True Unity Among Religions – A Bridge Too Far?

Some time back we had a family get-together at home. My mother and brothers as well as my wife's parents and brother met each other there. As always on such occasions, the conversation flowed freely and finally it turned to religion.

I come from a Buddhist family while my in-laws are Roman Catholics. Although they get along quite well nonetheless, this time a mild controversy emerged over life hereafter. I sensed that this could easily disintegrate into a full-blown argument and intervened to keep it in lighter vein and somehow managed to do so. However, the moot point was, how do you reconcile with each other the disagreeing interpretations of reality and end goals, among other things, as proposed by different world religions? Or, worse still, what do you do with their exclusivity?

My mother was quite sure that only the Buddhists who gain sufficient merit through good action could attain Nirvana – the mental state of bliss where you have gained a perfect understanding of reality and are totally at peace with the universe, which ends the cycle of rebirth and all suffering and therefore is the aim of Buddhism. Though she did not put it so bluntly, it was obvious that she thought nobody else could aspire to this lofty goal no matter how good or intelligent they were, and seemed to take pity on them.

My in-laws on the other hand, being Roman Catholics, believed that there was only one God – theirs of course – and it was only with His grace and your own good action that you gained access to Eternal Heaven, which is their supreme goal . Although they too were quite diplomatic about it, they naturally thought all others would be excluded.

My question as to who controlled the system that checked people's religious affiliations in their afterlife – or at least wherever you would find road signs after you die, directing you own own way – went unanswered.

It is quite true and admirable that religion plays a positive role in many people's lives and give them inspiration to face numerous challenges. The trouble starts when adherents of one religion meet people of another faith and try to discuss religious matters, which do not needly agree with one another.

Take the case of Christianity and Islam for example, both of them Abrahamic ideologies.To Christians Jesus is the only begotten son of God while to Muslims, who also highly respect him, he is only a human prophet who is second to Prophet Muhammad. While Christians take the Bible to be the word of God, Muslims hold it to a book compiled by men and for them it is the Koran that contains what is directly revealed by God!

Sometimes it seems that the only way to create religious harmony is not to discuss one's spiritual convictions with others. (Whether this is possible is another matter.) After all, despite all the well-meaning attempts to create more understanding among different faiths, the harmony can not reach beyond the wonderful since these philosophies often contain core beliefs that are seriously at odds with each other.

Or else one has to learn not to take one's religion so seriously and see them all merely as attempts to make sense of the world, which is what I think they really are. Once again the question is whether the majority of us are capable of this. Most of us know that none of it is quite proven, but we hang on to it neverheless because that is what we have done all our lives. And the other worry is whether most people would know how to conduct their lives without the powerful carrot-and-stick influence of religion. Removed from the deterrent of hell and attraction of heaven, the world could well degenerate into a chaotic animal kingdom.