God is Not One, by Stephen Prothero

April 21, 2011 at 14:43 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Philosophy, Theology) (, , , , , , )


There is an irony about this book, in the way that it presents itself and the final impression it leaves. Prothero’s chief intent is to strike a blow against the ill-informed syncretists, who neither know about the differences between the religions of the world, nor care. He paints with dazzling colours, and writes like an art admirer locked up with bread and water in the Louvre. But that is really where the problem lies. For all his enthusiasm, and his denigration of those unscholarly plebs who know nothing of the vivid shades of Islam, or the fragile beauty in such-and-such a cult of Hinduism, is the enthusiasm and the scorn of a scholar.

Prothero himself claims, time and time again until it has taken the form of a mantra, that to look at religion as a dogmatic pursuit, or a scholarly thing, or even as an experiential phenomenon, is to shackle oneself with the bonds of Western Thought–or the bonds of whatever our preconceptions might be. How terribly unfortunate, then, that he himself is unable to truly tackle that thing that truly separates the religions from each other: not philosophies or disparate ways to differing ends (although his acknowledgement that different religions seek after different things is poignant and well developed), but monopoly. These are not beautiful paintings, each different from the other as a Picasso is different from a marble sculpture or a Rembrandt; but wild things, and though they may be beautiful by standards and by standards, they will not coexist. His own blind spot is his inability to see religion as anything other than a unique (always unique; and at least he manages that!) thing to be admired, as a pastime or a momentary distraction. Even as a subject for a lifetime of teaching.

He fails to grasp perhaps the most important part of his own titular statement: that God is not the same entity to any of the adherants he describes; but that these groups do not only differ in drastic ways; they despise the philosophies of one another.

He makes admission occasionally, such as when he mentions that Buddhism, at its root, considers the dogmatic worship of a god to be precisely the sort of kharmic pain that must be purged from the world; that Islam will never countenance the same equality with God that Christ did not consider to be robbery. The most welcoming and flexible religions in his structure can only bend unto the point where they encounter another’s rigidity, and their own willingness to flex becomes inflexibility. One can hardly expect a tired old professor of comparative religion to starkly admit irreconcilable vitriol as the only commonality between the subjects of his classes, but without this admission, his honest attempt to show off a collection of jewels that all sparkle with equal and different beauty comes off as a sham once the surface of his study is scratched.

Despite its manifest theological and philosophical failings, this is a good entry-level guide to comparative religion, and if Prothero’s own likes and dislikes are worn somewhat on his sleeve, then at least he makes an effort to play fair with all concerned, and writes like a professor ought to write: the faintest touch of good-humour, businesslike without brusqueness, and with the warranted assurance that even if he isn’t the ideal man to save your soul, at least he has a fair idea about what everone else is doing to save theirs.

It must be added that, while Prothero is a fastidious scholar and presents a fair and balanced view of each of the religions he studies (as a Professor at Boston University, one would expect nothing less), he occasionally makes mistakes that are downright embarrassing; seemingly minor errors that a layman might pass off as theological quibbling, yet which in his position he ought to recognise as gross errors of earth-shaking magnitude. It would not seem a “minor error”, for instance, for a Jewish reader reading Prothero’s earnest assertion that Abraham never entered the Promised Land of Caanan. While these errors seem to be few and far between, the fact that they are present at all does a great deal of damage to Prothero’s credibility.


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