This week I read God is Not One by Steven Prothero. It’s a summary of the eight major religions of the world, the problem they seek to solve, and the solutions they offer. It stands firmly against the theory that all religions lead to the same God, just by different paths. This book points out the vital differences of each religion–not to mention each religion’s concept or non-concept of God–and firmly denounces the theory as misleading and harmful.
In this I am conflicted. I cannot agree with the title: God is one. Now, man’s concepts of God are not. And religion? There is no stability within a single religion, much less across several! I agree that to say all religions lead to the same concept of God is misleading and harmful to religious tolerance (as Prothero points out, what is there to tolerate if they’re all the same?), but I believe that the same God is the well-spring of all truth–religious and non-religious. Naturally, this put me at odds with the book’s thesis from the get-go, but not in such a way that I could not learn, nor was I blind to the merits of Prothero’s arguments. My view did change some as I read this book. In some ways, though, it is more firmly set than ever.
I got this book for a couple reasons. One, because I am woefully out of touch with other religions. Religious education isn’t just a non-priority in American public school, it’s a pariah. If anyone so much as whispers about religion, you can practically hear the sirens and warning bells go off. According to Prothero’s book, America is the most religiously diverse country in the world. I believe it. But, for being so religiously diverse, we are woefully uneducated. That was reason number one. Number two was a bit more personal: I wanted to learn more about myself. You see, I’ve found it to be universally true that when I study a religious text, I discover more of myself. It happened over and over in college (English majors study a lot of religious or quasi-religious literature) and again when I read Campbell’s Myths of Light. It doesn’t matter when, if I sit down with a critical text of a mythology, I come out knowing more about me than I usually do about the subject. Studying any religion brings light and knowledge of myself in my world. I love it. Perhaps this is why I’ve chosen mythology as my career: I want to keep learning as much as I can, but more than that I want to keep learning about myself.
So, with that approach, I’ve learned some fascinating things. I’ve learned that I am just about as religiously illiterate as I thought I was, maybe a skoch less because I did read Myths of Light earlier this year and that gave me a decent introduction to Buddhism and Hinduism. But still, I learned so much! I love learning! I learned how very spiritual Confucianism is, despite the fact that there is no traditional God the way I am used to. And, even though that distinct difference is there, many of the principles of Confucianism are ethical guidelines I try to live by, but much better expressed. Christians are not very good at expressing things, this I have noted before, but the side-by-side comparison in this book brought that fact into sharp relief. The beautiful poetry of other religions is just amazing. Christians don’t really have anything on par with that.
There is much I would like to talk about and I can’t even really call it spoilers because, well, there’s no plot! But I won’t. I feel very strongly that this book is one you need to come to on your own. However, if there is one last thing I want to talk about, it’s how respectful Prothero is. And by respectful I do NOT mean that he paints a sunshine and daisies world-view of religion. No. Prothero presents the good (for every religion works so hard to be good), but also the bad: Christians and Inquisition, Islamic extremism, Confucianism and sexism, etc. He does not shy away from the fact that for every good there is at least one bad, that religion can be a damaging or helpful thing depending on whose hands it’s being used by.
I was so very impressed at the level of respect he maintained throughout all of this. He kept the conversation open. I felt as if I were in that perfect lecture that every serious college student dreams about attending: there are questions to be asked and answered, the professor is knowledgeable, and–best of all–you feel as if you are learning without any indoctrination. That is hard to come by in a manuscript about religion. Campbell certainly didn’t manage it, and he was one of the best!
The different faces of God presented in this book (or the different Gods, if that’s how you see it) are fascinating. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who feels they don’t know enough about world religion and who wants to think for a while. Thinking about who you are, religiously and just as a person, is one of the most rewarding parts of reading a book. It’s why I started this project, and this kind of book is exactly the kind of experience I wanted.
See you next week!