A different voice on World Religions

There is a popular notion that we all hear all the time from people who haven’t given much thought to the matter: “We all worship the same God, after all – don’t we?” It goes along with the popular presumption that “All spiritual paths lead to the same goal.” As a popular presumption, it is both inaccurate and not very helpful in interreligious dialogue.

Precisely because this is a popular notion, books that try to give voice to an alternative theory of religions – that is, that they are more characterised by their distinctions than their similarities – are generally not, therefore, popular. Joseph Ratzinger’s “Truth and Tolerance: Christian belief and the World Religions”, for instance, carries a masterful analysis of the differences between Western/Abrahamic and Eastern religions. But Karen Armstrong’s irenic books tend to sell better.

Bit of a surprise then to see this from the popular press: “God Is Not One:
The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter” by Stephen Prothero
.

Here is the book description from Harpers Collins website:

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, dizzying scientific and technological advancements, interconnected globalized economies, and even the so-called New Atheists have done nothing to change one thing: our world remains furiously religious. For good and for evil, religion is the single greatest influence in the world. We accept as self-evident that competing economic systems (capitalist or communist) or clashing political parties (Republican or Democratic) propose very different solutions to our planet’s problems. So why do we pretend that the world’s religious traditions are different paths to the same God? We blur the sharp distinctions between religions at our own peril, argues religion scholar Stephen Prothero, and it is time to replace naïve hopes of interreligious unity with deeper knowledge of religious differences.

In Religious Literacy, Prothero demonstrated how little Americans know about their own religious traditions and why the world’s religions should be taught in public schools. Now, in God Is Not One, Prothero provides readers with this much-needed content about each of the eight great religions. 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

Prothero reveals each of these traditions on its own terms to create an indispensable guide for anyone who wants to better understand the big questions human beings have asked for millennia—and the disparate paths we are taking to answer them today. A bold polemical response to a generation of misguided scholarship, God Is Not One creates a new context for understanding religion in the twenty-first century and disproves the assumptions most of us make about the way the world’s religions work.

Sounds interesting. May be worth a look. I especially like his (perhaps simplistic, but nevertheless interesting) analysis of the “problem/solution” each religion is trying to address. VERY interesting that he identifies “exile” as the problem for the Jewish religion. Tom Wright would have something to say on this, I think… As this Pontificate has taught us, in dialogue with others it is sometimes more productive to address and clarify differences rather than simply seek commonalities. The commonalities are there, but will be read inaccurately if the fundamental differences are not first completely understood.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “A different voice on World Religions

  1. Peregrinus

    “ . . . The commonalities are there, but will be read inaccurately if the fundamental differences are not first completely understood.”

    Looks very interesting. But the “fundamental differences” identified may not be quite so fundamentally different as is suggested. If we look at the list of problems and solutions, for instance, we can see two things. First, the Christian problem/solution is, indeed, distinctively and characteristically Christian. Secondly, most Christians would understand and affirm, at a minimum, the Islamic and Jewish problem/solution statement, and affirm them as consistent with Christianity. And a Catholic – a Thomist Catholic, at any rate – would probably make a good deal of sense of the Confucian problem/solution statement.

    There are differences between the various faith traditions, and those differences are important. But differences are not necessarily oppositions; they can also be difference in emphasis. This is patently true when we compare different Christian traditions; there is no reason why it should not also be true when we compare different non-Christian traditions.

    And it’s not a question of similarities or differences; the truth is that there will always be both similarities and differences between relgious traditions, and both are important. God revelas himself to all, and calls all to him and from a Christian perpsective all religions are – at least presumptively – human responses to that call. That gives them a radical similarlity – perhaps more radical than any of the differences. So perhaps it is also true to say that the fundamental differneces will be read inaccurately if the radical similarity is not first completely understood!

    On a separate note, I wouldn’t myself say that what mainly distinguishes Christianity from, say, Islam is that one asserts the centrality of a sin/salvation dialectic, and the other the centrality of a pride/submission dialectic. To my mind, a more fundamental difference is that one asserts the reality of the incarnate God, while the other denies even the possibility. Then, again, much depends on our perspective; if we are looking at this from a sociology of religion point of view (comparing how people live, and how they think), we may identify a different set of “fundamental differences” than if we look at it from a theological point of view (comparing what they believe).

    • The differences between Islam and Christianity are very interesting indeed, and go beyond this simple paradigm. Even the question of whether it is possible to have an “incarnate God” (like a square circle as far as Islam is concerned) points to even more fundamental differences in the conception of the Deity.

      Secondly, most Christians would understand and affirm, at a minimum, the Islamic and Jewish problem/solution statement, and affirm them as consistent with Christianity.

      Well, at least as far as the Jewish idea of the continuing exile goes, you are right. This is where my comment on Tom Wright comes in. Wright believes that Jesus is specifically a 1st Century Jewish answer to a 1 Century Jewish problem (rather than a 20th Century Christian answer to a 16th Century Christian problem). As the Messiah, the manifestation of Jesus as the Christ heralds the end of the exile.

      Perhaps this points to something else: understanding the differences and similarities are essential if we are to properly communicate the gospel to our dialogue partners.

  2. mdhoerr

    Reminds me of the time I was talking to a nominally Moslem coworker, years before 9/11 happened. I said something to the effect that we all believed that “God is love”. He didn’t answer at the time. Since then, I’ve learned that no, we don’t all believe that “God is love.” Islam doesn’t teach that.

    I think it is hard to have constructive, respectful dialogue with people from other religions when you start out with the idea that “we all believe the same thing anyway.” No, we don’t. In fact, saying so denies the others the reality of their own, different belief systems.

    That’s not aimed at you, Peregrinus. Although personally, I see more of a tendency to over-emphasize the “radical similarities” and to ignore fundamental differences.

    • Peregrinus

      “God is Love” is a direct quote from the Christian scriptures (1 John 4:8, 16). The phrase does not appear anywhere in the Qu’ran. In that sense Islam does not teach that “God is Love”. (However by that argument, neither does Judaism, since the phrase doesn’t appear anywhere in the Hebrew
      scriptures.)

      But in the broader sense of what 1 John 4 means, Islam certainly does teach that universal love is the primary attribute of God. The Qu’ran teaches explicitly, and repeatedly, that the love of God embraces all things, and Islam is at one with Christianity in asserting that God is the creator of all that is, and that His creation is a continuing act of divine love, and also in asserting that God’s revelation of Himself is similarly an act of divine love.

      Islam doesn’t teach, of course, that God’s love is manifested in the Incarnation and in the sacrifice of Jesus; instead, it finds the supreme manifestation of God’s love in the coming of the Prophet, God’s ultimate act of revelation which works to bind all humanity to Himself. (Seeing any parallels here?)

      In short, Islam is at one with Christianity (and Judaism) in seeing God as infinitely and universally loving. It (and Judaism) differ from Christianity in understanding how that love is manifested.

      You’re quite right that we don’t all believe the same thing. If we did, we’d all be of one religion, and David would be out of a job. My point is that there are both similarities among and differences between the various religious traditions, and both are important.

    • I think it is hard to have constructive, respectful dialogue with people from other religions when you start out with the idea that “we all believe the same thing anyway.” No, we don’t. In fact, saying so denies the others the reality of their own, different belief systems.

      I think that is a major point, Mary. It also means that we are – from the beginning of our conversation – trying to fit their way of seeing things into our way of seeing things and thus conquering it for our own colonisation. To a use a few loaded terms…

  3. GAB

    This book looks really, really interesting.

    Why do I keep finding out about really, really interesting books faster than I can buy and read them? Grr. Another title on the ever-lengthening waiting list, then.