Monday, May 30, 2011

Review: God Is Not One

Curiosity and a bout of soul-searching led me to God Is Not One, Stephen Prothero's primer on eight world religions. As a reviewer points out, the book's title is misleading since it's not so much a long argument against the idea that all major religions essentially worship the same God but an introduction to each one.

It's a book that often made me feel like I was a student in Prothero's World Religions 101 class at Boston University, and I mean that in a good way. You can sense Prothero's enthusiasm for the subject matter. Each chapter is lengthy enough to go beyond the basics of the religion and into some truly searching questions.

I was long overdue to read a book like this one since I had never really studied world religions. I've studied Christianity (and a bit about Judaism in the course of that) and I once read a book on Islam. But I knew only a thimble-ful about Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism, virtually nothing about Confucianism, and I hadn't even heard of Yoruba religion.

For each religion, there were aspects that I thought jibed with the human experience and that even made me think I should become a convert. It's also interesting how concepts repeat across the religions -- bodhisattvas and divine grace, stories, rituals, mysticism, and getting in touch with your "true" self, just to name a few.

Another thing I found surprising is how many religions are focused on the here and now of life, not on trying to understand the divine. "Ultimately Buddhism is more about experience than doctrine," Prothero writes. And, "whatever 'religion' there is in Confucianism takes place here and now in this world of pain and overcoming."

The tour of religions ends with a coda on atheism, where Prothero asks if atheism itself is a religion. Hmm, interesting...

So maybe there are similarities among the religions, but is there any one common thread running through all of them? "Even in traditions of escape from the sin and suffering of this world, religion works not so much to help us flee from our humanity as to bring us home to it," Prothero says in the conclusion. Something I'll continue to ponder....

But he quickly gets back to the argument that rather than trying to force all religions into some false unity, we should strive to get to know and understand faiths other than our own, and have a dialogue in a non-combative way. It seems like the right approach, though easier said than done.

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