A few days ago I was drawn to buy "God is Not One" by Stephen Prothero after seeing Stephen Colbert interview him in Colbert's always entertaining fashion. Prothero gives his take on the interview here, and you can watch it below.
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
I liked how Prothero emphasized how different are the problems religions attempt to solve. Christianity is all about being saved from sin; Buddhism aims to eliminate suffering; Hinduism seeks freedom from reincarnation's rounds of birth and death; Daoism teaches how to live life naturally and freely.
(If you're curious about what other four religions are discussed in the book, they're Islam, Confucianism, Judaism, and Yoruba, which I'd never heard of before.)
I've only read the introduction to "God is Not One." So far, I don't find much to disagree with. Here's some cobbled-together quotes that summarize Prothero's basic thesis.
At least since the first petals of the counterculture bloomed across Europe and the United States in the 1960s, it has been fashionable to affirm that all religions are beautiful and all are true...The most popular metaphor for this view portrays the great religions as different paths up the same mountain.
...This is a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue. For more than a generation we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world in which all gods are one.
...The world's religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics, but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law. These differences may not matter to mystics or philosophers of religion, but they matter to ordinary religious people.
...One of the most common misconceptions about the world's religions is that they plumb the same depths, ask the same questions. They do not. Only religions that see God as all good ask how a good God can allow millions to die in tsunamis. Only religions that believe in souls ask whether your soul exists before you are born and what happens to it after you die.
And only religions that think we have one soul ask after "the soul" in the singular. Every religion, however, asks after the human condition. Here we are in these human bodies. What now? What next? What are we to become?
Well, here's one thing in the introduction that I do question -- the implication that mystics agree about what God or ultimate reality is like.
I used to consider that there was a lot of commonality in mystical experiences. But now I see that I was ignoring the differences, focusing almost entirely on mystics who appeared to be seeking the sort of elevated consciousness that I was hoping to attain myself at the time.
Some mystics experience glorious visions of celestial sound and light. Others see this world just as it is, yet in a fresher, clearer way. So I doubt that mysticism leads to a conclusion that God is one any more than religions do.
All in all, I'm pretty sure that the rest of Prothero's book is going to appeal to me. He's already helped me to better understand the source of a lot of disagreements and misunderstandings on this blog, as well as the world at large.
Namely: people who favor a certain faith assume that others with a different religious preference still share their goal -- the problem their faith sets out to solve.
So, for example, frequently I'll get comments on a blog post that talk about how disappointed I must be to never have succeeded in rising to higher spiritual regions of consciousness through my meditation practice.
But this assumes that such regions exist. And that it is a worthy goal to attempt to detach my awareness from material reality and experience non-physical realms of the cosmos.
Similarly, some people are deeply concerned with "saving their soul." They can't understand why others aren't passionately devoted to religious practices that claim to absolve sin, or karma, which keep the soul weighted down and unable to return to God.
But this assumes that souls exist. And that God can save them. As Prothero points out, Buddhism doesn't agree with this assumption. So the notion of salvation is foreign to Buddhist practice, while it is central to Christian belief.
Here's a short description of "God is Not One" that I found on Prothero's website. As above, he talks about the claim of mystics that religions differ only in the inessentials, citing Lao Tzu and Rumi as some exemplars of this mystical premise.
Being familiar with Lao Tzu's and Rumi's teachings, I really don't think that if they were able to sit down and chat with each other, they'd agree on what life is all about to the extent Prothero seems to feel they would.