II) Comparative Religion: Stephen Prothero
In his most recent publication, God Is Not One, the religious studies scholar Stephen Prothero attempts to show how eight of the world’s largest religions are irreducibly unique through the lens of comparative religion. In the process, he shows how the claim by some mystics and philosophers that all religions are pointing in the same direction is seriously misguided. The most common metaphor used to illustrate the view of religious pluralism that Prothero argues against is a single mountain (representing God, Ultimate Reality, etc) with multiple paths (representing the many religions) that all eventually lead to the top. As the great scholar and philosopher of religion Huston Smith writes, “It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached the trails converge…At the base in the foothills of theology, ritual, and organizational structure, the religions are distinct. Differences in culture, history, geography, and collective temperament all make for diverse starting points…But beyond these differences the same goal beckons.” While recognizing the truly good intentions in this kind of pluralistic sentiment, Prothero argues that the perennial philosophy represented by people like Smith and Karen Armstrong is “dangerous, disrespectful and untrue…[the religions] do converge when it comes to ethics, but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law.” The idea that all religions are going in the same direction is deeply comforting, but is a faith position that contradicts comparative religion studies. Prothero even argues that this faith requires a leap of “the hyperactive imagination” to justify.
Any honest scholar of comparative religion should actually side with ordinary religious persons, who care quite deeply about the particularities of their tradition, over the apologists for reductive forms of pluralism. The only way comparative religion could ever justify seeing religions as leading to the same place, as ultimately being one, is out of sheer ignorance. The facts on the ground from a comparative religion perspective reveal that the religions of the world are truly saying different things. As Prothero points out, the religions do not share a finish line but they do share a starting point: “Where they begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world.” But after this point of contact, the religions diverge sharply when they attempt to diagnose the problem and prescribe a solution. For Christians, sin is the problem while salvation from sin is the solution. For Buddhists, suffering is the problem while liberation from suffering (nirvana) is the goal. For Muslims, self-sufficiency is the problem and the solution is submission and paradise. There are also divergences when it comes to each religion’s techniques for moving from the problem to the solution and who the exemplars are. For Christians, the techniques are a combination of faith and good works and the exemplars can be both Jesus and the saints. For Buddhists, the technique is the Noble Eightfold Path and the exemplars might include arhats, bodhisattvas, and lamas. For Muslims, the technique is the five pillars and the universal exemplar is Muhammad.
Although this four-fold scheme (problem, solution, technique, exemplars) is somewhat simplistic since religions are so complex, it shows how comparative religion finds real differences between the religions that cannot be reduced without doing real violence to the traditions. Indeed, to modify the metaphor of the perennial philosophers, it seems that comparative religion forces us to admit that there is not one mountain but many mountains representing each major religion. If this is so, it raises some questions: “Should we be trudging toward the end zone of salvation, or trying to reach the finish line of social harmony? Should our goal be reincarnation? Or escape from the vicious cycle of life, death, and rebirth?” Even so, Prothero admits that there are interesting points of contact beyond ethics. Because these are all religions adhered to by humans, questions and answers do sometimes overlap. This is to be expected. But Prothero’s case for the irreducible particularity of the religious traditions is persuasive. My one concern with his thesis is that he gives very little room for actual theologians to make their case in conjunction with comparative religion scholars. The fact is, while comparative religion and theology overlap, they are distinct fields of inquiry and must be treated as such. Prothero’s lack of theological training is highlighted when he unfairly dismisses Karl Rahner’s inclusivism as making naïve assumptions similar to the pluralists that he rightly criticizes. Still, I believe that one can take Prothero’s basic thesis very seriously and also develop a robust theology of religion that firmly rejects exclusivism.