Swami Vivekananda once said, "All religions are, in essence, one." To what degree do you agree with this claim?
Religions are, in essence, one. However, this fact is practically useless, because the lived experience of each religion is vastly different. Ultimately, religions serve the universal purpose of creating and reflecting meaning for their followers, and to some degree their larger respective societies. However, humans do not experience religions "in essence" or even, generally, intellectually. While Vivekananda's image of all religious beings taking various paths up the same mountain to one ultimate goal (meaning, purpose), Stephen Prothero's metaphor of each religion as its own mountain in a vast mountain range is more accurate when making sense of the coexistence of multiple religions in daily life. It is crucial to recognize and work from the practical differences of each religion in order to coexist authentically as a religiously diverse world.
Ought one rely more on reason, or experience, in search of "truth?"
The reason versus experience debate has existed as long as humans have pondered life. Post - Enlightenment thinking has heavily emphasized experience as the ultimate indicator of truth - this is in large part the intellectual basis for social and political movements for justice and equality - if I experience myself as a full and complete human being, I deserve the rights and freedoms that are my birthright. The downfall of this line of reasoning is its ultimate subjectivity. If taken to its logical end, "truth" becomes purely situational, contextual, and unable to spread "universally." Ironically, it is perhaps reason alone that can lead to a "universal truth" of basic equality and justice for all because such a universal truth remains untouchable by any subjective claim otherwise. I believe it is best to use reason in service of experience and experience in service of reason. If each acts as both the vessel and limit of the other's truth claim, there is a natural balance of power and the possibility for expressing "truths" is maximized.
Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried raises the question, "Can something be true, without being real?" What is your own answer to this question?
There are multiple instances in which something can be true, yet not real. In The Things They Carried, for example, the greater lessons of brotherhood, the workings of human memory, and the ambiguity of war are "true" - they hold meaning and value and resonate with the reader's experience. However, the instrument for teaching these truths - the fictional story and characters that Tim O'Brien creates - are not "real" - the story is made up, the characters never physically existed.