Prothero's Straw Man


Stephen Prothero, whose review of the book Reading Judas I recently critiqued, has written an article for Newsweek in which he argues that all religions are not the same.

Whoa, stop the presses. You mean to tell me that Islam isn't the same as Christianity, which isn't the same as Buddhism? Who knew?

The reality is that Prothero is simply setting up a straw man, and in so doing I think he misses the point. The real gist of his article seems to be to get in as many digs against "multiculturalism" as possible. For example, his article drips with expressions like "according to the multicultural form of wisdom" and "you would think that multiculturalists would warm to this fact." This jibes nicely with the language he used in last Sunday's review of Reading Judas, in which he wrote, "In this case, Pagels and King massage the multicultural sensibilities of their readers." Ah, I sense a trend here: "multiculturalism" is apparently his favorite bugbear.

Prothero accuses these "multiculturalists" (he never exactly specifies who they are or cites examples of their views) of trying to

flatten out diversity by pretending that the differences between, say, Judaism and Taoism are more apparent than real. How fulsome is religious diversity if all the religions are essentially the same, and a little interfaith dialogue can talk it all away?
I don't know who is claiming that Judaism and Taoism are the same religion. Perhaps there exist some who believe that, but my familiarity with pluralism suggests something different than what he spends so much effort refuting. The issue is not that all religions are the same, but that each religion represents a different effort at capturing some aspect of a common transcendent and universal reality. The aspects that are captured are culturally and historically conditioned. Capturing different aspects of the Ultimate, not to mention human fallibility, thus leads to the differences we see between the faiths. So it is not that the faiths are the same--obviously they are not--but that each takes a different path via a different aspect of a deeper, universal and shared Truth.

In his article Prothero uses the metaphor of mountain climbing to suggest that various religions are neither climbing the same mountain nor using the same tools. But another metaphor addresses the subject better--the famous story of the blind man and the elephant. In this metaphor, the elephant is the transcendent reality, and each religion is,effectively, a different blind man, where one religion is based on the trunk, another on the leg, and so forth. Each man obviously comes away with a different conception of the elephant, because each has perceived just one aspect of the animal; but the elephant is still unitary nonetheless.

The problem here is that Prothero is so focused on attacking "multiculturalism" that he misses the forest for the trees. The point isn't that the world's religions are the same. I certainly don't believe that they are. But one can still conceive of a religious pluralism that can accommodate and value these different approaches to transcendence.