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Because I teach religions the world over at Baylor University, I’m often asked to compare different religions. I tell students every faith is distinct with a different worldview that sees a basic problem before offering a unique solution. Christians believe in sin and seek a savior. Buddhists talk about ignorance and seek enlightenment. Muslims confront selfishness and seek surrender to God. Jews face injustice and seek to heal the world. Hindus believe in karma and seek nirvana.
Yet all faith traditions share a call for believers to have a moral compass to foster a healthy, balanced path, offering the guidance of wisdom and compassion, ethical guidelines and life direction.
According to the Gregorian calendar, the new year is the 2,023rd year of the Common Era — the 23rd year of the third millennium. In China, 2023 is the year of the rabbit, symbol of longevity, peace and prosperity in Chinese culture. It is 5753 in the Hebrew calendar, 2567 in the Buddhist calendar and 179 in the Baha’i calendar. A hundred years ago, the world marveled at the tomb of King Tutankhamun of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty, opened to 20th-century eyes and imagination just the year before. Adolf Hitler organized his Beer Hall Putsch in Germany, Walt Disney opened his cartoon studio in Los Angeles and the 20th century slowly began to more fully consider the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
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The Monroe Doctrine was declared 200 years ago, the same year the Texas Rangers were established. It will be the 300th anniversary of the births of English painter Joshua Reynolds and Scottish economist Adam Smith, and the 400th anniversary of the birth of mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal and the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays. The Black Death plague began to sweep across Asia 700 years before 2023, a reminder that society is ever challenged by the smallest of things and our own ignorance and ingenuity.
The advent of any new year is an opportunity to revisit our own individual sense of purpose and to recalibrate our lives to align with our convictions about what life is all about. Turning a page of a calendar may be a new opportunity to make wiser choices and take the risks needed to push forward toward our full potential.
For this task, the world’s religions offer us two tools: austerity and challenge. Often, we choose the path of least resistance — comfort and ease over discipline conjured up from deep within in service of our goals. Distraction aborts vision: We become dull on our recliners in front of our TVs, filling our days with entertainment, political arguments, sports fixations and all other distractions — even, yes, certain pages of our daily newspapers.
What we need is more focus, more intentionality. We must simplify our lives and strip ourselves of habits that leave us distracted. Faith traditions encourage us to accept paths of austerity — prayer, fasting, meditation and discipline — to become more conscious, more alive, to live our best lives. Austerity can be tough and may lead us to face uncomfortable truths about what needs to change in our lives. But it can also help us move past superficialities and tackle the hard work needed to change our lives.
Instead of becoming absorbed in the preoccupations of a televised football game, why not take a walk alongside a calming river in Cameron Park and reflect quietly on life’s fears and missteps to break out into a richer, more engaged life well-lived going forward?
Second, all faith traditions challenge us not to simply accept the status quo or to become passive lemmings. We have the potential to live life as learners and disciples with more assertive boldness and gentle reflection. The prophets, priests and saviors of all religions challenge us — with uniquely creative and memorable methods and messages — to live life as if it’s a mountain to be climbed, facing our fears, and not settling for “just OK” or a mediocre second best. The world’s faiths teach us that we all have a unique gift to give — and the greatest gift all of us have is the gift of our lives and the gift of time to make our lives extraordinary.
This new year let’s take a cue from Jesus to “launch out into the deep” and forgo short-term superficial pleasures for a visionary, comprehensive realignment of our lives with values and convictions. Why not give all we can give? The world’s faiths teach us the creative power of God inside our hearts awaits to be unlocked. Let’s resolve in 2023 to be more conscious and less distracted; to enjoy a fuller and deeper daily experience of a life well-lived.
Every faith tradition reminds us we are loved by our Creator and empowered with all we need to give as well as to receive. In 2023, strive to release into your generation even more of your own unique strengths and experiences. As the Scottish proverb reminds us, “Live each day as if it were your last, for one day you’re sure to be right!”
A. Christian van Gorder is an associate professor of Islamic Studies and World Religions at Baylor University and a member of the Tribune-Herald Board of Contributors.