FAITH IN ACTION
By Katherine Marshall
My grandmother, a very wise woman, gave me a piece of advice that sticks in my mind to this day: “A gingerbread he went to Rome, a gingerbread he came home.” She was urging that, going into any new adventure or faced with any new idea, I should not be stuffy and stuck in the outlines of the way I understood things, because if I did, I would miss the chance to learn and change. Doing things that way, I might just as well stay home.
My grandmother’s admonition came to mind in reading Stephen Prothero’s new book, ‘God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter.’ Prothero’s tour of Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, and Daoism (with a coda for atheism) sets some interesting pecking orders and boundaries. The order in which he lists the traditions reflects his assessment of relative overall importance in world politics. And each section has both a broad introduction to the tradition’s vast history and present realities, and suggests what he sees as unresolved problems and internal tensions.
Most of all, though, Prothero is taking on what he sees as a set of dangerous tendencies to lump religions together, whether as universally wonderful and enlightened, or (referring to the fiery atheists) “the same idiocy, the same poison”. The more I learn about this world of religion, the more I share his conviction that “religion” or “faith” is indeed not one. The vast diversity of faiths is a stunning reality that is both fascinating and important. This is as true in looking at today’s thinking about the ethics of war and justice as it is in debating the best way to care for orphans or to conserve water and forests.
In tracing and implicitly comparing religions, Prothero takes on a monumental task that traverses live minefields: he is trying to highlight the differentiating strengths and wisdoms of each tradition, but also their more problematic facets. Daoism, for example, has a powerful bond to enjoyment of nature and to nurturing what life has to offer. But it also can fade into abstraction. He touches somewhat lightly and carefully on the different views of gender roles that distinguish different faiths. Fortunately, to my mind, Prothero’s exploration does not lend itself much to oversimplifying sound bytes. But, for all the glorious complexity, his overall, fairly simple message is that differences are real and they matter. It is all very well to identify and celebrate common ethical understandings (like the “Golden Rule” – do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you). But we have to go beyond and face the differences, because we need to grapple with them at every level of life and policy.
The foundation for much of Prothero’s argument is his earlier and sobering book (“Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t”). There he tracks the growing ignorance about even our own religious traditions that cuts across American society. In the new book he reiterates that “both tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know something about whomever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.” And understanding religion is optional: “Even if religion makes no sense to you, you need to make sense of religion to make sense of the world.”
Some of Prothero’s most insightful comments grapple with the puzzle of why interfaith dialogue has been for so long stuck in a rut of well-intentioned people driven by an ethical imperative to get along with neighbors in a turbulent world. That’s just not good enough today, he argues, when the great religions are willy nilly reshaping geopolitics as well as local communities. The new interfaith – Interfaith 2.0, he calls it, must be driven by an awareness of the depth of the basic questions each faith tradition poses, and real differences in the way they answer them. Only with real knowledge and understanding is it possible to find meaningful and creative ways to bridge the divides.
I have no idea how my grandmother came to her gingerbread advice, but she was, like Prothero, pointing to the wonders of diversity and how much we have to learn from the richness of world cultures. Both make the case for asking life’s big questions and listening to different answers. There are infinite lessons to learn from exploring the fundamental questions that each religious tradition has grappled with over millennia of history. And we can see far more clearly today than in the past, when knowledge and experience were more compartmentalized, that the questions are bewildering in their complexity. But if we do not open up and explore the paths that are open to us, we might, as my grandmother said, just as well stay home.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
By Katherine Marshall |
May 23, 2010; 10:40 PM ET
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