Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Not just different mountains

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, comparative religion

I have been called a Pharisee—code for "dogmatic a**hole"—and at the time, I suppose it was true. Over time, I have come to see that people mean more than doctrines, and love more than rules, and, particularly, faith more than rituals. Sometimes this had made me wonder, am I now more Christian, or less? When I see what passes for Christian expression, I am ashamed in the designation. What is God thinking, to let such poor examples claim to witness for His Son? I have only to look at myself for the answer. Still too often rigid, too often a self-righteous jerk. It makes me cry out with Paul, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24)

Paul answers his own question in Romans 8:1, "There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." (BTW, in the best manuscripts, the verse ends there, with nothing about walking in spirit, not at this point). The answer isn't what I do, but who Jesus is. In short, the answer is not religion, it is faith; not performance, but a Person. I kept having to remind myself of this as I read Stephen Prothero's book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter.

In his introduction and elsewhere, Professor Prothero states his thesis, that the common claim that "we're all just climbing different side of the same mountain" is not just mistaken, it is fatally wrong. As I read the book I realized, not only do adherents of the different religions climb different mountains, they are in different mountain ranges on different continents. The term "worlds apart" never had more meaning than it does right here.

The author chose to limn eight religious traditions: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism and Daoism, and he has a ninth, short chapter on Atheism. For the eight, they are, as he judges, in order of importance to the next generation. Thus, while Islam is not the largest in number today, it is the fastest-growing and will dominate the twenty-first century. And, although Atheism is not a major religion in numbers, its more vocal members have had a disproportionate effect on the direction of law and culture in the West. the influence of atheists is primarily why one set of tired "PC" jokes about people who are "height challenged" (short) or "vocationally challenged" (unemployed) ends with "politically challenged" (Christian).

While the author has been as even-handed as possible, this is a book by a former Christian, written primarily for Christians and those who know primarily the Christian culture of the West. Many practices and understandings (AKA beliefs, for loose thinkers) of the "other religions" are explained by their contrast to the Judaeo-Christian cultural roots of Euro-Americans and Europeans. Fortunately, there are plenty of comparisons in a number of other directions. As a professor of religion and comparative religion, he is deeply familiar with those differences.

I find the contrasts between rather different pairings to be useful. For example, while Confucianism is all about propriety and "right action", Daoism is about flourishing and relaxing (that is, avoiding over-stress) one's way through life. Curiously, among modern Christian denominations, Baptists are more like Confucians, and Charismatics are more like Daoists, than Baptists and Charismatics are like one another. And while to most Westerners the Hindus and Buddhists seem awfully similar (and they have indeed converged a little bit in recent centuries), their aims are quite different. Hindus aim at joyful devotion to one or more deities, hoping to enjoy the many lives they expect to lead; Buddhists seek escape from both joy and pain of the endless round of reincarnations by "awakening" to a different kind of living entirely, to be incarnated no more. And I must say I was most fascinated by the inclusion of the Yoruba religion. It is no mere animistic "primitivism", but a sophisticated system with many similarities to Greek mythology, similarly expressed in epic poetry, all memorized. And if anything, the Yoruba deities are more involved in human lives and fates than the Greek pantheon.

And the biggest religious divide of the day, Islam versus Christianity? Islam arose as a reaction to the idolatry of Arabian tribal religions, and a similar idolatry in early Medieval Catholicism. The Islam visible to us in the USA continues as a reaction to the idolatry of consumerism in the professing "Christian" West. Yet the majority of the world's Muslims are in Asia, particularly Indonesia, where they don't much care what Christians do, and several religious traditions coexist side-by-side with a commendable measure of toleration.

The book left me with much to think about. I suspect a devotee of any of the religions I have mentioned will say that I have missed something essential. The larger picture I think I see is this: every religion tells stories that seek to answer "Why am I here?" and "What will give my life meaning?", including the atheist religion, even though its answers may be (this depends on which atheist you ask) "Nature doesn't need you" and "Don't bother, you are absurd." The attempt to answer "big questions" is the hallmark of religion.

I am, in the end, profoundly thankful to have found a way that does not follow any segment or sect of the Christian religion, or any other, but is bound up in a Faith that has the potential to make me utterly free from religion: "…if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." May it become so.

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