Say that I’m late to the dance. Way back in 2010 when Stephen Prothero’s book, God is Not One, soared to the top of the best sellers list I must have been out planting turnips. Well, not now.
I just finished the Boston professor’s work and understand why there was so such buzz about it. Like a Karen Armstrong or Houston Smith, Prothero is multi-lingual when it comes to the great religious traditions of the planet. And also like them he acts as a helpful docent who leads the reader through the twisting maze. If you want a one-stop tour through Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism … this is one of the great ones.
He parts company, however, with those who level out the religious playing field in the interest of finding a guiding unity between them all. Yes, of course, there are core commonalities, not only in, say, ethical instruction, but in the way movements shift and change. There are parallels, for instance, between the mysticism of many of the traditions. But Prothero flexes his intellectual muscles to resist a leveling out of the differences, which are substantial. By the time you arrive at the end you know why he stated it in the beginning.
From his introduction: “No one argues that different economic systems or political regimes are one and the same … Yet scholars continue to claim that religious rivals such as Hinduism and Islam, Judaism and Christianity are, by some miracle of the imagination, essentially the same … 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 … It is comforting to pretend that the great religions make up one big, happy family. But this sentiment, however well-intentioned, is neither accurate nor ethically responsible.”
In short, Prothero convincingly shows how notions of God (or not God), practices, and the identification of the ultimate predicaments and solutions diverge. I believe he is right. Only the person who does not know the particularities of the various traditions will paint them all in the same colors and textures. In an amusing passage he quotes the oft cited example of many paths up the same mountain. They are actually different mountains, says Prothero, with paths to different mountain tops.
It is not, I think, that Prothero believes that there is more than one ultimate reality – part of the teasing paradox of his title. But he certainly knows that human understanding of that ultimate reality comes with staggering variety. And that, perhaps, is where I leave it. To respect the traditions and the paths they provide we must recognize their uniqueness and particularity. Apart from that they cannot be adequately understood.
I am personally left appealing to another image, that though there be many paths that lead to different ends, they do, finally, all share the same time and space. In other words, ultimate reality certainly is one and seamlessly so, however differently we understand or pursue it.
It’s a must read, God is Not One. And most who do read it will never again flippantly toss off the phrase, “Well, all the religions are basically the same.” Well, no they’re not.