Stan Guthrie

True or Merely Useful?

All religions don't lead in the same direction.

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Prothero has given us a factual, largely irenic look at the eight most influential faith systems (though followers of Sikhism, Jainism, and Shinto—which are left out—might disagree). He provides thought-provoking essays on Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion (an interesting nod to a global form of animism), Judaism, and Daoism, with a brief discussion of atheism.

Laudably, he provides accounts "to which adherents can say 'Amen'" even as he wrestles "with the fact that in writing about any religion, one is treading on dreams." Prothero helps us begin to see other faiths the way their followers see them—no small thing. There are no hatchet jobs here, but, then again, the book becomes a little bland as it tries to give each faith the benefit of the doubt.

In the case of Islam, for instance, Prothero is quick to explain away problems (he summarizes the conflict between moderate Islam and violent Islamists as "a clash between Muslims who believe that Islamic tradition means what it says when it comes to not killing women and children, and those who do not"). He devotes six of the chapter's 40 pages to Islam's fascinating but numerically unrepresentative tradition of mysticism, which he evidently (and understandably) prefers to the strictures of Wahhabism.

Prothero at times puts a positive spin on some "difficult teachings" of the non-Christian faiths. This includes the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, which says we have no permanent distinctiveness (or difference) from anyone or anything else. He reinterprets it as a "teaching of freedom," because it "liberates us from enslavement to people, judgments, objects, and ideas, including the person of Buddha and the institutions of Buddhism itself." Of course, so does Christianity, but in a completely different way!

And why does Prothero feel constrained to present all the religions positively, anyway? (One wonders what he would have done with ancient Baal worship.) Why must these different religions all be viewed optimistically? Isn't optimism a distinctly Western value? The approach here seems very American.

I wonder if a fair and comprehensive understanding of the various religions is even possible if the writer, an acknowledged sympathetic outsider to the faiths, cannot or will not acknowledge his own biases? On what evaluative ground does he stand? It's hard to tell. As a non-participant, the BU professor of religion has tried to give us the good and bad points of these faiths—at least by his lights. Still, I am reminded of the Middle Eastern saying, "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer." How close can Prothero get to the religions as a friend to all of them?

Unfortunately, often it seems as if the reader is left to discern not whether a faith is good or bad, but simply what Prothero likes about it and what he doesn't. Prothero says that, for example, the Qur'an's "fear-mongering" on the torments of hell as an inducement to become a Muslim produced in him a certain "disquiet."

Is there more to a religion than how it makes us feel? Our feelings, after all, are determined to a large extent by our upbringing and culture. Yes, most Muslims will feel the need to submit to Allah, because that is all they've heard about. But does Prothero's disquiet about hell tell us something substantive about the reality (or not) of the afterlife, or about Prothero?

You can only learn so much by peering through the stained-glass window. In the end, there simply is no substitute for walking in the door, sitting down, picking up your fork, and taking part in the banquet. As the biblical invitation wisely says: "Taste and see that the Lord is good."

And at some point, we must face the question of truth. As Jesus asked, "Who do you say that I am?" We could put the same query in the mouths of the other founders of the world's great faiths: Confucius, Muhammad, and Siddhartha Gautama among them. We have to decide because, as my former pastor Kent Hughes said, "It's only life or death!" Even not deciding is a decision. So how do we get beyond our own preferences and find out which religion to follow?

Certainly we can start by asking how well each world religion fulfills its own criteria, which Prothero does well. For if it cannot do even that, then we are well advised to look elsewhere. As Jesus said without fear of contradiction, "A tree is known by its fruit." So do the sincere followers of Allah submit to the Divine better than the rest of us? Have faithful Christians experienced actual deliverance from sin? Are Hindus more devoted?

A second way to evaluate the fruit is to see how these religions have affected history, society, and culture. Evaluating the influence of each faith, Prothero makes a decent start here, but there is much more to be said. Which religion, in a word, has done the most good? For example, while Prothero labels atheism "the way of reason," he will get an argument from Christians.

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