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The God Squad: We can learn from all the great wisdom traditions

August 19, 2011|By Rabbi Marc Gellman

Question: I was raised as a Christian. I can understand the relationship of Christianity to Judaism, but I wonder what you think of Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism? Some very great people have embraced those religions. What do you think happens when they die? — R., via godsquadquestion@aol.com

Answer: I agree with you that all the great wisdom traditions have much to teach us about virtue, salvation (and really delicious holiday food!). I'm also proud to be a believer in Judaism, which teaches that after death the righteous of all nations will have a share in the world to come (heaven).

The specific theological issues raised by each faith remain for each of us to ponder. The most problematic belief of Christianity for many stems from Jesus' statement: "I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6) And in Acts 4:12, the Apostle Peter says of Christ: "There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved."

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Some Christian theologians, such as Karl Rahner, have tried to soften these claims by arguing that those who have never heard of Christianity but live good and pious lives might also be saved by Jesus as "anonymous Christians." This idea seems paternalistic and condescending to many non-Christians and fundamentally anti-Christian to other Christian theologians. So the argument continues.

The theology of Islam is very close to that of Judaism, although there does exist a proselytizing element in Muslim theology that also can rankle non-Muslims who want their own theologies recognized as valid and salvific on their own terms.

The theological problems with Hinduism have to do with its belief in many gods. Such practice strikes many non-Hindus as close to idolatry. However, the centrality of Brahman as the cosmic spirit of the universe does support a more monotheistic interpretation of Hinduism.

Brahman, by the way, is not to be confused with Brahma, one of the three chief gods of Hinduism, along with Vishnu and Shiva.

The theological beliefs of Buddhism are by far the most problematic to all forms of theistic religion, since Buddhism does not profess a belief in God. However, the Buddhist ethical teachings called the Eightfold Path derive a morality completely consistent with that derived from theistic religions. This fact has always been inspiring to me.

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