Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism are three of the most important religions in the world. They maintain a huge amount of influence and can be seen to possess crucial relationships to history and to politics. It is according to this relation to history that one can see the key differences and points of similarity between the religions. This paper will begin considering the differing relation to history and tradition which can be seen to be present between Judaism and Christianity and will then consider this difference alongside the Buddhist religion. Judaism and Christianity share canonical texts and for both religions this text describes the historical relationship between God and members of their religion. Crucially, for Judaism the Hebrew Bible, or Christian Old Testament, shows the relationship between God and His chosen people as mediated by adherence to Law. Indeed, much of the Hebrew Bible concerns itself with the simultaneous creation of a Jewish people and with the instantiation of the laws according to which this people should live.
Scholar note that often these two things engage in a strict dialectical relation as one creates and confirms the other. For example, in the book of Exodus God manifests his own power by demanding that Moses demands the freedom of the Jewish people at the same time that makes sure that the ruler of Egypt will not grant this freedom. By doing this, God manifests His own presence in the world and in history, and also confirms His own people as the chosen people. Robert Alter explains this dialectic by noting that “without Pharaoh’s resistance, God would not have the opportunity to deploy his great wonders and so demonstrate His insuperable power in history and the emptiness of the power attributed to the gods of Egypt” (2008, 345). It is this power which enables God to free the Israelites and also to develop laws which mediate their mutually constitutive relationship.
The Christian Gospels relate directly to the texts of the Hebrew Bible, but do so in the sense that they present the story of Christ as being one of the overcoming of historical tradition and of the overcoming of he old, strict Jewish Law in order to instantiate an eschatological age. This paradoxical relation to Law as something which exists but which is also overcome in the figure of Jesus is portrayed throughout the Gospels, for example in the affirmation at the end of Matthew’s sermon on the mount that Jesus taught as one “with authority, and not as the teachers of the Law” (Matthew.7.28). As such, Christianity maintains a relation to the Law and the tradition of the Hebrew Bible, but also presents it as having been overcome.
Unlike Judaism and Christianity which present a linear notion of history which is based around the potential for an eschatological end, but which nonetheless sees the end as an event within a topographical historical narrative, Buddhism has a fundamentally cyclical view of history and of time. The practices of the religion are not based on any conception of a Law that could be potentially overcome by a messianic figure, but rather they are part of system of belief founded on repetition. It is also a system of belief which functions without a conception of mediated exchange with a deity, and rather focuses on an individual’s singular relation to the universe as a whole.
This is not to say, however, that the cyclical nature of Buddhism’s relation to history prevents a thinking of the political content of the religion. Indeed, it is this belief in karma and repetition, in which individuals pass through many cycles of existence which they may only be able to break out of through the process of individual enlightenment which has, as some scholars note, given Buddhism its political history of relative peace and integration. For example, as Murano notes, in several countries in the world Buddhism was actively encouraged as a means of securing peace as its emphasis on cycles of reincarnation and on individual meditation and enlightenment were seen as easily integrated into hierarchical forms of government (1960, 77).
In conclusion, while both Judaism and Christianity maintain a mediated relationship to the divine through Law which is instantiated or overcome respectively, Buddhism presents a vision of the singular individual immersed in the universe and, as such, works according to a fundamentally cyclical conception of time. Although the latter may appear a-political, it has nonetheless been exploited throughout history by those who take advantage of the a perceived emphasis on passivity and individual mediation in the Buddhist religion.
- The Bible: An Ecumenical Study Edition. Translated by Michael D. Coogan et al. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
- Alter Robert. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation and Commentary. London & New York:
- Murano, Senchu. “Japanese Buddhism and World Buddhism.” Contemporary Religions in Japan. 1 (4). 1960. 76-81.