"What About People in Other Religions Who Are Happy?"
This article is from the September 6th, 2023 edition of the Exploration Society Journal. It is the first in a series called, "Things That Make Us Doubt".
“Gentlemen, if we’ve learned anything it’s that when you make room for all truth, you end up with none.”
I said these words to my friends as we walked out of the Baha’i Lotus Temple in New Delhi, India. We had visited the temple to see one of the most beautiful buildings I had ever seen and had decided to go inside. We sat in silence and watched others sit in silence for around 10 minutes. Some of the other visitors were praying and meditating. Most were looking up at the huge vaulted ceiling. At the center of the ceiling, a nine-pointed star opened up into a huge opening that was providing most of the room’s light. After walking out of the sanctuary, we visited the small library outside. The man who ran the library began to show me the various literature that explained the Baha’i faith. I listened to his stories of Baha’u’llah, the founder of Baha’i. He promoted the idea of unity between all religions and that all religions had a common origin and a common goal. As the librarian finished the brief tour, I asked a question I had always wondered about Baha'i.
“How do you feel when you come across parts of various religions that obviously contradict?”
“It’s fine,” he said.
I assumed the language barrier had kept him from understanding my question.
“No, what do you think when you see one religion teach something, and another religion teach something completely opposite?”
He smiled and shook his head.
“They don’t contradict. We only think they do.”
As we walked out of the temple and I shared my thoughts on universalism with my friends, we heard a commotion from the far side of the temple grounds. The sounds of drums, singing, and loud chanting were making their way into the serenity of the Baha’i atmosphere.
“What was that?” I asked my Indian friend who had been helping with translation.
“ISKCON,” he said.
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known as Hare Krishnas, is one of the most charismatic Hindu groups in the world. Their expansion in the late 20th century made its way into American culture with many recognizing their evangelistic efforts in major cities and airports. Hare Krishnas believe Krishna is the supreme deity, setting them apart from the rest of Hinduism with its egalitarian pantheon. I was excited to find out we were in their neighborhood.
“Can we go there?” I asked.
A short ride in an open-air taxi found us at the front door of the ISKCON temple. We walked inside and found around 100 people sitting on the ground as Hare Krishnas fed them breakfast from large steel containers. We politely declined joining them as we continued past the group towards the inside of the temple. When we walked inside, we were met with the source of the commotion we had heard next door. We were surrounded on all sides by various forms of religious ritual. In the center of the room, a small band was singing praise songs to Krishna. At the front of the room, devotees sat with their heads bowed towards an array of idols. An endless stream of worshipers recited prayers and mantras as they walked laps around the room. Immediately to my left, a group of young men lay facedown in front of a realistic statue of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON. As more men joined them, I noticed they were lying facing away from the statue with the Swami on their left side. I took in as much of the experience as I could before walking outside. A young Hare Krishna holding a stack of books walked up to me.
“For you,” he said as he handed me a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita is revered as the most important text for Hare Krishnas.
“Thank you, but I already have a copy.”
He smiled generously and moved to walk away.
“I have a question,” I said. He stopped and turned back towards me.
“Why are the men lying sideways in front of the Swami?”
“Some lay down in the direction of what they worship, those men lay with their heart closest to it.”
I thanked him as he walked away. I found my friends and we recounted our experiences of wandering the ISKCON grounds. Each of them was as affected as I was by the passion we saw in the Hare Krishnas. We lamented the idolatry we had seen, and we each shared how we had felt spiritually unsettled being in the room. We made our way down the concourse and out to the street where we loaded back into taxis to head back to our hotel. I turned and looked back and saw the Lotus temple and the ISKCON grounds at the same time. The difference between the two groups was startling. The quiet universalism of the Baha’i was contrasted by the fervent and frenetic worship of Krishna at ISKCON. Yet in both places, my conversations had uncovered a willingness to make peace with things I found out of place. The Baha’i gentlemen who took no issue with contradictions and the Hare Krishna who told me of the young men who laid their hearts out for the Swami. I likely could have stayed longer with each of them and had what I imagine would have been enjoyable conversations over tea about their faith. Both of these men were happy and at peace. I imagine an outsider might observe the three of us and estimate that those men are as happy as I am, if not more so at times. How do we reconcile this as followers of Christ who believe we are doing the world the greatest service by sharing the Gospel and inviting them to make Christ their Lord? Are we to ignore that the very people we are looking to invite to Christ are happy and content in the lives they currently lead? I turn back towards the front of the taxi and watch the crowded New Delhi streets pass by and think about universalism, Krishna, and whether all of my work and writing might be a waste of time.
Is the Good Life the Happiest Life?
Christian theologian Miroslav Volf has worked extensively on the topic of the “good life” and what it entails. He says that a life of enrichment includes circumstantial peace, a sense of purpose, and a sense that life “feels right” and good. “Everything depends on these three being present,” Volf says. Much of Volf’s work has been explaining to a world that is antagonistic to religion, that religion has historically been how people most often achieve this type of life.
It should be no surprise that we find many happy people in other religious groups, or even among the unreligious. Many religious groups provide the same fulfilling mechanisms as Christianity- a sense of purpose, peace, and community. What should shock us is how little it takes to make us happy and content. The fact that our temporary happiness is dependent on things that ultimately can be achieved from our own effort should actually not cause us doubt, it should cause us to wonder if there is a higher ideal to strive for in life. That we would be satisfied with so little when there seems to be so much more to the world around us.
Should We Be Happy and Fulfilled?
“Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The words of the Westminster Catechism sum up the Christian’s highest purpose. In a world where so many inside and outside of the church are motivated by temporary happiness and peace, it should startle us that our most accurate confession begins with the glorification of God and the invitation that we simply enjoy him. Yet we might find that in Western Christianity, this is not the chief end of most men. Perhaps even those Christians who rightly preach against the “prosperity” movement have fallen victim to a version of it themselves. They live for God and expect that because of it, they might have a sense of pervasive happiness and fulfillment at all times. Yet we find that at times the Christian should expect the opposite. In John 15, Jesus warns his disciples of how the world will treat them. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” This could hardly be the Lord that those seeking only happiness would find themselves following after. The lives of Jesus and his first generation of followers teach us that at times we might experience seasons of deep happiness and fulfillment, and at other times we will find ourselves crushed by life. Yet in both of these times, the operative sensation that drives the Christ followers is not a temporary happiness, it is a deep joy that derived from a sense of eternity. If what you are looking for is happiness and temporary fulfillment, you can find it in other worldviews and religions. That is because these things are not hard to find.
Christ tells us of a man who finds a treasure hidden in a field. When he finds it, he hides it again in the field and then proceeds to sell all that he has so that he can buy the field. He sold the things that might have brought his life happiness for the thing which had an incalculable value. The life of following Christ is one of knowing that what is to come is worth a life of abandonment in the present. A life of experiencing hardship and suffering, sometimes at the cost of our temporary happiness, earthly fulfillment, and success.
What consoles me in moments like the one in the taxi is that I am not looking to be happy. I am not looking for the coping mechanism that so many think religion is. To be a follower of Christ is to wager one’s life on the notion that the resurrection of Jesus offers humanity something that far exceeds the hope for happiness and coping. It offers the opportunity to become a new creation built and designed for a world that was lost and a world that is to come. I am not bothered in the slightest at seeing people in other religions experience fulfillment because I am not looking to be fulfilled in this world but in the next. In the person of Jesus, I believe I have found the most true and beautiful thing the world has ever seen and I am set to enjoy him for the rest of my life. In the good and the bad. In the happy and the sad. In the fulfilled moments, and the unfulfilled. In the purposeful season and the aimless. The mission I am on, as well as the mission of the church, is to offer that truth and beauty to a world that has settled for the search for happiness and coping instead of hope. As Christ's followers we are called to actually disrupt false peace and contentment and beckon people to look towards the horizon and wonder if there is something actually greater available to them. Something immeasurably greater than temporary happiness- to know God and to be known by him. And enjoy him…forever.
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