Notes From God Is Not One

Interfaith BannerI recently read/skimmed Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter. Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University who was raised Episcopalian but has since rejected Christianity. He now describes himself as confused. Be that as it may, he makes some true but unfashionable claims in his introduction. Here are some bits I was particularly keen on:

The book is well summed up on the inside front dust jacket:

To claim that all religions are the same is to misunderstand that each attempts to solve a different human problem. For example:

  • Islam: the problem is pride / the solution is submission
  • Christianity: the problem is sin / the solution is salvation
  • Confucianism: the problem is chaos / the solution is social order
  • Buddhism: the problem is suffering / the solution is awakening
  • Judaism: the problem is exile / the solution is to return to God

In a section called “Allergic to Argument” he described a frustrating reality that I see almost every day as a minister to college students:

In my Boston University courses, I work hard to foster respectful arguments. My students are good with “respectful,” but they are allergic to “argument.” They see arguing as ill-mannered, and even among friends they avoid it at any cost…. Especially when it comes to religion, young Americans at least are far more likely to say “I feel” than “I think” or (God forbid) “I believe.” (4)

I liked this bit, too:

All too often world history is told as if religion did not matter. The Spanish conquered New Spain for gold, and the British came to New England to catch fish. The French Revolution had nothing to do with Catholicism, and the U.S. civil rights movement was a purely humanitarian endeavor. But even if religion makes no sense to you, you need to make sense of religion to make sense of the world. (8)

I first heard the following observation from Joe Zickafoose years ago, and the longer I reflect upon it the more convinced I am of its truth:

What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world…. Religious folk worldwide agree that something has gone awry. They part company, however, when it comes to stating just what has gone wrong, and they diverge sharply when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it. Christians see sin as the problem, and salvation from sin as the religious goal. Buddhists see suffering (which, in their tradition, is not ennobling) as the problem, and liberation from suffering as the religious goal. (11)

And I think his four-part analysis is one of the more useful ways to summarize religions:

At the heart of this project is a simple, four-part approach to the religions, which I have been using for years in the classroom and at lectures around the world. Each religion articulates:

  • a problem;
  • a solution to the problem, which also serves as the religious goal;
  • a technique (or techniques) for moving from this problem to this solution; and
  • an exemplar (or exemplars) who chart this path from problem to solution.


And in one of his many non-PC moments:

While in Jerusalem researching this book, I struck up a conversation with an elderly Muslim. When I told him I was writing a book on the world’s religions, he looked at me sternly, pointed a finger in my direction, and instructed me to be honest. “Do not write false things about the religions,” he said. Religious Studies scholars are rarely honest enough to admit this in person, much less in print, but we all know there are things that each of the world’s religions do well, and things they do poorly. If you want to help the homeless, you will likely find the Christian Social Gospel more useful than Hindu notions of caste. If you want to find techniques for quieting the mind through bodily exercises, you will likely find Hindu yogis more useful than Christian saints. (20)

The rest of the book is fine, I suppose. If you need a summary of the global religions you could do far worse than this one, but it doesn’t live up to the promise of the introduction (hence the skimming alluded to in the first sentence of this post).

That notwithstanding, I must confess that I liked one image from his section on Pentecostal Christianity:

U.S. president Abraham Lincoln once remarked that, when he sees a man preach, he likes “to see him act as if he were fighting bees.” Pentecostalism is replete with bee-fighting preachers. (87-88)

That’s my tribe – the mighty bee-fighters.

A Professor’s Advice to Christians

final examIn Christians in Academe: A Reply, former evangelical Adam Kotsko minimizes a very real problem (recall that one study shows that 53% of faculty disdain evangelicals), but he nonetheless says things worth listening to.

A few bits stood out to me:

Above all, parents and pastors need to stop giving a blank check to anything that professes to be “Christian.” Conservative evangelicals have long been skilled at sniffing out what they consider to be pseudo-Christian liberals — developing some discernment on the other end of the scale would be a welcome shift.

I think he and I would differ considerably on the application of this point, but I like the fact that he brings it up. The truth is that there is a ditch on both sides of the road, and it matters little whether you wreck in the ditch of being too insistent on irrelevant details (theological conservatism) or whether you wreck in the ditch of being too unconcerned about important details (theological liberalism). Both will mess you up, yet most evangelicals practically ignore the ditch of being too theologically conservative.

He goes on:

For instance, if the professor Larsen describes in his opening paragraphs didn’t realize that he would get a paper like Larsen’s student handed in when he assigned an opinion piece on “traditional marriage,” then he or she was incredibly naïve. Personally, I would never assign a paper on abortion or evolution in an intro-level class, because I know doing so would basically mean condemning conservative evangelical students to do poorly. Many of them would simply parrot the stock arguments they’d heard from their leaders with very little reflection or fresh argumentation of their own — and the inevitable bad grade would only feed the persecution complex, turning me into yet another “secular indoctrinator.”

All I have to say in response to this is that I wish more professors were as wise as he. I’d like to order that paragraph to be read to every professor in America once a year.

But the part I like best is this:

More immediately, though, if conservative evangelicals are not willing to abandon their siege mentality, I would urge them to at least adopt the practices that the New Testament authors recommended to persecuted communities: live quietly, seek to be at peace with all, respect authority, work hard — in short, keep the moral high ground. The sober advice of the Apostles has stood the test of time and will endure long after whatever radical preacher is in the ascendant now is forgotten.

This is Biblical and good advice and should be the baseline for Christians at secular universities. If a university actually prevents you from obeying Christ, then by all means take a stand and deploy every peaceful tool in your arsenal to stymie them (this is to follow the example of the apostles – Acts 5:25-32 and Acts 16:36-39). But if a university is merely teaching you things you consider to be untrue, then suck it up, master the materials, and excel academically (this is to follow the example of Daniel and his friends in Babylon – Daniel 1:17-20). In the long run you will accomplish far more for the faith by getting good grades than by causing lots of disruptions in class.

Kotsko’s essay is worth reading and pondering (and so is the piece he is responding to, No Christianity Please, We’re Academics).

As I said, he minimizes a real problem. Anyone who thinks that some professors do not seek to destroy the faith of students is simply uninformed, and anyone who doesn’t realize that huge swaths of university culture are hostile to evangelical sensibilities has not been paying attention. But Kotsko is right to point out that evangelical students often create their own problems by allowing the evangelical subculture to define their relationship to the university rather than allowing the Bible’s teaching to prevail.