At the core of the world’s religions stand the founders of each religion. These wise people shine because of their integrity. They are remembered because their actions and words combined in a powerful testimony. They inspire followers because they were “religious virtuosos.”
This article is the first in a series exploring the wisdom of selected religious founders: Confucius, Lao-Tze, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad, Baha’ullah and Guru Nanak. They are the founders of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam, Baha’i and Sikkhism.
Their testimony in life and teachings may shine light on our own quest for meaningful existence. They cannot be neatly reconciled into one generic story. Instead, they each are unique witnesses to the many faces of wisdom in the religions of humankind.
This exploration, however, is complicated by Hinduism and Judaism: Hinduism has no founder, and Judaism has two.
Hinduism is often defined as “the religion of the Indian people.” The huge diversity of religious beliefs and practices lumped together under the umbrella term Hinduism is bound together by cultural cohesion. Scholars note there are certain “kinetic ideas” that run through much of Hinduism, such as karma (deeds have consequences), samsara (the cycle of rebirth), yoga (spiritual disciplines) and moksha (liberation from the cycle of existence). Yet there is no one sacred text, no one deity, no one philosophy and no dogmatic orthodoxy in Hinduism.
Modern historians like linear history, so the lens of “founders” who start a tradition makes sense to Westerners. Hinduism, however, is an organic, fluid, evolving jumble of religious and philosophical systems. Hinduism, much to the chagrin of modern historians, emerges out of India and flows with its story, defying neat classification. It reminds us of the living character of religions. Instead of one linear narrative, Hinduism is more like an anthology.
Judaism has two founders: Abraham and Moses. Abraham is referred to as the “father” of a nation. He is called by God to journey to the land of promise. God makes an everlasting covenant with the descendants of Abraham through Isaac (see Genesis 17:1-22). In solidarity with this narrative, the Hebrews confessed that “a wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” The family of Abraham (Isaac, Jacob and Joseph) leads the Israelites to Egypt where “he became a great nation” (Deut 26:5).
Eventually enslaved, the Israelites cry out and God hears: “The Lord heard our voice and saw … our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand” (Deut 26:7-8). The story of Moses, the liberator, begins here. The second founder of Judaism frees the people from slavery and leads them to Sinai, where they receive the Torah (law). The saga of Moses (see Exodus 1-15) is as foundational to Judaism as that of Abraham. This epic account of deliverance, wandering in the wilderness and receiving the Law is embedded in the hearts of Jews.
The twin stories of Abraham and Moses also belie the neat, linear “founder” approach. The “holy history” at the heart of Judaism is about a faithful God who makes and keeps promises, renewing the promise (covenant) in each generation. Judges, priests, prophets and kings all stand in this covenant history. So do Jewish people today, who renew their sense of solidarity in the great festivals of the faith.
For example, the Passover Haggadah recounts the tales of Abraham and Moses and makes them contemporary with the use of “we” throughout. “We were slaves in Egypt …” Instead of a linear history, the stories of Abraham and Moses are a living narrative.
Admittedly, this approach of “great founders” is also selective. Many worthy figures are left out, and many controversial figures are skipped. (See Adherents for a discussion of the problems of classifying religions and deciding which ones merit the status of “world religion.”)
However you classify them, this ensemble of founders is composed of a cast of compelling characters. They warrant our attention through their personal character and their impact on human history. Each, in turn, will be given his unique voice, through the lens of a particular historian of religions who is enchanted with their stories and loves to tell them.
Let them have the stage, and then make your own judgments as to their proper place in the human drama.
James Browning is senior pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.