Stephen Prothero, a professor at Boston University, is fast becoming our national tutor in Religion 101. America’s most visible advocate of—and advertisement for—religious literacy, Prothero is both a terrific teacher and a prolific author, one whose erudite but stylish writings are a delight to read. Reading him is like sitting in the class of a brilliant lecturer who dishes out one gleaming felicity after another. We learn, for instance, that when Siddhartha was on the threshold of Awakening and about to become the Buddha, Mara, the demon of sensory pleasure, “sensing trouble...sent a Bangkok of distractions his way.” Or that despite his wife Sita’s impeccable fidelity, Rama, the jealous hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana, “apparently has some trust issues.” Or that the Buddha himself, cognizant of the power and ambiguity of language, “was forever passing his carefully chosen words through a colander of the useful.”

The eight chapters at the heart of Prothero’s new book, God Is Not One, lead the reader through what in lesser hands would be a confusing farrago of religions—their founders, historical peaks and valleys, competing schools of interpretation and practice, and contemporary relevance. Each chapter explores the problem articulated by the religion in question, then goes on to examine its solution (the goal of the religion), its technique for moving from problem to solution, and an exemplar or two who mastered that technique and reached the destination. Hewing to this scheme without becoming mechanical is no small feat, but Prothero pulls it off. God Is Not One lets us glean something of the complexity of each tradition, with the help of shrewdly chosen vignettes and anecdotes. Thus a typically pithy discussion of the relationship between law (halakhah) and narrative (aggadah) in Judaism culminates in the response of an Orthodox rabbi to the question of which—law or story—is the more important. “I give you a Jewish answer,” the rabbi tells our scribe. “You can’t have one without the other. Those who forget the law eventually forget to tell the story.”

Comparisons across traditions are offered sparingly in God Is Not One, but helpfully. Daoism and Confucianism, we learn, share with Judaism a this-worldly preoccupation, but whereas Daoism focuses on the natural, and Confucianism on the social, Judaism focuses on the ethical. Hinduism’s jnana yogis stand with Theravadin Buddhism’s arhats in “the self-help” tradition of individual merit-making.  And finally, when both Hinduism and Yoruba religion arrived in America, they crowded their gods and orishas, respectively, into the same temple or shrine: no single-deity dwellings, as in the homeland. In Prothero’s deft hands, such illuminating contrasts function less as exercises in comparative analysis than as windows to the richness and diversity of the religions he surveys.

The task of capturing the genius of eight enormously complicated faith traditions over many centuries is a herculean one, and inevitably, perhaps, some errors and questionable judgments creep in to the discussion. Breezy sometimes leads to sloppy. Prothero’s breathless race through contemporary Islamism accepts uncritically the Glenn Beck–ish conflation of politically and theologically diverse Muslim movements into one “anti-Western and anti-American ideology applied to political ends by groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories and, of course, al-Qaeda.” The truth is that such advocates of political Islam as the supporters of the ruling party in Turkey, the Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, and the Tunisian reformer Rashid Al-Ghannouci are anything but “anti-American and anti-Western”; and one winces to witness Prothero, a sensitive educator who should know better, lump them together with thugs like Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, inadvertently advancing the know-nothing culture wars that infect American public discourse.

There are other problems. The chapters at the heart of God Is Not One are introduced by a straw man, an imagined contemporary thinker who presumes that the great religions “make up one big happy family.” Does such a person truly exist? And do we really need to be told, and re-told, that the differences among these religions “have real effects in the world,” especially—cue the media and the morning headlines—“the clashes of religion that threaten us worldwide”?

More seriously, the book suffers a confusion of argument evident in its attention-grabbing but misleading title. God Is Not One routinely conflates “the religions” and “God.” Prothero’s argument is really about the former, not the latter, but the two are related in ways he cares not to address. This evasiveness remains a weakness of the “religious studies” approach and its agnostic methodology. In a well-intentioned but naive move, religionists set aside the question of “truth” in favor of description and academic analysis. This detour around the quicksands of subjective belief and interreligious one-upmanship effectively ignores the God question: Is there One? How do the many religions reflect, or fail to reflect, the divine reality? This in turn renders discussion of religious diversity less interesting and valuable. Such an exercise becomes merely “academic,” in the most sterile sense of that term.

In other words, Prothero uses “God” to mean “the gods of the various religions, taken collectively.” But even the assertion that the various religions ultimately embrace different gods contradicts some of the evidence Prothero himself presents. (“The world’s religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics,” he admits, even though “they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law.”) Yes, these religions—including some, like Confucianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, that may or may not be “religions” at all—are substantively different from one another, and not merely in minor matters, but on fundamental questions of God.

But are the substantive differences among religions really as profound as our lurid clash-of-religions headlines suggest? In his unfortunate introduction, and again in a brief conclusion, Prothero offers a choice between due acknowledgment of “religious diversity” and “the sort of naive Godthink that lumps all other religious paths into either opposites or mirror images of your own.” Yet there is a third way. The late, great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner took a lot of grief for his notion of “anonymous Christians,” with its message of “When you do good, brother, you are one of us.” But Rahner’s formulation, made in the still-benighted days of Christian triumphalism, was a huge step forward (earlier generations would simply have lumped the extra ecclesiam into the category nulla sallus); and as usual with Rahner, the point was deeper, and conveyed more than mere theological imperialism or narcissism. Rahner’s knowledge of other spiritual-mystical traditions had convinced him that the world’s great religions had survived and thrived by responding, through their own historical and cultural grids, to the One God—however they parsed, philosophized, reduced, and otherwise distorted Him. The corollary concession of Vatican II–era Roman Catholic catholicity was not that the Buddhists, say, got it right—but that, more often than not, they were at least engaged with, and responding to, The One.

There may be less, ultimately, to religious differences than our typically superficial approach allows—or than Prothero’s excellent book admits. Consider what might be revealed by reversing the question from “How are they different?” to “What do they share?” To adherents of the various religious traditions, one might put the question: Is there a “Reality” that encompasses, envelops, absorbs, orders, eludes, and masters you as individuals and as a people, across generations and millennia, through every human experience from sexual intercourse and childbirth to suffering, debilitation, and death? Does “it,” or the idea of it, draw you into forests and deserts, as well as toward citadels of earthly power? Does it evoke and refine and sustain all that is considered noble in your culture, and yet also underwrite the most horrific inhumanities? Does it befuddle the theorists and scientists, confusing the proud in their inmost thoughts? Are you virtually compelled to turn “it” into an object of worship—even those heaven-renouncing Buddhists and Confucians among you?

These religions may not all genuflect to the implied “unity beyond diversity” underlying these phenomenological touchstones. But, tellingly, the traditions that qualify unambiguously as “religions,” including (to my mind) Buddhism and Hinduism, boast mystical and spiritual strains that persistently inform, temper, and critique the differentiating tendency of each religion to spin out its own culturally resonant gods and cosmologies. Prothero’s book is replete with such clues as the following: “Like ‘drunken’ Sufis who laugh off the Five Pillars as baby steps on the road to Islamic adulthood, Buddhists who experience the mystery of emptiness recognize that ultimately all dualisms are figments of the ordinary mind.... [and that] there is no essential distinction between lay and monastic, male and female, the bodhisattva who does the liberating and the person who is liberated.”

Animated by this “passion for the infinite,” mystics within Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism either stroll or strain toward transcendence-in-immanence. Something—some One?—seems to be tugging them toward a “place,” a still center, where historical contingency and our impoverished language cannot reach. Therein lies the path to a working dialogue, if not a comfortable unity. Or so might a reconstructed Rahner suggest.

Stephen Prothero is a superb teacher, and I gladly put myself in his hands. But I would say to him that if we must keep an eye on the headlines in order to be effective teachers in today’s media-saturated public square, let’s at least get our own headline right. The lede embedded in Prothero’s near-tour-de-force is: “Religions Are Not One.” True; yet to those with eyes to see, they certainly appear drawn to the One. And, further, in their most profound moments of discovery and response, when their exemplars were tugged deep beneath the surface hoopla, some of these religions seem to have found Her.


Related: No Easy Answers: The Necessary Challenge of Interreligious Dialogue, by James L. Fredericks

R. Scott Appleby is the Marilyn Keough Dean of the Keough School of Global Affairs and professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

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Published in the 2010-10-08 issue: View Contents
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