Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan for his link to this fascinating perspective on world religion. While Stephen Prothero thinks it a mistake to consider all religions as heading in the same basic direction, he defines a common root.
What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: Something is wrong with the world. In the Hopi language, the word “Koyaanisqatsi” tells us that life is out of balance. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” tells us that there is something rotten not only in the state of Denmark but also in the state of human existence. Hindus say we are living in the “kali yuga,” the most degenerate age in cosmic history. Buddhists say that human existence is pockmarked by suffering. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic stories tell us that this life is not Eden; Zion, heaven, and paradise lie out ahead.
So religious folk agree that something has gone awry. They part company, however, when it comes to stating just what has gone wrong, and they diverge even more sharply when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it. Moreover, each offers its own distinctive diagnosis of the human problem and its own prescription for a cure. Each offers its own techniques for reaching its religious goal, and its own exemplars for emulation.
Christians see sin as the human problem, and salvation from sin as the religious goal. Buddhists see suffering (which, in their tradition, is not ennobling) as the problem, and liberation from suffering as the goal. Confucians see social disorder as the problem, and social harmony as the goal. And so it goes from tradition to tradition, with Hindus seeking release from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, Muslims seeking paradise via submission to Allah, and practitioners of the Yoruba religion seeking sacred connections — among humans, between humans and the persons of power they call the orishas, and between humans and the natural environment.
For myself, I have always felt that this world makes no sense at all. When I first began to pursue a life wholly focused on my psychic and spiritual development, the wrongness of it became more palpable and increasingly insufferable. So I have sought out explanations for that intuitive sense of wrongness. I had never looked at world religions through that prism, though, and Prothero makes and interesting point. He only scratches the surface, however, in terms of religious definitions of this fundamental wrongness. The Hindu mysteries go further with beliefs that this world is caught in the grip of an illusion. The Sanskrit word is Maya. Graham Hancock explains briefly in Heaven's Mirror how the Rishis, or sages, see this world and how different iterations of similar beliefs occur in other traditions.
What we accept without question as 'reality' the Rishis describes as 'the world of form'. They claimed to have discovered that this world is not in fact real at all but rather a sinister sort of virtual reality game in which we are all players, a complex and cunning illusion capable of confusing even the most thorough empirical tests -- a mass hallucination of extraordinary depth and power designed to distract souls from the straight and narrow path of awakening which leads to immortal life. With a synchronicity that seems strange to anyone who has studied the mysteries of Central America, they named the hallucination 'Maya' and taught techniques, amounting effectively to a 'science of realization', included the single-minded pursuit of spiritual knowledge, meditation, contemplation, concentration of mind through the study of mandalas and yantras, and the correct fulfillment of ritual.
The readers will remember that in Mexico, too, life was understood not to be real but only a dream from which the soul awakes on death. Likewise,in the supposedly unrelated Hermetic Texts, compiled in Alexandria in Egypt at round the second century AD, we read that 'all things on earth are unreal ... Illusion is a thing wrought by the workings of Reality.'
The Gnostics describe a world created by a Demiurge and under the control of Archons who are actually caught up in a delusion that they are our rulers. These forces somehow limit our consciousness and keep us trapped in this illusion of powerlessness.
In these more esoteric and mystical sects, the problem is much deeper than the human failing of sin or the Buddhist idea of suffering. Such things are merely symptoms of the greater problem with reality itself. The fundamental problem is the illusion that we are separate from "God," the "Godhead," or from what I as a mystical thinker would define as conscious oneness.
I think Prothero errs in his assessment of divergence between solutions offered by different religions. There is a common goal and it's of a piece with the assessment of the fundamental problem they address. Each of these seemingly divergent conceptions (heaven, nirvana, etc.) are descriptions of the return to what is "right." What all religions appear to me to be seeking as an endpoint is union, or reunion, with the numinous. Somehow we have lost our sense of connection to something greater, beyond this 3D reality, and we seek to regain it through spiritual practice.
On The Huffington Post, Rev. James Martin, S.J. writes that the longing for that sense of connection with God is the connection with God.
Many people today -- seekers, agnostics, atheists -- find it difficult to believe in God for many reasons. First is the suffering they see in the world. How could a good God let people suffer, especially, they say, children and victims of natural disasters? Second is the evil and mendacity that they see in religion, like the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church.
But the third reason is that they feel that they have had no real experience of God. Even many otherwise religious people feel that they've never had a "direct" experience of God.
I think many people have, but they're just not aware of it, or they dismiss it as "something else." Or they're not encouraged to talk about it in spiritual terms.
One of the most basic ways of experiencing God is experiencing a desire for God. Desire often gets a bad rap in spiritual circles, but it is an essential part of spirituality, because desire is a key way that God's voice is heard in our lives. Our deepest desire, planted within us, is our desire for God. And it's God who plants those desires within us, as one way of drawing us to the divine.
In other words, that longing stems from an innate awareness that there is something greater.
I have discussed before the resonance of Graham Hancock's suggestion that we are "a species with amnesia." Hancock's years of research point to an antediluvian civilization that has left perplexing remnants, many of them with evident spiritual significance. The Ancient Egyptians, for instance, spoke of Zep Tepi, or the "first time," when the gods walked the earth.
Walter Cruttenden, author of The Lost Star of Myth and Time and co-creator of The Great Year, has also pored through myths from all over the world and found that great numbers of them speak of a "Golden Age" in the deep past; a lost civilization that existed when the world was in balance and possibly not so "wrong." Cruttenden's astronomical research suggests that precession, the earth's "wobble" which is built into so many of these puzzling ancient monuments, is actually a result of our sun being part of a binary star system. As we move away from this other, mysterious heavenly body, our consciousness falls, and as we near it our consciousness expands. This offers a possible explanation for the sense of disconnection and "wrongness" reflected in all these religions. It could explain why our consciousness has been at a very low ebb throughout recorded history. Cruttenden was recently interviewed on Coast to Coast and Red Ice Radio. I've posted both.