Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Dalai Lama and the Professor are Both Right

Professor Stephen Prothero, author of God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World-and Why Their Differences Matter, has some critical comments about a recent editorial in the New York Times written by the Dalai Lama:

I am a big fan of the Dalai Lama. I love his trademark smile and I hate the fact that I missed his talks this week in New York City. But I cannot say either "Amen" or "Om" to the shopworn clichés that he trots out in the New York Times in “Many Faiths, One Truth.”

Recalling the Apostle Paul—“When I was a child, I spoke like a child”—the Dalai Lama begins by copping to youthful naivete. “When I was a boy in Tibet, I felt that my own Buddhist religion must be the best,” he writes, “and that other faiths were somehow inferior.” However, just as Paul, upon becoming a man, “put away childish things,” the Dalai Lama now sees his youthful exclusivism as both naïve and dangerous. There is “one truth” behind the “many faiths,” and that core truth, he argues, is compassion.

Like the Dalai Lama, who writes of how he was influenced by Thomas Merton, I believe we can learn greatly from other religions. I too hope for tolerance and harmony in our interreligious interactions. I am convinced, however, that true tolerance and lasting harmony must be built on reality, not fantasy. Religious exclusivism is dangerous and naïve. But so too is pretend pluralism. The cause of religious harmony is not advanced in the least by the shibboleth that all religions are different paths up the same mountain. (Read the whole thing here. You can also read the Op-Ed piece from the Dalai Lama that Prothero is responding to here).

My response to the good Professor is that both he and the Dalai Lama are right. The differences among the various religious systems that exist today are real and need to be taken seriously. The Universal House of Justice put it this way:

"With every day that passes, danger grows that the rising fires of religious prejudice will ignite a worldwide conflagration the consequences of which are unthinkable. Such a danger civil government, unaided, cannot overcome. Nor should we delude ourselves that appeals for mutual tolerance can alone hope to extinguish animosities that claim to possess Divine sanction."
(The Universal House of Justice, 2002 April, To the World's Religious Leaders, p. 6)

However, dismissing the possibility that there are universal truths underlying all religious systems is not the only conclusion to be drawn from taking their differences seriously. An alternative approach offered by Baha'u'llah is to view these differences as reflective of the needs of the times in which these diverse religious systems emerged:

"These principles and laws, these firmly-established and mighty systems, have proceeded from one Source, and are the rays of one Light. That they differ one from another is to be attributed to the varying requirements of the ages in which they were promulgated."
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 287)