Unity of Religions? "G-d Is Not One!"

11/01/2013 04:52 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

I can recall at a global interfaith gathering in Davos, Switzerland, a faith leader stood up and claimed that "we are all brothers and sisters since our faiths are really the same." I recall feeling shocked by the simplicity. That type of unity can be terrifying. We can respect each other while honoring differences in values. The Dalai Lama has argued that "the essential message of all religions is very much the same."

Boston University Professor Stephen Prothero, however, in "God is not one," argues that religions are in fact very different. How can we pretend that the various scriptures, dogmas, ethics and rituals all lead to one universal truth? Only one not well versed in various religions could be so oblivious of the vast differences.

G-d is found in the details of our religious lives, not in abstract universals. Not only is it not meaningful to conflate different traditions and value systems, it can be dangerous. The universalist impulse may be a "lovely sentiment," Prothero writes, "but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue."

Anyone who is slightly familiar with comparative religions will realize immediately that there are core differences, even outside of technical theological doctrine. For example, Islam and Judaism prohibit the eating of pork, while in some Christian cultures a pork meal is integral to their holidays. Islam bans alcohol, unlike Judaism and Christianity, which incorporate wine in religious rituals. Judaism and Christianity practice monogamy exclusively, as opposed to Islam, which allows polygyny. Most Christian sects accept and patronize religious imagery (think of Michelangelo), while in Islam it is forbidden, and even in recent years people have been killed over this issue. If we raised the question of the status of women within religion, it is doubtful that a consensus could be derived even within individual religions.

Many atheists dismiss "religion" as if it were one thing. But actually the sophisticated approach requires that we contend with each religion and its claims. Religions have much in common, and we should come together and learn from each other. But we cannot pretend that our truths are identical. Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:

"There is a fundamental difference between the end-of-days peace of religious unity and the historic peace of compromise and coexistence. The attempt to force the former can sometimes be the most formidable enemy of the latter.... It is time we exorcized Plato's ghost, clearly and unequivocally. Universalism must be balanced with a new respect for the local, the particular, the unique." ("The Dignity of Difference", 10, 20).

Rabbi Sacks continues:

"My argument is far more fundamental, namely that universalism is an inadequate response to tribalism, and no less dangerous. It leads to the belief -- superficially compelling but quite false -- that there is only one truth about the essentials of the human condition, and it holds true for all people at all times. If I am right, you are wrong... teaching humanity to make space for difference. G-d may at times be found in human other, the one not like us. Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one G-d and therefore one gateway to His presence. To the contrary, it is the idea that the unity of G-d is to be found in the diversity of creation... ("The Dignity of Difference", 50, 53).

History has proven that people who wish to create a universal religion frequently resort to suppression. The Egyptian Pharaoh Akenhaten (reigned ca. 1352-1336 BCE) created a religion dedicated to a single deity, the sun disk Aten, but he also spent vast sums building a new city to his new religion and punished those who maintained old beliefs. When he died, his monotheistic experiment was abandoned. Shortly after Islam was created, there followed centuries of warfare (jihad) against Christian areas as well as within nations with Islamic rulers. For their part, beginning in 1095 through 1291, there were Crusades launched by the Christian Pope in 1095 and carried on sporadically until 1291, that sought to take Jerusalem and other areas of the Middle East back from Muslim control. Participants were promised that their sins would be forgiven in exchange for fighting. While initially Jerusalem and Mediterranean ports were taken (and in the 13th Century, the Eastern Christian city of Constantinople), all of the territories were ultimately regained by Muslim rulers. We are still dealing with this terrible legacy today.

The best approach appears to be one of coexistence, and one of the most interesting examples involved a Muslim ruler and a majority Hindu population, as unlikely a pairing as can be imagined. Islam is monotheistic and forbids religious imagery, while Hinduism is polytheistic and embraces religious imagery. Islam adheres to the doctrine of an individual soul, while in Hinduism there is a belief in reincarnation, so there is a reverence for animals (especially cattle), who are seen as the reincarnated spirits of people. Akbar the Great, who ruled India from 1556-1605, expanded the Muslim Mughal Empire. Nevertheless, he participated in festivals of other religions, married several Hindu princesses, abolished a special tax on Hindus, and did not press for the conversion of Hindus. Later, he built a temple in which he received Hindu, Zoroastrian, and other religious scholars, allowed the Christians to build a church, and curried respect for Hinduism by discouraging the slaughter of cattle. Eventually, he attempted to form a cult that incorporated Islam, Hinduism, and other religious beliefs. Unfortunately, he centered the new belief system on himself, and so his experiment died with him. Ultimately, the profound religious differences could not be blended without losing the values of each religion.

Perhaps the best religious policy is one that appreciates the good points of all religious traditions, while not pretending that a universal religion can be created or imposed on all. In the 20th century, Mohandas Gandhi was an eloquent spokesman for religious toleration, but even he could not prevent the creation of India and Pakistan as separate Hindu and Islamic states. He rejected the idea that everyone should belong to one religion: "My effort should never be to undermine another's faith but to make him a better follower of his own faith." He specifically deplored the kind of coercive proselytizing that missionaries frequently employed:

"It is impossible for me to reconcile myself to the idea of conversion after the style that goes on in India and elsewhere today. It is an error which is perhaps the greatest impediment to the world's progress toward peace... Why should a Christian want to convert a Hindu to Christianity? Why should he not be satisfied if the Hindu is a good or godly man?"

We must be tolerant of other religions. Even further we should collaborate and learn from one another. But we should do so in a way that shows honor and dignity to other's beliefs and doesn't merely pretend that we have no differences and that we do not have a unique contribution to make through our religious tradition.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."

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