Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
QUESTION: My Presbyterian wife and I (a Unitarian Universalist Christian) have long held the metaphorical view that the world's religions can be viewed as many paths up the same mountain. A few years ago, we read "God is Not One" by Stephen Prothero of Boston University, which is a very helpful introduction to many of the world's religions. We have been struck, however, by Prothero's fairly sharp critique of the "many paths/one mountain" metaphor, and his assertion that in fact the various world religions are fundamentally based on different mountains and that it is a mistake to think otherwise. Of course I don't know if you've read the book at this point, but we'd be very interested in your take on Prothero's point of view.
-- E from Racine, Wisconsin
ANSWER: I am sticking by my tent in the theological base camp at OMMP (One Mountain, Many Paths) rather than Prothero's MMMP (Many Mountains, Many Paths). In the world of the academic study of religions there is a lively debate about whether the religions of the world are basically similar or basically different, and Huston Smith ("The World's Religions") and Prothero are roughly at opposite ends of that debate.
The way I see it, the debate is silly in an important way. Of course in some ways the religions of the world are different. Buddhism doesn't believe in a creator God, Hinduism believes in many gods, Judaism and Islam believe in one God and Christianity believes in one God who is also three. These differences are real and lead to different understandings of salvation and prayer and sin. However, even these striking and foundational theological differences do not prevent each and every one of these religions (and more I have not included) from generating virtually identical ethical codes of conduct for their adherents.
It is our shared ethical beliefs that mark our various journeys as a journey up the same mountain. Atheists who can also endorse the Golden Rule are also with us on the trek. Father Tom Hartman created the God Squad mission statement that guided our shared ministry for almost three decades. He said, "We know enough about how we are all different, but not enough about how we are all the same." This statement of our mission is not as simple as it seems. We are different and our differences matter. We are not fans of what we called "vanilla religion" in which we elide all our differences and pretend that we all practice just one amalgamated faith. Our differences provide the different textures of our lives and our religious calendars and cultures. They give us our home in faith.
However, the ways we are the same are so much more important and so much more in need of lifting up. We all teach compassion and forgiveness and generosity and gratitude because the religious impulse is at its root an impulse for the good. The rise of religious extremism and violence is tragic because it perverts this universal ethical core of faith. The impulse to tarnish all the good teachings of a religion with the violent zealotry of its few extremists is ultimately just a modern form of bigotry.
So, in some ways we are the same and in other ways we are different. As Prothero himself notes, "the world's religions do converge at points. Because these religions are a family of sorts, some of the questions they ask overlap, as do some of the answers." (p. 333). So let us lift up the overlapped answers that almost always are ethical teachings and let us enjoy the journey up the mountain to God -- apart but in the same direction.