When we look at all the major world religions we see that they are more similar than dissimilar in how understand the spiritual quest, the path of discipleship and holiness. When we look at Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Native religions, we can draw out these major points of convergence:
• First, in all of them the aim of the spiritual quest is the same, union with God and union with everyone and everything else. There are different disciplines, different understandings of God, and different understandings of life, but all the great spiritual traditions are ultimately seeking the same thing, union with the divine and, through that, peace with one another and with physical creation.
• Second, in all the great spiritual traditions the path to union is understood as coming through compassion. In every great spiritual tradition, what religion ultimately strives to achieve is to form a heart that is properly shaped in compassion and wisdom. Then, and only then, are worship, dogma, and justice done correctly.
• Third, in every great spiritual tradition, the route to compassion and union with God is paradoxical, requiring that somehow we have to lose ourselves to find ourselves, die to come to life, and give so as to receive. In every major spiritual tradition we are taught that we cannot come to joy, delight, and happiness by actively pursuing these. These are always a byproduct of something else, namely, of trying to create joy, delight, and happiness for someone else. Every great spiritual tradition would be at ease with the Prayer of St. Francis: Affirming that in giving we receive, in consoling others we are consoled, and in trying to understand others we are understood.
• Fourth, every great spiritual tradition is clear that spiritual progress requires hard discipline and some painful renunciations, that the road-more-travelled won’t get you home. The gate to heaven is always the narrow one, the one that requires discipline and renunciation. Indeed the word “discipleship” comes from the word “discipline”. When Hinduism and Buddhism speak of different kinds of “yoga” they are simply referring to various forms of discipline (from which we take our reduced sense of the word “yoga”).
• Fifth, every great spiritual tradition tells us that the spiritual quest is a life-long journey with no short-cuts, no quick paths, no hidden secrets, and no appeal to privilege that can short-circuit the discipline and renunciation required. They also tell us that there are no exempt areas within the spiritual life and that there are no moral or psychological areas that we can ignore or write-off as unimportant. No great spiritual tradition lets us chose between personal integrity and social justice, personal holiness or political action. Every one of them tells us that both are non-negotiable.
• Sixth, in every great spiritual tradition consolation and desolation, religious fervor and dark nights of the soul, both have an important role within the spiritual journey. Both provide a necessary, if very different, kind of nurturing. All traditions caution us not to identify progress only with consolation and fervor, just as all of them caution us not to make suffering, desolation, and dark nights an end in themselves.
• Seventh and perhaps surprisingly, all the great spiritual traditions downplay the importance of extraordinary phenomena within the spiritual journey. Visions, altered states of consciousness, mystical trances, ecstasies, miracles, and appearances by persons or forces from the other world, whether benign or malevolent, soothing or frightening, are all downplayed in every major tradition. These can be real and they can mark our lives, but they are not indicative of real growth and progress which, in all great traditions, take place within the ordinary bread-and-butter of life. In every major spiritual tradition, the essential things that God wants us to know are public, available to all, and written down. All traditions make the distinction between public revelation (which is binding for everyone) and private revelations (which can be meaningful but which are not binding for everyone and are not the salient revelation even inside of the life of the person to whom they are given.)
• Eighth, all great spiritual traditions affirm that, while we are on the spiritual path, we will meet great temptations and powerful demons and that these need to be recognized and taken seriously. All of them caution against naiveté, especially naiveté regarding certain innate tendencies within our own make-up and within the dynamics of every crowd.
• Finally, all the major spiritual traditions agree that the spiritual journey will always partly be mystery. Just as the God we meet on this journey is ultimately ineffable, so too is the experience. In the end we will never find adequate words and concepts either to understand or to describe what we experience on the journey. Hence all traditions caution strongly against ever thinking that our grasp of things is adequate, even remotely so.
All the great religious traditions agree: The road is narrow and hard and there are no short-cuts.