The Dali Lama vs Jesus

The Dali Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, appeared on the New York Times opinion page on Monday with an article entitled Many Faiths, One Truth. As the title suggests the gist of the column is that the differences between the world’s religions are not nearly as important as the areas of agreement.

According to the Dali Lama, the unifying theme among religions is compassion. To no one’s surprise, he is able to find examples of care and concern shown by adherents to Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

 Here are a few thoughts…

1. The Dali Lama will always be a media darling here in the United States and be found on the pages of the Times because his message fits well within our culture. Rodney Stark’s book, What Americans Really Believe, shows that one of the biggest threats to biblical Christianity is the cultural belief (held even by those who claim to be Christians) that everyone goes to heaven. The Dali Lama’s article tells people what they want to hear and affirms what they already believe.

2. There’s some sense in which one wishes that he were right. I don’t think that a Christian should find joy in people suffering either in this world or in hell. Remember that Jesus wept over Jerusalem and the unbelief of the people (Luke 19:41). My guess is that we’d all be happy to find that God’s grace in Christ extended to every person who ever lived.

3. The case for some sort of universalism is easier for Dali Lama to make since he doesn’t have to conform his beliefs to any greater authority than himself and his own ideas about who God is and how he should act in the world. The Christian doesn’t have that option. He has to conform his beliefs to the Bible. And what the Bible clearly teaches is the uniqueness of Jesus and the exclusivity of salvation.

4. The Dali Lama is right in that many religions share common moral ground. But sometimes it is the differences that matter most. Greg Kokul does a great job of illustrating this point by comparing two generic tablets that look identical in every way. But then he labels one arsenic and one aspirin. Although the tablets still have much in common, they are very different. The point is that it is often the differences that are more important than the similarities. 

In a similar way world religions may share common ground on moral issues but that shouldn’t blind us to the significant and ultimately irreconcilable differences. 

5. The biggest difference between Christianity and any other religion is Jesus. And the Dali Lama should know that. He commends Jesus as a teacher of compassion while ignoring Jesus’ claim to deity and exclusivity. It’s one thing to not believe that Jesus is who he claimed to be, but it’s another thing to pretend that he didn’t claim to be the Son of God and the only way to the Father. The former is intellectually honest and the latter simply isn’t.

You can’t put Jesus in the same lineup as other prophets and teachers. That doesn’t make Jesus right but it does rule out acting like Christianity shares the same core philosophy as other religions. I’d appreciate a bit more honesty.

6. The Dali Lama seems to be motivated by a desire that everyone get along. He writes…

Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crises and ecological disaster. At that scale, our response must be as one.

Harmony among the major faiths has become an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence in our world. From this perspective, mutual understanding among these traditions is not merely the business of religious believers — it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.

He clearly thinks that the way to bring about peace is through minimizing the differences between religions. While living at peace with others is a very worthy (even biblical) goal that every Christian should applaud, the Bible doesn’t get there by denying the significant differences in what people believe.

For Christians to peacefully exist with other religious believers the key isn’t for them to deny the exclusive claims of Jesus. 

Instead Christians should appeal to the fact that we are all made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), that Jesus taught us to love our neighbor (Luke 10) and our enemies (Luke 6), and that he resisted using force to usher in his kingdom (John 19:36).

My concern is that in our desire to live in a peaceful world and be respected by the cultural establishment (of which the New York Times is a major player) we not buy into the kind of fuzzy thinking that says that every religious faith has an equal claim on truth. Jesus never taught anything remotely close to that.

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