Is a Kinship of Faith Possible?

[An earlier version of this post was originally published as “The Dalai Lama vs. Stephen Prothero”  on Buddhism, June 17, 2010.]

I’ve written a few times about Stephen Prothero, the professor at Boston University who writes provocative books on religion. He has demonstrated pretty good understanding of Buddhism. But lately Professor Prothero has been going around claiming that His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches all religions are alike. And Professor Prothero disagrees with this.

Professor Prothero has a new book out titled God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — And Why Their Differences Matter. I have not read this book yet, but my understanding is that Prothero argues against the common popular notion that all religions amount to different paths up the same mountain. This is a terrible distortion, Prothero says, because in fact each of the world’s religions looks is viewing a different “problem” and coming up with a different “solution.” Put another way, they really are different paths up different mountains, and to ignore the distinctions is both disrespectful and dangerous.

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Meanwhile, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has a new book out called Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together that I am reading, although I’m only part way through it. In this book, His Holiness speaks warmly of his encounters with people of other religions, such as Thomas Merton. He emphasizes the values, in particular compassion, found in the teachings of all religions. The main point is that there is no need for all the world’s religions to have a competitive and adversarial relationship with each other.

Rod Meade Sperry writes about this disagreement at Shambhala Sunspace. Rod quotes Timothy J. McNeill, president of Wisdom Publications, who says that Prothero is misrepresenting His Holiness.

In numerous times and places including the The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus (Wisdom Publications 1996) the Dalai Lama demonstrates respect, and calls for harmony among religions but in no way glosses over the “top of the mountain” differences. He repeatedly emphasizes that “in order to develop a genuine spirit of harmony from a sound foundation of knowledge, I believe it is very important to know the fundamental differences between religious traditions.” He specifically refutes and dismisses any notion of universal unity of religions.

This is what His Holiness says in the new book, also. He is not suggesting that it’s perfectly OK to abandon all religious distinctions and boil all the world’s religions into one big pot of mush. It clearly is very important to him to maintain the integrity of Tibetan Buddhism as it has been practiced for many generations. However, even though each of the world’s religions may maintain distinctive practices, perspectives and doctrines, they can still co-exist harmoniously.

However, I also appreciate much of what Professor Prothero says about the “many paths up the same mountain” metaphor. Although on one hand I can sorta kinda see truth in it, on the other hand there is a growing attitude in some quarters that paths don’t matter. As long as you’re wandering around in the general vicinity of the mountain you’re bound to stumble onto the peak eventually.

I sense also a growing popularity in what I call “reverse fundamentalism.” That is, if you insist that a specific religion (say, Buddhism) teaches X (say, Dependent Origination) instead of Y (a creator God) that makes you some kind of fundamentalist. And this would be true even if you aren’t pushing the teaching as the One Holy Truth, but just marking the parameters of what the particular religion teaches.

To a reverse fundamentalist, no amount of “I respect your belief in X, but Buddhism teaches not-X” will shake them from the notion they can believe whatever they want and call it “Buddhism.” And if you say that they can believe whatever they like but that what they believe isn’t Buddhism, you are a closed-minded dogmatist.

I think this is an extreme version of the “I’m spiritual but not religious” school, which says that “spirituality” (whatever that is) is good, but “religion” (usually, specific religious traditions and the institutions that maintain them) is evil, so if you are trying to maintain the integrity of a particular religious tradition, you are some kind of intolerant fundamentalist. When I read Propthero, I appreciate that part of his shtick is arguing against the belief that all religions should be melted down and distilled into the pure ur-religion that must have existed before mankind invented churches.

I agree with what His Holiness says, also, that there is no reason the many religious traditions of the world have to be adversarial. Can’t we all just get along?

The problem here is that, from a Buddhist perspective, there really is no reason to be anxious because other people believe in, for example, a creator God. We can appreciate the teachings of other religions when they resonate with our understanding and also when they challenge our understanding.

Unfortunately, the perspectives of some other religions don’t allow practitioners to be complacent about the beliefs of others. So until people get over the idea that everyone has to be browbeaten into believing as they do, there will be religious conflict, unfortunately.

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