God Is Not One, by Stephen Prothero available for around $12.00
One of the joys of officially becoming an author, at least for me, is the excuse to read for “research.” As if I needed one. All those books I wanted to “get around to someday” are now, well, part of the job. Consequently, I spend time poking and prodding through bookstore shelves for different points of view. Or, I might be looking for an answer to some conundrum I’ve come across. Sometimes I’m looking for something that will tell me if I have completely missed the point, or that my insight is perhaps different, worth sharing and defensible. That means I spend a lot of time in religious and philosophical works from any age. This book caught my attention because it addresses something rather fundamental to a writer in these genres: are all religions really different paths to the same goal? Professor Prothero says no. As a professor of religious studies at Boston University, he has a great deal to share on the subject.
I did venture to read a few of the hundred or so reviews on Amazon. This is a touchy subject very near the hearts and minds of people, even for those who do not have a belief or are adamantly anti-belief. Prothero presents his material in nine chapters with an introduction and conclusion. The eight religions that he discusses are Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, and Daoism. The ninth chapter is an interesting take on Atheism. For each religion or philosophical belief he brings out four points. 1) What is the problem as define in that belief, 2) What is the solution, 3) How is it accomplished, 4) Who does one emulate to accomplish the goal? By using these yardsticks, the differences between the religions and belief systems with the greatest impact on our world today come out in stark contrast.
Some years ago I had a plan to start a retreat center that would provide pastors, lay people and administrative people of any faith a place to “come away” for a time and seek answers to the questions facing our world today. To assume that any one individual has the answer to poverty, health care, education, social institutions, foreign aid, acts of war or any other such issue is, in my opinion, rather arrogant. I sincerely believe that if the human race is to find solutions to the problems we face on this planet we will have to learn how to talk to one another; not shout, bully or order one another about. We cannot invade the privacy of others and expect them to leave us alone. We cannot address concerns and fears unless we understand something of the language being spoken. Thus my title, “Learning a New Language.”
What this book does is provide a brief, easy to read description of what the central goal of each system is, and what the participants believe the path to that goal is. It does not cover the wide ranges of mystic to conservative follower; it provides overview. It is, in fact, a joyful presentation of the characteristics of each of the “paths” discussed. In a nutshell, Prothero guides us through the diverse ways mankind has found to resolve the question each society has found as paramount. Briefly, we find this:
Islam is the way of submission. The human problem is pride and the way to control it is to learn total submission. Perhaps you can see why martyrdom can become a path; it’s not the virgins, its total submission.
Christianity is the way of salvation. It is the only religion that looks at the problem as sin and, therefore the solution to be salvation. So if, as a Christian, you are speaking to a follower of, say, Hinduism, the whole concept of sin and some need to seek forgiveness is foreign. To have a conversation you need to understand the language a Hindu would use.
Confucianism is the way of social networking , so to speak. To the Confucians we are not fully human unless we learn propriety, social relationships, and how to treat each other rightly.
Hinduism is the way of devotion. It is a religion of many, many gods, some major, some more personal, but the whole point is devotion to one or more entities. If you are devoted to some divine being, then that being will look out for you.
Buddhism is an awakening. There is no God here unless you envision an over-spanning entity, a self-aware Nirvana. With the Buddhist, the problem is human suffering and the way to solve it is to reach a level of awareness where suffering is no longer a hindrance.
Yoruba Religion comes out of Africa and is very much about the here and now. It has taken many forms in the new and old worlds, mixing with Christianity and Islam to cover and to grow. It spread everywhere the slave trade took it and morphed to meet the needs of its followers wherever they went. The premise is that there are beings between heaven and earth that help us manage our lives; not to be sinless, but to find our original destiny and to live it here in this life.
Judaism, often misunderstood and morphed by Christians, is the way of exile and coming home. It is about telling the stories of old and studying the law. It is about questions where the best of friends can be on opposite sides of a deep argument of Talmudic law, and still be fast friends. Never stop asking, never stop learning, and always preserve the history. Jews do not look for salvation. They believe they were appointed by God to show the world how it is supposed to work, here on earth. That by following the laws as laid down for them; society will become whole and healthy.
Daoism is a way of “flourishing.” It is about seeking freedom from society by separating yourself and going to the mountains or any place where you can seek personal freedom. A way of looking for release from the bondage of relationships and all the expectations that go with them. It is, in many ways, the opposite of Confucianism.
Last, but not least, Prothero addresses the issue of Atheism. He makes a clear distinction between those that simply don’t believe in some superior being, or don’t really focus on the question at all, and those that are every bit as evangelical as any religious fundamentalist. There are those who are so virulent in their pursuit to stamp out all “nonsensical religious stuff” that they lose the initial premise, “the way of reason.” They are not interested in conversations involving reason; they only want to shout louder.
Prothero leads the reader on an interesting journey if the goal is to learn the language of the people we share this globe with. Here is a bit of his closing analysis.
“Godthink is ideological rather than analytical—it starts in the dense clouds of desire rather than with a clear-eyed vision of how things are on the ground. In the case of Hitches and the New Atheists, it begins with the desire to denounce the evil in religion. In the case o Huston Smith and the perennialists, it begins with the desire to praise the good in religion. Neither of these desires serves our understanding of a world in which religious traditions are at least as diverse as our political, economic, and social arrangements – where religious people make war and peace in the name of their gods, Buddhas, and orishas. It does not serve diplomats or entrepreneurs working in India or China to be told that all Hindus and all Confucians are equally idiotic. It does not serve soldiers in the Middle East to be told that the Shia Islam of Iran is essentially the same as the Sunni Islam of Saudi Arabia, or that Muslims, Christians and Jews in Israel do not disagree fundamentally on matters of faith or practice.
If religion did not matter, this collective confusion would not cloud our understanding of the world. If human beings acted in their families, communities, and nations purely on the basis of greed and power, then economists and political scientists could do a decent job of describing the world. But people act every day on the basis of religious beliefs and behaviors that outsiders see as foolish or dangerous or worse. Allah tells them to blow themselves up or to give to the poor, so they do. Jesus tells them to bomb an abortion clinic or to build a Habitat for Humanity house, so they do. Because God said so, Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that this land is their land, so they fight for it in the name of G-d or Jesus or Allah. Call this good news or bad news, but by any name it is the way things are. So if we want to live in the real world rather than down a rabbit hole of our own imagining then we need to reckon with it.”
Learn the language of your neighbor so you know the message you convey. Many years ago I worked with a Mormon gentleman that had developed a piece of software I was using. I shared a brief conversation with the people of the little church I was attending; it happened to be 7th Day Adventist. You see, as of sundown on Friday night I would go home, returning at sundown on Saturday night. He would leave the office Saturday night and return Sunday. His quip was that between the two of us we would cover for the pagans. My church was briefly shocked. Please keep in mind this is long before the recent election made Mormons part of the “in” Christian family. My point was that we both found comfort and fulfillment following the precepts of our faith. We had a common ground from which we could engage in honest conversation regarding that faith. Before you drive someone away by insulting their intelligence, their belief, the things they hold dear; learn the language.