When it comes to faith, I started early.
I was five years old when I walked down the aisle at Westbury Baptist Church in Houston, Texas and gave my heart to Jesus. I was the oldest son and namesake of a Southern Baptist preacher, the son of two parents who sang me to sleep with hymns I still sing, and what I understood was Jesus loved me and the best thing I could do was love him back. So, as I have often joked, I turned from my life of sin and sex and drugs and gave my life to God.
I was about fourteen or fifteen when I began to come to terms with my faith in a more significant way, but even then it was pretty much me and Jesus. I didn’t go on a quest to search out the religious options available to me; I opened my heart to the God I knew. I have stayed a Christian and have bet my life on the reality of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and I have to understand that one of the significant reasons I am a Christian is I was born into a family that taught me what questions to ask and where to look for both answers and more questions.
I realize I am a couple of paragraphs into my book review without mentioning Stephen Prothero’s new work, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter, but the book took me back to my childhood and how I came to faith because it challenged me to read through his descriptions of the “great religions” of the world with a different ear. (I have to jump to his conclusion for the quote.)
[T]here is a secular way to talk about religion. This . . . way does not assume that religion in general, or any religion in particular, is either true or false, because to make such an assumption is to be talking about religion religiously. It aims instead simply to observe and report, as objectively as possible, on this thing human beings do, for good or for ill (or both). (336)
I know. He said we should have a secular conversation about religion. He’s right. As I read through the chapters about the religions other than my own (Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism, Yoruba, Buddhism, Judaism, and Daoism), I began to see where our sound byte world has left me with a postage stamp view of a panoramic landscape, no matter which religion was being explained. As I read the chapter on Christianity, I realized a religion cannot be fully described, even in a very well written chapter. And he writes well because he writes with a keen secular eye, full of compassion and interest without choosing sides or seeking an agenda beyond the invitation for conversation.
What I learned, again, is the way to be a good conversationalist is to listen first.
He offers one phrase tag lines for each of the religions discusses and a formula for how he breaks them down (problem, solution, technique, exemplar) for the purpose of comparison, but the point is not to end up with a simplistic understanding; he’s making a case for understanding the religions of the world are not merely rephrasings of the same truth, as our emphasis on tolerance or inclusion often leads us to think. We will not learn how to talk to each other by finding ways to feel alike, or watering down what matters so our colors blend.
I hope for a world in which human beings can get along with their religious rivals. I am convinced, however, that we need to pursue this goal through new means. Rather than beginning with the sort of Godthink that lumps all religions together in one trash can or treasure chest, we must start with a clear-eyed understanding of the fundamental differences in both belief and practice between Islam and Christianity, Confucianism and Hinduism.
Some people are sure that the only foundation on which inter-religious civility can be constructed is the dogma that all religions are one. I am not one of them. Every day across the world, human beings coexist peacefully and even joyfully with family members who are very different from themselves. (335)
I read those words today, after returning from a family gathering for my youngest nephew’s graduation from Wheaton College. Trust me: he’s on to something.
P. S. — This review is part of a virtual book tour.