Religion’s glorious complexity

FAITH IN ACTION By Katherine Marshall My grandmother, a very wise woman, gave me a piece of advice that sticks … Continued


By Katherine Marshall

My grandmother, a very wise woman, gave me a piece of advice that sticks in my mind to this day: “A gingerbread he went to Rome, a gingerbread he came home.” She was urging that, going into any new adventure or faced with any new idea, I should not be stuffy and stuck in the outlines of the way I understood things, because if I did, I would miss the chance to learn and change. Doing things that way, I might just as well stay home.

My grandmother’s admonition came to mind in reading Stephen Prothero’s new book, ‘God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter.’ Prothero’s tour of Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, and Daoism (with a coda for atheism) sets some interesting pecking orders and boundaries. The order in which he lists the traditions reflects his assessment of relative overall importance in world politics. And each section has both a broad introduction to the tradition’s vast history and present realities, and suggests what he sees as unresolved problems and internal tensions.

Most of all, though, Prothero is taking on what he sees as a set of dangerous tendencies to lump religions together, whether as universally wonderful and enlightened, or (referring to the fiery atheists) “the same idiocy, the same poison”. The more I learn about this world of religion, the more I share his conviction that “religion” or “faith” is indeed not one. The vast diversity of faiths is a stunning reality that is both fascinating and important. This is as true in looking at today’s thinking about the ethics of war and justice as it is in debating the best way to care for orphans or to conserve water and forests.

In tracing and implicitly comparing religions, Prothero takes on a monumental task that traverses live minefields: he is trying to highlight the differentiating strengths and wisdoms of each tradition, but also their more problematic facets. Daoism, for example, has a powerful bond to enjoyment of nature and to nurturing what life has to offer. But it also can fade into abstraction. He touches somewhat lightly and carefully on the different views of gender roles that distinguish different faiths. Fortunately, to my mind, Prothero’s exploration does not lend itself much to oversimplifying sound bytes. But, for all the glorious complexity, his overall, fairly simple message is that differences are real and they matter. It is all very well to identify and celebrate common ethical understandings (like the “Golden Rule” – do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you). But we have to go beyond and face the differences, because we need to grapple with them at every level of life and policy.

The foundation for much of Prothero’s argument is his earlier and sobering book (“Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t”). There he tracks the growing ignorance about even our own religious traditions that cuts across American society. In the new book he reiterates that “both tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know something about whomever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.” And understanding religion is optional: “Even if religion makes no sense to you, you need to make sense of religion to make sense of the world.”

Some of Prothero’s most insightful comments grapple with the puzzle of why interfaith dialogue has been for so long stuck in a rut of well-intentioned people driven by an ethical imperative to get along with neighbors in a turbulent world. That’s just not good enough today, he argues, when the great religions are willy nilly reshaping geopolitics as well as local communities. The new interfaith – Interfaith 2.0, he calls it, must be driven by an awareness of the depth of the basic questions each faith tradition poses, and real differences in the way they answer them. Only with real knowledge and understanding is it possible to find meaningful and creative ways to bridge the divides.

I have no idea how my grandmother came to her gingerbread advice, but she was, like Prothero, pointing to the wonders of diversity and how much we have to learn from the richness of world cultures. Both make the case for asking life’s big questions and listening to different answers. There are infinite lessons to learn from exploring the fundamental questions that each religious tradition has grappled with over millennia of history. And we can see far more clearly today than in the past, when knowledge and experience were more compartmentalized, that the questions are bewildering in their complexity. But if we do not open up and explore the paths that are open to us, we might, as my grandmother said, just as well stay home.

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

By Katherine Marshall | 
May 23, 2010; 10:40 PM ET

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Faith in Action

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  • usapdx

    If only people of the world whould know the history of religions, ask questions, have a open mind . Many religions but only one GOD for most. What do you non practiicing atheists think of this?

  • safiyah111

    Wonderfully refreshing and love your grandmother’s warning. The major religions are really different and polite conversations about those difference would go along way toward a meaningful and honest respect for faiths other than someone’s own. A wonderful example of this is from Islam as the second Khalif, Umar ibn al-Khattab (radhiAllahu anhu), understood both Christianity and Judiasm, allowed for it practice within the Muslim world and treated the members of those religions with both respect and fairness. He understood that neither of those religions was Islam and never soft pedaled the differences because he knew they mattered.

  • PSolus

    “If only people of the world whould know the history of religions, ask questions, have a open mind .”No thanks; too many people have been killed for asking the wrong questions of the wrong religions.”Many religions but only one GOD for most.”Actually, many imaginary gods.”What do you non practiicing atheists think of this?”What, exactly, is a “non practiicing atheist”?

  • YEAL9

    Did the professor mention Paganism in his book? If not, he neglected the great effect the horned one and his goddesses have on all of us?? Or maybe paganism is not mentioned on the streets of puritanical Boston? Or maybe he read the following:”Starhawk: The Pagan Pat RobertsonEarlier this month, I mentioned my disdain for pagan activist Starhawk. But I did not appreciate just how nutty she is until my wife directed me to Starhawk’s A Pagan Response to Katrina.

  • Secular

    The atheist do not lump all religions into one. But all of them do on some issues have the same position. The main one among them is in all case their fundamental belief that there is a supernatural being. We atheists vehemently maintain that is without merit, as there is no basis in fact for that assertion. Other than that we all maintain that there are varying degrees of stupidity & superstition these religions adhere to. Case in point, if Judaism is W units of silliness and Christianity X, Islam y, and Mormonism is say Z. Then we can safely say that W

  • Secular

    For some reason my post got clipped.Then we can safely say that W

  • Secular

    Looks like this blog doe snot like symbols.W is less than X is less Than Y. Likwise, W is less than, X is less than Z. And Y is different from Z.

  • wpc09

    People make the error of assigning absolute claims to truth for all religions for all time. By doing this, they then pit each against the other in an endless azrgument over exclusivity. This fails to take into account that each religion was a prescription for a specific need or “disease” at a particular time and/or among a particular people. For a Baha’i (a follower of Baha’u’llah) – which Prothero leaves out of his book – one has to grasp that religiouos revelation is a set of progressively revealed dispensations throughout time through individuals the Baha’is call Manifestations of God. With this perspective, one can contemplate certain level of oneness in spiritual principle (for instance, the golden rule, which is in every religion) and the differentiation among their specific practices and understandings that occurs because of the time and place of their revelation.”That the divers communions of the earth, and the manifold systems of religious belief, should never be allowed to foster the feelings of animosity among men, is, in this Day, of the essence of the Faith of God and His Religion. These principles and laws, these firmly-established and mighty systems, have proceeded from one Source, and are rays of one Light. That they differ one from another is to be attributed to the varying requirements of the ages in which they were promulgated.””The utterance of God is a lamp, whose light is these words: Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship. He Who is the Daystar of Truth beareth Me witness! So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth. The One true God, He Who knoweth all things, Himself testifieth to the truth of these words.”(Baha’i scriptures)

  • areyousaying

    Spirituality need not and is not complex at all. Man has created the complexity to stupefy, mystify, dazzle, guilt, mesmerize, scare and manipulate the masses. The main problem with religion, especially the Abrahamic ones is ethnocentrism or a stubborn, uncompromising It’s real simple – we all are one. Any attempt to separate, exclude, judge or condemn any part of us is like one cutting off his big toe because he thinks it is ugly.

  • timmy2

    Perhaps somebody could name a religion that does not pretend to know things that it does not know. All religions that I have ever seen do this. And I can cite specific examples from all of them. I have not yet come across a religion that I can not lump into the one category of “pretending to know things they do not know.”Can anyone give me an example of one that does not?