Monday, April 26, 2010

Your "God" or Mine?

Some years ago, Father Anonymous sat at the family table and listened to a young relative, then just finishing college, discourse on the essential unity of all religions. It is, as Boston University prof Stephen Prothero writes in the Boston Globe, a theme dear to middlebrow popularizers (Huston Smith, Karen Armstrong, Oprah). To all of whom Father A. responds, as he did a bit too loudly to his young relation, "Oh, horse$#!*."

Prothero, in a piece excerpted from a forthcoming book, offers a somewhat kinder, not to say more sophisticated, analysis:

This naive theological groupthink ... is motivated in part by a laudable rejection of the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or nirvana or paradise. ...

I understand what these people are doing. They are not describing the world but reimagining it. They are hoping that their hope will call up in us feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood. In the face of religious bigotry and bloodshed, past and present, we cannot help but be drawn to such hope, and such vision. Yet we must not mistake either for clear-eyed analysis.

On the contrary, Prothero says. This fallacy is "a lovely sentiment but it is untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous."

The disrespectful part is the implicit assumption people don't really know who they worship or what they believe. The dangerous part, obviously, is that by failing to take religious difference seriously, we allow ourselves to be blindsided by its effects on our life and world.

There's much more, and it's all worth reading. What Prothero does not say, and we wish he had, is this: that the essential differences among religions are often disguised by the similarity of their language and imagery. This is true of, for example, Hinduism and Buddhism. It is most especially true among the three principal monotheistic religions of the Middle East (as well as of the non-principal ones, like Zoroastrianism).

How many times have you heard somebody say, "Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same God"? On the surface, it sounds straightforward enough. Christians have adopted the Hebrew scriptures essentially whole, and the Qu'ran has adapted much of their content, as well as a few choice bits of the New Testament. "To be sure," goes the popular argument, "there are differences in what we believe about God -- but at least we all believe in the same God."

And yet, in the epistemological sense, "God" -- or one's god -- cannot be separated from what one believes about God. "God" is, after all, just an arbitrary semantic catchall. One assigns to this word the characteristics of one's own deity, but cannot assume that one's neighbors assign the same characteristics. They generally do not.

So for example, when Christians use the word, we refer specifically to the Father, Son and Spirit, a hidden God who, among other things, became incarnate in Jesus Christ for the purpose of delivering human beings from the alien power of sin. Jews and Muslims can recognize no part of that statement as true about God. They may tell similar stories about their gods, but let us be clear that they, and we, believe in radically different gods.

Now, there is a corollary to this argument, which will probably offend many readers. It is the observation that we Christians disagree amongst ourselves about who God is. At an epistemological level, the God who is physically present in the Eucharist (for example) differs from the God who is not. The Christ whose continuing body is a single universal church under a single universal pastor differs, perhaps irreconcilably, from the Christ who is wholly present where any group gathers in his name.

Which means, bluntly put, that Lutherans and Presbyterians worship different Gods. So do Roman Catholics and Baptists. And on and on, through the dreary list of divided churches. At a still more excruciating level of definition, we could argue (in fact, we are forced to argue) that nearly every single Christian, individually, worships a different God. Likewise every Jew, Muslim, or what-have-you. This isn't by choice, of course; it is true only because each of us constructs the semantic category of "God" a bit differently. Creeds, scriptures and liturgies all serve to limit the category, but none can ever quite succeed. Ask around at coffee hour, some time, what people mean by words like "god" and "salvation." The distinctions are often extremely small, but pay close attention, and you will find them.

To most readers, this looks like a reductio ad absurdum, the point in a debate at which one side's argument has been pushed so far that its underlying fallacy is revealed. But we think not. On the contrary, we think that this is a useful reminder, especially to people who are called to speak about religion in the public arena, that the differences among faiths are so varied as to defy an accurate assessment. So that if one begins a sentence, "As people of faith, we can agree ...", one has almost surely made a mistake.

When Prothero talks about the "family resemblance" among different religions, he is moving in the right direction. Despite our creeds and scriptures and liturgies, we none of confess quite the same thing. But our confessions of faith, or if you prefer our philosophical investigations or quests for truth, can be divided into families. The division can be misleading. Just as flesh-and-blood families sometimes interbreed, so do religious traditions. Within every family, there is a black sheep, and often more than one, who does not quite fit in. But if we are going to have a serious discussion about the things people believe, and the people who believe those things, we need to begin it by acknowledging the nearly infinite variety of beliefs, rather than pretending to perceive a non-existent unity.


mark said...

Let me guess who you might identify as the black sheep among us :)))

Father said...

"Sheep," I hurry to say, is both a singular and a plural.

Mark Christianson said...

Father A., Your concern about eliding religious differences is well taken. But I find the main thread of your argument problematic. Even though many may treat "God" as a frame on which to hang their various ideas, desires, and characteristics, we should be careful not to indulge that concept. God is not an idea, a mirror, or a framework. Nor is God, of course, some thing or object that can be measured and described with objective precision. God is, at least in our Christian confession, personal. If you and I know someone in common, we may have very different impressions of them, but they are still the same person. Impressions may vary in completeness, accuracy, compatibility, and so on, but it doesn't imply that this third party is actually two different persons. Buddhists and Christians clearly do not worship the same God. But when it comes to Jews and Christians (and all the more between Christian denominations), I find it simply impossible to escape the conclusion that it is indeed the same God we worship.

The concept of God as person, it seems to me, is very helpful here. It allows those families of faith to be not just groups of similar ideas, but having deeper ties amongst it's members. And it allows for differences within those families. Above all, it would militate against eliding the differences that exist between families, such as between Christianity and Buddhism. The idea of God as something we simply fill with our own ideas turns the whole enterprise of religion into merely individual personal opinion, and thus something that easily dismisses all religion and which will ultimately fail in respecting religion or guarding us from the danger of not taking those differences and religious beliefs seriously.

Thank you for the interesting and thought provoking blog.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

I'd guess that God him/her/its self separates what he/she/it is from what people think about H/H/I. Of course we each have our own theology, but that doesn't change what the actual Truth, ie what God is. We just can't fully know God because H/H/I is much bigger than any human mind.

The first time I traveled west and saw the mountains was a big revelation to me. I saw a mountain from afar, across the plains. I saw that mountain from the north, later from the west, through and past the forest. We drove up onto the base of the mountain and the top wasn't visible to me anymore. We hiked up past the treeline, and then I could see that there was a slope leading to the top, well, the part of the top, visible to us from that point. If I'd been in an airplane, I'd have another view of the whole mountain, but much different from the other views.

But the mountain remains the same, regardless of what is seen, felt, or described from any viewpoint.