Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

God is not one….(part one)

Posted by John Montgomery on May 29, 2010

Boston University professor and popular CNN Blogger, Steven Prothero’s recent commentary, The Dalai Lama is Wrong, did catch my attention last week, enough that I ended up spending my last B&N gift card from this past Christmas season to buy his recently published book,  God is Not One.   Prothero’s comment was written in the light the recent NYT opinion piece, Many Faiths, One Truth by his excellency, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama’s column  closes with the following challenging statements.

Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crises and ecological disaster. At that scale, our response must be as one.

Harmony among the major faiths has become an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence in our world. From this perspective, mutual understanding among these traditions is not merely the business of religious believers — it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.

Prothero begins his critique:

I am a big fan of the Dalai Lama. I love his trademark smile and I hate the fact that I missed his talks this week in New York City. But I cannot say either “Amen” or “Om” to the shopworn clichés that he trots out in the New York Times [opinion piece.]

What did the Dalai Lama say?

He began by speaking of his early sense of the superiority of his Buddhism over other world religions. He notes: “Now I see how naïve I was, and how dangerous the extremes of religious intolerance can be today.” He then speaks of his meeting with the late Thomas Merton and the beginnings of his recognition of the value of compassion found in all of our great religious traditions.  Those following the efforts of writer Karen Armstrong and other religious elders with the Charter for Compassion movement will recognize this provocative theme.  Prothero remains skeptical.

To be sure, all religions preach compassion. But it is false to claim that compassion is the reason for being of the great religions. Jesus did not die on a cross in order to teach us to help old ladies across the street. The Jewish milieu in which he was raised already knew that. And as the Dalai Lama points out, so did the rest of the world’s religions. Jesus came, according to most Christian thinkers, to stamp out sin and pave the path to salvation. Similarly, the Buddha did not sit down under a Bo tree in India in order to teach us not to kill our brothers. The Hindu milieu in which he was raised already knew that too. He came, according to most Buddhist thinkers, to stamp out suffering and pave the path to nirvana.

Prothero continues:

I know that when it comes to the Dalai Lama we are all supposed to bow and scrape. So I am happy to applaud his project to find “common ground” across the world’s religions. But I also know that the Buddha said to worship no man. And I cannot agree with the Dalai Lama’s claim that “the essential message of all religions is very much the same.” [My emphasis]

The problem with this comment is that at least in this most recent statement the Dalai Lama did not say what Porthero says he said. Please note what was actually said.

I’m a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I’ve long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks. The focus on compassion that Merton and I observed in our two religions strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths. And these days we need to highlight what unifies us.

There is a significant difference between suggesting that compassion is a central message found at the core of all faiths and a suggestion that a thread highlighting the importance of compassion may run through all the great traditions.

[As an aside, I should note that there is a unique partnership between the Dalai Lama and our United Methodist Emory University. As part of the faculty, he serves as Presidential Distinguished Professor and will be returning to campus after a three year hiatus from the campus this coming October. For more details, please check out this site about the upcoming visit.]

Of course, it is convenient that Prothero can also use this occasion to hawk his book. That is the name of the marketing game these days, and in my case the tactic worked. So at this point,  I will let others sort out the Dalai Lama’s message. I will turn my attention directly to the book in part two next week.

2 Responses to “God is not one….(part one)”

  1. 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 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.

  2. Dennis Rice said

    I can readily agree that compassion is a common thread running through the major religious traditions and even that mystics of the various traditions may have a privileged point of view regarding the application of compassion to the current human situation. For most people, mystics excluded, the difficult issue relates to the baggage that comes with each particular tradition.

    By “baggage,” I mean the religious language that supports a particular self-understanding or ethos for an individual. Religion supports a person’s identity in the cosmos, but it also carries with it a sense of exclusivity or sense of privilege that tends to make one’s own tradition first among equals.

    If a tradition begins to tinker with language related to self-understanding, there will be protest and conflict. The way forward, I believe, is to create language to explicate that sense of self-understanding in the public square. This was the subject of a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece by Stanley Fish entitled “Does Reason Know What It Is Missing?” In his essay, Fish quotes the German Philosopher, Jürgen Habermas: “Among the modern societies, only those that are able to introduce into the secular domain the essential contents of their religious traditions which point beyond the merely human realm will also be able to rescue the substance of the human.”

    Ultimately, religion must develop a language that allows it to become self conscious relative to the pluralistic universe in which it is embedded. Without that self-consciousness, religion risks increasing polarization and consequent violence.

    I look forward to your second episode on this topic.

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