Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Book Review : God is Not One by Stephen Prothero

As a self proclaimed geek, theology junkie and church worker I was definitely intrigued when I was contacted by TLC Book Tours to review a new book by Stephen Prothero - God is not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter.  As if I would ever turn down a chance to read  book!


And the topic of this book is something I have always been curious about.  There has been a trend in religious discourse to say that all religions are part of a single Truth.  There has been a popularized idea that all religions are essentially the same and the differences amount only to a religion's details.  Despite this concepts well meaning intentions of religious tolerance, Prothero describes this as a dangerous idea:

It is comforting to pretend that the great religions make up one big, happy family, but this sentiment, however well-intentioned, is neither accurate or ethically responsible. God is not one... We know in our bones that the world's religions are different from one another. We pretend these differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, or more moral. But pretending that the world's religions are the same does not make our world safer. Like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous.
Prothero agrees that most (if not all) religions carry similar ethical and moral callings but there are main and crucial differences in the human problem that religion seeks to solve as well as the way they solve it.  For example, the human problem in a Christian viewpoint is sin and the goal then of religion is salvation.  This is intrinsically different from the problem and solution of say Buddhism where the problem is human suffering and the solution is enlightenment.  Because each religion seeks to solve a different problem they are not even seeking a similar solution.  Naturally, when you add up the differences within in religious traditions to solve the problems as well you come up with a vast network of differing points of view of the world, the divine and humanity.

For my own part I found the book fascinating and was excited to dive into it.  Since he takes 8 of the most influential and widely spread religions in order of their worldwide numbers and scope of influence Islam was the first religion discussed.  Here in describing the uniqueness of Islam was so helpful.  Prothero purposely discusses both positive and negative parts of the religious traditions and often connects them to related religious political and economic movements.  Particularly because Islam and the Muslim people are so often pigeon-holed as terrorists I found this to be refreshing and I appreciated the insight into the tenants and movements within the religion.

Ironically however I found myself wanting more from the Christianity chapter.  Perhaps this is because my own theological background is found here, but the brevity needed to talk about the wide variety of denominations, movements and historical perspectives within Christianity left me wishing he could go more in depth.  For example, from a Lutheran point of view in particular everything he said about the Reformation was true.  But I found myself saying "Yes, but..." and wishing I could add to further clarification regarding the major theological change and consequences that 95 theses had on the world.

This "Yes, but..." gave me pause throughout the rest of the book.  It was truly fascinating to read and learn about the complexities and differences of religions, particularly many of the Eastern religions that I haven't studied as thoroughly, but I kept wondering what practicing theologians would say about their own chapters.  Would they have similar desires to explain and inform the message of their religion?

In my heart I think that the answer is yes.  However this urge to explain (and to defend?) may be the exact reason that the book creates such a helpful dialogue.  Even within our specific versions of the great religion there are differences than need claiming and opportunities for tolerant dialogue about the differences.  The fact that Prothero has so much history and theological mire to wade through for each religion only cements his thesis that the differences between (and within) religions are critical to name.

I confess that I have tendencies toward wishing/hoping/believing that God's grace will be sufficient to move beyond religious distinction in the end but I see that Prothero's point is crucial in an increasingly small and connected world.  To be truly tolerant of religious belief and to find a peaceful co-existence the differences must be known, understood and claimed with authority.   Maybe it is enough to recognize that the religions of the world are asking and answering different questions.

And in the end maybe we can all admit, as Prothero writes:

If there is a god or goddess worthy of the name, He or She or It must surely know more than we do about the things that matter most.  This much, at least, is shared across the great religions.
If we can admit that, name our differences, and share our solutions to the problem of humanity then maybe religious tolerance can exist beyond the false claim that all religions are really just the same.  

*Stephen Prothero can be found at his website http://www.stephenprothero.com/.  He also tweets @sprothero.

* I was not paid to write this review and it is really just the surface of so many thoughts I have about the book.  I did get the book for free from TLC book tours however and the opportunity to write about things than interest me.

9 comments:

Kate1024 said...

Hi Liz-
thanks for the review. the book really does sound fascinating on many levels! I think, though, that maybe we all do ultimately believe in the same "big" thing- i wouldn't call it "truth," but i think there's something there about all of the religions aiming at an explanation of the "who am i?" (and what and where and how) questions we all inevitably wonder. That said, I'm not sure that "my" God isn't the same as someone else's Allah- and that, in truth, we all just arrive at the same end in different ways.
I had the chance to take Hinduism at Olaf (from Anant Rambachan), and found it fascinating to learn about the faith and beliefs themselves, but also to explore the possibility that some of those pluralistic tendencies we toy with maybe aren't so far off... and really- if we can accept those thoughts, the world just might get to be a more peaceful place.
I look forward to adding this to my list.

Amy said...

Great review! I also found that the sections on each religion were incredible and contained a huge breadth of information... but definitely it would only be a quick overview when you think about it. I am looking forward to delving into books on each specific religion in the future to learn more. I also believe that to truly live together we need to make an effort to know each other - hence why I think religious literacy is so important :)

Yo' Poppa said...

Excellent review. It is an interesting topic, but I agree with your "yes, but. . . " concerns. Summarizing 8 religions in one volume must necessarily mean some shortcuts. Each religion has had volumes written about them, so he couldn't do more than give a general overview. Probably a good place to start, though, if you want a comparison of the world's 8 major religions.

trish said...

I really related to your "Yes, but..." feeling. I haven't read the book, but when my religion is described, I feel the need to clarify. However, for purposes of this book, I understand the need to not go into extensive depth.

Anyway, thanks for being on this tour!

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for the book review! I haven't read this one, but may add it to my growing list!

Ron Krumpos said...

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 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.

Ron Krumpos said...

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.

Ron Krumpos said...

Sorry I double posted earlier. Those who believe in the kinship of faiths should join the social network of the Parliament of the World's Religions. Look at http://www.peacenext.org/profile/RonKrumpos and I would be happy to be one of your first friends there.

Dolma Lama said...

Hi liz.. I like your way of review but sound a bit bias in some paragraph .