"-- and, as for creation itself, "All things originate from Tien." Even Gotama Buddha, who least of all the founders of religions believed in a personal Supreme Being, was not an atheist, much less a materialist, in our sense of the words. He was immersed in a realm of Spiritual Law, and to discover that Law, meditate upon it, and live by it, was to him salvation: "He who abideth in the Law falleth not from security." When Jesus teaches prayer as private communion with the Father, and a Hindu answers, "I make prayer mine inmost friend," and a Muslim agrees, "Allah is nearer to you than the great vein of your neck," such common ground is fundamental. We need men and women of all faiths who will recognize and emphasize these areas of agreement and possible co-operation, until what George Bernard Shaw once said becomes true: "Religion is that which binds men to one another and irreligion that which sunders."

And if, in view of all the varied kinds of religion and diverse interpretations of Christianity, you feel bewildered, and wonder just what being a Christian really is, I would call your thoughts home to Christianity’s unique Fact, Jesus Christ.

O Lord and Master of us all,

Whate’er our name or sign,

We own Thy sway, we hear Thy call,

We test our lives by Thine.

We faintly hear, we dimly see,

In differing phrase we pray;

But dim, or clear, we own in Thee

The light, the truth, the way.

That, I think, says it.

Very cordially yours,