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Do All Paths Lead to the Same Truth? Not According to Boston University’s Stephen Prothero

24 May, 2010

Check out Prothero’s very insightful piece in the Wall Street Journal, ‘A Dangerous Belief‘ — sure to be a breath of fresh air for those raised on the patronising nonsense that dismisses everything but late post-Christian Western ideals. That, by the way, includes its dismissal of Christianity.

The tragic thing is that so many who want to see the church flourish have felt that in order for it to be acceptable it has to reflect the sort of beliefs that Prothero criticises. In the end, he convincingly shows that, far from a peaceful and tolerant approach, this ‘all is one’ view actually does violence to others:

According to Gandhi, “belief in one God is the cornerstone of all religions.” According to the Dalai Lama, “the essential message of all religions is very much the same.” From this perspective, popularized by “perennial philosophers” such as Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell and Huston Smith, all religions are beautiful and all are true. The prevailing metaphor portrays the world’s religions as different paths up the same mountain. “It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side,” writes Mr. Smith, “but when the top is reached the trails converge.”

This is a seductive sentiment in a world in which religious violence can seem as present and potent as God. But it is dangerous, disrespectful and untrue.

The most interesting thing about this piece is that Prothero himself does not seem to be a proponent of any of the traditional religions. He believes differences should humble us, and remind us of the stark limits of human knowledge. I agree — I just think that we don’t have to reach ‘God’ according to whatever spiritual ladders we may try to climb. Rather, the true God has come down to us and revealed himself as flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, in Jesus Christ (compare Gen 2:23 with Eph 5:28-32).

Christianity carries exclusive claims — about who God is and what he has done, about the nature of the human predicament in idolatry and self-worship, and its God-provided solution in the gospel of free redemption in the Second Adam who did not run after other gods. We don’t attack those who don’t agree with us; we proclaim the good news and love our neighbors. After all, this exclusivity about true knowledge of God and his wonderful ways is not because that’s the way our religious tradition happens to protect our political or cultural interests, but because God showed up and said so. That’s uncomfortable, even for those like Prothero who recognize religious differences as undeniable. Well, God is often uncomfortable for Christians, too!

(HT: Heather Koerner)

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5 Comments
  1. 24 May, 2010 10:56 pm

    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.

  2. 25 May, 2010 2:12 pm

    karl barth said long ago that ‘tolerance is the greatest intolerance’.

  3. Justin permalink
    25 May, 2010 11:50 pm

    J. J. Abrams is going to be so disappointed.

  4. 12 June, 2010 7:43 pm

    In an earlier comment I had mentioned the similarity of the mystical traditions vs. the difference of orthodox religious doctrines, as outlined in my e-book at http://www.suprarational.org In fairness to Dr. Prothero, I came across a later editorial review in which he states: “Mystics often claim that the great religions differ only in the inessentials. They may be different paths but they are ascending the same mountain and they converge at the peak. Throughout this book I give voice to these mystics: the Daoist sage Laozi, who wrote his classic the Daodejing just before disappearing forever into the mountains; the Sufi poet Rumi, who instructs us to “gamble everything for love”; and the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, who revels in the feminine aspects of God. But my focus is not on these spiritual superstars. It is on ordinary religious folk—the stories they tell, the doctrines they affirm, and the rituals they practice. And these stories, doctrines, and rituals could not be more different. Christians do not go on the hajj to Mecca; Jews do not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity; and neither Buddhists nor Hindus trouble themselves about sin or salvation.”

  5. 3 July, 2010 8:15 pm

    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.

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