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.

One thought on “Notes From God Is Not One”

  1. Orthodox, institutional religions are quite different, but their mystics have much in common. A quote from the chapter “Mystic Viewpoints” in my e‑book on comparative mysticism:

    Ritual and Symbols. The inner meanings of the scriptures, the spiritual teachings of the prophets and those personal searchings which can lead to divine union were often given lesser importance than outward rituals, symbolism and ceremony in many institutional religions. Observances, reading scriptures, prescribed acts, and following orthodox beliefs cannot replace your personal dedication, contemplation, activities, and direct experience. Preaching is too seldom teaching. For true mystics, every day is a holy day. Divine revelation is here and now, not limited to their sacred scriptures.

    Conflicts in Conventional Religion. “What’s in a Word?” outlined some primary differences between religions and within each faith. The many divisions in large religions disagreed, sometimes bitterly. The succession of authority, interpretations of scriptures, doctrines, organization, terminology, and other disputes have often caused resentment. The customs, worship, practices, and behavior within the mainstream of religions frequently conflicted. Many leaders of any religion had only united when confronted by someone outside their faith, or by agnostics or atheists. Few mystics have believed divine oneness is exclusive to their religion or is restricted to any people.

    Note: This is just a consensus to indicate some differences between the approaches of mystics and that of their institutional religion. These statements do not represent all schools of mysticism or every division of faith. Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.

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