Tuesday, February 7, 2012

GOD IS NOT ONE by Stephen Prothero and MAN SEEKS GOD by Eric Weiner

Last year when Matt, the adult religious ed director at St. Mike's Catholic Church, asked the Wednesday morning class what they'd like to study next, the response was nearly unanimous - other religions.

St. Mike's is in Wheaton, Illinois, and Wheaton used to be called the evangelical Vatican (it now vies with Colorado Springs for that title). Wheaton is in DuPage County, which is roughly two-thirds Catholic. But the heavily Christian western suburbs of Chicago are changing. Today DuPage County, though still the home of hundreds of Christian churches, also has four Muslim mosques, six Hindu temples, an Arya Samaj center, a Buddhist temple, a Buddhist meditation center, two synagogues, and the headquarters of the Theosophical Society. These people are our neighbors, our coworkers, our children's classmates. No wonder we want to learn more about them.

Thanks to the class, I've gotten acquainted with Stephen Prothero's outstanding survey, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World (2010). Prothero's thesis runs counter to the prevailing wisdom, at least in the West. No, he argues, the world's major religions are not all essentially the same. They do not all lead to the same place. They do not "make up one big, happy family." "This is a lovely sentiment," Prothero writes, "but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue." Intended to increase tolerance, such wishful thinking about other religions can actually lead to more terrorism, more war.

Prothero, who describes himself as "religiously confused," does not argue for the superiority of one religion over another. His aim is not to proselytize but to increase clarity and understanding. He does this by looking at how each religion answers the big questions: "Here we are in these human bodies. What now? What next? What are we to become?" "Each religion," he writes, articulates
  • a problem;
  • a solution to this problem, which also serves as the religious goal;
  • a technique (or techniques) for moving from this problem to this solution; and
  • an exemplar (or exemplars) who chart this path from problem to solution.
  • Choosing eight religions based on their numeric and historical importance, he then devotes separate chapters to each: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religion, Judaism, and Daoism, with "a brief coda" on atheism. The chapters can be read in any order. Last night I delved into Confucianism, about which I know almost nothing. Oops--Prothero says it's been more influential than any other religion except Islam and Christianity. In 30 pages, he summarizes its history, its teachings, and its influence (especially in the West). He also made me laugh out loud more than once. Here is a teacher who can impart an amazing amount of information while holding my attention, not an easy task.

    God Is Not One is a great introduction for people interested in other religions' history, teachings, and practices. If that's more than you want to know but you'd still like to find out how various religions might feel to a Western observer, try Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine (2011). It offers significantly less information, being almost entirely experience oriented; but it's fascinating and funny and might even inspire you to go on and read Prothero's book.

    Eric Weiner (channeling Prothero?) describes himself as a "Confusionist" and does not accept "the politically correct belief that all religions are equally valid":
    I find this extraordinary. Would we say that about anything else? Would we say that all forms of government, be it totalitarian or democracy, were equally true and good? Would we say that all corporations are equally true and good? Would we say that all toaster ovens are equally true and good? Yet when it comes to religion we jettison our powers of discernment. Saying all religions are equally true and good is like saying none are.
    He does not argue in favor of the truer and better, however, because--as a health crisis dramatically showed him--he doesn't know who his God is. So he grabs a notebook and his passport and sets off to find God.

    Interested mostly in religious experience, he spends time with touchy-feely subgroups of some of the world's major religions (and a few minor ones): Islam (Sufism) in Mendocino, CA, and Istanbul, Turkey; Buddhism in Kathmandu; Christianity (Franciscans) in the Bronx, NY; Raƫlism (this would be the world's largest UFO-based religion) in Las Vegas, NV; Taoism in Wuhan, China; Wicca in Seattle, WA; Shamanism in Beltsville, MD; and--I'm guessing this is his personal favorite--Judaism (Kabbalah) in Tzfat, Israel.

    The result is a crazy melange of personal memoir, travel writing, religion, and journalism--and it works. Weiner's previous book, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World (2008), made the New York Times bestseller list and collected a heap of awards. I wouldn't be surprised if Man Seeks God does the same.

    1 comment:

    1. I read a good bit of "God Is Not One" last year and was impressed with Prothero's thinking. Your precis is insightful as well as "fair and balanced." I do not know the other author or title but will definitely seek out. I love The Neff Review!

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