Stephen Prothero’s new book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter, is a refreshing antidote to the too easy notion that all religions say the same thing. They don’t. Indeed, they are often mutually exclusive.
While Dr. Prothero suggests that all religions begin with the notion that “something has gone awry.” After that, however, they differ as to what is wrong and what to do about it. Fair enough. This is what is sometimes called the medical model of comparative religion: each religion has its own diagnosis of the human condition, prognosis of the disease, prescription for its cure, and medicine to cure it. Using this model is both easy and informative, and I employ it each time I teach Comparative Religion.
My own sense is that there is a disease underlying all diseases: the realization that we are going to die. Since mortality offends the ego’s sense of being entitled to immortality we invent a variety of ways to make mortality go away: heavens, hells, rebirth, reincarnation, becoming gods ourselves, and moving from plane to plane in search of more knowledge are all ways of defeating death, if only in our own minds. Perhaps the reason why so many religious people are willing to kill and be killed for their religion is that dying is really what religion is all about.
I think the point of Dr. Prothero’s book is to challenge the cheap unity that passes for serious discussion of religion in the popular media. Anyone who thinks Buddhism and Catholicism are the same thing, for example, has never compared an image of the meditating Buddha with the Crucified Christ. This isn’t a matter of apples and oranges, but of apples and road kill.
Does honoring differences preclude real dialogue and interspirituality? Not at all. If religious differences are simply a matter of tomato/tomahto then dialogue is unnecessary, and if religions are each unique and complete unto themselves then dialogue is impossible.
Dialogue is the willingness to step out of what we know to meet one another in the space between, the space of not-knowing. This happens only when you are willing to be addressed by another, to be transformed by the other. If I leave a dialogue unchanged I never really entered into dialogue in the first place. If my encounter with other religions leaves my Judaism untouched, I never really encountered them.
Dialogue rarely happens. Most people are too afraid of meet an other. Most of us are too busy running from mortality to stand still and “die before you die.”
In my own experiences with the faculty of the Spiritual Paths Institute true dialogue is known to happen. But only when we push one another. When my love for my friend leads to a love for what my friend loves then dialogue can happen, and then we can move beyond what we love to love itself.
Dr. Prothero doesn’t preclude this kind of transformative dialogue, he just insists that we don’t cheapen it.