Prothero Responds to Our Bloggers’ Questions on God Is Not One

As part of this month’s book club on Stephen Prothero’s best-selling God Is Not One, we invited ten bloggers of different faith traditions to review or respond to the book, and send us one question they’d like to ask Prothero.   You’ll find our bloggers’ reviews on the Take & Read blog throughout the coming week, and you’ll find their questions — and Prothero’s responses — collected here as they roll in over the next several days.

Peter Wallace, Exec. Producer & Host of Day1.org, asks:

Q. Stephen, you make a compelling argument that the world’s great  religions are not one, and though they may hold some similar or complementary teachings about human reality there are too many  primary differences to say otherwise. But can we not acknowledge the spiritual component of all human existence, out of which the various  religions have developed? In other words, regardless of our own religious traditions, can we be united in our recognition that the  human essence embraces an otherness, a beyondness, an aboveness, a withinness, which might in fact be thought of as One God?

Stephen Responds:

A. You are trying to engage me in theology here–something I try fairly assiduously to avoid in “God is Not One.”  I certainly can see that some theologians might find in “the spiritual component of all human existence,” as you call it, something that might pass as the “One God.”  But my point is that move requires considerable effort, since without such leaps of the imagination what we are faced with is the brute fact of difference.  To put it another way, I am not saying that theologians are wrong when they say that Buddhism’s nirvana is the same as Christianity’s heaven or that Judaism’s G-d is the same as Islam’s Allah.  I am just saying that when they do so they are speaking not as historians or anthropologists or sociologists but as practitioners of the theological imagination.

Pagan Blogger P. Sufenas Virius Lupus asks:

Q. If you were to write “God Is Still Not One,” and included eight more religions that were not covered in the first book, what would they be, what order would you put them in, and how would you characterize them (e.g. Buddhism as “the Way of Awakening,” etc.)?

Stephen Responds:

A. Sorry, my pagan friend, but that is just too tall an assignment.  But I will give you the tradition I would have included if I had gone from eight to nine of the great religions:  Sikhism.  I am the faculty adviser for Boston University’s Sikh Student Association, so I know a fair number of Sikhs, and theirs is one of the world’s leading religions, with perhaps 20 million adherents worldwide.  A product of medieval India, Sikhism grew out of a culture of Hindu/Muslim interactions, and Sikhs today share a devotion to monotheism with Muslims and such beliefs as reincarnation and karma with Hindus.  As for what to call it, I’m torn.  Either “the way of the gurus” or “the way of learning,” since the term “Sikh” means “learner.”

Jana Riess, of the blog Flunking Sainthood, asks:

Q. I am supposed to go to Iran this month for interfaith dialogue with  Shi’a Muslims. When we abandon the notion that religions are one, as  your book argues that we should, what is the best way to carry out  build interfaith understanding?

Stephen Responds:

A. I am jealous!  My college roommate was from Iran but I have never been.  As for interfaith dialogue, with Shia Muslims or anyone else, I think authentic dialogue only begins when both sides practice honesty, including honesty about differences.  In “God is Not One” I write about moving from the old model of Interfaith 1.0 where the price of admission was pretending that all religions were in essence the same to a new Interfaith 2.0 model where differences are assumed.  The goal in this new model is to explore differences, with the hope that you will understand both your own tradition and that of your conversation partner better by taking a hard look at where you diverge.  I believe this is a surer path not only to tolerance but also respect.

Amy Julia Becker, blogger at Thin Places, asks:

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.

Hindu blogger Padma Kuppa asks:

Q. Your understanding of my faith falls short when you say (p.137,  paragraph 2) that “It affirms that neither priestly sacrifice (a  poor description of the karma yoga path I walk) not philosphical  knowledge (jnana yoga) is necessary for release from the bondage of  samsara.”  Being Hindu means I have a multifaceted approach to faith  - with many ways, many yogic paths that I and millions of Hindus  weave into their lives. How can we Hindus help those with a Western  lens understand what S Radhakrishnan tried to explain in his 1939  publication Eastern Religions and Western Thought?

Some background: The Hindu saint (7th century) Sri Adi  Shankaracharya is believed to have composed the ‘Bhaja Govindam‘  during his famous pilgrimage to Kasi (Benares) and fourteen of his  disciples are said to have accompanied him.  When he was walking  along the streets of Kashi, he was saddened to see an elderly man  diligently studying Sanskrit grammar.  At this advanced age, he  should have spent time worshiping God, instead of on learning a  language. This prompted Sri Sankara to come out with this  composition, a sort of rebuke to a foolish way of doing things. The  Acharya urges the man to turn towards God and sing His glory instead  of trying to learn a language. I have always revered what 20th  century Indian scholar C. Rajagopalachari  said about the composition:

“Adi Sankaracharya wrote a number of Vedantic works for imparting  knowledge of the Self and the Universal Spirit. He also composed a  number of hymns to foster Bhakti in the hearts of men. One of these  hymns is the famous Bhajagovindam. The way of devotion is not  different from the way of knowledge or Jnana. When intelligence  matures and lodges securely in the mind, it becomes wisdom. When  wisdom is integrated with life, and issues out in action, it becomes  Bhakti. Knowledge, when it becomes fully mature, is Bhakti. If it  does not get transformed into Bhakti, such knowledge is useless  tinsel. To believe that Jnana and Bhakti, knowledge and devotion,  are different from each other, is ignorance. If Sri Adi Sankara  himself who drank the ocean of Jnana as easily as one picks water  from the palm of one’s hand, sang in his later years hymns to develop devotion, it is enough to show that Jnana and Bhakti are one and the  same. Sri Sankara has packed into the Bhajagovindam song the  substance of all Vedanta, and set the oneness of Jnana and Bhakti to  melodious music.”

Stephen responds:

A. You seem to be objecting here to my discussion in God is Not One of Hinduism’s so-called three disciplines (yogas).  As I said at the beginning of my Hinduism chapter, the Hindu tradition is multi-faceted, with more internal discussion and disagreements than any other great realiion. So I am not surprised that your opinion about these three yogas differs from what I wrote, or for that matter from what other Hindus think. Still, I think what I wrote was correct.

What I wrote was that Hinduism offers its practitioners many ways to move from the problem of samsara (the cycle of life/death/rebirth) to moksha (spiritual liberation). One is karma yoga (the discipline of action), which began with the ritualistic actions of priests in fire sacrifice and was later reinterpreted (thanks to, among other, Gandhi) to refer to the ethical actions of ordinary people. Another was the jnana yoga (the discipline of wisdom) of wandering sages and such scriptures as the Upanishads. Then came the third and most popular, bhakti yoga (the discipline of devotion), which, as I wrote, “affirms that neither priestly sacrifice nor philosophical knowledge is necessary for release from the bondage of samsara. All that is needed is love.”

I am not sure precisely what your objection to this rendition of the three yogas is, since you do not say, but you seem to be intimating that in your spiritual life you do not choose one or another of these approaches but draw on them all, just as Sri Adi Shankaracharya combined wisdom and devotion. That is all well and good, and there are of course Hindus throughout Indian history who have done just that.

This combination of yogas is by no means surprising, given the Hindu tendency, which I stress at the beginning of this chapter and throughout, on a both/and rather than an either/or strategy.  Hindu intellectuals such as Radhakrishnan, and especially those influenced by the Vedantic tradition you invoke, do tend to elide the differences not only between these yogas but also between the world’s religions. At any rate, my point was not that Hindus choose one yoga at the expense of all others, since as I argue in “Religious Literacy,” even if your religion focuses on loving God you have to KNOW something about that God and then ACT in some manner toward Him or Her. My point was that there are at least three ways to the religious goal here, rather than just one.

Regarding Radhakrishnan, I used to teach his “Eastern Religions and Western Thought,” and in her world religions course at Harvard my mentor Diana Eck assigned that book as her one text on Hinduism.

Muslim Blogger Hussein Rashid, in his review, asks:

Q. Prothero writes “the world’s religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics, but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law. These differences may not matter to mystics or philosophers of religion, but they matter to ordinary religious people” (pg. 3). I agree with the first sentence unconditionally. However, the second part is more difficult for me to accept because in the Muslim tradition there are many people who are mystically inclined (cf. pg. 61). In addition, many of the people who say all religions are one consider themselves mystically inclined. How then do we connect the idea that religions are separate, with the fact that mystics in almost all traditions argue that they are not? How does this connect to the idea that God is not one? Arguably, for the monotheists, God is one, it is the religions that are many.

Stephen Prothero responds:

A. As anyone who reads my work will notice, I am a historian rather than a theologian. So I don’t weigh in myself on the mathematics of divinity (one? none? three? more?). Regarding mysticism in Islam, I know that the Sufi tradition is important to many Muslims. In fact, I discuss in the book an exchange I had with a Sufi shopkeeper in Jerusalem. Still, I maintain that the claim, common among mystics, that both the divine and the religions are one, is an elite phenomenon worldwide. Most ordinary practitioners of Islam and the other religions I cover in the book (with the possible exception of Hinduism) see what most Religious Studies scholars are coming to see, which is religious difference.  And very few Muslims would say that practices such as the hajj or almsgiving are inessential elements in Islam–a move that is necessary for those who want to say that, in essence, all religions are one.

Come back tomorrow for more of Stephen’s responses to our next round of bloggers’ questions!

Read more reviews of God Is Not One — and Prothero’s responses – at the Take & Read Book Club Blog here.

Return to the Patheos Book Club for more resources for deeper reading.