True or Merely Useful?
It was Rodney Stark, after all, who wrote The Victory of Reason and observed, "The success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians." Question: Which religion led to the kinds of universities in which professors such as Prothero can pursue their vocations? I think Prothero knows the answer.
And which one has done the best job, say, in caring for the poor? "If you want to help the homeless, you will likely find the Christian Social Gospel more useful than Hindu notions of caste," Prothero says. "If you want to find techniques for quieting the mind through bodily exercises, you will likely find Hindu yogis more useful than Christian saints."
Useful? Which vision—quieting the mind or helping the poor—is ultimately better? Religion is all about making choices, but Prothero primly steps away at this point. He shows us the differences between faith systems, but not which ones lead us to the true, the beautiful, and the good. His even-handedness makes it seem that it doesn't really matter which faith you choose, because the differences, despite the book's sensationalistic subtitle, don't really matter. But isn't this a strange place for a book focusing on religious differences to land?
Third, we should be willing to ask followers of other faiths to try on ours, or to try theirs on ourselves. This is the test of experience, tasting the bread and the wine at the banquet. Prothero rightly notes that the great faiths don't exist in pristine isolation, under glass. They interact, learn from, correct, and rebuke one another in the real world, across the barriers of culture, geography, and time. This sometimes involves what critics call "proselytism," as if one faith is no better than another and that attempting to sway someone to adopt your own is simply gauche.
But doesn't religious pluralism require religious freedom? (Not all faiths, by the way, equally esteem this basic human right, which came from somewhere, after all.) And when people exercise this right, the results can sometimes upset the religious apple cart. It is well known in Christian missionary circles, for example, that many Muslims and Jews have found in the risen Christ the answers to questions their former faiths only hint at, and the fulfillment of deep longings that their old religions can never plumb.
Their God-given freedom to choose has sometimes caused friction, as have the choices of some Christians to embrace Islam or Judaism. Religion, after all, is much more than an academic exercise, a comparison of similarities and differences on the path up the pluralistic mountain.
In fact, to be ultimately useful, religion must become an upward-looking search for the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Because, as Prothero would heartily agree, the study of religion is not only an academic discipline. It is a personal one, too.
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us (Baker Books). He blogs at stanguthrie.com.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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