Prothero has said the question of whether God is one is a theological question that he can’t answer, but his book’s message is that not all religions are one. We are not all on the same journey headed towards the same goals. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus points out in his review of the book that this idea of religion being a universal concept is quite disrespectful.
I haven’t read the book all the way through, but since the contention seems to be a theological and interfaith question, and not a question of history and tradition, I feel comfortable commenting on this. It’s an important issue.
Universalism, as spun out by Theosophy, Joseph Campbell and the inclusivist movement among mainstream religions, is a well-intentioned philosophy that seeks to bring people together. It tells us to brush away the detail and focus on the major, over-arching themes. Such a philosophy is too easy (religion never is easy) and robs us of all identity and beauty.
Imagine this: with a few barrels of turpentine and some chisels and hammers we could make the Sistine chapel an interfaith facility. By removing all the detail it becomes a building like any other. I think prior to Michaelangelo it had been called “a barn” by one pope. That would be all it would take to make the chapel acceptable for use by all faiths, simply to remove the partisan detail.
Isn’t that a horriffic thought? It curdles the blood. Imagine for a moment applying the same concept to all that is Divine. Maybe you worship a Goddess with many aspects, or perhaps you worship highly individualized deities. If you are Christian, imagine stripping Jesus of anything that does not correspond with Horus, Attis, Tammuz or Odin. Imagine sanitizing your faith, wiping it clean of all intricacy and detail. Imagine combining Christmas, Channukah and Yule into some strange synthesis holiday based vaguely upon Santa Claus.
I love the intricacies of my religion and of my Gods. I love that Hephaistos prefers wine and that Inanna drinks beer. I love the graceful mystery of Wiccan cosmology, and the journey I take to reconcile the macrocosm of my community, my tradition and my coven with the quiet truths that live within my heart. I adore the moment when the blade and chalice meet, that lovely symbol of opposites uniting. I am passionately grateful when, in the most unspiritual tone imaginable, my Gods tell me to get to work and stop whining. I love the symbolism of the five-pointed star within a circle: a human in harmony with the cosmos. It is a sigil of my relationship with the universe, or at least of how my relationship with the universe ought to be. In the secret places of my heart, I do believe my Gods the best, bravest and most wonderful of all. It’s simply a by-product of my love for them, of my devotion and perhaps a little unspoken hubris lurking in my soul.
By homogenizing all that is Divine into One, you strip all these things from me. My Gods no longer have faces, my symbols lose their meaning and so do yours. My chalice is not the same as the communion cup is not the same as the cups of the Passover seder. It is a horror not to be wished. Why do we do it? Because understanding is hard.
It is not an easy thing to understand another religion or another culture. To see from another point of view without losing your own perspective. Religion is already hard. Spiritual work is tough stuff. Just studying your own faith and knowing your own soul is the work of a lifetime. Comparative religion and interfaith dialogue is even harder. How easy it is to say it is all the same! How thoughtless and indifferent to the rich tapestry of religion you can become while appearing magnanimous. All that is required is the hubris and gall to say others do not understand their own religion. That the things they hold holy and sacred are trivial. How easy.
God is not One. God is not even God, but simply one concept among the multitude of that which is Divine. Turning all these strange and exotic dishes into mashed potatoes is sad and not very nutritious. It reminds me of a line from Auntie Mame: “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” It also reminds me of how sad Orual was in Til We Have Faces when the formless God-image of her youth was changed for something more modern and Greek. The new priest in her kingdom considered the details of her faith as expendable trivialities.
No soul-work is easy and slacking off in our interfaith work is no answer. How much harder is it to acknowledge all of our differences, that we all worship different things, with different values and goals, yet still encourage and support another? How much more rewarding would that be? I think it’s worth a try.