God is Not One

Back in May I hosted a chat on syncretism for members of the House of Netjer. It was interesting and provided me with a lot of fodder I need to go back and cull. Some of it being that I still have a LONG way to go in terms of understanding syncretism.
One person in the chat was asking a lot of questions related to Kemetic practices and Hinduism. Now, I’m not Hindu, never been Hindu, the closest I get is a deep and abiding love for Shiva. Something about the questions though triggered a realization that sometimes needs to be reinforced. Religions are not interchangeable, no matter what ecumenists might try to say. If they were, why would the practices and labels be so important to people and why couldn’t we all just be the same thing? Never mind that for many people this defaults to Christianity, which is a beautiful tradition and most certainly not my tradition.

Around this time, Stephen Prothero was promoting his new book God Is Not One. Being the good polytheist and syncretist I am, I had to borrow a copy. (Incidentally, this meant I got my library to purchase it. Huzzah!) It’s been a few months since I read it and I do wish I could give a more complete review, but that could be summed up in this one sentence.
This is a wonderful book and you must read it.

Prothero covers eight major world religions: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, and Daoism, and also gives a chapter to Atheism, focus on the more strident atheist voices currently speaking. He goes into beliefs, practices, and histories of these different faiths and gives a good general understanding of what makes them all unique and DIFFERENT from the others.
I suspect a lot of readers here will most resonate with the chapter on Yoruba, as it also covers a lot of the major points shared by tribal faiths and emphasizes the importance of ritual observances and divination and other such practices to the tradition. In fact, one big point Prothero stresses is that, outside of Christianity, most religions place a higher priority on practice and ritual (orthopraxy) rather than proper thought (orthodoxy)*.

Two quotes stood out for me in the book as they touch strongly on what makes “us” as polytheists distinct, even though the author is not discussing us in these chapters.

First, from the chapter on Christianity, which I alluded to above.
“It is often a mus take to refer to a religion as a “faith,” or to its adherents as “believers.” As odd as this might sound, faith and belief don’t matter much in most religions. Often ritual is far more important, as in Confucianism. Or story, as in Yoruba religion. Many Jews do not believe in God, and the world’s Hindus get along quite well without any creed. When it comes to religion, we are more often what we do than what we think.” (p. 69, emphasis mine)

From the chapter on Confucianism.
“The Western monotheisms tell us that religion is a zero-sum game. You need to pick one, and you would do well to choose on the basis of what each religion can do for you at death. But among the many things Confucius and his followers seem to be saying is that perhaps the point of religion is not so much the by-and-by as the here and now. Perhaps human flourishing and social harmony are sufficiently lofty goals for any religion. Perhaps the greatest questions the great religions have to answer concern how to become a human being.” (p. 1300

I definitely recommend this book, even if you feel you have a good understanding of the world’s religions. At the least, it can serve as a good reminder for what your spirituality is and is not. And if you’re not sure, or do not know how to frame the discussion for someone not in your tradition, this would be a good starting point.

*Since I am using these terms, I thought I would just point out that while I am Kemetic Orthodox, the tradition in application would better be described as Kemetic Orthopraxy.

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14 comments on “God is Not One

  1. I had to look up Kemetic Orthodox. The true kinship of faiths may be best found in their mystical traditions. Here is a brief quote from my e-book at http://www.suprarational.org

    Mysticism seeks to join, or unite, our inner self with the divine by spiritual disciplines of devotion, knowledge, selfless service, and/or meditation. What you do matters greatly to what you will become: that is divine justice. How you do it, through Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, or outside these faiths [sic] is important when it is the right way for you: that is divine law. One is Truth: true Reality transcends the boundaries of our beliefs. Thou art That: you are in the divine essence; you must be dedicated to fully realizing it.

    Our religion may be right for us, nevertheless that does not mean billions of others are wrong. What of the 100 billion people who lived outside of our faith since the origin of our species? Religions do differ in approach, beliefs and practices, although the divine Reality they seek is the same. Their mystics used the words and concepts understood by followers of their faith, but these are just alternate ways of trying to express the One underlying Truth.

    [Note: For mysticism in the Mahayana replace the divine with the Dharmakaya, or Buddha-essence.]

  2. Ron, I do agree with you on the right/wrong comment with different religions. I think mysticism brings us common ground both within a faith and with others as well. They key is to also understand and respect the differences in traditions.

  3. syncreticmystic, I agree. There are many approaches even within the mystical tradition of each faith. There is no “one true way” or path which is right for everyone.

  4. Ron, I think you’re missing the point somewhat: no one is arguing that there is only “one true way” or anything of the sort.

    The real matter at hand, which is an issue for the perennialists that Prothero disputes, and which you seem to be agreeing with, is the idea that (in your words) “these are just alternate ways of trying to express the One underlying Truth.” That, itself, is a belief that is insisting it IS the “one true way” and is the “actual” truth lying behind all apparent distinctions. While that might be a particular dogma within something like Buddhism or Vedantic Hinduism, why does that have to be the case generally, or with all mystical practices? Why can’t people be respectful of each other, and uphold their own truths and their own ways, and affirm others, without the necessity of having to say “You’re right because you’re just talking about what I am in different words”? I think that’s a large part of the point that is being made by Prothero, and by several others, and I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing.

  5. aediculaantinoi, I was trying to be brief and polite. There is quite a difference between the “way” to Truth and Truth itself. Both Dr. Prothero and I agree that there are many “ways”; where we disagree is about the goal: absolute Truth (do not ask me to define that in words)

    In publications of his book in some other countries, the cover shows many mountains, each with different peaks (more subtle than two facing One Way [sic} signs). As some critics have said, “that would mean that there are many Gods.” Forget God! Concentrate on the Reality underlying God: Godhead, used by Christians in English, is al-Haqq in Islam, Brahman in Hinduism, Dharmakaya or Nirvana in Buddhism, and Ein Sof in the Kabbalah of Judaism. The word we use do not change the Truth and Reality which is.

    Mystical consciousness (preferred over experiences) varies in degree, frequency and duration for each person, not only between people. In my book I said Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.

  6. Actually, Stephen Prothero and I do not disagree. He has said that this book was not about mystics; it addresses the beliefs of everyday followers to any religion. The former are often quite similar; the latter are usually quite different.

  7. I don’t dispute that the transformed outlook is a good thing (and THE important thing); I’m still disputing that there is anything like a “Reality underlying God,” or the similarities of any of the various religious formulations of “something like that” (it isn’t my understanding that they are all quite the same). You’re arguing that no matter what our words (and thoughts that lead to or underlie them) or their concepts or understanding happen to be, but the Truth and Reality that all of them point towards is the same. That’s a statement of belief in itself.

    There is no understanding of anything outside of words and concepts, or interpretations and articulations of particular experiences. One could have an experience of the “Big Something,” but without the ability to articulate it, one doesn’t have anything. Those articulations are all different and unique to their linguistic, cultural, and religious contexts, about which none of us are disagreeing. What I’m really disputing is that all of those “Big Something” or “God-Beyond-God” experiences are the same, or involve the same perception of reality, or any being or essence underlying it, simply due to the vagueness and “unknowing” of the ways in which it is described in the various languages. (Late Antique Mediterranean polytheists would have called that “God-Beyond-the-Gods” Abraxas in certain cases…) I don’t think any of those are any closer to apprehending “the Truth and Reality which is,” insofar as that even exists at all, much less that any of us are able to perceive it.

    I know plenty of people who might have a particularly nice salmon dinner, and who may end up saying “That was beyond description!” (or the same may happen when they see a sunset, or hear a piece of music, or have a good orgasm). I don’t think any of those things are the same as each other, and I certainly don’t think that’s a momentary glimpse of the underlying nature and essence of Truth and Reality in these disparate experiences, so much as simply an inability to describe something that is perfectly knowable and understandable in other circumstances.

    Lack of ability to describe highest reality, therefore, shouldn’t be extended to assume that such an ultimate or highest “Reality” or “Truth” necessarily exists, therefore, much less that any such force would be unitary or singular.

  8. aediculaantinoi,I love your analogy of eating a salmon. Assume there are five diners at the table and all are eating portions of the same fish. You are right that each person’s experience of eating it, their verbal description of that experience and their later personal memories of the meal will vary. Some will seem quite similar, while others may differ greatly. The salmon is the same.

    You seem to be taking the position of Steven Katz, while I am more like Robert Forman. It really doesn’t matter. What is is, whether we believe, think or desire otherwise. Mystical experiences are wonderful, whether they are the same or different. They are only significant if they change our outlook from personal to transpersonal…looking beyond the ego and individual self to the spiritual Self which unites us all.

  9. Ron–again, my mysticism doesn’t require monism. Whoever our expressed thoughts may be similar to here, you’re still making the overall assumption that your idea of unified mystical reality IS actual reality, which isn’t at all reflective of my own experience, my own understanding, or my own assessment of the experiences of others. And while I may be “wrong” about these things ultimately, there is no way to prove that with any certainty beyond my own further subjective experiences, which are necessarily conditional, contextual, limited, and individual.

    The salmon analogy, I think, is only valid if we’re talking about a shared spiritual experience. Everyone eating the same salmon would be the equivalent of five people all undergoing the Eleusinian Mysteries in the same cohort, or five people doing Tibetan Buddhist practices together; then, no matter how different their descriptions happened to be, we would be talking about the same salmon. But because the methodologies of these various different mystical experiences are different, and are thoroughly entrenched in their own cultures, languages, and religious systems, I don’t think we can say that the revelation of the mysteries at Eleusis is “the same salmon” as an experience in Tibetan Buddhism. At best, they may be different salmon of the same species but prepared differently (with different spices and side dishes and methods of cooking, etc.); but I think a good bit of the time, they’re utterly different species of salmon, if not some other fish or other food altogether.

    Mystical monism is, I’m ultimately saying, a belief, and not reality. You keep insisting that no matter what one may or may not believe or think or desire, you already know the actuality behind the apparent differences and the actual “Reality” is this unity. That is as much a belief as anything else that I’m saying. I don’t think anyone profits by having their differences ignored and erased and downplayed in favor of what amounts to a theory phrased as a categorical belief about “Reality.”

  10. aediculaantinoi, I had prepared a rather lengthy reply, but sense that this conversation is becoming confrontational. Let us just agree to disagree. I wish you the best.

    Those who do believe in the kinship of faiths are invited to join the social network of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. We can work together in mutual respect. See my profile at http://www.peacenext.org/profile/RonKrumpos

  11. Ron–if that is your choice, that’s fine. I don’t know why “confrontation” can’t be done respectfully, though.

    I think inter-religious dialogue and interfaith work is useful and important, but not from the standpoint of “kinship of faiths” (unless that is demonstrable by history) or the oneness and unity of all mystical experiences. I think it is far more useful and respectful for me to recognize the other people there are different than me, to listen to someone and understand their experiences, and to find them beautiful because of their differences and their variety (that’s what true diversity is, in my opinion), without having to make them exactly like my own, or rooted in my same religious understanding, or being ultimately “all one.” But then again, that’s me, and that’s my own belief based on my own experiences and studies. I’m perfectly comfortable with you thinking and believing as you do, so long as you admit it is a belief, and not “Reality.” To grant that would be a meaningful and productive place of “agreeing to disagree,” rather than utterly dismissing me and deciding I’m not worth speaking further with because I don’t agree with your beliefs.

    Please understand, I do not intend to be or to sound aggressive–and in any case, written internet communications are not the best medium for this sort of discussion–but instead only to make my point as clearly and distinctly as possible. If I have inadvertently offended you in the process, it was not my intention to, and I do sincerely apologize.

  12. Pingback: Monism and Mysticism « Aedicula Antinoi: A Small Shrine of Antinous

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