Religious "Tolerance" and Diversity
A Word on the Challenge the Western World Has Yet to Face

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle. Their wisdom was unfathomable. There is no way to describe it; all we can describe is their appearance. They were careful as someone crossing an iced-over stream. Alert as a warrior in enemy territory. Courteous as a guest. Fluid as melting ice. Shapable as a block of wood. Receptive as a valley. Clear as a glass of water. Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself? The Master doesn't seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, he is present, and can welcome all things. Toa Te Ching, Lao-tzu

Canada prides itself on being a society that is open to the world's great cultures and religions. Whether or not this openness to cultural and religious diversity is a specifically and uniquely Canadian phenomenon is another question altogether. My purpose here, though, is to test the authenticity of this openness. For there is no doubt that openness to cultural and religious diversity can only be a good and wholesome idea. It is consistent with a basic epistemological law, namely, that knowledge expands and enlarges the human person. By knowing cultures outside of our own -- and I use "knowledge" in its Hebrew sense, as experience -- our lives are enriched, enlarged, and made more meaningful. And I would argue that this is particularly the case with regard to the religions of the world. Not only would the world religions enlarge and enrich our lives and culture -- were we really open to them -- , they would utterly transform the western world.

But our culture has not been transformed. It is in desperate need of reform, and increasingly so. Marriage is still in decline, the abortion rate has not dropped significantly, active euthanasia is well on its way to this country, the banks of northern nations still hold much of the Third World's debt, the news media is still in the iron grip of a moral relativism and socially liberal bias, consumerism is hardly on the wane, and the lives of young people have become so complicated that many of them are on their way to a nervous breakdown, just to name only a few of our problems. The great religions of the world pose a serious challenge to western culture, and it is only by facing that challenge that the west can hope to benefit significantly from their wisdom. That is why I am skeptical about our apparent openness to religious diversity. I am not sure that we are as open as we would like others to believe. In fact, I would venture to compare our "tolerance" with that of a man who opens a forum to a diverse group of people, only to inform them shortly thereafter that they can save their breath, because he has no intentions of listening to anything they might have to say, and that whatever they have to say is their business, to be kept entirely to themselves. Religious "tolerance" sounds positive, but our specific version of it is, behind the facade, profoundly negative, as I will attempt to show.

So what exactly does this openness really mean? What does it stand for and what purpose does it serve? Before trying to resolve this question, I'd like to briefly revisit the great texts in order to better appreciate how it is they challenge us at the roots. For these religions overflow with tremendously beautiful truths, and there is no way to do justice to any single one of them in an article of this size. As evidence of their wealth, let me point out that I had no difficulty retrieving the following selections and was able to do so in a relatively short span of time. In fact, my selections were almost randomly chosen. This article could easily be twenty times its current length. All one has to do is open up The Upanishads, or the Dhammapada, or The Basic Writings of Chuang Tzu, or the Tales of the Hasidim, and one finds truths that are ancient, profound, and enduring, truths to which we as a culture have yet to pay serious attention.

A Glance at the Texts

The Upanishads is a great place to start. Opening it randomly, I came to the following:

Atman, smaller than the small, greater than the great, is hidden in the hearts of all living creatures.

The Hindu understanding of this text is far more demanding that the counterfeit version one finds in the New Age and popular psychology. It has often been misunderstood to imply that since God is hidden in the hearts of each, one need not change himself in any radical way; after all, if Atman is identical to atman (soul), one's will is ultimately identical to the divine will. However, if this were true, one need not pay any attention to the rest of Hindu wisdom literature. Contrary to such misconception, each person has the difficult task of reforming himself; for there is much that blocks the rays of Atman, which ultimately prevents us from discerning the true worth and dignity of the individual person, including ourselves. That is why in the same text we read:

A man who is free from desires beholds the majesty of the Self through tranquillity of the senses and the mind and becomes free from grief. Atman cannot be known by an unillumined person full of worldly desires.

To be free from desires is "to have renounced all desires for enjoyment of objects on earth and in heaven". And this is because "all desires, however lofty or spiritual, disturb the serenity of the mind." Hence, the central role of renunciation in Hinduism.

Protect the Self by renunciation. Lust not after any man’s wealth.

There is no finding God without personal conversion, which is painful and involves a turning away from evil.

He who has not first turned away from wickedness, who is not tranquil and subdued, and whose mind is not at peace, cannot attain Atman.

Commenting on this text, Swami Nikhilananda writes: "We cannot know the true nature of the Self because our mind is contaminated by greed, attachment, anger, and carnal desires, all produced by our craving for possessions. The more one is attached to wealth, the less one knows the divinity of the Self."

At the heart of Buddhism lies a similar insight; it holds that this lack of personal reform or conversion is the root of the suffering we find in this world. It is our own avarice, our own craving or attachment to the delights of both body and mind that is at the origin of human suffering.

What, now, is the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering? It is craving, which gives rise to fresh rebirth, and, bound up with pleasure and lust, now here, now there, finds ever-fresh delight. But where does this craving arise and take root? Wherever in the world there are delightful and pleasurable things, there this craving rises and takes root. Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind are delightful and pleasurable: there this craving arises and takes root...What, now, is the Noble Truth of the Extinction of Suffering? It is the complete fading away and extinction of this craving, its forsaking and abandonment, liberation and detachment from it.

Religion is not primarily about following precepts or acquiring knowledge -- although these have their place -- , but rather it is principally about a change of heart, a conversion of the heart from attachment to the world.

...the purpose of the Holy Life does not consist in acquiring alms, honor, or fame, nor in gaining morality, concentration, or the eye of knowledge. That unshakable deliverance of the heart: that, indeed, is the object of the Holy Life, that is its essence, that is its goal.

Self-love is at the heart of all irreverence for life. The following proverbs of The Dhammapada underscore this very point:

Pluck out your self-love as you would pull off a faded lotus in autumn.

Live not a low life; remember and forget not; follow not wrong ideas; sink not into the world.

All beings tremble before danger, all fear death. When a man considers this, he does not kill or cause to kill.

Inordinate love of self begets a number of vices, in particular inordinate speech. Such vices of the tongue are particularly harmful. Hence, the emphasis in Buddhism on "right speech", which involves abstaining from vain chatter, tale-bearing, lying, and harsh words, which stem from a heart too attached to the self.

One avoids harsh language, and abstains from it. One speaks such words as are gentle, soothing to the ear, loving, such words as go to the heart, and are courteous, friendly, and agreeable to many.

The moral status of lying in western culture is somewhat ambiguous. Certainly, very few regard the precept against lying as absolute. Young people often lie without thinking twice about it. The news mediahas become a source of carefully crafted lies. There is a kind of lying that involves a refusal to credibly present a point of view at odds with its own. At their best, editors will edit articles they don't particularly agree with so much that the argument no longer carries the same force, when editing is otherwise entirely unnecessary. In a post-modern world in which knowledge is a construct and truth is nothing more than a word for the will to power, the end can only justify the lie. But Buddhism will have no part in such a world:

Herein someone avoids lying and abstains from it. One speaks the truth, is devoted to the truth, reliable, worthy of confidence, not a deceiver of men. Being at a meeting, or among people, or in the midst of his relatives, or in a society, or in the king's court, and called upon and asked as witness to tell what one knows, one answers, if one knows nothing: "I know nothing," and if one knows, one answers: "I know"; if one has seen nothing, one answers: "I have seen nothing," and if one has seen, one answers: "I have seen". Thus one never knowingly speaks a lie, either for the sake of one's own advantage, or for the sake of another person's advantage, or for the sake of any advantage whatsoever.

Confucius, who taught that the "humane are restrained in their speech", understood well the link between self-love and linguistic vice. He writes:

Cultured people do not seek to eat to their fill or to live in comfort. They are keen in their work and careful about their words. They associate with those who have the Way, and are rightly guided by them. This can be called studiousness.

Chuang Tzu is especially critical of "the world" and the human tendency to fret anxiously over its false promises.

This is what the world honors: wealth, eminence, long life, a good name. This is what the world finds happiness in: a life of ease, rich food, fine clothes, beautiful sights, sweet sounds. This is what it looks down on: poverty, meanness, early death, a bad name. This is what it finds bitter: a life that knows no rest, a mouth that gets no rich food, no fine clothes for the body, no beautiful sights for the eye, no sweet sounds for the ear.

People who can't get these things fret a great deal and are afraid -- this is a stupid way to treat the body. People who are rich wear themselves out rushing around on business, piling up more wealth than they could ever use -- this is a superficial way to treat the body. People who are eminent spend night and day scheming and wondering if they are doing right. This is a shoddy way to treat the body. Man lives his life in company with worry, and if he lives a long while, till he's dull and doddering, then he has spent that much time worrying instead of dying, a bitter lot indeed! This is a callous way to treat the body.

Consider the number of us who have forgotten that all that we have is gift. There is nothing in our lives, neither our own life nor the lives of those closest to us, that is owed to us by God. To forget this is to set oneself up for a fall. As a result of having suffered the loss of a loved one, many people hold resentment towards God because they sincerely believe that what has been given to them gratis was in fact due to them.

This attitude is beautifully challenged in the following story from the writings of Chuang Tzu:

Uncle Lack-Limb and Uncle Lame-Gait were seeing the sights at Dark Lord Hill and the wastes of K'un-lun, the place where the Yellow Emperor rested.' Suddenly a tumor sprouted out of Uncle Lame-Gait's left elbow.' He looked very startled and seemed to be annoyed.

"Do you resent it?" said Uncle Lack-Limb.

"No-what is there to resent?" said Uncle Lame-Gait. "To live is to borrow. And if we borrow to live, then the living must be a pile of trash. Life and death are day and night. You and I came to watch the process of change, and now change has caught up with me. Why would I have anything to resent?"

Some of the most profound wisdom in religious history can be found in the writings of the Hasidic rabbis. The Baal-Shem-Tov writes:

Pray continually for God's Glory that it may be redeemed from its exile.

But how should we pray? He continues:

Man should reflect before prayer that he is ready to die in this prayer for the sake of its intention

The end of all things coincides with their origin, and so they must be returned to their origin through us. All things must be used for the sake of God's Glory, that it may be redeemed from its exile. He writes:

All that man has, his servant, his animals, his tools, all conceal sparks that belong to the roots of his soul and wish to be raised by him to their origin.

We often forget that everything we do, every utterance we make, every thought, every choice, endures eternally. For every choice we make becomes an aspect of our moral identity, which determines our destiny. Our history is never merely past; we carry it with us into eternity. The Baal-Shem-Tov continues:

Man should think of himself as a ladder, placed upon the earth and touching heaven with its head, and all his gestures and affairs and speaking leave traces in the higher world.

Some of the most inspiring religious truths can be found in the religion of Islam, in particular The Sayings of Muhammad. Muslims understand very well the fundamental truth about the human person that all other religions underscore, namely that our first and most fundamental task is personal reform:

The most excellent Jihad is that for the conquest of the self.

Islam in not unapprised of the link between the heart and the word:

A man cannot be a Muslim till his heart and tongue are so (purity and withholding from fruitless words).

The complexity of modern life certainly hasn't made people less prone to rage, but more so. But the control of anger is the mark of a Muslim.

Whoever suppresseth his anger, when he hath in his power to show it, God will give him a great reward.

Islam is well aware of the inordinate tendency of human passion and rightly regards as foolish the decision to live our lives for the pleasures of this world:

That person is wise and sensible who subdueth his carnal desires and hopeth for rewards from God; and he is an ignorant man who followeth his lustful appetites, and with all this asketh God's forgiveness.

To help bring about this self-transcendence, and to keep oneself from forgetting the poor, the Muslim must fast. In The Koran we read:

You who believe, fasting has been prescribed for you, just as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may do your duty, on days which have been fixed.

But fasting must be united to prayer:

Seek help through patience and prayer, since it is exacting except for the submissive...

...except for the prayerful who are constant at their prayers.

Self-love induces a desire to be the object of another's gaze. The more inordinate this love, the more immodest we are inclined to dress. So The Koran instructs:

Remain in your homes and do not publicly display your beauty in the way they used to do during the time of primitive Ignorance.

O prophet, tell your wives and daughters, and believers' wives as well, to draw their cloaks close around themselves. That is more appropriate so that they may be recognized and not molested.

The western news media functions on the secret envy of human beings. American novelist Walker Percy subtitles his chapter entitled "The Envious Self" in his Lost in the Cosmos as follows: "Why it is that the self -- though it professes to be loving, caring, to prefer peace to war, concord to discord, life to death; to wish other selves well, not ill -- in fact secretly relishes wars and rumors of war, news of plane crashes, assassinations, mass murders, obituaries, to say nothing of local news about acquaintances dropping dead in the street, gossip about neighbors getting in fights or being detected in sexual scandals, embezzlements, and other disgraces."

An ancient Zen story highlights this envy that is so much a part of western culture:

After Bankei had passed away, a blind man who lived near the master's temple told a friend: "Since I am blind, I cannot watch a person's face, so I must judge his character by the sound of his voice. Ordinarily when I hear someone congratulate another upon his happiness or success, I also hear a secret tone of envy. When condolence is expressed for the misfortune of another, I hear pleasure and satisfaction, as if the one condoling was really glad there was something left to gain in his own world. In all my experience, however, Bankei's voice was always sincere. Whenever he expressed happiness, I heard nothing but happiness, and whenever he expressed sorrow, sorrow was all I heard.

It is an interesting paradox that only when one has detached himself from the world is one able to enjoy it; that only through self-denial will a person begin to appreciate the beauty of creation. That is why renunciation is a necessary condition for happiness -- and thus why so few find it.

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal. Ryokan returned and caught him. "You may have come a long way to visit me," he told the prowler, "and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift." The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away. Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. "Poor fellow," he mused, "I wish I could give him this beautiful moon."

But it is by virtue of an unwillingness to rise above the self that human beings tend to take themselves far too seriously. Many people are unable to find it in themselves to rise above their woes and are weighed down by an excessive preoccupation with their own sorrows. The following story from Idries Shah's The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin underscores the importance learning to take oneself lightly:

Nasrudin's wife ran to his room when she heard a tremendous thump. "Nothing to worry about," said the Mulla, "it was only my cloak which fell to the ground." 'What, and made a noise like that?' "Yes, I was inside it at the time."

Inordinate self-preoccupation extinguishes gratitude, which is a condition for the realization of justice.

Never give people anything they ask for until at least a day has passed!' said the Mulla.

'Why not, Nasrudin?'

'Experience shows that they only appreciate something when they have had the opportunity of doubting whether they will get it or not.'

Boredom is widespread because we are no longer aware that life is a quest for the good, the true, the one, and the beautiful. Post-modern nihilism has led us to believe that there is really nothing to aspire after.

Nasrudin saw a man sitting disconsolately at the wayside, and asked what ailed him.

'There is nothing of interest in life, brother,' said the man; 'I have sufficient capital not to have to work, and I am on this trip only in order to seek something more interesting than the life I have at home. So far I haven't found it.

Without another word, Nasrudin seized the traveller's knapsack and made off down the road with it, running like a hare. Since he knew the area, he was able to out-distance him.

The road curved, and Nasrudin cut across several loops, with the result that he was soon back on the road ahead of the man whom he had robbed. He put the bag by the side of the road and waited in concealment for the other to catch up.

Presently the miserable traveller appeared, following the tortuous road, more unhappy than ever because of his loss. As soon as he saw his property lying there, he ran towards it, shouting with joy.

'That's one way of producing happiness,' said Nasrudin.

Nihilism has at the same time failed to reveal to us the true face of nothingness. The Sufi Mohamed El-Ghazali writes:

You possess only whatever will not be lost in a shipwreck.

We tell our children that kindergarten is a preparation for elementary school, and that elementary school is a preparation for high school, and high school a preparation for university, and university a preparation for the world, but we stop there and leave them ignorant about that for which life in the world is a preparation. El-Ghazali continues:

Man should also say to himself: "O my soul! You think yourself clever and are upset at being called idiotic. But what else are you in reality? You make clothes for winter, but no provision for another life. You are like a man in winter who says: "I shall not wear warm clothes, but place trust in God's kindness to protect me from the cold". He does not realize that, in addition to creating cold, God placed before man the means to protect himself from it.'

The truly religious know the value of individual human life. The Sufi Saadi of Shiraz writes:

Dominion of the world from end to end is worth less than a drip of blood upon the earth.

The Sufis are also not unaware of the dangers of the tongue of an angry heart:

In the eyes of the wise, the seeker of combat with an elephant is not really brave. Brave is he who says nothing unbecoming in wrath. A lout abused a man who patiently said: 'O you of bright prospects: I am worse even than you say. I know all my faults, while you do not know them.'

Concluding Thoughts

If one actually spends a little time listening to what it is the world religions have been saying for centuries, it should be obvious that whatever our apparent openness to them means, it certainly is not about taking seriously the content of their wisdom. We just don't hear Pilate's question resonating anywhere in the sacred texts of these religions: "What is truth?" This is a post-modern question, posed by those who share in Pilate's indifference to truth. In fact, we can divide the world in two on the basis of how we respond to his question: those who deny truth and who would crucify any claim to it, and those who live for nothing else, that is, the truth that the glory of the divine love is to be redeemed from exile, that man must repent and turn away from evil, renounce his selfishness which begets human suffering, change his heart, empty himself of his inordinate self-love in order to be filled with God and prepare himself for union with Him. The word 'repent' was the very first word out of Jesus' mouth at the beginning of his public ministry, and not one of the religions of the world can be properly understood except in light of the demand for personal repentance.

In the west, the current posture towards truth is very aptly summed up in Nietzsche's Will to Power, section 540: "There are many kinds of eyes. Even the sphinx has eyes -- and consequently there are many kinds of "truths", and consequently there is no truth." The post-modern openness to religious diversity is not rooted in a genuine respect for the wisdom to be found therein. Allow me to be cynical just this once. This openness is little more than a recipe devised to allow us to continue hiding undetected behind the dark cloak of our moral and cultural relativism. It is the easiest way to persist in avarice, lust, gluttony, vanity, irreverence for life, etc., without the fear of being censored by a single universal norm; after all, in the midst of such religious diversity, who would be so arrogant as to claim to possess universal truth?

But what is striking about the wisdom we find in the religions of the world is how congruent they are to one another and to our own. This is so true that we can no longer adopt an 'us versus them' way of looking at the world religions. Rather we are them and they are us, and it is 'us versus the post-modern world' that is "open" to us, but refuses to listen to us. What is particularly striking about the Marian apparitions within the last two centuries is the consistent call to "fasting, prayer, and penance". Fasting and renunciation are no longer a serious part of the lives of average Catholics, even during the Lenten season. We have flirted with the world too long to have been able to maintain any reasonable detachment from it. But fasting, prayer, and penance remain a very important part of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. The Hasidim exhort us to pray continually, while Hindus exhort us to protect the Self with renunciation. Buddhism calls us to forsake our cravings in order to find liberation and truth. Muslims fast for an entire month during daylight hours, pray five times a day and give a percentage of their income as alms. It seems Our Lady has joined her voice with theirs.

Ironically, the religions of the world remind Christians of what St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans: "Do not be conformed to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect" (Rm 12: 2). While we receive such gifts from these religions, Catholics can give something of their own in return. The good news of the gospel is not a teaching alongside others. It is something else entirely. It is news about a person who has risen from the dead. A son of man has conquered death. In other words, death no longer has the final word over our lives. It is this extraordinarily good news that renders the ancient wisdom eternal. Without it, death has the final word, uttered at the very end of the final chapters of their sacred texts, rendering them pointless and futile. The gospel does not deny these truths, but saves them and resurrects them to a new and enduring status. But we are asleep to them

Former Jesuit Malachi Martin speaks of a certain quality, a grace that we find more or less in certain people that, for lack of a better word, he calls "humanness". He writes: "In humanness we include qualities that adhere to the inner self and are interconnected with an appreciable outer way of living and doing. These qualities, taken together, confer a commonly recognized aura, a decor, a configuration of winsomeness and worth on the whole person." I've noticed over the years that those students of mine who exhibit a rather extraordinary sharing in this grace of humanness have been the devout Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Evangelical Christians. In fact, it is these students who tend to acquire a more profound grasp and appreciation of the fundamentals of Catholicism than do my young Catholic students. After discovering a bible left in his desk by a student from the previous day, a senior student of mine who is a faithful Muslim went around to each desk in order to check inside, shaking his head every time he found a bible left in it. He has been doing this almost every morning since. He'd stack them up, place them back on the shelf, and remark how disrespectful it was that students would treat the bible with such a lack of reverence. He is a microcosmic reflection of what would occur on a larger scale should the western world truly open itself up to the religious wisdom of the east.