Our blogger roundtable on God Is Not One continues with a review by Amy Julia Becker, author and blogger at Thin Places.
I had five roommates my freshman year of college. Three of them were Jewish. And one was more involved in Jewish student life than the rest. So one night, I asked her if she’d be interested in a conversation to compare our religious beliefs. I was cross-legged on the bed. She pulled the chair out from my desk and turned to face me. “Let’s start with the basics,” I said. “What do you believe about God?”
“God?” she said, and twirled a strand of hair. “I don’t know if I believe in God.”
I had no idea what to say, and since I can’t remember what happened from there, I’m guessing that my attempt at inter-faith dialogue died on the vine.
It might have helped if I had read Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Prothero is a bestselling author and a professor at Boston University, and both his scholarly credentials and his writing ability shine in this book as he consistently relates complex ideas in accessible language.
The book explores eight religions (Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba, Judaism, Daoism) through a somewhat simplistic but nevertheless helpful schema. Prothero attests that all religions are trying to provide a solution to a problem. He identifies the problem, the solution, and meanwhile offers historical, political, and doctrinal (where applicable) context for the religion at hand. Each chapter reads like a long but engaging lecture. I can imagine him in front of a room full of students, moving from explanations of Yoruba deities to pop culture references to politics to the various sects of Islam and back again. And I imagine that those students are happy to return the following week for yet another set of provocative questions and useful information.
The entire book is worth reading, but the chapters also stand alone as “cliff notes” to the religion at hand. If you need a quick but scholarly primer in Buddhism, Prothero is your man. With that said, he intends to do more than explain these various religious traditions. He also offers tools for comparative analysis and dialogue. Here, his Introduction becomes essential. Prothero attacks two common problems in comparative religious discourse. In the book’s opening paragraph, he notes the problem with the modern assumption that “all religions are just different paths up the same mountain.”
No one argues that different economic systems or political regimes are one and the same. Capitalism and socialism are so obviously at odds that their differences hardly bear mentioning… Yet scholars continue to claim that religious rivals such as Hinduism and Islam, Judaism and Christianity are, by some miracle of their imagination, essentially the same, and this view resounds in the echo chamber of popular culture…
Some of my favorite conversations about religion come from dialogue with atheists because we are both clear on our points of difference. I know that my atheist friends think I am wrong when I say that Jesus was the Son of God. And they know that I think they are wrong when they say there is no God. It doesn’t mean we don’t respect each other or that we can’t learn from each other. It doesn’t even mean we can’t try to convince each other of what we believe. It just means we understand the terms of our conversation before we begin, and Prothero similarly argues for the merits of admitting irreconcilable differences from the start.
Not only does he knock down the conventional wisdom that all religions are the same, but he also helps us understand the challenges of comparison. We can’t, for instance, compare the Buddhist and Christian concepts of sin, since Buddhists don’t have a concept of sin. In Prothero’s words:
A sports analogy may be in order here. Which of the following—baseball, basketball, tennis, or golf—is best at scoring runs? The answer of course is baseball, because runs is a term foreign to basketball, tennis, and golf alike. Different sports have different goals… If you see sin as the human predicament and salvation as the solution, then it makes sense to come to Christ. But that will not settle as much as you think, because the real question is not which religion is best at carrying us into the end zone of salvation but which of the many religious goals on offer we should be seeking.
As a Christian, I do see the problem with the world as sin, and I would state the “answer” differently than Prothero does in his chapter on Christianity. I would say that participation in the kingdom of God is the answer, but I would add that the only way to participate in that kingdom is through salvation, so my point is a minor one. Prothero provides a fair treatment of the faith I call my own, which helps me assume he does the same with the others in question.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants a basic understanding of the major world religions, and I recommend it as a starting point for conversations about those religions. Perhaps, with it in hand, my roommate and I could have done more than look at each other with puzzled expressions all those years ago.
This review was written for Patheos, a website devoted to religious inquiry. God is Not One is their Book of the Month, and a variety of bloggers were selected to read, review, and submit questions to Dr. Prothero about his book. The questions that I submitted were as follows:
Q. Do you believe that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God?
Stephen Prothero responds:
A. That is a theological question, Amy, and to theological questions I almost always have the same response: Who knows? Think for a minute about what you would need to answer it. You would need to know who the Jewish God is, who the Christian God is, and who the Muslim God is and by that I do not mean who the Jews THINK God is, who the Christians THINK God is, and who the Muslims THINK God is but who those God(s) actually are. Then you would need to know whether those God(s) actually existed. I know none of those things and so cannot comment. My point in God is not One is that the gods described in these traditions (notice I am moving now from first-person theology to third-person history) are different. Yes, there are similarities. Yes, Muslims affirm that Allah is the same as the God described in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. And, yes, all those depictions of God describe God as a God of history who is also a Lawgiver and a Judge, who speaks through prophets and through scripture, etc. But if you were reading those scriptures as three novels would you say their protagonists were the same? I say no.
Q. Do you believe that it is possible for an individual to be a practitioner of more than one religion? For instance, is it possible to be a Christian Confucian?
A. Of course. And in fact some of my best friends are Christian Confucians, including my Boston University colleague John Berthrong, who served as a very useful adviser to my chapter on Confucianism. In most of East Asia, the notion that each of us practices one and only one religion, to the exclusion of all others, is nonsensical. As I point out in God is Not One, many people in China are Confucians at work, Daoists on the weekend, and Buddhists at death. Here in the United States I have friends who describe themselves as Buddhist Episcopalians, for example. So, yes, you can practice more than one religion, unless of course one of those religions is of the sort that says only one. In that case, you need to pick one, or risk the wrath of co-religionists who insist that you do.
For more reviews, and to read Stephen Prothero’s answers to other bloggers’ questions, visit the Patheos Take & Read Book Club blog here.