“Separate Truths” by Stephen Prothero

Relationships between traditions are my intellectual bread and butter. When I started studying the various influences of Anglican sacramental life, Presbyterian church polity, Scottish Enlightenment philosophy, frontier revivalism, and other ingredients that make up my own non-denomination’s background, I was hooked, and to this day I welcome opportunities to read studies on my own background.  My dissertation (which is going to get some much-needed attention this summer) is about the influences of Calvin, Erasmus, and the ancients on the ways that English poets and playwrights write about royal and other succession moments.  I positively geek out on Lost and all of the intellectual traditions that run up against each other on that wonderful island.  When genuinely different traditions interact with one another, really good philosophical questions come to articulation, but the other side of that coin is that folks who rush to reduce difference to ornament or other adiaphora tend to take the joy out of those moments of encounter.

So when I read this article, I rejoiced more than a little bit that Prothero, a professor of religion, holds that the strong differences between “the world’s religions” (his phrase) are precisely what makes them worth believing and that folks who claim that all religions are the same speak either nonsense or the fruit of ignorance.  (Before anyone asks, nonsense by definition might or might not be the fruit of ignorance, but if it’s truly nonsense, there’s no way of telling.)  He rightly criticizes those who would never say that capitalism and socialism are the same or that democracy and totalitarianism are two paths to the same destination but say equally stupid things about Islam and Judaism or Christianity and Buddhism.

The article speaks for itself, so I’ll resist an urge to summarize, but probably my favorite bit of criticism Prothero offers is the view, spoken often but perhaps most famously by Huston Smith, that all religions offer humanity salvation.  Prothero makes the perfectly sensible analogy between this statement and a hypothetical claim that football players hit just as many home runs as do baseball players.  To say that football players (while they’re playing football and thus while being football players in a rigorous sense) do not hit any home runs at all is not to pronounce football inherently inferior to baseball, much less to say that baseball players have any moral right to inflict violence on football players for their inability to hit home runs or so that they’ll be convinced to get into a tradition that hits home runs.  But it is to say that the concept of a home run only has intelligibility in a constellation of traditions surrounding softball and baseball and kickball, and salvation is not something that Buddhists shoot for and miss but something that they don’t even shoot for.

Taking Prothero seriously does not preclude evangelism, of course; just the opposite, his analysis points towards a relationship between Christians and Hindus in which the central questions themselves are at stake, and there’s no bad-faith assumption on either side that their goals are anything already settled.  A look at recent Christian apologetics writers from van Til to Milbank will reveal a similar focus on ontological and axiomatic roots, and certainly nobody who’s read Augustine can argue that one of his central points is that the desires themselves become disordered in a state of sin.

If you notice that my posts and David Grubbs’s have been shorter than usual in the last couple weeks, click your way to a few colleges’ academic calendars, see where we are, and pray for our souls.  We’ll be back in force when the spirits that govern the semester cycle have done with us.

11 thoughts on “Which Sport Has the Most Home Runs?”
  1. You had me at “I positively geek out on Lost.” Why would you assert baseball’s superiority to football based on home runs when there are so many better ways to make that claim?

  2. In case someone reads this when you return I do not believe I have ever heard any who are informed call all religions the same, as Prothero asserts. What I have heard them say is that the one thing all religions have in common is that they take the person out of, beyond self; a worthy reason to be. If it does not do that what’s the point?

  3. John, you’ve never heard the expression “All rivers run to the same sea”? Or that terrible metaphor about the blind men and the elephant? I suppose this hinges on what you mean by “informed,” but I’ve heard the argument that Prothero discounts from a lot of people.

  4. Michael, I have heard these expressions mentioned, and I believe I see what you are saying; no doubt there are many who lackadaisically wave off all religions as the same.
    But I have had the pleasure of listening to Christians, Jews, Buddist sit in discussion of their obvious differences, not surrendering any of their traditions, yet, in the end, seeing, as their common aim, the selflessness, the death to self, the going beyond self, as the love or the “glue” that holds all in things in societies and nations together.
    A great example of this, though I have only read him, never had the opportunity to hear him speak, was Thomas Merton. I have mentioned him a couple of times. He, in the few years before his death, was able to listen to those of the Eastern religions and see the good and the peace they offered; and in response many listened to him.
    I can tell that you, and the other gentlemen of this blog, are men of study and know what you are talking about, and that always grabs my attention and respect. I myself, am no scholar; but I do see myself as one who thinks through a poet’s and singer’s heart. These are my thoughts, and I have enjoyed this blog since I found it, and confident I always will.

  5. John:

    Thank you for the compliments.

    If what you mean by “informed” is “concerned,” I agree with you; no one who has any stake in any given religion can say they’re all the same without relinquishing that stake. I dislike the implication because it sets about making ALL religions less serious, less worth taking seriously: If all streams lead to the same sea, there’s no point in examining any particular one closely.

    In other words, I think we’re saying the same thing. 😉

  6. Orthodox, institutional religions are quite different, but their mystics have much in common. A quote from the chapter “Mystic Viewpoints” in my e-book at http://www.suprarational.org on comparative mysticism:

    Ritual and Symbols. The inner meanings of the scriptures, the spiritual teachings of the prophets and those personal searchings which can lead to divine union were often given lesser importance than outward rituals, symbolism and ceremony in many institutional religions. Observances, reading scriptures, prescribed acts, and following orthodox beliefs cannot replace your personal dedication, contemplation, activities, and direct experience. Preaching is too seldom teaching. For true mystics, every day is a holy day. Divine revelation is here and now, not limited to their sacred scriptures.

    Conflicts in Conventional Religion. “What’s in a Word?” outlined some primary differences between religions and within each faith. The many divisions in large religions disagreed, sometimes bitterly. The succession of authority, interpretations of scriptures, doctrines, organization, terminology, and other disputes have often caused resentment. The customs, worship, practices, and behavior within the mainstream of religions frequently conflicted. Many leaders of any religion had only united when confronted by someone outside their faith, or by agnostics or atheists. Few mystics have believed divine oneness is exclusive to their religion or is restricted to any people.

    Note: This is just a consensus to indicate some differences between the approaches of mystics and that of their institutional religion. These statements do not represent all schools of mysticism or every division of faith. Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.

  7. Prothero’s arguments might have some validity if they were only directed at Karen Armstrong and similar nonentities.

    But the fact that he takes on Huston Smith and William Blake makes his case unsupportable. Neither of them ever claim anything remotely resembling the crude claim that “all religions are the same.”

    Prothero is the one who takes the extreme position: that there is NO spiritual common ground whatsoever among the world’s religions. But instead of presenting a genuine argument to support his own position, he (and his fans) are satisfied with the specious straw man argument that “all religions are not the same.”

    1. Would you mind pointing me to the place in Prothero’s work in which he makes that claim? I’ll admit that I read this article with some of his other work in mind, but I see his argument as somewhat more complex than that.

      Also, as Michial said, perhaps you run in more literate circles than we do, but the “blind men and the elephant” riff and the “one mountain with many paths to the top” bit are fairly common moves among folks with whom I’ve talked in moderately-educated American contexts.

      With regards to Huston Smith, I do tend to agree with Prothero that he tends to force common ground where I would assume difference, but my own tendency in those conversations is to give pride of place to conversion rather than metanarrative as the middle term between, say, Islam and Christianity.

  8. In an earlier comment I had mentioned the similarity of the mystical traditions vs. the difference of orthodox religious doctrines, as outlined in my e-book at http://www.suprarational.org In fairness to Dr. Prothero, I came across a later editorial review in which he states: “Mystics often claim that the great religions differ only in the inessentials. They may be different paths but they are ascending the same mountain and they converge at the peak. Throughout this book I give voice to these mystics: the Daoist sage Laozi, who wrote his classic the Daodejing just before disappearing forever into the mountains; the Sufi poet Rumi, who instructs us to “gamble everything for love”; and the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, who revels in the feminine aspects of God. But my focus is not on these spiritual superstars. It is on ordinary religious folk—the stories they tell, the doctrines they affirm, and the rituals they practice. And these stories, doctrines, and rituals could not be more different. Christians do not go on the hajj to Mecca; Jews do not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity; and neither Buddhists nor Hindus trouble themselves about sin or salvation.”

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