I’m frequently asked why I study the world religions. Isn't it enough to know the ins and outs of my own faith? Why bother studying a religion whose far-flung adherents live hundreds of thousands of long and ocean-drenched miles away?
How on earth are the 613 mitzvoth, or commandments, of Judaism relevant to me? Why would I ever need to know Buddha’s Four Noble Truths or the Eight-Fold Path? And besides, isn’t that dangerous to learn about other faiths? Doesn’t it put my own in jeopardy?
Some of those questions are harder to answer than others, especially when I’m just taken aback from being asked them, sputtering and trying to formulate an answer that is probably, in the asker’s mind, already the wrong one. But for starters, no, it is not “enough” for me to just know my religion. Before you decide how offended you need to be, kindly let me explain. On a spiritual level, yes, it is enough for me to know just the ins and outs of my religion. Christ is enough. His grace is enough. His love is enough. As a Christian, I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus died on the cross to save me from myself and my sin in order to give me the unfathomably amazing chance to spend eternity with Him.
But on an academic level, no, it is not enough for me to just know my religion. I need to understand more than my own little sliver of the world.
Huston Smith, a big name in the Religious Studies world (yes, there is such a thing), once wrote that the greatest reason for studying the world religions is “to enjoy the wider angle the vision affords.” He continues: “I am, of course, speaking metaphorically of vision and view, but an analogue from ocular sight fits perfectly. Without two eyes—binocular vision—there is no awareness of space’s third dimension. Until sight converges from more than one angle, the world looks as flat as a postcard. The rewards of having two eyes are practical; they keep us from bumping into chairs and enable us to judge the speed of approaching cars. But the final reward is the deepened view of the world itself—the panoramas that unroll before us, the vistas that extend from our feet. It is the same with ‘the eye of the soul,’ as Plato called it. ‘What do they know of England, who only England know?’”
Religion is the pulse that beats through our lives, veins, and hearts. It underpins politics, economics, relationships, and hardships. Religion soothes and shatters, heals and harms. It is quite possibly the most highly polarizing topic, and for good reason—it’s central to the human experience. Even those who don’t adhere to a particular religion or don’t believe in God or any sort of higher power are impacted by religion every day. Political decisions, laws, literature—if you listen hard enough, you can hear religion’s heartbeat, however muffled or emphatic, in every moment.
So why is this? Why does religion seep into every aspect of our lives? It’s because religion is alive.
“[Religion exists] not as a dull habit but as an acute fever. It is about religion alive. And when religion jumps to life it displays a startling quality. It takes over. All else, while not silenced, becomes subdued and thrown into a supporting role” (Smith).
Even when subdued, religion is still pulsating quietly. It’s pulsating in public schools. It’s pulsating in politics. And it is certainly pulsating in more places than just Christian churches. That’s the crux of it—to study the world religions is to realize the power and prevalence of religion, but also to recognize its global role and role outside of my own religious experience. The religious texture of the world is undeniable; to shield myself from the religions of the world is to, like Huston Smith’s metaphor, live with monocular vision, not unlike a horse with blinders, living safely but small-mindedly in a world “as flat as a postcard.”
Religion, of course, has its sharp edges. The media makes sure we’re aware of that much, pandering (unabashedly) to an entertainment-worshiping society. After all, “the full story of religion is not rose-colored; often it is crude. Wisdom and charity are intermittent, and the net result is profoundly ambiguous” (Smith). And it's easy to dwell on the darkness. As G.K. Chesterton said, "it is easy to be heavy: hard to be light"—a profound and paradoxical truth.
But religion also provides a sense of purpose, and the ability to glean meaning out of madness and comfort from chaos. It’s what drenches our earth in color, nurtures our tired hearts, and guides our steps. We can lose our health and our homes, our jobs and finances and friends, but in the face of uncontrollable circumstance, we can hold religion as tightly to our chests as we wish.