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.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
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Ah, you beat me to it. I was going to ask you about this book in class.
Thank you for your post Rabbi Rami.
I have to agree with you, that on the surface, there seems to be a great difference of images.
However, lately, its been drawn to my attention, that underlying the surface of each symbol, underlying the immediate reaction to the image of Buddha under the Bodhi tree, or the blood dripping from the tortured Christ upon a cross - there is a profound similarity.
I've seen the tree turn into a cross before my eyes. The unity of spirit and matter. The Tree of Life, the symbolic movement sacrifice of egoic 'right and wrong' to a higher power that is not rewarded in terms that the ego can understand.
The tree of Inanna, Ishtar, Raymond Lull, Assyrian tree - the tree image - being culturally moulded into that one can understand.
A basic fundamental truth, is All is One. But perhaps I still agree with you, and that all religions do not interpret that in the same way one the mystic is hit with transforming that information into language.
In the interests of interfaith/nonfaith dialogue, Rami, we should get together and compare notes: American Spirituality, Atheism & Spirituality. Maybe explore a grand synthesis: American Atheist Spirituality? Phil
Sam--have a great summer! Tiffany, I wonder what Prothero would say about Joseph Campbell's approach to religion? The Bo Tree, the Tree of the Cross, the Trees in Eden-- are they all Axis Mundi?
And Phil--let's talk. I'm around all summer.
I guess this reminds me of the blind men and the elephant. We can't possibly see the whole thing at once so we call different parts of It God. And then fight over who has gotten it right. So religions by their own being seem to constantly have to prove something else wrong. How do you talk to someone who isn't even listening to what you had to say because they are spending so much time screaming how they know ultimate truth. I don't even try to pretend that I get the whole picture but so many others are willing to kill in order to prove their points.
It would be nice if we could all get our blind butts into the same place and try to explain what we are feeling and "seeing", maybe then we'll actually see the whole elephant. Anyway, thanks for the reading suggestion.
Rabbi Rami, I just came across 'The Rose of the World'. Daniel Andreev. I haven't read it yet, but its promising to be interesting. I thought of similarities in timing between Campbell and Andreev and their visions.
Andrea, I find the blind men and the elephant a very helpful image. I guess Prothero is just saying we shouldn't reduce the head to the tail or vice versa. I never say all religions are equally true, but that all religions are equally false.
I looked up Rose of the World and it does look interesting. Let me know what you think, Tiffany.
I know about my previous birth. My most Revered Guru of my previous life His Holiness Maharaj Sahab, 3rd Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith had revealed this secret to me during trance like state.
HE told me, “Tum Sarkar Sahab Ho” (You are Sarkar Sahab). Sarkar Sahab was one of the most beloved disciple of His Holiness Maharj Sahab.
Since I don’t have any direct realization of it so I can not claim the extent of its correctness. But it seems to be correct. During my previous birth I wanted to sing the song of ‘Infinite’ but I could not do so then since I had to leave the mortal frame at a very early age. But through the unbounded Grace and Mercy of my most Revered Guru that desire of my past birth is being fulfilled now.
Orthodox, institutional religions are quite different, but their mystics have much in common. A quote from the chapter "Mystic Viewpoints" in my e-book at http://www.suprarational.org on comparative mysticism:
Ritual and Symbols. The inner meanings of the scriptures, the spiritual teachings of the prophets and those personal searchings which can lead to divine union were often given lesser importance than outward rituals, symbolism and ceremony in many institutional religions. Observances, reading scriptures, prescribed acts, and following orthodox beliefs cannot replace your personal dedication, contemplation, activities, and direct experience. Preaching is too seldom teaching. For true mystics, every day is a holy day. Divine revelation is here and now, not limited to their sacred scriptures.
Conflicts in Conventional Religion. "What’s in a Word?" outlined some primary differences between religions and within each faith. The many divisions in large religions disagreed, sometimes bitterly. The succession of authority, interpretations of scriptures, doctrines, organization, terminology, and other disputes have often caused resentment. The customs, worship, practices, and behavior within the mainstream of religions frequently conflicted. Many leaders of any religion had only united when confronted by someone outside their faith, or by agnostics or atheists. Few mystics have believed divine oneness is exclusive to their religion or is restricted to any people.
Note: This is just a consensus to indicate some differences between the approaches of mystics and that of their institutional religion. These statements do not represent all schools of mysticism or every division of faith. Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.
In an earlier comment I had mentioned the similarity of the mystical traditions vs. the difference of orthodox religious doctrines, as outlined in my e-book at www.suprarational.org In fairness to Dr. Prothero, I came across a later editorial review in which he states:
"Mystics often claim that the great religions differ only in the inessentials. They may be different paths but they are ascending the same mountain and they converge at the peak. Throughout this book I give voice to these mystics: the Daoist sage Laozi, who wrote his classic the Daodejing just before disappearing forever into the mountains; the Sufi poet Rumi, who instructs us to "gamble everything for love"; and the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, who revels in the feminine aspects of God. But my focus is not on these spiritual superstars. It is on ordinary religious folk—the stories they tell, the doctrines they affirm, and the rituals they practice. And these stories, doctrines, and rituals could not be more different. Christians do not go on the hajj to Mecca; Jews do not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity; and neither Buddhists nor Hindus trouble themselves about sin or salvation."
Stephen Prothero makes it quite clear that he is not dealing so much with the spiritual oneness of god but with the differences occuring within each persons environment and hence tradition.
Obviously anyone praying to god, regardless of their name for god or their religious background will be praying to god. The big difference occurs when a group of people from different races, environments and different socio economic backgrounds isolated from each other for thousands of years create their own perceptions and traditions of god. Each of them claim that only their religion will provide salvation.
It is not the belief in god which is different, only the rules (traditions)created by man which are different.
Read my review! www.godisnotone.com
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