Arvind Sharma, ed. Why I Am a Believer Personal Reflections on Nine World Religions,
A Review, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2009, 378 pp.
The strength of this book, edited by noted informant of diverse religions Arvind Sharma, is that people loyal to religions creatively explain why their religion matters to them. Writers make clear why they believe and belong to a particular religion. Free to learn from other’s religious truth, they return to their own choice further motivated to claim and improve it. Although each religion has shortcomings—like Hindu caste practice or Christian imperialism—believers choose to remain loyal to them. Most adherents do not change loyalties; their religious traditions meet needs. In today’s context of religious pluralism, many believers choose to be allies or co-travelers rather than religious rivals.
The book’s Contents page informs. Most chapter titles express ownership; five writers start with “Why I am . . .” The order follows historical sequence—from most ancient Hinduism to more recent Islam. Women writers introduce Buddhist and Jain(a) thought. In addition to writing the Introduction, editor Sharma’s discussion of complex Hinduism is succinct. The chapter describing Sikhism seems short compared to most chapters that provide extensive information. Brief reference to each chapter follows.
Sharma, Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal, notes three reasons for his choosing to be Hindu: on account of its subtlety, charity and creativity. Subtle distinctions include those between emptiness and openness, the absolute and universal, single and narrow-mindedness, one and only. Readers do well to realize that Hinduism is a culture meaning “how things are done.”
Karma Lekshe Tsomo, who teaches at the University of San Diego, has edited a number of books about women and Buddhism. She authored Into the Jaws of Yama, Lord of Death: Buddhism, Bioethics, and Death (2006). Her chapter here endorses the mind. Cultivating a wholesome mind and critical thinking become methods for arriving at truth. Freedom to question personal certitudes or to weigh opinions reveals an open mind. While the Buddhist discipline of mindfulness develops awareness of the present moment, meditation can enable a believer to achieve calmness.
Sandhya Jain, a post grad in Political Science from Delhi University, has been a professional journalist in leading newspapers for two decades. She writes of the Jain(a) universal belief in welfare for all beings. She believes in the supremacy of ahimsa (non injury) toward all creatures, each with a soul. Priorities for Jain(a) link perfect faith, perfect knowledge, and perfect conduct.
Naming several of the ten Sikh Gurus, writer Kartar Singh Duggal includes the founder Guru Nanak along with Guru Gobind Singh who declared that the eternal Guru would continue to live mystically in their scripture (Holy Granth) and in their community (the Panth). Writer Duggal—skilled in four languages, master story-teller, and recipient of multiple awards before his death—believes in and discusses the Sikh faith’s main expectations: Justice, Love, Compassion, Truth, and Working Hard.
Whether the Confucian Tradition is a belief system, philosophy, or way of life more than a religion is discussed by Vincent Shen, professor of Chinese philosophy in Taipei for two decades before moving to the University of Toronto in 2000. In addition to distinguishing Ultimate Reality, Shen believes and explains key terms like ren, li, qi, shu, tian, yi, xin, and zhi. The Confucian Tradition is not exclusive of any religion.
A seventh generation Gold Mountain Daoist, Bede Bidlack began studying Daoist meditation in 1995. At one time a Benedictine monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey, Bidlack’s Ph.D. followed in 2011 in Comparative Religions. His chapter explains how disciplined followers of the Dao or the Way refine energy qi, already absorbed into the body, to become more like the unknowable Dao (Christ for Bidlack). The “universe moves by the interaction of yin and yang symbolized by the familiar taiji diagam”—circle of black (yin) and white (yang), tear drops each with a dot of the other. Through intense contemplation the practitioner becomes the mysterious force, the agent of salvation or immortality. Bidlack believes that he’s a better Christian because also a Daoist.
Jacob Neusner, writer of hundreds of books, finds a variety of Judaisms within the religion of ethical monotheism known as Judaism. His chapter gives most attention to Rabbinic Judaism which took shape after 70 BCE and culminated in the Dual Torah—written and oral. In conflict with Rabbinic Judaism, the mystical movement called Hasidism began in the mid-1800s. Neusner says, “While Judaism is the religion of most Jews who practice a religion, it is not ‘the religion of the Jews’ viewed as a group.” (268) While believing “there is only God’s truth, the Torah,” Neusner values features in other religions: Islam’s simple liturgy, Christianity’s aesthetic strength, Hindu dignity and variety.
For Harvey Cox, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, Christian faith is undergirded by the incarnation (God’s being present within human life) and God’s love via a kingdom of radical inclusion. Cox describes two personal epiphanies: singing freedom songs with black youth when in a North Carolina jail several days after protesting racial segregation and the oneness experienced on receiving the Eucharist along with handicapped children when visiting Martha’s Vineyard. While Cox does not try to convert people to Christianity (288), he notes features of other religions that tempt him: Gandhi’s relentless pursuit of religious synthesis, Vajrayana Buddhism’s discipline of sitting in meditation for an hour or two each day, Islam’s validation of Jesus compared to Christian failure to know Muhammad’s strengths.
Amir Hussain explains why he is a Muslim, why he believes that the Qur’an is “the very word of God.” Born into a Sunni family in Pakistan, Hussain grew up as a minority of religion and nation in Canada before moving to the U.S. in 1997 to teach. He was married several years to a believer who knew her answers within a Christian framework that enabled him to claim his Muslim themes of love, mercy, peace, justice and compassion. Such plural vision enables contrapuntal being, he says.
Although this review highlights mere segments of content, I definitely recommend the book, especially for seminary students and ministers. Being informed, committed believers in our multifaith world matters.