Keywords: Stephen Prothero; religious literacy; Christianity; pluralism; spirituality; Dalai Lama; Buddhism; Jesus Christ; Huston Smith; Karen Armstrong
Stephen Prothero’s (see photo) new book is getting good reviews, even in The New York Times, but it leaves me cold. I shouldn’t say so without having read it — which I won't do. I did use Amazon’s “surprise me” feature, which shows pages chosen randomly, out of order. I had already decided I disagreed with Prothero and the “surprise” pages only confirmed that.
The book is called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't. What Prothero thinks we (and surely he would include Canadians here) need to know is the details about a number of religious traditions — especially one’s own. He would certainly want Christians to know a lot about the history of Christianity, but he’d also want them to know the difference between the teachings of specific denominations or theological strands of Christianity: how Calvinists differ from free-will Evangelicals, for example. And he’d want us all to be moderately well informed about the distinctive doctrines of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and so on, rather than lumping them all together as a generic stew called religion.” To him, each tradition must be respected for its own uniqueness. On page 121 he objects to the pluralistic notion that
“all religions were different paths up the same mountain, and that view persists in popular books by Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong, among others. But this trend has been reversed, at least in higher education, where even introductory religious studies courses typically recognize the fact that the world’s religions, which address very different problems through different techniques and to different ends, aren’t even climbing the same mountain. Moreover, we may be at a tipping point where we are realizing that you cannot really respect a religion that you do not understand and that understanding a foreign religious tradition means wrestling with ways in which that religion is fundamentally different from your own.”
Mostly, I disagree with him, though I do have a mild anthropological interest in the varieties of religion and their histories. (For example, I watch Simcha Jacobovici’s weekly TV series “The Naked Archaeologist” with great enjoyment, though he is not exactly a name-brand scholar, but rather a first-rate showbiz entrepreneur. I was enthralled by – and mostly even believed – his recent discovery of the tomb of Jesus.)
Whereas my pop antiquarian instincts are aroused by this kind of investigation, I nevertheless resist calling distinctive traditions “religions.” In this resistance, I must be wrong-headed, since that is what the term normally means to the general public and even to academic specialists.
The trouble is, it leaves me without a category to call myself. I think I am probably more religious than the average person (at least I spend a lot of time thinking about ultimate reality and about ethics) but I would be perfectly content to remain “illiterate” about religion, in Prothero’s terminology. He would require me to be able to name the books of the Bible, for example, and recite the ten commandments, and explain the doctrine of transubstantiation. Such concepts have no bearing whatever on my search for God. These distinct traditions may not, as he said, even be climbing the same mountain but, even if they were, they wouldn’t get us very far. I could comfortably participate in at least half of the world’s worship services, but only because I take their liturgies and even their theological teachings as mere metaphors for a certain undefined striving that I share with most other participants. The other (approximately) half of the world’s worship services would turn me off, primarily because they are so particularistic and invidious toward other approaches.
In fact, I think that “religions” in Prothero’s terminology are at best irrelevant to one’s religious development, and sometimes are even antithetical to it.
If I am not religious by his definition, then what should I call myself? I checked the thesaurus. “Spiritual” is the only likely synonym. Spirituality does not necessarily entail any doctrinal commitments and could even be inclusive enough to allow for the pluralism that Prothero dislikes (but which I somewhat prefer). The Dalai Lama recommends the use of the term “spirituality” instead of “religion” in liberal discourse. Although I admire His Holiness (an honorific title that does not put me off whatever) I do not like the word “spiritual” much. It’s actually too vague and inclusive. It can refer to everything from seances to New Age witchcraft to Catholic confessions. Not everyone who is spiritual is religious, though presumably every devout religious person is spiritual.
What I want is a term referring to the disciplined search for meaning in a universe that is recognized as intelligent but not particularistic. When I was in High School sixty years ago, I decided that God could not play favorites. He could not “save” some people but “condemn” others. If he were, he would not be good, and whoever God is, he/she/it must at least be good. So whatever access we have to insights about ultimate reality must, in principle, be open to everyone, though human cultures do vary and therefore some teachings and some individuals are more advanced in their understanding than others.
That was when I first became attracted to Buddhism, which (at least in its original form) did not claim that God played favorites, exclusively offering salvation to some peoples but not others. Buddhism offers techniques showing how to progress in apprehending the nature of reality. I don’t practice it particularly, but I’m not offended by it as a discipline and I even believe it probably works for some individuals.
I think Christ must have been offering some similar kind of insights to his audiences, who took what they could comprehend from his messages. Obviously, there remained a vast gap between his enlightenment and that of his apostles, for after he was gone, the followers seem to have remained baffled and unable to agree on any central teaching. Well, that’s okay. He pointed in a certain direction that still seems promising to me. It was only later, when Christians codified it all, that anything emerged that Prothero might want to call a “religion.”
I would have to say that my own search for God resembles my search for an understanding of leading-edge physics. I can never understand it (even physicists themselves do not) but it’s important. As science develops, it is showing us how the universe actually works. The same with religion (i.e. my own version of religion). I cannot believe that there are two separate domains – science and religion – for whenever we do figure them out, they will inevitably be complementary versions of the same story.