Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Religious Problem

I just heard the first few minutes of a radio interview with Stephen Prothero, the author of the book God Is Not One. The thesis of the book is that the common claim that “all religions are the same, at their core” is actually patently false. From the bit I’ve heard, it actually sounds like an interesting book, and I’m hoping to read it over the summer. Since I haven’t read it, I’m not going to comment on the larger idea behind it, yet. But, one thing he said got my attention.

In the interview, he offered one insight as to why he thinks that it’s silly to claim that we’re all the same. He says that each religion is actually attempting to solve a different problem. And, since that’s true, the answers they give will be radically different.

I found that framing to be really interesting. Christianity, he claims, is trying to solve the problem of “what do we do about sin,” or, perhaps, “how do we gain salvation?” Buddhism is trying to answer, “why is there pain, and how can we stop it?” Those two religions are going to be totally dissimilar, because they have totally different goals. It would be crazy to expect them to wind up in the same place.

In the interview (at least, in the part which I heard), he didn’t offer what Judaism’s problem might be. I have a theory, but I thought it would make for an interesting discussion. What problem do you think Judaism is trying to solve?* If you’re part of a different religion, what problem is that religion trying to solve? And, if you’ve read the book, feel free to offer a quick book review!

* answer: does anything NOT taste better if it’s pickled or fried?


Ron Krumpos said...

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.

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

Well, I said that I wasn't going to get into the larger thesis of the book, but since Ron brought this up...

While I definitely don't believe that every religion is really the same thing, I do think that that claim can probably be fairly made about spirituality (and mysticism, which isn't the same thing, but is related). Religions are about more than just spirituality (at least Judaism is), but when you look just at those parts of religion, I think you see remarkable overlap. And, I can easily quote thinkers such as Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Adin Steinsaltz to back me up!

Ron Krumpos said...

Rabbi Rosenberg,

I quote 23 Jewish mystics in the e-book. My favorite quotation can apply to every spiritual person:

“There is one who sings the song of his soul, discovering in his soul everything: utter spiritual fulfillment. Then there is one who expands even further until he unites with all existence, with all creatures, with all worlds, singing a song with
all of them.”
Abraham Isaac Kook J