Every religion contains diverse understandings of both the personhood and the message of its founder. This should in no way, however, undermine the integrity and rejoicing with which each religion offers its understandings to the world.
Buddhism, for example, includes portraits of a man utterly subordinating himself to teaching a path to liberation from an endless cycle of rebirth. But its traditions also include images of a land of pure bliss accessed merely by calling upon the name of a divine Buddha who now lives there.
Christianity includes portraits both of a Jesus who was primarily a wise teacher and of a Jesus who was an apocalypse-fixated exorcist and wonder-worker. And it also includes images of a Jesus who possessed before all worlds complete identity with God.
Islam includes traditions about Allah’s one prophet as a self-righteous, sword-wielding purveyor of conquering unbelievers by force. But it also includes descriptions of The Prophet as a self-effacing, loving man who suffered insults with compassion and understanding.
A welcome conclusion to be drawn from facts like these is that religious believers understand the message of their religions in very different ways, not just one. And given the persistence of diverse understandings like these in every religion across vast stretches of time, they should not be forced into any single mold for shaping the faith of any religion.
There is as much pluralistic thinking within each religion as there is between all the religions together. And this is a good thing. Why? Because it is an elegant reminder that faith at its deepest level is not primarily a holding onto beliefs, whether of their particular religion’s founder or not. It is a living out of what is essential to all religion: putting others’ condition and needs ahead of one’s own.
Faithful people make their impression on the world less by what they say about their respective religion and more by their willingness to sacrifice their own well-being for others’, gratefully and compassionately. Their concern is less with holding fast to tradition than it is to holding up the poor, the sick, the dying, the helpless, and the hopeless at whatever place and on whatever road they may be.
When they do this understandingly, they know that what they are doing is a sign pointing beyond themselves to the Sacred Reality that embraces all generations in love.