By Bruce G. Epperly
Despite the hyperbole of its dustcover -- “The Clash of the Gods” -- Stephen Prothero’s God Is not One presents a simple truth: the world’s religions are really different. They have different origins, different analyses of the human condition, and different destinations. They point to different dimensions of reality and focus on different aspects of human experience. For Prothero, despite the potential for conflict among the world’s religions, this is good news and may be the basis for authentic religious dialogue and cooperation.
While Prothero deals with the phenomena of religious experience and ritual and doesn’t weigh in on issues of religious or metaphysical truth, he presents a picture of diverse, conflicting, and contrasting religious traditions, and suggests that humility is the only appropriate response to varieties of religious experience. If there is a god or goddess, “He or She or It must surely know more than we do about the things that matter most” (340). For Prothero, the solution is to be found in the apophatic spiritual tradition, the wisdom that the Holy is always more than we can imagine. Seeing in a mirror dimly, to quote the apostle Paul, is the antidote to “god-inspired” violence and intolerance.
I fundamentally agree with Prothero’s thesis that religions are manifold; but as a theologian, I take a slightly different path that embraces both the kataphatic and apophatic aspects of religious experience -- the affirmation that God is revealed in all things and can be symbolized by many things, while being more than anything we can imagine. More than that, I believe God is the source of the world’s many religious traditions.
Now, I must admit that I am speaking as a Christian and, in some ways privileging Christian theology, in order to affirm the divine presence in all faiths. I believe that creation is a dynamic call and response in which God’s presence is revealed not only in the evolution of the universe and the amazing diversity of our planet, but in the varieties of religious experience. The God who moves through all things addresses each creature personally and intimately in its historical and cultural context. Different histories and cultures both mirror the divine presence and shape the nature of God’s presence.
In saying this, I am asserting that the divine-human call and response reveals human as well as divine creativity. God’s relationship to humans, both individually and culturally, is relational and contextual, rather than coercive or unilateral. Indeed, Trinitarian theology suggests that God is not uniform but manifold in presence and reality. God appropriately inspires different people and cultures in different ways. This is good news: a complex and evolving world reflects a complex, dynamic, and evolving God, whose work is unfinished and whose experience grows in relationship to the evolving universe.
God, to use language that bounds on the anthropomorphic, delights in diversity, and so should we. This does not imply religious relativism, or the equality of all traditions, but the humble affirmation of the ongoing quest to experience the holy. God aims at beauty of experience, and beauty involves contrast and diversity rather than homogeneity. Luke’s gospel asserts that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and this is good advice to today’s religious followers. Recognizing the incompleteness of our knowledge opens us to mystery but also to learning from one another as we seek to be faithful to our tradition and open to growth in our understanding of our faith and in the growth of our faith tradition.
Religious traditions themselves are never static or uniform but growing and diverse as they join their initial inspiration with ongoing historical and cultural experience. Accordingly, learning from other faith traditions is a gift and grace, and not a fall from orthodoxy. Growth in stature involves the ability to embrace diversity of experience, including that of other religious traditions, without losing your spiritual center. This is a sign of faithfulness as we encounter the varieties of religious ritual and experience.
God is One, but God’s unity is complex and evolving. In that spirit, fidelity to our faith opens us to the wisdom of the diversity of each tradition as well as the diversity of global religious experience. Appreciation and affirmation is the proper response to other faiths in our pluralistic, postmodern world.
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