Notebook 5: All Religions Act This Way

Notebook 5: All Religions Act This Way

(As an appendix to Humility is Endless, the seven-part Notebook is a collection of connected quotations from scripture, interpretation, and history, which further illustrates the destructive nature of fundamentalist belief and religious certainty of any kind. My own commentary is the thread running through them all.)

For insight into how much suffering is caused by religious arrogance and certainty, it seems worthwhile to focus on how religions handle their conflicting claims to truth in nearly identical ways.

For instance, it doesn’t matter that the following statements come from a commentary to the Quran, since similar statements could easily be found in the commentaries to other scriptures: “If you reject Truth after it has reached you, it can only be through selfish contumacy or envy”[1]; “What happens to individuals is true collectively of nations or groups of people. They think in their self-obsession that their own ideas are right”[2]; “The reference is to the whole of the People of the Book, Jews and Christians—their internal squabbles and their external disputes, quarrels, and wars.”[3] Indeed, most religions accuses those who refuse their message of being stubborn, willfully ignorant, and self-obsessed with their own traditions and ideas; and any religion which accuses others of “external disputes, quarrels, and wars” surely has a great history of them as well.

In the same way, while a Christian bumpersticker proclaims, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it!”[4], and a note left on a message board encouraging Christian belief says, “Free your mind of reason, walk by faith, and not by sight. Blessed shall be thee, when you believe in spite of all the counter-evidence your faith-blinders won’t allow you to see”[5], and while a Christian said the following at a debate: “Faith in God is a relationship. All relationships require a commitment which transcends the evidence and becomes self-validating,”[6] nearly identical versions of all three statements could be used to uphold any religion, and no doubt have. When explaining themselves, whether to unbelievers or non-believers, religions simply walk down the street in exactly the same way, all the while assuming they are the only ones doing it, or indeed getting anywhere.

The refrain is this: all religious revelation—even our own personal and life-changing experiences—are encountered in such a way that none of them has yet been articulated to convincingly “prove” that any one religion is the only truth. If claims are made to faith, and not reason; or to conscience and tradition; or simply to the intuition of trusting this rather than that religion, then the faithful must allow that such a position is as strong as someone of another religion saying the exact same thing. Each of the following quotations suggests the folly, and attendant human suffering (whether of death or simply mental anguish) of assuming otherwise.


Here is a passage on the various interpretations of the cave art of ancient France and Spain, which are generally thought to be religious; the dates for the caves cover roughly 25,000 years, from 40,000 – 15,000 BCE:

Probably all the hypotheses put forward have an element of truth in them, which is, however, lost when they are generalized or assigned absolute values…. Perhaps our only reasonable approach is to think of cave painting as part of a total context that includes the climate, the local plant and animal life, and the cultural conditions of each time and place.[7]

The same mistakes of interpretation made with cave art are true for most religions: that is, the assumption that art, writing, architecture, and all the rest—created by different people for different reasons across large spans of history and geography—can nevertheless be brought under one clean and certain interpretation, ignoring “the cultural conditions of each time and place,” and allows the denigration of other faiths living through their own versions of these very circumstances.

In the words of a writer about the religion(s) of ancient Britain:

Here human and superhuman, animal and anthropomorphic elements cannot be separated and fitted into a rigid schema of evolution but rather occur as varying elements appearing at different times and in different ways in an attempt on the part of the Celtic peoples to express the constantly fluctuating, colorful and persistent concepts of their densely peopled otherworld and its relationship to mankind.[8]

As it was for one country’s religions, so it is for the entire world of religion, all of them juggling the “varying elements” of tradition and the present moment. The following are said of Egyptian religion, but changed slightly can speak to the nature of religion in general:

[Compared to us today, did] the Egyptians think wrongly, imprecisely, or simply in a different way?[9]

It is evidently unnatural for Egyptian gods to be strictly defined. Their being remains a fluid state to which we are not accustomed; it escapes every dogmatic, final definition and can always be extended or further differentiated. The combinations gods form with other gods are transitory in many respects and can be dissolved at any time. This fluidity leaves no room for monotheism, which bases itself on unambiguous definitions.[10]

Yet the very nature of religion, even monotheism, is ambiguity and the avoidance of final definitions. The versions of Jesus, or Buddha, that have been worshipped throughout history are as various as the number of Christian and Buddhist denominations.

Back to the Egyptians:

A god was never a finished entity; he was always in the process of construction, undergoing change and continuing to add new aspects to his nature and experience.[11]

…one cannot deny that the problem of the gods tends toward the infinite and has no final solution…. Anyone who takes history seriously will not accept a single method as definitive; the same should be true of anyone who studies belief seriously. Modesty is appropriate to these age-old problems of mankind. Every “final” insight is only a signpost on the road that leads farther and farther and may be trodden in the company of others who think differently.[12]

Gandhi said the following about his own religion, but in many ways all religions act this way, to a greater or lesser degree:

If I know Hinduism at all, it is essentially inclusive and ever-growing, ever-responsive. It gives the freest scope to imagination, speculation, and reason.[13]

And from a scholar on Hinduism come the following passages on the varieties of interpretation, both of the scriptures and the historical development, of Hinduism. The specifics can be changed to speak of most religions, and their claims for historicity:

Hinduism, like all cultures, is a bricoleur, a rag-and-bones man, building new things out of the scraps of other things. We’ve seen how the British used the stones of Mohenjo-Daro [one of the largest settlements of the Indus Valley civilization, dating to c. 2500 BCE] as a ballast for their railway before (and after) they realized what those stone were and that a Buddhist stupa stands over some of the ruins there. So too Hindus built their temples on (and out of) Buddhist stupas as well as on other Hindu temples, and Muslims their mosques on Hindu temples (and Buddhist stupas), often reusing the original stones, new wine in old bottles, palimpsest architecture. In the realm of ideas as well as things, one religion would take up a word or image from another religion as a kind of objet trouvé. There are no copyrights here; all is in the public domain. This is not the hodgepodge that the Hindus and the early Orientalists regarded as dirt, matter out of place, evidence of inferior status but, rather, the interaction of various different strains that is an inevitable factor in all cultures and traditions, and a Good Thing.[14]

By refusing to modify its component elements in order to force them into a synthesis, Indian mythology celebrates the idea that the universe is boundlessly various, that everything occurs simultaneously, that all possibilities may exist without excluding each other … [that] untrammeled variety and contradiction are ethically and metaphysically necessary.[15]

The so-called central ideas of Hinduism—such as karma, dharma, samsara—arise at particular moments in Indian history, for particular reasons, and then continue to be alive, which is to say, change. They remain central, but what precisely they are and, more important, what the people who believe in them are supposed to do about them differ in each era and, within each era, from gender to gender, caste to caste.[16]

You could easily use history to argue for almost any position in contemporary India: that Hindus have been vegetarians, and that they have not; that Hindus and Muslims have gotten along well together, and that they have not; that Hindus have objected to suttee [the ritual suicide of the wife upon her husband’s pyre], and that they have not; that Hindus have renounced the material world, and that they have embraced it; that Hindus have oppressed women and lower castes, and that they have fought for their equality.[17]

What this means is that even the most ardent fundamentalists, no matter how confident they might be that they are living under the branches of an ancient and unchanging tradition, are actually living under a much more fascinating tree: one whose trunk and branches and leaves are all a mass of deep history and recent accommodation.

The differences of religious experience even between people of the same faith who are living in the same moment are vast, as suggested by these remarks on the early (and newly-converted) Christians of Europe:

Being a Christian was obviously a rather different operation for Pope Gregory I [c. 540 – 604, in Rome] than it was for King Ethelbert of Kent [c. 56 – 616, in England]. Being a Christian in seventh-century Northumbria was not the same as being a Christian in twelfth-century Northumbria (or, for the matter of that, in sixteenth- or twentienth-century Northumbria….[18]

The overwhelming majority of persons who accepted Christianity during the period of our study were neither literate nor articulate. When they received the faith they did so, for the most part, millions and millions of them, because they were told to or because they were born into it. The struggles they experienced in the course of their usually short lives were not spiritual but the harshest of material ones—just how to keep on going in a world that was chronically short of food, warmth and health. How much did Augustine’s [354 – 430, in North Africa] Christian faith have in common with that of the up-country Numidian farmers who cultivated the hinterland of his native town of Thagaste? Not a great deal, we might guess. And it is surely implausible, we may suppose, to imagine that Anselm’s [c. 1033 – 1109] spiritual quest was in any manner shared by the goatherds of his childhood Alpine valleys, or by the apple-growers of the Roumois, or by the flinty farmers of east Kent.[19]

The Buddha said the following to disparage Hindus and other sects who are always squabbling; but he could just as well be talking about Buddhists in his own lifetime, and ever afterward, as well as members most other religions:

Whereas some ascetics and Brahmins remain addicted to disputation such as: “You don’t understand this doctrine and discipline—I do!” “How could you understand this doctrine and discipline?” “Your way is all wrong—mine is right!” “I am consistent—you aren’t!” “You said last what you should have said first, and you said first what you should have said last!” “What you took so long to think up has been refuted!” “Your argument has been overthrown, you’re defeated!” “Go on, save your doctrine—get out of that if you can!” the ascetic Gotama refrains from such disputation.[20]

Meanwhile, the Quran says and threatens these things, as most scriptures do:

When it is said to them:
“Follow what Allah hath revealed:”
They say: “Nay! we shall follow
The ways of our fathers.”
What! even though their fathers
Were void of wisdom and guidance?[21]

But those who disbelieve and deny Our revelations are the people of Hell.[22]

Yet the refrain is this: all scriptures, and all religious revelation—even our own personal and life-changing experiences—are encountered in such a way that none of them has yet been articulated to convincingly “prove” that any one religion is the only truth. If one religion condemns another’s adherents to hell, or just as willfully foolishness, and bases these condemnations on faith, and not reason; or to conscience and tradition; or simply to the intuition of trusting one religion over another, then they must allow that someone of another religion can condemn them as hellbound, or foolish, in exactly the same way.

One wonders what Muhammad would have said to a Japanese Buddhist monk from the thirteenth century, who said the following, utterly certain that the only solution to the upheavals in Japan at the time was the rigid adherence to one form of Buddhism, even adherence to just one scripture:

Each of these sects teaches that certain sutras and certain commentaries will provide understanding of the whole Buddhist scripture and complete comprehension of the Buddha’s meaning…. But my doubts are difficult to dispel. When I look at this world, I see each sect praising itself, but a country has only one king…. Is not the Buddhist scripture the same? What sutra should one believe? Which is the king of all sutras?[23]

How is it that so many people, baffled by the competing truth claims of most religions, don’t think it odd when they simply add to them with their own claim for absolute truth? For instance, a Muslim scholar can start by saying, “The logical conclusion to the evolution of religious history is a non-sectarian, non-racial, non-doctrinal, universal religion,” but say in his next words, “which Islam claims to be….”[24] How can anyone claim there is a religion completely lacking in sectarian, racial, and doctrinal squabbles?

The following comments on the twenty-third Psalm are the perfect antidote to such ideas, and is not just the Bible in miniature, but all scriptures, and is the very heart of this book:

For the case of the Psalms is, in miniature, the case of the whole Bible. We know now, better than ever before, what the Psalms originally mean and why they were written. But is that original meaning to be decisive? If, even within the biblical period, the Psalms came to mean something else—if people prayed the same words in a setting different from the intended one and with a different meaning, and if they have continued to do so for more than twenty centuries since—does it really matter that the original authors did not mean for their words to be used and understood in the way that we use and understand them?….

At some point in [the twenty-third Psalm’s] history, the phrase “dwell in the house of the Lord forever” came to be understood as a reference to life after death. This was in part because of the psalm’s earlier reference to walking “through the valley of the shadow of death”.… Most contemporary scholars reject this understanding. To begin with, the “valley of the shadow of death” seemed to be a misreading (and misdivision) of the original Hebrew text: “a very dark valley” or “valley of darkness” is closer to what the psalm really says. And it does not say “through” that valley; the Hebrew preposition means only “in.” As for the psalm’s last verse [“I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever”], the words translated “for ever” really only mean “for a length of days” or “for a long time.” It seems more like a reaffirmation, rather than an extension of, “all the days of my life.” (That is why most modern translations render this phrase not as “forever” but “my whole life long” or the like.) As for “the house of the Lord,” everywhere else in the Hebrew Bible this means the temple. One certainly could not be buried in the temple and so dwell there after death: such corpse defilement would render the temple utterly unfit for God’s presence….

Which is the real Psalm 23? The one that talks about life after death, or the other one?….

When someone reads the words of a psalm as an act of worship, he or she takes over, in a sense, the psalm’s authorship…. This seems to me a remarkable phenomenon, precisely because what is crucial are not the words themselves, but the mind of the worshiper who utters them. The very attitude of prayer pushes to the background the historical circumstances of the psalm’s composition. The true author is now the worshipper himself.[25]

Indeed, what is the real Psalm 23, the real Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, what is the real anything? There isn’t one. And, as a result, no one interpretation, any more than one worshipper, is more correct than another.

Here, the same author comments on the different versions of the book of Jeremiah, as found in various texts in the closing centuries BCE:

Although the Greek version contains many of the same oracles and narrative as the Hebrew version, it is approximately one-eighth shorter and its content appears in a markedly different order…. Other fragments of Jeremiah that correspond to the Hebrew Masoretic Text also appear among the Dead Sea Scrolls, indicating that the two versions of the book circulated among Jews for several centuries following the lifetime of the prophet.[26]

[The Septuagint translators, who rendered the Hebrew into Greek] simply had a different Hebrew original [of Jeremiah] in front of them…. Which text is the right text—the one used now, the one used by the first Christians, the earliest putative form behind all the attested texts, or perhaps only the ipsissima verba [the very words] of the real Jeremiah?[27]

As scholar of Jewish mysticism says of the Kabbalah, so he might say of all religions:

As is apparent from the preceding account, the Kabbalah is not a single system with basic principles which can be explained in a simple and straightforward fashion, but consists rather of a multiplicity ­­­­of different approaches, widely separated from one another and sometimes completely contradictory.[28]

Those unable to recognize this resemble the following writer, a Christian from the second century who addresses a Jew that he is sure is in error. But his words are just as easily those of any fundamentalist whose considers his unprovable views as facts, and the unprovable views of others as “opinions”:

“I am aware,” I replied, “that, as the Word of God testifies, this great wisdom of Almighty God, the Creator of all, is concealed from you. It is, therefore, with feelings of pity that I exert every possible effort to help you understand our teachings, which to you seem paradoxical. If I fail, then I shall not be held accountable on judgment day. I shall recount to you other doctrines which may seem even more paradoxical to you, but don’t be disturbed; instead of leaving me, become more zealous and inquisitive listeners. At the same time, forsake the traditions of your teachers, for they are convicted by the Prophetic Spirit of being incapable of understanding the truths spoken by God, and of preferring to spread their own opinions…”[29]

And a third century Christian saint is quoted in the following. He rails both against the supposed ridiculousness of Greek and Egyptian mythology when compared to Christianity, and against philosophy (“Greek reasonings”), saying “demonstration through arguments” is unnecessary when “faith is present.” Yet if anyone has ever read theology or apologetics of any kind, or heard a debate between an atheist and a believer, it isn’t hard to find religious people degenerating into “demonstration” all the time. This Christian saint is speaking to every future Christian as well, every church and every faith and every religion:

And concerning the cross, what would you say is preferable: when a plot is introduced by evil men, to endure the cross and not to cower in fear before any form of death, or to relate myths about the wanderings of Osiris and Isis, the plots of Typhon, and the flight of Kronos, and swallowings of children and murder of fathers? For these are the things you count as wise! And how is it that while you scoff at the cross, you do not marvel at the resurrection? For those who told the one also wrote the other.… You answer well, for faith comes from the disposition of the soul, but dialectic is from the skill of those who construct it. Therefore, for those in whom the action through faith is present, the demonstration through arguments is unnecessary, or perhaps even useless. For what we perceive by faith you attempt to establish through arguments. And often you are unable even to articulate what we see; so it is clear that the action through faith is better and more secure than your sophistic conclusions.

We Christians, then, do not possess the mystery in a wisdom of Greek reasonings, but in the power supplied to us by God through Jesus Christ. For evidence that the account is true, see now that although we have not learned letters, we believe in God, knowing through his works his providence over all things. And for evidence that our faith is effective, see now that we rely on the trust that is in Christ, but you rely upon sophistic word battles.[30]

And here, a political text from the late fourth century calls upon the beauty of the created world to prop up Christianity, but such traditions of using the natural world as self-evident proof for one’s religion already existed in paganism and Judaism (not to mention Eastern religions), and soon would in Islam as well:

For who is so demented, so damned by the enormity of strange savagery, that, when he sees the heavens with incredible swiftness define the measure of time within their spaces under the sway of the divine guidance, when he sees the movements of the stars which control the benefits of life, the earth richly endowed with the harvests, the waters of the sea, and the vastness of this immense achievement confined within the boundaries of the natural world, he does not seek the author of so great a mystery, of so mighty a handiwork? We learn that the Jews, with blinded senses, the Samaritans, the pagans, and the other breeds of heretical monsters dare to do this. If We should attempt by a remedial law to recall them to the sanity of an excellent mind, they themselves will be blameworthy for Our severity, since they leave no place for pardon by the obstinate wickedness of their unyielding arrogance.[31]

In John 8:24, Jesus tells his fellow Jews, “Yes, if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins,” and 14:6 he says, “I am the Way; I am Truth and Life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” A Christian Biblical scholar comments on these verses like this:

If this seems offensively exclusive, let it be borne in mind that the one who makes this claim is the incarnate Word, the revealer of the Father. If God has no avenue of communication with mankind apart from his Word (incarnate or otherwise), mankind has no avenue of approach to God apart from that same Word, who became flesh and dwelt among us in order to supply such an avenue of approach. Jesus’ claim, understood in the light of the prologue to the Gospel, is inclusive, not exclusive. All truth is God’s truth, as all life is God’s life; but God’s truth and God’s life are incarnate in Jesus.[32]

Yet the names and verses cited could be changed to uphold every other faith. Every religion believes it is the only “avenue of approach” to God or the divine, and every religion, in the face of such exclusive statements, can wiggle a way out to not seem exclusive at all, at least to themselves.      

Similarly, a Muslim commentator remarks that, “A particular race, or caste, or a particular kind of culture [cannot claim] to be the custodian of Allah’s message, [because] it is universal.”[33] What would this Christian and this Muslim say to each other? Both of them consider their religions to be completely open and universal in ways that no one other than themselves could agree with.

And change a few historical details, and the following statement has nothing to do with the Catholic Church specifically, but of fundamentalism generally, and how they deal with those different from them:

The record of European imperialism from the fifteenth century on is the record of the movement from aliens defined as condemned in the afterlife to aliens defined as condemned in this life, from aliens defined as less than worthy to aliens defined as less than human. The Church, at the onset of the colonial era, was conditioned, and was conditioning others, to see unbaptized strangers as belonging to the company of devils.[34]

One of the best examples of a statement which is intended to support one faith or denomination over another, but actually can be used to support any faith over another, are those of Martin Luther, in 1521, the rallying cry of Protestantism:

Unless I be convinced by evidence of Scripture or by plain reason—for I do not accept the authority of the Pope or the councils alone, since it is demonstrated that they have often erred and contradicted themselves—I am bound by the Scriptures I have cited, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. God help me. Amen.[35]

While Luther would like his conscience to be respected, it is unlikely that he respected the conscience of Catholics, of competing Protestants, certainly not of Jews, and probably not of Muslims, or of Europeans in his own day still mixing elements of paganism and Christianity, or of atheists. Once again, and in the figure of Martin Luther as in no one else, an entirely and intensely personal experience was taken by the individual to be of universal import; but this universality was only possible if other individual experiences taken to be of universal import were done away with.

 Finally, there is also the vast literature of conversion experiences, and here are four, from the fourth through twentieth centuries. All of them have an element of chance about them: someone hears a text, opens a book, or comes upon the beauty of nature. Yet all of them could have heard a different text, opened a different book, or seen the same bit of nature and chosen an entirely different religion as a result.

 The first is Augustine:

I flung myself down under a fig tree—how I know not—and gave free course to my tears. The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to thee. And, not indeed in these words, but to this effect, I cried to thee: “And thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Wilt thou be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities.”

For I felt that I was still enthralled by them. I sent up these sorrowful cries: “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which—coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.”

Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.”

By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee. So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.”

I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

Closing the book, then, and putting my finger or something else for a mark I began—now with a tranquil countenance—to tell it all to Alypius. And he in turn disclosed to me what had been going on in himself, of which I knew nothing. He asked to see what I had read. I showed him, and he looked on even further than I had read. I had not known what followed. But indeed it was this, “Him that is weak in the faith, receive.”

This he applied to himself, and told me so. By these words of warning he was strengthened, and by exercising his good resolution and purpose—all very much in keeping with his character, in which, in these respects, he was always far different from and better than I—he joined me in full commitment without any restless hesitation.

Then we went in to my mother, and told her what happened, to her great joy. We explained to her how it had occurred—and she leaped for joy triumphant; and she blessed thee, who art “able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think.”

For she saw that thou hadst granted her far more than she had ever asked for in all her pitiful and doleful lamentations. For thou didst so convert me to thee that I sought neither a wife nor any other of this world’s hopes, but set my feet on that rule of faith which so many years before thou hadst showed her in her dream about me. And so thou didst turn her grief into gladness more plentiful than she had ventured to desire, and dearer and purer than the desire she used to cherish of having grandchildren of my flesh.[36]

The second is the Buddhist Hui-neng:

I was selling firewood in the market one day, when one of my customers ordered some to be brought to his shop. Upon delivery being made and payment received, I left the shop, outside of which I found a man reciting a sutra. As soon as I heard the text of this sutra my mind at once became enlightened. Thereupon I asked the man the name of the book he was reciting and was told that it was the Diamond Sutra. I further inquired whence he came and why he recited this particular sutra. He replied that he came from Tung-shan monastery in the Huang-mei district of Ch’i-chou; that the abbot in charge of this temple was Hung-jen, the fifth patriarch; that there were about one thousand disciples under him; and that when he went there to pay homage to the patriarch, he attended lectures on this sutra. He further told me that His Holiness used to encourage the laity as well as the monks to recite this scripture, as by doing so they might realize their own essence of mind, and thereby reach buddhahood directly.

It must be due to my good karma in past lives that I heard about this, and that I was given ten taels for the maintenance of my mother by a man who advised me to go to [the monastery].[37]

In the third, a European convert to Islam recalled the moment that changed his life, on a subway in Berlin in 1926. Travelling home with his wife, he first noticed, and his wife agreed, a proliferation of well-dressed, well-to-do, and well-fed people, who all looked, nevertheless, utterly miserable:

When we returned home, I happened to glance at my desk on which lay open a copy of the Koran I had been reading earlier. Mechanically, I picked the book up to put it away, but just as I was about to close it, my eye fell on the open page before me, and I read:

You are obsessed by greed for more and more
Until you go down to your graves.
Nay, but you will come to know!
Nay, but you will come to know!
Nay, but you will come to know!
Nay, if you but knew it with the knowledge of certainty,
You would indeed see the hell you are in.
In time, indeed, you shall see it with the eye of certainty:
And on that Day you will be asked what you have done with the boon of life.

For a moment I was speechless. I think the book shook in my hands. Then I handed it to Elsa. “Read this. Is it not an answer to what we saw in the subway?”

It was an answer: an answer so decisive that all doubt was suddenly at an end. I knew now, beyond any doubt, that it was a God-inspired book I was holding in my hand: for although it had been placed before man over thirteen centuries ago, it clearly anticipated something that could have become true only in this complicated, mechanized, phantom-ridden age of ours.[38]

And here is what the head of the Human Genome Project experienced:

On a beautiful day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.[39]

Who will be so arrogant as to say one of these experiences is right, and the others are not? The refrain is this: all religious revelation—even our own personal and life-changing experiences—are encountered in such a way that none of them has yet been articulated to convincingly “prove” that any one religion is the only truth. If claims are made to faith, and not reason; or to conscience and tradition; or simply to the intuition of trusting this rather than that religion, then the faithful must allow that such a position is as strong as someone of another religion saying the exact same thing. In the face of such a situation, how can we pretend arrogance or certainty or intolerance? How can we avoid the double-grace of empathy for others who are living amid the same uncertainty as us, and humility and more humility?



[1] Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s commentary on Quran 42:14; in The Meaning of the Holy Quran, 1249, note 4544.

[2] Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s commentary on Quran 6:108; in The Meaning of the Holy Quran, 326, note 936.

[3] Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s commentary on Quran 5:64; in The Meaning of the Holy Quran, 269, note 774.

[4] William G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?, 1.


[6] Jim Dennison, debating Christopher Hitchens with William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, and Doug Wilson, here:

[7] Antonio Beltran, in his introduction to The Cave of Altamira, 16.

[8] Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, 380

[9] Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One & the Many, 237.

[10] Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One & the Many, 97-9.

[11] Rosalie David, Religion & Magic in Ancient Egypt, 56      

[12] Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One & the Many, 11.

[13] Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, 687.

[14] Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, 101.

[15] Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, 48.

[16] Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, 18-19.

[17] Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, 688.

[18] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversions: From Paganism to Christianity, 9.

[19] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversions: From Paganism to Christianity, 514.

[20] “Brahmajala Sutta” 1:18, in the Digha Nikaya; tr. Maurice Walshe in The Long Discourses of the Buddha, 71.

[21] Quran 2:170.

[22] Quran 5:10.

[23] Laura Rasplica Rodd, “The Spirituality of Nichiren,” in Takeuchi Yoshinori ed., Buddhist Spirituality 2: Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World, 243.

[24] Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s commentary on Quran 3:110; in The Meaning of the Holy Quran, 155, note 434.

[25] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, 471-3.

[26] Marvin A. Sweeney, in his introduction to Jeremiah, in The Jewish Study Bible, 919.

[27] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, 594, 597.

[28] Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah, 87.

[29] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, in Lawrence H. Schiffman ed., Texts and Traditions: A Source Reader for the Study of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, 419.

[30] St. Antony; in The Life of Antony and the Letter To Marcellinus, by Marcellinus, tr. Robert C. Gregg, 75, 77-88, 85-86, 87.

[31] The Novels [Constitutions] of the Sainted Theodosius Augustus, in Lawrence H. Schiffman ed., Texts and Traditions: A Source Reader for the Study of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, 584..

[32] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, Notes, 299.

[33] Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s commentary on Quran 17:100; in The Meaning of the Holy Quran, 702, note 2307.

[34] James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, 477.

[35] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, 26-7.

[36] Augustine, Confessions, 8:29-30; tr. Albert Outler:

[37] Hui-neng; in The Sutra of Hui-neng, tr. A. F. Price & Wong Mou-lam, 67-8 (ch. 1).

[38] Muhammad Asad, The Road to Mecca, 309-10.

[39] Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, 225.