God Is Not One – Book Review
by Ruby Sara
Greetings friends and strangers, from the pretty-fiercely-wild urban midwest! I don’t know if you’ve noticed, or if I’ve mentioned it at all… but it’s spring outside. There are daffodils everywhere. All along the roads and practically knocking down my door. But…even more importantly, friends, the tulips are starting to bloom! (I know, a terrible slight against daffodils, but what can I say…I just don’t like them as much as tulips. I tell you this so you don’t think I just indiscriminately enthuse about every bulb flower in existence…I have preferences like anyone else).
And speaking of flowers…religion! What do they have in common, you ask? Well, if you’re me…everything. But mostly that was just an awkward segue. Let’s move on.
Today friends, I’m very excited to be included in the virtual book tour for the new book God Is Not One by Stephen Prothero (watch a “trailer” for the book here). Prothero gained national attention with the publication of his last book, Religious Literacy, where he argued that the public is woefully uninformed about the world’s religions, mapped the history of this phenomenon, and explained why he believes that this information is critical to an engaged and holistic understanding of the world. God Is Not One is something of a continuation of this idea, presenting basic information on each of what he deems the “great” religions of the world, i.e. the information that can help create the literacy he describes in his last book. However, unlike other books to do so in the last couple of decades, Prothero focuses not on these religions’ similarities, but their (arguably more important) differences, and not little differences either, but Big Ones – Truth and Worldview differences – thus taking to task one of our most treasured liberal philosophies: that of religious perennialism.
Perennialism seems to be the interfaith buzz-baby of the century. You can barely turn around in religious studies without running up against the seemingly age-old (but not really) metaphor that “all paths lead up the same mountain.” This perspective does seem unique to religious dialogue; as Prothero cannily points out, no one argues that political ideas like libertarianism and socialism are ultimately the same at their core, but for some reason we all happily invoke the Great Mountain Metaphor when it comes to religion, which makes for fun and awkward moments when thoroughly non-monist and non-monotheist folks go to interfaith events and someone says that at the very least we “all know” that we can “agree that all Gods are One and God is Love.” See, there’s one bugaboo right there – more often than not, according to American perennialism, we all seem to be climbing an awfully monotheist and often quite Christian mountain. Hegemony, Ms. Sara? No thanks, I’ve had plenty.
Well, Prothero’s title alone should tell you where he’s going with that. God Is Not One. Religions have differences, and Prothero proposes that it is only after we understand these differences that we will be able to engage with them as they truly are, warts and fine dancing and all. It might be fairly obvious to you that I agree wholeheartedly. As long-time readers are aware, I attended a mainline protestant Christian seminary, and it was there that I first encountered viable (to me) theologies of pluralism that did not posit a perennialist argument, and those works, combined with many personal experiences extremely similar to the one referenced above, had me convinced. So I admit to being pretty excited that the subject is being tackled with such an accessible book at this moment in time. The introduction and conclusion for God Is Not One, where the bulk of Prothero’s argument against perennialism is presented, alone make for some very exciting reading for those interested in deepening interfaith dialogue.
Prothero’s unifying conceit for the eight religions explicated in the book is that each has four elements – a problem that the religion perceives, a solution to the problem, techniques for implementing the solution, and exemplars to demonstrate how to effectively go about it. Prothero admits that this formula of “problem/solution/technique/exemplar” is simplistic, but it is fairly functional…though an excellent topic of debate would be whether all religions can be said to being with a problem – do the various Pagan religions, for instance, address problems? A really really interesting question. Prothero also explains in detail his choice of the word “great” and what that means in the context of the book, explaining in detail the levels of influence he considered in measuring each religion and its place in the global conversation. With these tools in hand, God Is Not One commences with a methodical and accessible description of each of his chosen Greats (Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, and Daoism…with a brief coda regarding Atheism), and this material takes up the bulk of the book. The information is clearly presented, and while I found much of it familiar (I am easy prey for All Things Religion and therefore spend an inordinate amount of time with the subject), there was plenty of interesting, new information and perspectives. It’s a delicious thing to know that you cannot ever know everything about religion. It’s just too mutable, fiery, rich, strange, complicated and weird. I love it. Some may look at Prothero’s book and wonder why we need yet another survey of the world’s “great” religions. Those questions were addressed in Prothero’s previous book, Religious Literacy, and to me, for all that it may sometimes feel as though we are saturated by information about religion, our nation is still egregiously under-informed on the matter, and I believe the matter matters. Hugely. We are, as the book jacket for God Is Not One claims, a “furiously” religious and hugely diverse people across the globe, and we cannot truly engage with each other until we understand ourselves as such.
Pagani will want to know if Prothero talks about us. The answer is no, which is understandable given the parameters he outlines in the work. He does give Wicca a brief and inaccurate mention, placing it (in my opinion) incorrectly alongside such faiths as Zoroastrianism and not among New Religious Movements (folks still clinging to the thoroughly outdated “Wicca is an ancient religion” talking point will be thrilled), but this isn’t some outrageous error beyond our comprehension – it’s simply another reason to continue to produce sound scholarship in our communities, participate in interfaith organizations, and work to clarify our histories and identities, in the hope that contemporary religious studies will one day catch up with us.
But this admittedly expected omission of our religious group doesn’t mean the book has nothing to say to us. Quite the contrary. For example, Pagans will be particularly interested in the chapter on Yoruban religions, as certain themes addressed in the chapter seem relevant to some issues in our own communities, and of course there is some considerable crossover between the Pagani and practitioners of some African Diasporic religions. Prothero’s inclusion of Yoruban religions among his “Greats” is a deeply interesting choice, and his argument for Yoruban religion’s “solution” (or “master truth”*) as that of “connection” is compelling. Some of the highlights of the chapter include discussions of syncretism, the emphasis of practice over faith, efforts to “decatholicize” Yoruban religion, spirit possession, and contemporary scholarship’s biases towards the “East/West divide” coupled with the error of lumping all indigenous religions together instead of looking at them independently as unique, independent religious traditions. Of course, these issues in this specific context are uniquely those of the religions of Yoruba and not those of contemporary Western Pagans, but there are themes there that, as one of the latter, I find relevant to some of my own thoughts and experiences.
Likewise, the chapter on Confucianism raises some interesting ideas in regards to “thisworldly” religion that I feel is relevant to some contemporary Pagan theologies, and Prothero makes a very interesting comment (concerning the question of Confucianism as “religion” vs. “philosophy”) when he says,
If religion is about the sacred as opposed to the profane, the spirit as opposed to matter, the Creator as opposed to the created, Confucianism plainly does not qualify. But perhaps what we are to learn from this tradition is not that Confucianism is not a religion but that not all religious people parse the sacred and the secular the way Christians do. (p.107)
He goes on to talk about the “persistent, unexplored bias in the study of religion toward the extraordinary and away from the ordinary.” Given some Pagan and animist theologies of immanence and the importance of this life/body/earth over the importance of afterlife/soul/heaven, and in the context of the continued task of defining (in this case specifically earth-centered) Paganism, this seems wholly relevant, and I think that Pagans will find much to grapple with in their own personal and communal theologies here. This is not to say that the chapters on Hinduism, Daoism, and indeed Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity do not have anything to say to us – they most certainly do (as does the brief mention of Atheism near the end). These two chapters, however, caught my attention in particular.
Of course there are, as there always will be, problems with the book. Simply put, and as Prothero himself may agree, summing up a religion in a single chapter (or book, or set of books), is nigh impossible – cf. the religious section of any bookstore/library. In addition, as religious scholars are aware, there is the forever struggle with the outsider perspective (and with the tricky and problematic nature of comparative study itself, which I myself just engaged in above). When Stephen Prothero or Karen Armstrong or Huston Smith or whoever takes on the dubious task of describing a religion outside their own, problems naturally arise (cf. a whole bunch of stuff written about Pagan religions in recent memory). And they arise doubly so when attempting to describe a lot of them in a single book. There will undoubtedly be many moments when some interpretation/opinion, piece of info or lack thereof will cause someone to say “wha?” And of course there’s the matter of bias. Prothero was brought up Christian, and whether or not he currently identifies that way, this is still an influence in his life (just as secular humanism and scientific atheism, the worldviews in which I was raised, are an influence in mine, no matter how sharply I’ve diverged from them in the last 20+ years), and his chapter on Christianity in my opinion reads a little differently than the other ones – not more favorably, mind you, but certainly with more personal depth. This isn’t a flaw really, it’s just the nature of being human. Scholars have biases and worldviews they are operating in at every moment (it’s remarkable that we keep pretending that they don’t…also, slightly off topic, it also turns out that scientists have biases…I know…stop the presses). The good thing is that Prothero is honest about his. Additionally, while it will always be a monumentally difficult task to describe the world’s religions from that outsider perspective, the work is important.
Indeed, the work is important. If spiritual literacy is as critical as Prothero believes it is, and if an approach to religious studies and interfaith dialogue that moves past “naive Godthink” and is not dependent on perennialist philosophy is also needed (and I believe that the answer is yes to both), then books like this one are absolutely necessary, even in their potential flaws. No book on religion is definitive, after all. As an eminently accessible overview of some of the world’s most influential religions, and as a deeply compelling critique of religious perennialism, God Is Not One is effective, engagingly written, and deeply thought-provoking. Highly recommended.
So there you have it! This book couldn’t have come at a more interesting time for me, actually, as I’ve been pondering perennialism for quite some time now. In fact, in my next post, I’m thinking of looking further at how I think perennialism has affected Paganism and Pagan discourse. Of course…now that I’ve said that, I’m sure I will be either hugely intimidated by such a post, or the Badgers of Life ™ will immediately come along to savage my ankles and make me regret ever promising such a weighty diatribe. But you know, sometimes you just have to throw caution to the wind, Pagani. Buy the lime green socks. Eat Monday’s pizza on Wednesday. You know…live dangerously.
Grok great religion and rockin’ dialogue, Pagani! Pray ever without ceasing.
* The concept of “master truth” comes from Major Themes of the Qur’an, by Fazlur Rahman