I must take issue with several of the statements made by Stan Grimes in his November 21st editorial ‘Christianity: Is It Self-Destructing’. Mr. Grimes makes several generalizations in his article that reflect misunderstandings of the three religious traditions (Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism) that he mentions.
With regards to Christianity, Mr. Grimes makes a valid point that many Christians believe sincerely in the ‘second coming’, a return of Christ that will trigger a series of events that will result in the ‘end of the world’ and the establishment of a new, spiritual world order centered around Christ. However, Mr. Grimes makes the mistake of painting all Christians with the same broad strokes. While many Christians regard their religion as the only means of salvation, there remain many devout Christians who believe in the possibility of salvation outside of their faith. Many more Christians believe in the possibility of living in harmony with non-Christians. Furthermore, while belief in the second coming is widespread, the sort of radical belief in an imminent apocalypse that Mr. Grimes describes is far from universal. Those Christians that see the end of the world as a rapidly approaching event remain a minority, but a minority that has become more vocal and more visible in the world because of their growing media savvy, and the brief focus on millenarian beliefs that accompanied the end of the 20th Century (the ‘Left Behind’ series of novels, for instance). Mr. Grimes would do well to remember that at no time in history did more Christians more sincerely believe in the immanence of the Apocalypse than in the period when the Book of Revelations was written, during the days of Roman persecution that followed the rise of Christianity.
With regards to Islam, Mr. Grimes is guilty of repeating an anti-Muslim slander told since the Crusades: the notion that Muslims believe that they are guaranteed a place in Heaven by killing Christians. While a small minority of ultra-radical Islamists preach this view, it is a distortion of true Islamic teachings. In fact, Muslims are enjoined by the Koran to respect the rights of Christians and Jews as fellow ‘people of the book’, religious believers that have received past revelations from the Abrahamic God. Throughout history, we often find that non-Muslims (including Christians) have often faired better under Muslim rule than Muslims have under the rule of Christians. History and modern politics have put significant cracks in the institutions of tolerance that once helped guide relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, but if we are to repair relations among the various religions of the world, we must acknowledge the resources that our traditions have gifted left us. The majority of the Islamic world continues to reject the teachings of the Islamic radicals who try to divide the Muslim people from the rest of the world. At the same time, many Muslims are wary of Western culture and Western imperialism, feeling that they have been wronged by both. It is important to recognize that Muslim attitudes towards the West exist in a continuum, with terrorists dwelling on the extreme edge of anti-Western views, and many more Muslims falling in the center: skeptical of the sincerity of Western efforts at reconciliation, but ultimately seeking to live in peace.
I also question Mr. Grims decision to separate Buddhism from the other religions that he discusses. As a Buddhist, I am keenly aware of the virtues of the Buddha’s message, and of the positive changes that it has wrought in my own life and the lives of many others. At the same time, we must be wary of idealizing Buddhism, and of creating an unrealistic image of a perfect Buddhism that crumbles in the pressures of the real world. The superstition and ritualism that Mr. Grimes derides in Hindu practice have existed alongside Buddhism since the Buddha’s time. While Westerners now often regard the supernatural elements of Buddhist religious practice as later ‘corruptions’, we have little reason to believe that there was ever a time when Buddhism was practiced in the world entirely free of the ritual and supernatural trappings that it now possesses. Furthermore, while a belief in a literal afterlife is not obligatory in Buddhism, throughout most of Buddhist history that belief has been both real and significant for most Buddhist practitioners. Buddhists can, and have, resorted to violence to solve their problems, just as insincere seekers of worldly power have used Buddhism to justify their immoral actions. While the potential for great works for peace exist within the Buddhist tradition, the potential for abuse is no less than that of any other great religious tradition.
Mr. Grimes is correct that the world faces a very serious crisis. The situations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Thailand, and the United States make this clear. I do not think that the answer is to hope that a single faith or way of thought will come to dominate the discussion, and quiet the discord. Instead, the challenge to the faiths of the world will be to discover a way to live in peace in all of their diversity and uniqueness. I believe that there are people of good will in every religious faith who are ready and willing to undertake this effort. But for their efforts to succeed, we must rid ourselves of the old prejudices and misconceptions that have too often characterized interactions between the different world faiths.