Sunday, April 26, 2015

An Introduction to God Is Not One, by Stephen Prothero

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Do all of the world’s great religions share a belief in one God, or even one central idea?  In the Introduction to God Is Not One, Stephen Prothero tells us that Hinduism has many gods and Buddhism has no god.  But Judaism, Christianity and Islam—the religions of the book—are the most contentious and they all share a belief in one God.  Prothero, who is skeptical of what passes for interfaith dialogue, tells us that belief in one God is about all that those religions of the book have in common, and he notes there are even some Jews who do not believe in God (p. 21).

            Prothero challenges perennialists like Huston Smith who assert that all the great religions have the same ultimate goal but different paths to achieve it, as well as Mohandas Ghandi’s statement that “Belief in one God is the cornerstone of all religions.” (p. 1)  Prothero acknowledges the need for religious tolerance gained through the freedoms of religion and expression, but he questions whether religious tolerance will lead to religious unity:
“The Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it.  But the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer place.  In fact, this na├»ve theological groupthink—call it Godthink—has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religion that threaten us worldwide. “ (p. 3)   

            Prothero points out similarities and differences between religions: “The world’s religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics [morality], but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience and the law.” (p. 3)  Prothero makes a distinction between the two components of legitimacy—the voluntary standards of ethics/morality and coercive laws (p. 3)—but he doesn’t explain why the distinction is essential for religious tolerance.  Religious rules or laws must be voluntary; if they are coercive, as with apostasy and blasphemy laws, there can be no freedom of religion or speech.  Those freedoms are possible only in libertarian democracies where laws are made by elected representatives and are subject to fundamental human rights.

            According to Prothero, the “all religions are one” mantra is neither accurate nor ethically responsible. (p. 3)  He explains, “The ideal of religious tolerance has morphed into the straight jacket of religious agreement….What we need on this furiously religious planet is a realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate.” (p. 4)

            Prothero takes notice of the New Atheists who condemn all religions as inherently evil.  He acknowledges that religion is one of the greatest forces of evil in the world, but argues that it is also one of the greatest forces for good (p. 9); and because most people in the world are religious, whether it is good or evil “…religion is a force too powerful to ignore.” (p. 10)

            As for Christian and Muslim interfaith relations, Prothero says, “While I do not believe we are witnessing a clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam, it is a fantasy to imagine that the world’s two largest religions are in any meaningful sense the same, or that interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims will magically bridge the gap.” (p. 12)

            Christianity is the world’s largest religion at 33%, but Islam is the fastest growing, from 12% in 1900 to 22% in 2010. (p. 18)  While Christians make a distinction between religion and secular politics, Muslims do not.  They consider Islam both a religion and a holistic way of life with comprehensive and immutable laws that limit individual freedom. (p. 19)

            Prothero points out fundamental differences in faith and belief between the religions of the book, and the many variations of each religion create a vast diversity of beliefs.  There are common themes: Christianity is about sin and salvation, while Judaism and Islam are less about sin and salvation and more about a holistic way of life.  Both Judaism and Islam are deontological or rule-based religions, while Christianity is more teleological, emphasizing belief in an ultimate principle of faith rather than obedience to religious rules and rituals.              

            Prothero’s stated goal is to make people more religiously literate in order to disprove the perennialist view that all religions share one central theme. (pp 22-24)  That is a laudable goal, but it would be a serious mistake to emphasize religious differences to the exclusion of their similarities.  That reverses the error of the perennialists, but is equally mistaken.  The truth lies in between: There are many religious differences, but there is enough common ground to avoid hate and violence so long as we respect our differences.

            Prothero’s emphasis on religious differences can give the false impression that religious diversity is a problem.  Libertarian democratic cultures with a diversity of religions have produced cultures of religious tolerance and minimized religious fundamentalism in the West since the Enlightenment.  Where there is intrafaith diversity progressive believers can often find more in common with those of other religions than with fundamentalists in their own; but that has not happened in the Islamic East where fundamentalists in emerging democracies have used apostasy and blasphemy laws to prevent the freedoms of religion and expression.

            Jews, Christians and Muslims have many differences, but they share a belief in one God and also share a common word of faith in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves.  It is a common principle of legitimacy based on love over law.  Were it not for fundamentalist believers who insist on imposing their holy laws on others, Jews, Christians and Muslims could all embrace the principle that we love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves—even our unbelieving neighbors—and promote religious tolerance through the freedoms of religion and expression.

Notes and References to Resources and Blogs:

Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One, Harper One, 2010.

On religion as a primary source of morality and law, see the Introductionto The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy at pages 10-15.  On the importance of the Enlightenment to conforming religions to libertarian democracy, see above and the following blogs: Religion and Reason (posted 12/8/2014), Faith and Freedom (posted 12/15/2014), Religion and Human Rights (posted 2/22/2015), God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty (posted 3/29/2015) and Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy (posted 4/12/2015).

On a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, see The Greatest Commandment (posted 1/11/2015) and Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today?(posted 1/25/2015).

See Love over Law (posted 1/18/2015).  

On whether religion is good or bad and the atheist view, see Is Religion Good or Evil (posted 2/15/2015) and Religion as a Source of Good and Evil (posted 3/1/2015).

On religious exclusivism and competition, see Promoting Religion through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness? (posted 2/8/2015).               

On religious differences on issues of sex, see Love Marriage and Homosexuality (posted 2/1/2015).

On religious violence, see Religion, Violence, and Military Legitimacy(posted 12/29/2014).  

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Jesus: A Prophet, God's Only Son, or the Logos?

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr., April 19, 2015

            Christian doctrine considers Jesus as the Christ, or God’s only Son and a coequal with God the Father in the Holy Trinity.  Jews and Muslims consider Jesus a prophet, but not a divine being.  Aside from church doctrine, what does The New Testament tell us about Jesus?

            The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) describe Jesus as a Jewish rabbi and prophet who taught the word of God, was crucified and then rose from the dead.  Matthew and Luke have differing accounts of a virgin birth and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, and Mark has no account of a virgin birth and its post-resurrection account is considered a later addition to the original Gospel.  John’s Gospel has no miraculous birth and presents Jesus as the Logos, or the word of God made flesh, and it has its own unique post-resurrection account. 
            Paul’s letters were written before the four Gospel accounts.  After a dramatic encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul was converted to Christianity and originated the atonement doctrine to explain the crucifixion and resurrection, and he predicted a Parousia in which a risen Christ would return in the end times to usher in God’s kingdom on earth.
            Was Jesus the last in a long line of Jewish prophets who spoke the word of God in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament)?  Or was Jesus something more, a divine being who is the second person of the Holy Trinity and in whom belief is required for salvation?  A definitive answer will forever be shrouded in mystery, but an understanding of the concept of the Logos can put the unique Jesus of John’s Gospel in proper perspective with the other Gospel accounts.
            The Logos is a Greek term for a mystical and divine power that emanates from God, but that is not God per se.  It is translated as the Word of God in John’s Gospel, but in Hellenic Judaism the Logos had a meaning far beyond that of a mere word.  It referred to divine reason, or the creative power of God, which in a Hebrew context was illustrated in the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis in which God said everything into creation; and as God’s wisdom it was personified in the Sophia of Proverbs 8:1-36 through 9:1-18. 

            Philo of Alexandria was from a distinguished Jewish family and a contemporary of Jesus. He was perhaps the most important representative of Hellenistic Judaism and wrote extensively on the Logos; and while Philo had no knowledge of Jesus, his writings on Logos are strikingly similar to the way John’s Gospel describes Jesus as the Logos made flesh.

            In Platonic terms Logos was “…both immanent in the world and at the same time the transcendent divine mind.”  As with other Platonic terms that related to God, the Logos was the transforming power of God’s love that was personified in the I am sayings unique to John’s Gospel.  That did not make Jesus the first or last human manifestation of the Logos, but a powerful example of the creative power of God’s love and God’s wisdom for his time and place.

            So what?  For starters, if the Church had promoted belief in Jesus as the personification of the Logos and the transforming power of God’s love and wisdom rather the one and only Son of God and the second person of the Trinity, then history would have been dramatically different. 

            It is not too late to get it right.  The primary focus of the Christian faith should be to follow Jesus as the Logos or word of God rather than to worship Jesus Christ as God.  If that were church doctrine, then Christian affirmations of faith would emphasize the service of love as set forth in the example of Jesus as stated in A Modern Affirmation, rather than belief in Jesus Christ as the only Son of God who sits at the right hand of God and judges the quick and the dead, as stated in the traditional Apostles Creed, where there is no mention of the teachings of Jesus.  Both affirmations of faith are in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989).       

            The emphasis of church doctrine on belief in the divinity of Jesus rather than in the moral imperatives of his teachings as the onlymeans of salvation has created a credibility problem for the Christian religion.  More and more people brought up as Christians are rejecting church doctrines that conflict with the teachings of Jesus and reason and are leaving the church as Nones.  Robin R. Meyers has challenged modern Christians in his book, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus (Harper One, 2009); but modifying ancient church doctrines to save Jesus from the Church is a formidable challenge.

            Islam has an even more daunting challenge to establish credibility and legitimacy in the modern world.  While Muhammad is considered a prophet and not a divine being, the Qur’an which he dictated is considered by Muslims to be the perfect Logos, or the word of God made book.  The Qur’an asserts that belief in its perfection is essential to salvation and, like exclusivist Christian doctrines, the Qur’an states that unbelievers are condemned to eternal damnation.  To further complicate matters, the Qur’an contains comprehensive and immutable laws that preclude modern concepts of democracy, libertarian human rights and secular law.  Today Islam in the Middle East and Africa is a fundamentalist religion at war with modern and progressive values. 

            Christianity and Islam have both tried to put God in a box by limiting salvation to those who believe in the divinity of a man (Jesus for Christians) or a book (the Qur’an for Muslims), rather than following their teachings as moral imperatives.  If Logosis indeed the word of God and was manifest in Jesus and the Qur’an, it is a living word that can and must be adapted to changing times.  God did not cease to create or become mute after the crucifixion of Jesus and the death of Muhammad, and God has never favored any one religion over others.

            If  Christians and Muslims could see both Jesus and the Qur’an as manifestations of the Logosfor their time and place and interpret their teachings as standards of legitimacy for our time and place, then religious reconciliation and lasting peace would become possible.  And if there were ever a timeless and universal statement of Logos it is the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors—even our unbelieving neighbors—as ourselves.             

Notes and References to Resources:

This topic is related to the following Lessons in the J&M Book: Lesson #16 (parable of the wicked tenants, Mark 4:1-20); Lesson #17 (life after death and the resurrection, Mark 12:18-27; and Lesson #18 (the anointing of Jesus, Mark 14:3-8).
On the Logos and Philo of Alexandria, see The Encyclopedia Britannicaat and at

The primary Resource for this website is The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammadon Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy.  Its premise is that the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad are the word of God (Logos), and that God’s word is a living word that should be interpreted for changing times, using advances in knowledge and reason in the process.  See the first two blogs posted on this website:  Jesus Meets Muhammad, Then and Now, posted December 1, 2014; and Religion and Reason, posted December 8, 2014.    

On Paul’s atonement doctrine as an explanation of the crucifixion and resurrection, see The Resurrection in a new light posted on April 5, 2015; on the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, see blogs posted on January 11, 2015 and January 25, 2015.    

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Faith has been described as being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see(Hebrews 11:1).  Faith is about our mystical relationship with God and is the source of those standards of morality and law that define the legitimacy of our human relationships.  The mystical and moral dimensions of faith are merged in the greatest commandment with the mystical command to love God and the moral command to love our neighbors as ourselves.
            Moses gave Jews the Law as God’s standard of faith and legitimacy, and it included the two components of the greatest commandment.  Jesus merged the two with the primacy of love over law.  In his teaching on sowing the seeds of faith Jesus likened faith in the word of God to seeds, some of which germinated and grew and others that withered and died (Mark 4:1-20).  Jesus described true faith as a child-like faith (Mark 10:13-16), and condemned the hypocrisy and sanctimony of religious leaders who emphasized the complex rules and rituals of Mosaic Law and ignored the primacy of love over law (Mark 12:38, 39).
            It may seem a bit odd that Thomas Jefferson included such teachings of faith in his collection of the moral teachings of Jesus, but Jefferson obviously understood that faith was the source of our standards of legitimacy and that they were so interwoven as to be inseparable.

            Religion is institutionalized faith, and today Christians and Muslims make up more than half of the world’s population.  While Christians now outnumber Muslims, Islam is the fastest growing religion.  Christianity and Islam are competitive and exclusivist religions that evolved from Judaism, and both claim the greatest commandment as a common word of faith; but their differences in faith, legitimacy and law are a source of conflict and violence.         
            Mystery has always been the realm of religion, and as advances in knowledge and reason have eroded many mysteries, religious doctrines and creeds have remained unchanged and lost much of their credibility.  More and more people are leaving institutional religion as Nones (no religious preference).  Even so, most of these refugees from religion have remained spiritual, with a faith that has been reconciled with reason.  While the number of Nones are projected to increase in the West, given the worldwide growth of Christianity and Islam, Noneswill decrease relative to the proliferation of Christians and Muslims.    

            A saying attributed to St. Augustine relates faith, belief and religion to reason and understanding: Seek not to understand so that you might believe, but believe so that you might understand.  In ancient times believers had little knowledge to explain the inexplicable, so it was only natural for them to look to religion for understanding.  As science has disclosed many of the mysteries once explained by religion, progressive believers have conformed their faith to advances in knowledge and reason, while fundamentalist believers have rejected any knowledge and reason that has challenged the ancient revelations of their religion.    

            Unlike believers, atheists reject any truth in divine revelation and put their faith in human knowledge and reason alone.  In so doing they ignore the existence of mystical realities such as spirituality that remain beyond the reach of human knowledge.  True wisdom accepts the limits of the human intellect.  While advances in knowledge will continue to erode religious truths, mysteries will continue to raise questions that require a mix of reason and revelation to answer. 

            Deductive reasoning is from the top down and based on divine revelations that reveal mysteries of the spiritual realm that are beyond the reach of human knowledge.  Inductive reasoning is from the bottom up and based on advances in human knowledge rather than on divine revelation.  In matters of legitimacy, advances in knowledge and reason reject revelations of holy law in favor of libertarian human rights and secular laws made by elected legislators. 

            Progressive believers should consider both revelation and reason in their search for truth.  Reason will continue to debunk the truths of ancient religious revelations, but it will never reveal or explain the mysteries of the spiritual realm.  It is just as absurd for atheists to reject all religious revelations based on knowledge and reason as it is for fundamentalist believers to reject all advances in knowledge and reason that conflict with their religious revelations.

            A group of distinguished Islamic scholars have affirmed the greatest commandment as a common word of faith for Christians and Muslims; but most Muslims are fundamentalists who believe the revelations of the Qur’an, including Islamic law (Shari’a), are immutable truths that take precedence over advances in knowledge and reason, and they reject modern concepts of politics and justice such as the freedoms of religion and expression.  In Islamic cultures apostasy and blasphemy laws compromise justice and legitimacy to protect Islam from criticism. 

            Fundamentalist religions promote rigid standards of morality and law that can deny justice, even in a democracy, unless there are civil and political human rights to protect minorities from a tyranny of the majority.  For religions to promote justice and freedom, their standards of legitimacy must be entirely voluntary, and they must embrace democracy, secular law and libertarian human rights, including the freedoms of religion and speech and the equal protection of law for women and religious minorities, as a matter of faith, reason and politics.        

Notes and References to Resources:

This topic is related to Lessons #13-15 (Faith and hypocrisy) in the J&M Book.

For related blogs, see Religion and reason posted December 8, 2014; The greatest commandment as a common word of faith, posted January 11 and January 25, 2015; Love over law, posted January 18, 2015; Faith and freedom, posted December 15, 2014; and Religion and human rights, posted February 22, 2015.                

On Thomas Jefferson’s understanding of the teachings of Jesus and how fundamentalist religions relate to legitimacy, see the Introductionto The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy at pages 10-14 and The Rest of the Story at pages 332-335; see also Religion, Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a, Democracy and Human Rights.           .

On projections of Christians, Muslims and Nones in the world, see the Pew Forum report at

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Seeing the Resurrection in a New Light

 Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Easter is about resurrection and is the focal point of the Christian religion.   It is about faith and belief in a miracle that is beyond reason, but not unreasonable.  Jews and Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet, but not as the risen Christ; and while Muslims do not believe in the resurrection, they believe that Jesus will return on the last day to usher in God’s kingdom.    

            Something truly miraculous happened on that first Easter.  Many who had been skeptical of Jesus as a messiah became believers, but the nature of the miraculous event and its meaning were unclear until the Apostle Paul articulated the atonement doctrine.  From that ancient time until now that doctrine has remained at the foundation of Christian beliefs and creeds.

            Paul was a Pharisaic Jew who understood blood sacrifice as an atonement for sin and believed in the resurrection of the dead, and he was expecting a messiah who would soon usher in God’s kingdom on earth.  It was no surprise that Paul understood the crucifixion as God’s blood sacrifice of his Son as an atonement for original sin, and that God resurrected Jesus Christ to sit at His right hand and return at the end times to usher in God’s kingdom on earth. 

            Paul’s atonement doctrine fits squarely within his 1st century Jewish theology, but outside that context it is both inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus and with what we know of history.  While the atonement doctrine asserts that God sacrificed Jesus on the cross as an atonement for sin, Jesus echoed earlier prophets in emphasizing mercy, not sacrifice.  According to Jesus God’s forgiveness of sin was available for the asking and did not require a ritual blood sacrifice, and Jesus taught his disciples to follow him as the word of God, not to worship him as God’s Son.

            The accounts of events leading to the crucifixion of Jesus as reported in the Gospel accounts are inconsistent with it being a divine sacrifice orchestrated by God.  Those accounts indicate that religious leaders felt threatened by the radical teachings of Jesus and convinced Roman authorities to execute him as an insurrectionist.  Another anomaly is that Paul and the early Christians were wrong in their belief that Christ would return in an apocalyptic Parousia in their lifetimes to usher in the kingdom of God on earth. 

            Today we can see the resurrection in a new light.  Without Paul’s atonement doctrine the resurrection can be understood as God’s validation of the teachings of Jesus as the Logos, or the living word of God (John 1:1-14).  That would make belief in the teachings and example of Jesus, rather than in Jesus himself, as the way, the truth and the life and the only way to salvation (John 14:6).  If God is love (I John 4:16-21), then the new command of John’s Gospel to love one another (John 13:34) is at the heart of the Logos, and to emphasize the divinity of Jesus Christ at the expense of the word of God is to distort God’s truth.  

            Needless to say, that understanding of the resurrection would have changed history with a different kind of Christianity.  As it was, passages from John’s Gospel (John 3:16 and 14:6) have been routinely cited out of context to require belief in the divinity of Jesus and the atonement doctrine as the only way to salvation, and that denigrates the teachings of Jesus.    

            The Nicene Creed and The Apostles Creed are traditional creeds that assert belief in mystical matters derived from the atonement doctrine and theological speculation rather than the teachings of Jesus; and putting exclusivist church doctrine ahead of the teachings of Jesus has caused many Christians to become disillusioned and leave the church as Nones.  

            Robin R. Meyers has stated the problem in the title to his book, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus(HarperOne, 2009).  It is not a new idea.  Deists of the 18th century like Thomas Jefferson and Biblical scholars like those of the Jesus Seminar have all shared a belief in the moral teachings of Jesus as God’s truth while being skeptical of exclusivist church doctrines.

            Islam has similar problems.  Christianity and Islam are competitive religions that seek converts based on exclusivist belief systems that promise salvation to believers and eternal condemnation to unbelievers; yet both religions recognize Jesus as a teacher of the word of God and consider the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor as a common word of faith.  Even so, it is unlikely that either religion will promote loving their unbelieving neighbors as themselves since that would negate their exclusivist beliefs (in Christianity the belief that Jesus was the word of God made flesh, and in Islam that the Qur’an is the word of God made book), and those exclusivist beliefs give each religion a competitive advantage over the other.

            In a world of increasing religious pluralism it is critical that the exclusivist doctrines of Christianity and Islam be subordinated to the moral imperative of the greatest commandment to love our unbelieving neighbors as ourselves, as Jesus taught in the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  Only then can the light of God’s love dispel the darkness of exclusivist religious beliefs and all believers be reconciled into the family of God.  Then God’s kingdom can come and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

            It is time to see the resurrection in a new light, one that can dispel the darkness of religious exclusivism.   Easter is a time for new beginnings and spiritual rebirth.  The Hymn of Promise states it well: In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be; in our death a resurrection, at the last a victory, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.   Easter promises hope for the reconciliation of all people of faith.  It is a time for us to experience and share the regenerative power of God’s love, and it is not limited to Christians.

Notes and References to Resources:

This topic is related to Lesson #17 on Life after death and the resurrection in the J&M Book at page 74; on the Islamic understanding of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, see commentary on Jesus on the cross in the J&M Book at pages 203-208.  The Gospel of Mark has no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, and the accounts in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John are unique and uncorroborated in the other Gospels.  

On Paul’s understanding of resurrection, see I Corinthians, chapter 15; and on his understanding of atonementas it applied to the crucifixion and resurrection, see Romans 3:21-26.

On the end times, see the J&M Book at page 183. 

On Jesus’ preference for mercy, not sacrifice, see Notes to Promoting Religion through Evangelism, posted February 8, 2015.  

On love over law, see blog posted on January 18, 2015. 

On the new command of John’s Gospel, the J&M Book at page 325; on Jesus as the Logos and the way, the truth and the life, see Faith and Eternal Life in the J&M Book at page 394.

On religion and new beginnings: salvation and reconciliation in the family of God, see blog posted January 4, 2015.
On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith and the story of the good Samaritan in Luke’s version, see blogs posted on January 11, 2015, and on January 25, 2015.  

On Christian creeds and exclusivism, see The Rest of the Storyin the J&M Book at pages 333 and 334.

The Hymn of Promise(by Natalie Sleeth, 1986) is at page 707 of The United Methodist Hymnal