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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Prothero’

Complicated Ground

Stephen Prothero, a professor at Boston University’s department of religion, has written a short opinion article in response to a New York Times piece written by the Dalai Lama.  I think it is worth a read, though it may be a slight overreaction.  After reading the Dalai Lama’s article, it seems to me that Prothero is stretching the Dalai Lama’s argument beyond what he (the Dalai Lama) intended.

The Dalai Lama (whose name is Tenzin Gyatso) argues for mutual understanding between religions by finding common ground that will foster peace and tolerance.  “Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides,” writes Gyatso, and “These days we need to highlight what unites us.”  He submits that one of these common areas is compassion.

Prothero seems to take Gyatso’s article to advocate the claim that all religions are essentially the same, and have compassion at their core.  While there are certainly hints of this in Gyatso’s article, it is not what he’s saying (this time).  What he’s saying is that we should find common ground.  This is classic Buddhism: The middle way.  One of Gautama’s four great renunciations was that of extreme asceticism and extreme decadence.  And so Buddhism has always been marked by finding middle ground.

I agree with Gyatso that it is possible to respect other people’s choices, and even highlight common ground among faiths. However, some crucial caveats are in order:  (1)  Respecting other people’s spiritual choices is not the same thing as agreeing with those choices, or thinking that the object of their choice is wise, true, admirable, or in any way laudatory.  I can respect my friend’s choice to be a Buddhist because I honor and love him as a person, not because I honor or love Buddhism.  I can lament said choice just as well; wishing it were not so.  The fact that I honor the person means I stop there, and don’t move on to coercion or something worse.  (2)  Finding “common ground” among faiths can be a slippery slope, since said commonalities most often lie in the realm of moral injunctions (e.g., don’t murder).  Here is the root of the erroneous platitude that “All religions are basically the same: Just be a good person.”  Even more, the commonalities are found on the surface of the faith.  Perhaps many faiths enjoin us to respect life, but the reasons for these commands are starkly different, as are the implications and ostensible consequences for failing to keep them.  As such, (3) finding “harmony” among world religions is not possible; the various world views within are ultimately irreconcilable.  Finding harmony among the peoples of different religions is a more realistic goal, thought it will still be amazingly difficult, complicated, and ultimately imperfect.  Through our common ground, we can agree on a few broad constructs that can govern social behavior, not belief.  Said constructs will be very broad, and very few.  It seems that once details and specifics need to be fleshed out, the harmony will quickly become dissonance.

For example, let’s assume that one area of common ground among religions is indeed compassion.  How does this look in terms of social behavior?  What do Muslims do with the Koran (“Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day” At-Tawbah, 9:29) when they interact with Buddhists?  And does compassion extend to the unborn?  And how do we treat those who fail to live compassionately?  How shall Brahmins treat Dalits with compassion?  Do men and women have equal rights and roles to receive and give compassion?  You see where I’m going with this.  If you let men and women from various faiths answers these questions, you will get very different answers.  In fact, you will probably get different answers from people within the same faith.

I’m all for doing everything I can to live peacefully with everybody (e.g., Rom. 12:18).  The problem is that the answers are terribly complicated, even when we’re standing on this “common ground.”  The Prothero may misread Gyatso, his diagnosis is correct: the Dalai Lama’s suggestion, however admirable, is naive.  Furthermore, it is a slippery slope to dangerous misunderstanding of the world’s many faiths, and how the interact.

Finally, I should remark that to world reduce religions to codes of conduct is to misunderstand my own.  Christianity is not another ethical framework to which humankind must comply in order to be blessed after death.  Christianity is not about following a great leader (Jesus) who came to show us the way.  Jesus is the way (Jn. 14:6).  Jesus is the one who lived the life we should have lived, and died the death we should have died.  His sacrifice on our behalf is what releases us from the need to comply to another set of rules and human striving to reach God.  Christian faith isn’t placed upon the hope that we got our theology right, or that our performance will bring us reward, or that we have a better worldview than others.  Christian faith is placed in a person.  Even if the commandments of each world religion were identical, we could never say they are the same, because in Christ, these commandments are already met.  Christianity is the only faith where the “doing” is already done.

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