In the 21st Century, religions and belief systems tens to be distinguished by what they don’t have in common, rather than what they do. However, many faiths have a history of ‘borrowing’ ideology and practices from each other which, over time, are perceived as being associated with them and them alone. However, are there moral reasons why spiritual practices from other cultures should not be adopted?
Borrowing Between Faiths
Perhaps the most obvious example of one religion borrowing from another is shown in the relationship between Christianity and Paganism. Many Christian holidays and practices have their roots in ‘the old religion,’ such as Christmas and Hallowe’en. The days around December 25th were originally the days on which Pagans celebrated the winter solstice, heralding the return of spring and the beginning of the farming calendar. In Roman history, this was the time of Saturnalia; a time for honouring the God of Agriculture. During these celebrations, masters and servants would swap roles for the day, gifts were exchanged and great feasts were held. The Romans put an enormous amount of pressure on the Early Christians to celebrate with them and it was inevitable that they would make a connection between the rebirth of the sun and the birth of the son of God.
In fact, most of the more recognised world religions share some aspects of their faith. Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity are all monotheistic faiths that have their own versions of Heaven, Hell, angels and demons. Both Islam and Christianity share the notion of a virgin birth and a messiah, in the form of Jesus. Yet, Islam rejects the idea of Christ as divine, while, for Christians, he is the son of God. The Hindu faith talks of the holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, while the Christian version is of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Hinduism even has ideas similar to those found in the Buddhist faith; Hindus believe in moksha, known as nirvana by Buddhists and best explained as salvation in Christianity.
Reasons Against Adoption
Most religions have more in common with each other than they might care to admit, so what’s the problem with borrowing a practice or two? The Native American Indian religious leader, No Capo, said that “our beliefs are very much tied to our culture. We have been stripped of our land, in many cases our languages and our traditional ways of life. Our spiritual systems are all that we have left and we do not appreciate these wannabes taking what is not theirs to take. This is especially so as what they are taking is usually some mish-mash of different native religions that they may have read about in a book or seen in a movie and then go on to proclaim that they follow ‘Native American religion’.”
This argument may have something to do with why tempers flare when faith systems borrow from each other. Religions tend to evolve with cultures and are present throughout their histories – especially during times of great suffering. It seems to be during darker, cultural times that faiths really define themselves. For example, Judaism, although a well-known belief system for centuries, became most defined during the adversities of the Holocaust. For many Jews, that horrific period in their history has made Judaism what it is today and is what makes it exclusively Jewish. Unless you are born into that faith and your history is related to those dreadful events, then no amount of conversion or reading of the Torah can help you attain true Jewish identity.
Similarly, the Islam faith suggests that parts of the Gospels have been overlooked or misinterpreted by Judaism and Christianity; the Qur’an is believed by Islamists to be the only true and detailed account of the life of Christ, Muhammad and Allah; it is unfeasible that they would borrow any practices from other religions, as how can you improve on perfection?
Improving On Perfection
Most faiths believe that they are perfect and this is where many of the problems lie. For a modern religion to borrow a practice from another would be to admit that it is less than perfect, which is simply not acceptable. In spite of this, in their infancies most faiths have borrowed ideas, practices and even imagery from one another and passed them off as fundamental parts of their beliefs. However, were they to spend the time dissecting many of their rituals and practices, they would find aspects of their systems that have come from others. Indeed, some religions have borrowed from each other that they are virtually indistinguishable.
Chu Hsi, the 12th Century philosopher, noted that “Buddhism stole the best features of Taoism; Taoism stole the worst features of Buddhism. It is as though one took a jewel from the other and the other recouped the loss with a stone.” The Taoists incorporated the whole Buddhist idea of temples, nuns, priests and ritual. They drew up liturgies to the Buddhist Satras and created prayers for the dead, in line with Buddhist thinking. Furthermore, they adopted the idea of a holy trinity and the Buddhist notion of purgatory. In the 21st Century, it takes an expert to tell these religions apart and members of both systems are often summoned by those needing religious advice or to take part in a ceremony of any kind.
Evolution Of Jigsaw Faiths
Unfortunately, most faiths today are less tolerant and are extremely protective of their own practices. It is as if they believe that they have progressed as far as they can and now simply have to hold their ground against one another. However, there are those who take what they like from any number of faiths, creating their own New Age religions, relying on the best aspects of established faiths. While they are not officially recognised, these faiths espouse the idea that unless faiths are prepared to evolve together, they will swiftly become redundant, regardless of their cultural origins or historical events that have defined them. In a world where religion and spiritual belief are being superseded by technology, these ‘jigsaw faiths’ are gathering strength, offering more practical advice to those looking for deeper answers to the problems presented by modern life.