God is Not One

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I’ve been interested in Stephen Prothero for a while now. He’s written extensively on the effects that the Judeo-Christian religion has had on the development of Western culture. But unlike many who write on that subject, Prothero has garnered some attention, some good attention. Maybe it’s because he’s not dogmatic about what he believes. He labels himself a confused Christian.

And he talks like someone we can learn a lot from.

I really appreciate Prothero’s interview here. It’s in vogue right now to talk about the different religions as if they were all similar roads that lead to the same place. But I think Prothero makes an excellent point. They aren’t telling the same stories, they’re not trying to solve the same problems, or answer the same questions. There may be vague similarities that overlap in each story (or in the big 3: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, rather large similarities) but they are still different stories.

Our society has gotten so sensitive to leveling out differences that we’ve forgotten some differences are actually central to the integrity of the story these faiths are trying to tell. Did you notice what Prothero said about how each world religion has different objections? The problem Islam addresses is pride through submission (Muslim actually means one who submits to Allah), Judaism deals with exile, and Christianity deals with sin. Buddhism deals with avoiding suffering, and Christianity find suffering to be redemptive.

While this is all an oversimplification, Prothero does make a point that we have to deal with. These differences are not reconcilable. And that’s not a bad thing. In a world of pluralism, the answer isn’t to try and make everything bland.With that said, my own particular bent is that the way of Jesus is not a religion.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think that Christianity, especially the brand that sprang up after Constantine, can be easily mistaken and turned into a religion. But the first few centuries, what those men and women were saying and doing…that was something else, something that doesn’t fall into the categories of what we’d call “religion.” I think we are called to live out something that is much more embodied.

I have more to say on that later. But here’s my question for now…What do you think about what Prothero was saying? Have you noticed an attempt at leveling all world religions? i.e. “All Paths lead to God.” How does a faith that believes it is speaking with the authority of God’s revelation talk about   this?*

Dallas Willard once said that in a pluralistic world, the value of any religion is based on it’s benefit to outsiders. I think he’s on to something. My hope is not to just be a part of a church that can be confused with vague pop-spirituality. My hope is to be a part of a community that lives out the Christian story, in a way that it is good news for everyone outside of it.

*My good friend Joshua Graves is currently engaged in a great discussion about this here.

About jonathanstorment

My family and I love reading, traveling, daddy/daughter dates, playing hide and seek, good music, and long meals with friends. We still miss LOST, and all four of us have Superman uniforms. We are passionate about bringing Heaven to Earth and want to follow Jesus while repainting discipleship for those around us. We are followers of Jesus and I preach at the Highland Church of Christ. We participate in something called A Restoration Movement, and we've come to realize that might be larger than we thought.

10 thoughts on “God is Not One

  1. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.
    1 Tim. 5:4

    If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
    James 1:26-27

    How do you reconcile these passages to the idea that Christianity is not a religion?

    I understand, I think, what you mean. We think of Christianity as relationship, not religion. True, Christianity is relationship. But I think many in the evangelical church have made “religion” into a bad word, and I don’t think it’s justified. It may be just the catchphrase of our times.

    Something to think about.

  2. Let me say it this way Bro. Danny, I don’t think Christianity is what we commonly mean when we refer to religion. We tend to think of something more abstract, and cognitive. I think James’ definition of religion is great! But I don’t think most people who are going to read my blog have that definition of religion. I think most of us think of a cognitive belief system. But for me, the incarnation, is what makes the way of Jesus less a religion, and more a way of life. It must have skin on it. There’s more to say, but that’s the basic idea…and I could be wrong.

  3. “It must have skin on it.”

    Is that not what 1 Tim. 5:4 and James 1:26-27 are saying? Are they not saying we have more than an ethereal relationship with some spirit out in space somewhere, rather we have a day by day, moment by moment living our loving relationship with Jesus?

    If we spend our lives extolling the great love of God, singing praise to Him, worshiping Him, but walk right by the widow standing in the food pantry line, or looking for help with her ill children, we do not have anything more than a cold religion …. a ‘worshipful one’ but one totally disconnected from those that have great need for Jesus, which is James’ tacit warning to us, imo.

    If our ‘religion’ does not project us into the life of the needy, it is no religion, only empty precepts, and we cannot please God with the mouthing of empty words when our hands and feet are stationary, paralyzed stone cold useless extremities. The most dangerous about this ‘religion’ is the misconception about Jesus that is sent out to the lost world and may cause many to be lost forever. LORD, I pray may we never let that happen! Amen!!!

  4. I think the 1 Timothy passage gives an example of how to put skin on religion (which by definition is a set of beliefs, ideas, and practices) . True religion does have skin on it.

    Christianity is a religion. It is a religion that requires relationship with Jesus, that requires submission to him, and daily surrender.

    I’ve been exposed to a lot of evangelical Christians who talk about a “spirit of religion” as a negative thing. I know what they think they are saying. They think that means a spirit of legalism or Pharisaism. I love these folks. I just think it’s sloppy terminology.

    But, hey, I’m an old guy. You’re trying to reach young guys. In 100 years, if the world doesn’t end, this will be a conversation that doesn’t make sense to anyone.

  5. Jonathan, I saw this interview and liked some of what he said. I did not agree with his seemingly reductionistic summary of Christianity and Judaism (I think at one point he said Christianity was ultimately interested in dealing with sin and Judaism was not). Anyway, I think he’s on the right track, I just wish he would have quoted N.T. Wright. 🙂 Love reading your blog.

  6. It’s been my experience that while yes, the world’s religions are vastly different in many respects, what is not so different is what the response of an increasingly secular world to any one of them individually. The differences of the religions arose when the people concerned were geographically and culturally far removed from each other. Yet, today geography has been transcended and culture (though still a major barrier in some ways) is becoming increasingly homogenized. The people I encounter on a daily basis are not so concerned with the competing claims of different religions, but mostly with the simple question of whether ANY religion is relevant to the secular reality they experience day to day.

    I find that the “leveling out” effect is mostly a last ditch effort to maintain some sort of faith in the face of secularism. At least at my university, I meet people from many different faiths who are struggling to maintain belief in spite of the competing scientific and secular claims we are inundated with. We are aware that our religions are different, but many of us are struggling to maintain religious beliefs in any form at all. To maintain the exclusivity particular to our own system over against each other seems a bit silly under such circumstances. We’re lucky to meet people who even maintain room in their worldview for the possibility of divinity.

  7. Bro Danny, I thought about not writing that sentence because I thought it might become the point of conversation. Here’s what I’m getting at, and perhaps it’s semantics or heresy, but it’s my opinion (for now). In Exodus, God tells the Israelites the Law, and they reply, we will do and we will hear (in that order). This sounds strange but it’s indicative of the rest of Scripture. Jesus says the truth will set us free, but he says right after that “If you hold to my commandments”
    Here’s my point. I think of religion as much more abstract. Something like a story that can be appreciated without entered. Using that definition, I don’t think that Jesus is a religion. Jesus didn’t say accept me, but follow me. I’ve heard Jewish people say that Judaism is a lot more like a way of life than it is a philosophy/religion, because it is something that must be lived out. I think that’s true of Christianity as well, in her better days. Anyway this may be semantics, or my having a strange definition…and I don’t think you’re an old guy.

    Josh, yeah that part stood out to me as well. Speaking of N.T. He said over and over again in JVG that return from Exile was the forgiveness of sins. It was just a way of talking about it that wasn’t abstract. I’d love to have that conversation with Prothero. See you tomorrow!

    Joe, you’re right, a lot of times we are answering questions that the broader culture isn’t asking. And this maybe one of those cases. I don’t live in the same world you do, so I appreciate your gentle tug back toward those who are just struggling to believe in any kind of divinity. But hasn’t the old bifurcation between science/faith gotten somewhat better? I have been hearing (I think from you) that people were finding different answers only because science and faith were asking different questions. Anyway thanks for this, you always have a different perspective.

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