Saturday, April 9, 2011

Book Review: God Is Not One

God Is Not One, by Stephen Prothero

DairyStateMom got me this book for Christmas, and I finally got around to reading it over the last few weeks. Eminently readable and often laugh-out-loud witty, it will become a valued reference on the basics of eight major religions in the world. I have no real argument with his selections of which ones to cover and which not to, although I do wish that he'd included a chapter on the Pagan revival. (His closest is a chapter on the Yoruba religion from Africa, which has come to the Western Hemisphere in the form of Santeria, Vodun and numerous other variants.) Of course, modern Paganism is not one thing, and I'm sure there are sensible and thoughtful arguments against trying to lump its many different expressions into a single chapter.

My other principal disappointment (and it, too, is relatively minor) is that when in the chapter on Christianity he assesses the current state of the faith and appraises its growing edges, he focuses almost entirely on the rise of Pentecostalism and the conservative surge, driven mostly by Africa, in Mainline Protestantism. He thus ignores the very interesting (to me, anyway) Emerging/Emergent Church movement where the left wing of Evangelicalism meets a more vigorous and experimental progressive Mainline Christianity. (I would situate other progressive Christian movements, including Michael Dowd's Evolutionary Christianity and the Creation Spirituality of Matthew Fox, in this larger trend.) Again, I presume his defense would be that these eddies are so small within the larger river of contemporary Christianity that he had to draw the lines somewhere -- an editorial task I'm always loath to undertake.

While the book is primarily a narrative reference work, it's framed within an argument about how we discuss religious diversity and religious pluralism. Early on, Prothero takes exception to the common metaphor of pluralists that the different religions of the world are "many paths up the same mountain" and meet at the top there. The religions of the world, he argues, are better understood as going up different mountains, and what they find at the top is equally different, one from another.

One particular problem with the one-mountain metaphor, as he notes, is that it tends to enforce a view of all religions that sanitizes their more difficult and troubling elements in the name of ecumenism. Part of Prothero's brief here is to not flinch from those troubling elements and also not to paper over intra-faith conflicts and disagreements in his descriptions.

I think that Prothero's point about the deficiency of the one-mountain metaphor is true as far as it goes, and while I have casually accepted the "many paths/one mountain" image in my own conversation and thought, I'll try very hard not to do so again, and instead to always mentally footnote Prothero when I read or hear those references. I find, instead, a very helpful alternative in Forrest Church's metaphor for pluralism, The Cathedral of the World, in which many varied windows look out on and interpret a mysterious universe. To a great extent, I believe this approach avoids the problem Prothero identifies. (And yes, I am aware of Steve Caldwell's interesting extension of the Cathedral metaphor, in which he suggests atheism offers a clear plate-glass window as an alternative to the many different varieties of stained-glass presented by the world's faiths.)

Prothero's rejection of the one-mountain metaphor doesn't mean he rejects religious pluralism. Rather, he prescribes that conversations about religious differences can and should move from the arena of faith and belief to the more neutral ground of description, and that the project of interfaith cooperation can move ahead by simply focusing on shared values and objectives, rooted in the respective faith traditions and calls of the participants. Of course, there are limits to that, too: I rather doubt a UU congregation that has stood boldly for reproductive choice could find a way to team up with a Baptist church whose congregants man the gauntlet to discourage patients from entering the local Planned Parenthood clinic each weekend -- at least not on anything that has to do with reproductive freedom. But perhaps they could join together on a Habitat for Humanity house-raising.

Prothero says that the old kind of pluralism, which emphasizes getting along with our neighbors over doctrine, was "a game for religious liberals -- religious conservatives need not apply." Of course, to really get to the vision of pluralism that Prothero advances, the most doctrinaire -- whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or even Atheist or, yes, UU -- will still have to be willing to modulate their own dogmas, at least in their words, if not in their hearts.

That in itself may be challenging enough. But if it's not any easier, it's probably something worth trying.


  1. Erik,

    Another way of looking at the problems with the "one-mountain" metaphor is the metaphor is a huge example of not using "I statements."


  2. I was going to buy the book just recently at our local Borders 'going out of business' sale, but didn't because I was wondering if it was pretty much the same book as The World's Religions by Huston Smith. (Have you read that one? Are they similar?)

  3. Aletheia: I haven't read Huston Smith, but Prothero, in his critique of the "one-mountain" metaphor, takes direct aim at Smith as one who has promulgated that approach. So for that reason alone I think Prothero's book would be an interesting contrast to Smith.

    Steve: Could you please elaborate?

  4. Erik,

    I tried to post a longer post but it didn't take.

    Saying "all paths lead to the top of the same mountain" is not an "I statement" because we are attempting to assume our personal experience is a universal for all others.

    Related to this is the parable of the six wise blind elephants:


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