Saturday, February 19, 2011

A House Divided?

Last week, we observed a case of the kind of mutually reinforcing, proactive pluralism advocated by authors like Karen Armstrong, Huston Smith and Joseph Campbell. The commonalities Jessica and I shared enabled us to identify with one another and affirm each other's engagement in a religious tradition other than our own.

Boston University's Stephen Prothero has made his name (and the New York Times bestseller list) with the opposite approach: emphasizing differences. In his latest book, God is Not One, Prothero frames the above authors' "perennial philosophies" as "the new orthodoxy." He asserts that "The ideal of religious tolerance has morphed into the straitjacket of religious agreement."

In Prothero's eyes, such harmonious visions are not only naive, but deadly. "We pretend these differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, or more moral," he writes. "Like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous."

Thus, Prothero has dedicated himself to making us all more religiously "literate" by highlighting important differences which delineate distinct forms of religious engagement.

Prothero forcefully argues that the world's religions are fundamentally different: they not only offer different solutions, they're not even addressing the same problems. Yet in order to defend the appropriateness of the catchall category "religion," he must recognize that they share a common gene pool of general religious dimensions. The "DNA" of each specific tradition lies in the specific forms and relative emphases of these dimensions.

Christianity is distinct, he argues, because of its particular emphasis on faith in doctrine as the means of "salvation" from "sin." However, the strict boundaries Prothero attempts to reinforce between Christianity and other religious traditions begin to atrophy when he turns to address the diversity within the Church.

In just a few pages, Prothero weaves a necessarily oversimplified master narrative of nearly twenty centuries of church history. It is the familiar story of the overnight emergence of one of several early Christianities under Constantine, the subsequent eradication of competing visions and consolidation of ecclesiastical power, and its gradual dispersal through the Great Schism, the Protestant Reformation and modern denominationalism.

Thus, three main branches emerge through violent doctrinal disputes: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. The significant disagreements over church polity and the form and meaning of ritual practice and ethos are minimized.

In his analysis of contemporary worldwide trends, Prothero admits that "Christians identify less and less each year with labels of this sort." So if historical institutional and doctrinal delineations are less determinative, how is Christianity to be defined?

Prothero invokes theologian Harvey Cox's pronouncement of a "post-dogmatic Age of the Spirit" where dynamic spiritual experience increasingly trumps the traditional powers of doctrine and law. He points to the explosive growth of Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism and Mormonism as heralds of this new age, as well as the increasing heterogeneity of the Catholic Church, particularly in the southern hemisphere.

But if the focus on doctrine and belief is what distinguishes Christianity from the world's other religious traditions, how is such distinctiveness to be maintained in the "post-dogmatic Age of the Spirit?"

Prothero closes his chapter with a thinly veiled endorsement of the tradition of Christian mysticism as a form more adaptive to the ambiguities of the post-modern age. Yet he misleadingly frames this tradition as an ancient strain waiting to be revitalized, when folks like Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr have been disseminating the mystic gospel throughout the past century.

Contrary to Prothero's assertion that spiritual universalism emerges from ignorance, These monks' explicit alignment with non-Christian mystics demonstrates that some of Christianity's most rigorous and well informed practitioners endorse such a view.

Furthermore, he fails to mention the increasingly widespread engagement of contemporary Christians in the spiritual practices of other traditions, such as yoga and meditation (an important development we will return to in the future).

Prothero argues that the centrality of experience is the hallmark of Buddhism (and Daoism), not Christianity. But the dissemination of Buddhist philosophy and assertions of Buddhist modernists that Buddhism is not religious but rather "scientific" demonstrate a trend toward an increased focus on doctrine and belief which parallels the increasingly experiential focus of Christianity.

These shifts in emphases emerge naturally from increased exposure of religious practitioners to adherents of other traditions and their practices. When we engage others with an open-minded, we allow the strengths of their practice to challenge our weaknesses. Learning about Jessica's strenuous efforts to "build a fence around the Torah" and align her lifestyle with Jewish law challenge me to be more disciplined in my own practice.

Perhaps the religious literacy Prothero advocates is actually diminishing the differences he emphasizes and making the "perennial philosophy" he denounces as naive increasingly feasible.

"Religious folk worldwide agree that something has gone awry," Prothero acknowledges. "They part company, however, when it comes to stating just what has gone wrong, and they diverge sharply when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it." This move to compare the world's religious traditions assumes that they are internally consistent wholes. The dramatic historical evolution and dynamic contemporary diversity of Christianity challenge such an assumption.

Furthermore, I find it quite common for adherents to traditions which are here assumed to be entirely distinct to achieve widespread and wholehearted agreement on the nature of spiritual problems and enthusiastically compare notes regarding potential solutions. I identify myself as a Christian, yet I feel a greater spiritual affinity with Rumi and Thich Nhat Hanh than I do with many fellow Christians.

If religious traditions are so irreconcilably different, why do so many of us powerfully identify with the spiritual sensibilities of adherents to traditions other than our own? And why do individuals who share a particular religious identification construct their worldviews, commitments and practices in such wildly differing ways?

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