Too often we see media reports about the violence and intolerance that religious fundamentalism engenders. Religion is used to justify terrorism, to discriminate against those who are different and to resist scientific advancement inherent in our modern lives.
Religion can reinforce tribal mentalities. Some identify with their faiths as if they were members of a private club privy to a secret of which others are ignorant. Conflict arises when different groups insist that only their paths to salvation are the correct ones. But if God is truly infinite and ineffable, then by definition no religion as conceived or practiced by a finite human mind could hope to portray accurately or completely an infinite divine.
Imagine for a moment that the divine Ultimate Reality (what some might called YHWH, God, Allah, Nirvana, Brahman) is like the electromagnetic spectrum of light -- infinitely continuous, a tiny bandwidth visible, most unseen by the human eye. In each of the great faiths of the world, the metaphor of light is used for the divine. Now think back to a science class in which you learned about prisms. A prism breaks down pure "white" light into a color spectrum. Each of us views Ultimate Reality through a prism. We see our universe and our lives through a lens that has been shaped by our cultures, languages, histories, upbringings and genetic dispositions. When I look through my prism at the light, I might see blue; someone else will see red, and another green. Blue, red and green are not the same, but each is part of the spectrum that is light. Each is unique, but true -- yet incomplete. Infinity encompasses contradictions.
We fear what we do not understand. Creating opportunities for those of different faiths to interact can reveal that behind the doctrines of these faiths, we find many similarities. For example, the Golden Rule ("treat others as you would like to be treated") is found in every one of the world's religions. But one of the greatest benefits of interfaith dialogue is that by studying another's faith we might learn a bit of wisdom, a new way of looking at reality, that we can incorporate into our own. Here is just a single insight from each of the five largest religions -- Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity -- that might have meaning to someone from another tradition:
1. Judaism's monotheism
In contrast to the religions of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, in which different deities oversaw various aspects of the universe, Judaism great contribution was the declaration that there was only one ultimate source of all that is: one God. The name of this deity, YHWH, translates as "I am that I am." God cannot be defined or contained. This development of theological thought (which took centuries even within Judaism) meant that behind the physical realities of our day-to-day lives was a single indescribable Ultimate Reality.
2. Hinduism's view of the soul
As the world's oldest surviving religion, Hinduism has evolved over the millennia and contains many separate traditions. In what is considered the most philosophical of these traditions, Advaita Vedanta, the core of the human self, known as the Atman, is that essence deep within each of us beyond our thoughts, memories and feelings that is eternal. The Atman is the "unseen seer," the "unthought thinker." The key insight Hinduism teaches is that the Atman, our very soul, is nothing less than a spark of the ultimate divine fire: God or Brahman. On the surface, we are individual, finite creatures, but our true natures are part of the ultimate divine, infinite and eternal reality.
3. Buddhism's nature of human suffering
At first glance, Buddhism appears to be a pessimistic religion by declaring that life by its nature is suffering (Dukkha). Yet who among us has not experienced physical pain, death, sadness, anger, grief, discontent, jealousy, desire, unfulfilled wanting or even a simple itch? In Buddhism, suffering doesn't have a supernatural source in a devil or an act of disobedience against God, but rather our suffering results from our cravings and our desires. We want what we do not have; we want to change something that is; we want to hold onto to something that is changing. In other words, we are not content with what is. We do not accept that the fundamental nature of the universe is change. Most importantly, we change. We are impermanent, and yet we resist this impermanence. The end of suffering comes from acceptance of this fundamental truth.
4. Islam's peace through surrender
The world Islam literally means a peace found through surrender. What is it one needs to surrender in order to find this peace? Islam teaches one must utterly surrender oneself to Allah, to God. Since Allah is the ultimate truth and source of the universe, we suffer and we cause suffering when we elevate ourselves over Allah. We find peace through a complete surrendering of every aspect our lives to this greater reality. The purpose of Muslim prayer five times a day (Salat) is to connect with Allah, to remind oneself throughout every day to surrender.
5. Christianity's love
When asked about the greatest commandments from scripture, Jesus replies that there are but two: "love God with all of one's heart, soul and mind," and "love thy neighbor as thyself." The Christian ideal of love was one of the aspects of the early Christian community most noticeable to those outside of it. The Greek language has two words for love: eros and agape. Eros is what we would consider romantic love. It is that feeling in which we are drawn to another to the extent we feel we cannot live without them. Whereas eros focuses on our own feelings, agape is outwardly focused, away from us. Agape is unselfish love. It is a love without bounds or conditions, a love that doesn't require reciprocity. This is the love that Jesus commands. It is the love that leads to social justice, to peace and to charity.
As different as each of these religions is, an underlying theme runs through each of these five insights. Our individual lives are short, inconsequential in a universe that is 13.7 billion years old. We are finite. We suffer. Yet these faiths teach us that we can transcend suffering because we are part of something bigger than us. Behind our everyday realities lies an Ultimate Reality. Happiness is found in transcending our individual egos, our wants and desires, and connecting on a deeper and broader level with this Ultimate Reality.