Wholeness: A Common Theme Across Religions
Religions are holistic systems that provide us with comprehensive worldviews and corresponding codes of conduct for how best to live in accordance with such views. It is not surprising that religions stress the importance of wholeness and becoming a well-rounded person who embraces a diverse range of thought and orientation, from the scientific to the spiritual.
The modern world has started to acknowledge that the intellect is not complete without emotional intelligence and spiritual intelligence. When I was at Harvard, the Provost Alan Garber told me that Harvard wants students to become like a “T,” broad-based (whole), but with some specialization. The thought package which we call religion has always stressed this — becoming a well-rounded person who embraces a diverse range of thought and orientation, from the scientific to the spiritual. There is, of course, a limit to what we can learn through solitary practices like reading and watching videos. Experiential learning is what makes us truly whole and is only possible through interaction with others. In the Jewish traditions, the rabbinic sage Ben Zoma remarked, ‘Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.’
There are many religious texts that invite us to view all of humanity as a single body. The Prophet Muhammad is purported to have said, ‘The Muslims are like a single man. If the eye is afflicted, the whole body is afflicted.’ Similarly, in the New Testament it is written, ‘For even as we have many members in one body, and all the members don’t have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.’
One more example of this ‘one body’ metaphor comes from the Baha’i Prophet Bahá’u’lláh, who wrote to his followers: ‘Be ye as the fingers of one hand, the members of one body.’ This imagery is reminiscent of the Hindu notion that each individual is like ‘the crest of a wave in the ocean of Brahman’. The implication of this Hindu belief is that wholeness lies within, as the composition of each droplet of the wave is identical to the ocean as a whole, we all also share the same fundamental essence: atman. Taoist practice also strives for wholeness through the inner cultivation of a balance between the two forces of yin and yang.
The Abrahamic religions, with the doctrine of the ‘fall’, claim that we have fallen out of grace with God and are incomplete versions of what we were and are meant to be. Here, wholeness means reforming ourselves in a way that more closely resembles our divine nature as beings originally created in God’s image.
We have learned through millennia of human observations, research, knowledge, and wisdom — whether through science, religion or other discipline — that the natural state of the world is one of profound unity and interconnectedness. Restoring wholeness is imperative in our world today.
Not only is the basic welfare of a community dependent on that of each individual, but each member is viewed as serving its own unique and integral function. It follows that we should encourage and respect diversity within the community, rather than fearing those who might be different from us.
Mahatma Gandhi had once said that happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony — and this idea of wholeness can only be achieved if we treat the world as one whole.
“For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority.”
— The New Testament (Colossians 2:9), Christian text
“And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”
— The New Testament (Colossians 3:14), Christian text
“This is the activity of the human being who has become whole: it has been called not-doing, for nothing particular, nothing partial is at work in man and thus nothing of him intrudes into the world. It is the whole human being, closed in its wholeness, at rest in its wholeness, that is active here, as the human being has become an active whole. When one has achieved steadfastness in this state, one is able to venture forth toward the supreme encounter.”
— Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher
“Seek the wisdom that will untie your knot. Seek the path that demands your whole being.”
— Rumi, Sufi mystic, and poet
“Humanity must bring to an end the benighted prejudices of all nations and religions and must make known to every member of the human race, that all are the leaves of one branch, the fruits of one bough.’
— Abdu’l-Bahá, Son of Baha’i Prophet Bahá’u’lláh,
“Now, take the bees, son. They prepare the honey by gathering nectar from a variety of trees and by reducing that nectar to a homogenous whole. In that state the nectar from each different tree is not able to differentiate: ‘I am the nectar of that tree,’ and ‘I am the nectar of this tree.’ In exactly the same way, son, when all these creatures merge into the existent, they are not aware that ‘We are merging into the existent.’ No matter what they are in this world — whether it is a tiger, a lion, a wolf, a boar, a worm, a moth, a gnat, or a mosquito — they all merge into that. The finest essence here — that constitutes the self of this whole world; that is the truth; that is the self (atman).”
— The Upanishads, Hindu text
“When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.”
— Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Buddhist monk and teacher
“The incomplete become whole
the crooked become straight
the hollow become full
the worn-out become new […]
the ancients who said the incomplete become whole
came close indeed
becoming whole depends on this”
— Tao Te Ching, Taoist text
“If a man remembers what is right at the sight of profit, is ready to lay down his life in the face of danger, and does not forget sentiments he has repeated all his life even after having been in straitened circumstances for a long time, he may be said to be a complete man.”
— The Analects (14:12), Confucian text
Modern Philosophy and Theology
“Religion restores, at regular intervals and through rituals significantly connected with the important crises of the life cycle and the turning points of the yearly cycle, a new sense of wholeness, of things rebound.”
— Erik H. Erikson, developmental psychologist