Musings on a Winter Night: Religious Tolerance and Inclusivism in Our Scriptures

Recently, I got some much-needed time off from seminary for the holiday break. Not only was I able to catch up on my rest and recharge my batteries during the downtime, but I was finally able to, at least for a moment, return to my own scholarly pursuits and read some books that didn’t have the word “required” hovering over them.

One night when I was feeling particularly drained and spiritually dead for some indiscernible reason, I returned to a sacred text that has been a tremendous source of inspiration to me over the years. As a light snow began to fall outside, I sat down with a cup of coffee and read the Bhagavad Gita. Having studied comparative religion for over a decade, I’ve read countless sacred scriptures from the great religious traditions of the world, but outside of the Bible, few have set my spirit soaring as much as the Bhagavad Gita has.

For those of you who have not read it, it is a part of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata. In it, Prince Arjuna sinks into a state of despair on the eve of a great battle, and his lowly charioteer reveals himself to be Krishna, an incarnation of God. Krishna comforts Arjuna; he teaches him great spiritual wisdom, and he helps him find his courage to stand up and fight. This amazing little book has also given me strength on the eve of many of my own battles in life through the years.

And even though I’ve read the Bhagavad Gita innumerable times, it always seems as if I discover something new every time I pick it up. That snowy night in January was no different. I had just finished writing my SoF article “Tipping the Scales” a few days prior, an article in which I’d been talking about the ambivalence in our scriptures, and how they can be used to wound or heal. Perhaps it wasn’t the cold and dreary weather that was troubling me; perhaps it was that. This sense of division weighed me down like layers of ice on my soul.

But while our scriptures may have their exclusivist truth claims, and while these scriptures sometimes cause divisions with our neighbors, if we look carefully enough, we can also find where they teach tolerance and inclusivism. It was getting late, and I was starting to doze off when my eyes fell upon the words of Krishna, “When a person is devoted to something with complete faith, I unify his faith in that. Then, when his faith is completely unified, he gains the object of his devotion. In this way, every desire is fulfilled by me.”[1] Here, in the Hindu scriptures, God is promising Arjuna that all these myriad and divisive religious paths will ultimately achieve the objects of their devotion. In a world that is so often wracked by conflict and turmoil in the name of God, this is at least a comforting thought.

Indeed, the overall inclusive nature of Hinduism has always been very appealing to me. It is one of my favorite religions that I’ve studied. A well-known Hindu mystic named Paramahansa Yogananda once echoed these sentiments, saying, “Every true religion leads to God, but some paths take a longer time while others are shorter. No matter what God-ordained religion one follows, its beliefs will merge in one and the same common experience of God.”[2] Such winter musings warm the soul on a snow-filled night.

Do the Hindu scriptures stand alone with passages such as that? What if it could be argued that they do not? Many Christian theologians, myself included, point to Romans 2:14, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.” What if Paul is saying here that the Law is written on the human heart in the form of our conscience? And if this inner sense of the Law, of right and wrong, comes from God, then what if all of our religious traditions whose ethics and calls to compassion are so similar, are in fact pointing us towards that transcendent reality in some capacity?

Such a thought can be found in the Talmud; “The righteous of all peoples have a place in the World-To-Come” (Tosafot to Sanhedrin 13:2, Sifra to Leviticus 19:18). A powerful verse in the Holy Quran seems to suggest that God intentionally made us different, “We appointed a law and a way. And if Allah had pleased He would have made you a single people, but that He might try you in what He gave you. So vie one with another in virtuous deeds. To Allah you will all return, so he will inform you of that wherein you differed” (5:48).

What if we are not as different as we sometimes think we are? What if our scriptures point to a kind of inclusivism as much as they do to exclusivism? What if our belief systems are like the Chakras of Hinduism; beautiful beams of warm and radiant light in a darkened, snow covered world? Alas, these are just the musings of one seeker on a cold and lonely winter’s night.
Perhaps we cannot fully agree on such things, and perhaps it is just as well, for we must learn to celebrate our differences just as much as our commonalities, for they say that every tiny flake of snow is different, and so it is with us.

And regardless of what religious path you follow, whether you’re an exclusivist, an inclusivist, a pluralist or somewhere in between, it is important for all of us to listen to the calls for tolerance and compassion found in all our scriptures. The Buddha cited this criterion as our ultimate guide for inner truth when he said, “But, when you know for yourselves the certain things are unwholesome and bad: tending to harm yourself or others, reject them. And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good: conducive to the spiritual welfare of yourself as well as others, accept and follow them.”[3] I think this is something on which we can all agree.

  1. Eknath Easwaran, The Bhagavad Gita, (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 41.
  2. Paramahansa Yogananda, The Yoga of Jesus, (Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 2007), 2007.
  3. Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera, “What Buddhists Believe,” n.g., accessed January 29, 2015, http://www.budsas.org/ebud/whatbudbeliev/277.htm.

Image courtesy of Ken Weiland (Flickr Commons).

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One thought on “Musings on a Winter Night: Religious Tolerance and Inclusivism in Our Scriptures

  1. Neil, I agree that our religions have points of inclusivity. Many, especially the monotheistic ones, have points of exclusivity as well. The question isn’t whether one set of points is right or wrong, the question is which set do we listen to?

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