Monday, April 26, 2010

Book Review: God is Not One

When TLC Book Tours contacted me about writing a review of Stephen Prothero's new book, God is Not One, I found myself connecting to the topic through my personal lens. Surrounded by fundamental Christianity throughout childhood and early adulthood, I was taught and believed, there was only One "True" God. It was easier to don the mantle of others rather than break out of the structured mold and delve into the stirring questions with my own curiosity.

It was not until my middle years that I began to question who God is to me. As I have explored outside the boundaries of Christianity and learned about other faiths, I have found a broader and more encompassing God than the one of my upbringing. There has been ensuing peace and a sense of personal freedom as I have made connection with those I previously considered "different" (religious or otherwise). So, when asked to read and offer a review of God is Not One, I found myself grating at the division which I thought the book implied. I was not prepared for the delightful surprise that followed.

The book's subtitle - "the eight rival religions that run the world -- and why their differences matter" - found me focusing on the "rival" and "difference" aspect as I braced myself for another dialogue stirring the world toward division instead of unity. While most books on religion or "anti-religion" (think Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins) push an agenda of their belief, Prothero is a breath of fresh air who leaves lots of space to welcome your own conclusion.

Divided into nine succinct chapters, Prothero leads the reader through a journey of knowledge and enlightenment about eight significant religions and "a brief coda on atheism." Throughout the pages, he lets us wrestle with the question of how we even define religion (e.g. "Like Buddhism, Confucianism can't seem to make up its mind about the religion thing. So it calls into question what we mean by religion and in the process helps us to see it in a new light.") He also isn't afraid to pepper a few of his own thoughts and beliefs throughout the pages in a nonjudgmental way. (e.g. "Although I do not believe that this life is a mere dress rehearsal for the next..., I (Prothero) was moved by passages about the "homecoming" Muslims believe they have waiting in God.")

The author's voice includes both wisdom and humor, and I found myself savoring each chapter as a beautiful course leading toward a full meal. Granted, there were times I got bogged down, particularly when trying to decipher religions that are confusing even to their followers (think... multiple Hindu gods and layers of philosophy). Nevertheless, this tasty treat kept me turning the pages and finding myself moving toward a fuller understanding of the world we inhabit.

Rather than finding discord, I continued to discover tidbits that resonate with my own faith and wishing I could do as Prothero asks of one of his Boston University classes and create my own religion. By leaning into the similarities, rather than pushing away from the differences, my world broadened as I opened the door to greater understanding of significant cultures around the world. (For example, I had never heard of Yoruba which may account for as many as 100 million people. Nor had I ever considered the rich tradition of Confucianism as anything other than the source of 'Confucius says' humor).

God is Not One is by no means an exhaustive volume on these religions, however, it is a well-thought out and documented resource which I will return to again and again. For anyone wanting to broaden their understanding of world religions without spending years doing research, this book is a rare find. It balances nicely between factual information and easy-to-read status. Personally, I found it fascinating and will highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in issues of personal faith, world alliance or inter-faith dialogue.

While I recognize the importance of understanding differences, one mantra kept running through my head as I read each chapter - We are all searching for one thing, and that one thing is encapsulated in the word Freedom.

Much of my personal doctrine comes from the belief that we either operate out of our capacity to love or to fear. By refusing to engage with what we fear, (in this case, other religions) our capacity for relationship is hindered at best, and most likely becomes destructive (as witnessed daily in the world). Human beings can remain in personal or global bondage by refusing to step outside boundaries of knowledge, or we can choose to seek freedom by understanding ourselves and our world more wholly. Whether you are a seeker looking for contextual understanding of your own personal faith, or longing for peace in the larger world, God is Not One is a must-read.

In conclusion, Prothero offers, "Whether religion divides or unites depends on whether we can learn to talk about it with some measure of empathetic understanding." God is Not One is an excellent conversation starter. I invite you to join in the dialogue today!

Stephen Prothero is the New York Times bestselling author of Religious Literacy and a professor of religion at Boston University. Visit him online at www.stephenprothero.com.

12 comments:

Kel said...

sounds like an interesting read
and now i have to google yoruba
:)

lucy said...

thanks for commenting, kel. it's nice to know someone read this since it took a whole lot of time and effort to get this post up!! :-)

i should probably google yoruba too to see if it's anything like the book.

Barbara said...

hey, lucy, I read it, too! Sounds like a very interesting book, perhaps a classic reference of its kind. I commend you for producing a book review. It is not such an easy thing to do.

I was aware that yoruba is a language group, a people, that live in Nigeria. It is perhaps the largest group in that country. I did not know it was also a religion. Live and learn, as the saying goes.

Brett said...

Hi Lucy,

Nice job! This book sounds refreshing as it also points to non-Abrahamic faiths. And, to be honest, i find greater resonance with Eastern thought these days than "The Big 3."

I can also relate to your journey from fundamentalist fear toward embracing a bigger version of God. I still remember the terror i felt when i first pondered that Jesus might not be the only begotten son of God.

I have since found that God can be found in the 10,000 things and yet still be One. "Whatever exists or doesn't exist/ Is nothing but the creation of this Supreme Power" (Tao Te Ching) I amused myself with the book title by inserting a parenthetical: "God Is Not One (Except When It Is)"

Loved the review. I fully anticipate giving it a read. (I'm not anywhere near having completed my assessment of the 10,000 things.) ;^)

lucy said...

barbara - i really learned a lot while reading this book. it's probably not one i would have selected on my own, so the invitation to read and review was a great prompt. my "thorough" side induced me to read the whole thing cover to cover and i'm glad i did.

brett - oh yeah, i found myself connecting very much so with the eastern religions. something i wouldn't have dared open my mind to a few years ago. the world is really pretty magnificent when the blinders come off. let me know when you get the 10,000 figured out :-)

Amy said...

I see we picked out some similar things in our reviews which is so interesting (I purposely didn't read any of these until I had posted mine!). I also really liked that quote you include at the end of your review. I also agree that this is a must read book! Great review!

Karen said...

It can be so hard, I know, to release the fear concerning religion (I was raised Catholic)--but once I did, I felt so much better--and so much more connected to God. There is so much out there--and I want to experience and learn about as many different viewpoints as I can--I can't bear to be confined to just one. Which ties into Freedom. Yes. This sounds like a really intriguing book--I've added it to the list!

trish said...

I'm so glad you liked the book! I can't believe you think people wouldn't read this; you had me riveted! I tend to shy away from books like this, but your review has me thinking I should read it. :)

Thanks for being on this tour!

SUNRISE SISTER said...

Hey, all right with this review. Makes me want to add it to the bookshelves even if just for reference sake! Well done!

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.

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.

Ron said...

Those who believe the kinship of faiths should join the social network of the Parliament of the World's Religions. Look at http://www.peacenext.org/profile/RonKrumpos and I would be happy to be one of your first friends there.