If you are interested in interfaith dialog, please take a few minutes and read this article by Boston University professor Stephen Prothero:
I’m on an email list where people are discussing this article, and folks have mixed feelings about it. I think it’s challenging for liberal-minded folks to have one of our cherished ideals — “way deep down beneath cultural differences, we are really all the same” — called into question. But I, frankly, pretty much agree with Prothero all the way. I think that religious tolerance and interfaith dialog are important because they are valuable in themselves, and not because of any kind of romanticized “unity” at the foundation of all religions. I think it’s simply more honest to acknowledge that there are some ways in which Christianity and Buddhism, or Islam and Neopaganism, or (insert two religions of your choice) are simply irreconcilable — at least, as long as we are serious about honoring both faiths. I think when western liberals start talking about “all religions are the same,” what we often really mean is that “all religions have encoded in them our highest ideals — and if they don’t, then something is wrong with them.” Then the point behind such liberal “interreligious dialog” is the gradual stripping away of everything that impedes the romantic vision of unity. Perhaps what is left is a nice way to hang out together, but it might also result in destroying much of the unique beauty of the world’s great religions.
In the article, Prothero uses the Christian concept of salvation as an example of why he thinks we need to acknowledge the deep differences between faiths. Other religions, such as Buddhism, simply lack any correlative concept of “salvation.” On the email list I subscribe to, people began talking about how salvation means different things to different Christians, which of course is very true. I’m the kind of Christian who thinks that an understanding of salvation that is truly rooted in the gospel — in the actual teachings of Jesus — leaves plenty of room for an understanding of Christian discipleship that does not require “converting the world.” Of course, other Christians will disagree with me. Part of the beauty of Christianity is that we have such broadly divergent views. If we get serious about “all religions are the same,” then perhaps we need to root out of Christianity those “negative” voices that disagree with such a perspective. In other words, Christians who want to play nice with the Buddhists end up getting hostile to other Christians, who think the Buddhists are lost without Jesus. See how messy this gets in a hurry?
The way I see it: If all Christians (or all Muslims, or all Neopagans, or whomever) can’t even agree on their religious identity within the same faith, then how can we meaningfully speak of a universal religious unity? To be clear: I am not arguing against religious tolerance or meaningful interfaith cooperation and dialog. I just think that such endeavors need to be honest: not based on “let’s play nice together because we’re all the same down deep inside,” but rather “let’s play nice together because it’s a good thing to play nice together.” Only then can our interfaith work truly be founded on reality (and contain the hope of bearing authentic fruit).
But of course, you might disagree with me (and Professor Prothero), so I’d love to hear your comments…