Book explores religions and the significance of difference

by Tracy Tiemeier

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By Stephen Prothero
Published by HarperOne, $16.99

In a world rife with religious conflict and militant fundamentalism, the temptation is strong to emphasize the unity of religions. On one side, those hostile to religion will blame all religions for similarly perpetuating ignorance and violence. For these people, the world would be a safer place without religion. On the other side, those eager to promote interreligious harmony will argue that religions are really different paths up the same mountain. For these people, the world would be a safer place if only people could understand that, basically, all religions are saying the same thing.

According to Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University who has appeared everywhere from CNN to “The Colbert Report,” both sides are wrong. Even as adherents of religious traditions are party to some of the most egregious violations of human dignity, they are also behind some of the most powerful movements for peace and justice. Moreover, he contends, religious particularities and distinctions matter profoundly to believers. For him, it is therefore disrespectful to religions and their practitioners to dismiss or patronize them by claiming they are all the same. They all may be asking and answering big questions, but they have their own big questions that they think are significant as well as their own answers. They offer distinctive diagnoses of the human predicament, solutions to that problem, and techniques and exemplars for reaching that solution.

Given this central insight, Prothero sets out to present eight religious traditions of the world (Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Yoruba religion, Judaism and Daoism, with an additional chapter on atheism). He does this accessibly, but also in a way that highlights their unique approaches to the world. The result is a highly readable -- yet also detailed -- survey of world religions.

I absolutely agree with Prothero on the significance of religious differences. Both Hinduism and Christianity may have theologies of divine incarnation, but that does not mean Hindu theologies of incarnation are the same as Christian ones. In fact, they are quite different. To pretend they are the same is to gloss over the distinctiveness of both traditions and to miss their unique spiritual insights.

At the same time, it is essential to remember that an emphasis on religious difference is no more a panacea for religious conflict than an emphasis on religious sameness. If a focus on sameness can ignore the uniqueness of religious traditions and persons, a focus on difference can separate religious traditions and persons. Differences can easily become chasms.

Prothero admits, “Whether religion divides or unites also depends on whether we can learn to talk about it with some measure of empathetic understanding.” Toward that end, Prothero provides moments where readers are invited to come to a new appreciation of beliefs or practices that might at first glance seem problematic to outsiders of the religion. For example, he raises difficult Quranic passages on the horrors of hell and on the injunction not to befriend Jews and Christians. Not only does he explain those passages in their historical context, he shares his own shift from horror to appreciation and relates how Muslim friends reinterpret those passages for the modern world. Sections like these are important for understanding and appreciating how religious traditions are responding to the distinct challenges they face.

But such empathetic insights are few and far between. More often than not, Prothero opts for an impersonal presentation that does not provide any empathetic crossover into what really makes these distinctive traditions so rich. Prothero’s motivation for limiting commentary during his presentation of the religions is understandable. We all see the way religion is treated in the American public square, both by the political left and the political right. We yearn for something else. In light of that, Prothero’s plea for “a voice that sounds more like the old-fashioned news gathering of CBS and the BBC than like the contemporary vituperations of Fox News and MSNBC” makes sense.

Unfortunately, such an impersonal voice informs without necessarily inspiring positive transformation. In fact, it can serve to alienate religious persons from each other. Like the faraway voice of a news report, a distant presentation of religion can sound like curious details about people and places far away that we simply file away for dinner conversation. Or worse, those disconnected factual details can confirm one’s suspicion that other religious traditions are hopelessly different from our own, and therefore are unworthy of respect.

Further preventing the necessary empathy Prothero ultimately calls for is his ranking of the religions according to their greatness. By greatness, he means influence, not goodness. Of course, one can define influence in any number of ways. This makes Prothero’s ranked order (Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism and Daoism) both arbitrary and problematic. What is the purpose of ranking religions according to greatness? It seems to contribute neither to religious literacy nor to empathy. If anything, it perpetuates the idea that these traditions are fundamental rivals.

As a Catholic immersed in the world of interreligious dialogue, I cannot help but hope for something more. I want the faith of the person to be integral to the conversation. I want the impetus to understand another religion or religious person to come from a profound sense of religious commitment (and not despite it). For me, it is my Catholic faith that calls me to know and love all my religious (and nonreligious) neighbors in their unique ways, to appreciate their spiritual riches, and to cooperate with them in building a better world.

In the end, Prothero’s insight on religious difference is important, as is his accessible presentation of the religions of the world. While I noticed a number of factual errors and misleading statements, the book does provide a good overview of the religious traditions it considers. At the same time, the book could do much more to move readers to a deeper sense of appreciation in difference and unity without sameness. Without that deeper sense, an emphasis on difference simply breeds confusion, apathy and even intolerance.

[Tracy Sayuki Tiemeier is assistant professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.]

A reading list to delve into world faiths

Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One sparked an interesting discussion among my friends and colleagues about what texts on world religions we might recommend to a mostly Catholic Christian audience. We thought it important to include a variety of approaches, balancing descriptive accounts, theological perspectives and spiritual encounters. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is a beginning for those interested to do some further reading.

-- Tracy Sayuki Tiemeier

  • Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel (Beacon Press, 2010)

  • A Border Passage: From Cairo to America -- a Woman’s Journey by Leila Ahmed (Penguin Books, 2000)

  • A Christian’s Guide to Judaism by Michael Lotker (Paulist Press, 2004)

  • A Concise Introduction to World Religions (Second Edition), edited by Willard Oxtoby and Alan Segal (Oxford University Press, 2011)

  • Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras by Diana L. Eck (Beacon Press, 2003)

  • Faith Among Faiths: Christian Theology and Non-Christian Religions by James L. Fredericks (Paulist Press, 1999)

  • Hindu Wisdom for All God’s Children by Francis X. Clooney, S.J. (Wipf & Stock, 2005)

  • Jewish-Christian Dialogue: One Woman’s Experience (Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality) by Mary C. Boys (Paulist Press, 1997)

  • Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun by Faith Adiele (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004)

  • Oil & Water: Two Faiths: One God by Amir Hussain (CopperHouse, 2006)

  • Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian by Paul F. Knitter (Oneworld, 2009)

  • World Religions: Eastern Traditions (Third Edition), edited by Willard Oxtoby and Roy Amore (Oxford University Press, 2010)

  • World Religions: Western Traditions (Third Edition), edited by Willard Oxtoby and Amir Hussain (Oxford University Press, 2010)

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