Enlightened paths

The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions - A New Handbook of Living Religions
April 25, 1997

I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious," was St Paul's verdict on first-century Athens. Such exasperation with religion is still familiar: only a few weeks ago Nicholas Humphrey was lamenting in The THES that "98 per cent of the American people say they believe in God". For both these critics the villains of the piece are ignorance and superstition, from which each offers his own very different path to enlightenment. But religion is too complex and varied a subject to be dealt with quite so briskly or sweepingly.

A satisfactory definition of religion seems beyond us. Many have been attempted, but they all tell us more about their authors than about their subject. Emile Durkheim's "unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things", for example, was tailor-made to suit his new discipline of social science. It emphasises precisely those aspects of religion which are corporate and quantifiable and encourage comparisons of a "scientific" kind between one specimen and another. Unfortunately it is totally at odds with A. N. Whitehead's reflection that religion "is what the individual does with his own solitariness". But then, what use would anything as introspective as that be to a sociologist? It is clearly the product of a philosopher. Yet who could deny that there is truth in both descriptions?

Such contradictions abound. For many people the supernatural is the hallmark of religion. They would say that the defining religious activity is worship, whose purpose is to propitiate and manipulate the unseen forces that are thought to control our lives and destinies. Others would put all the emphasis on human responsibility, on social and personal morality. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah, speaking in the name of his God, was merciless in his condemnation of those who dared to approach the Lord in worship while flouting his moral laws. And the writer of the New Testament Epistle of James appeared to abandon the transcendent altogether, declaring that pure and undefiled religion is "to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world". And he is not alone. He was drawing on an already long tradition which is still alive and well today.

In addition to such conflicts between different perceptions of religion, there is another paradox inherent within almost any presentation of a particular religion: it appears simultaneously to make supreme demands and to offer total succour. Accordingly it gets blamed in equal measure for imposing intolerable burdens and for offering "pie in the sky".

These conflicting elements - personal yet social, codified yet alive, transcendent yet immediate, gracious yet demanding - are not unique to religion. There are parallels in other fields such as music. The academic study of texts or the discipline of daily practice seem miles away from the spontaneous singing, dancing and playing which are part of the human make-up. But they are all part of what we know as music. Again, music is greater than any one instrument or any one composer; yet it is only when someone composes and someone plays that music is made and known and enjoyed. That is the paradox: only when (apparently) tied down and limited to the specific, can the universal music live. So with religion. It is greater than any one expression of it, yet it can only exist when it is given form and shape by a particular context.

On Humphrey's figures, most of us would admit to some religion of our own. Each of our personal experiences will be an essential though small part of the total phenomenon. It may well be enhanced by knowing more of the teachings, practices and histories of the great variety of religions. Even if we lack any religious sense or loyalty of our own, with some study of the traditions we may begin to appreciate the source of their continuing power and influence, and to understand their pervasiveness, and their continuing survival in every society and culture. For this we need the kind of information supplied in the two excellent and complementary books under review.

John Bowker, in The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, has kept to the traditional dictionary/encyclopedia format: over 80 scholars have amassed 1,100 double-column pages with over 8,000 entries from Aaron to Zwingli. In addition to a topic index at the end, there is copious cross-referencing between entries. This occasionally involves unnecessary duplication. Do we really need to be told under both D and K that "Dry **** stick" is a Japanese Zen expression, Kan-shiketsu, applied to a person attached to the world of appearance?

Foreign terms are always a minefield for the nonspecialist trying to learn something of other religions. Here all such words are helpfully transliterated into the form most likely to be encountered by readers in other books. Where appropriate both Sanskrit and Pali forms are given.

Few contributions to the dictionary are longer than a column (exceptions include "Jesus" and "Christianity" with five each, perhaps betraying the editor's bias; "God" has three columns) but they are uniformly informative and there is ample guidance for further reading. With many such dictionaries now costing the best part of Pounds 100, all this represents excellent value for money. There is also the bonus of a splendid introductory essay by the editor which takes the place of an entry under "Religion" itself in the dictionary.

John Hinnells's New Handbook of Living Religions tackles its subject in a quite different but equally comprehensive way. Part one, comprising three-quarters of the book, consists of 16 chapters each by a single author and dedicated to a particular religious tradition. The longest (over 100 pages) is that on Christianity by Andrew Walls. It follows the pattern (common to all these chapters) of presenting the "living religion" of the book's title against the background of its history. The essay is an admirable account of the unfolding divisions and developments of the various Christian traditions, told with scrupulous fairness to all the parties involved, and will make an excellent introduction for those without a background in this particular family of faiths.

The strictly nonpartisan approach is, I suppose, inevitable in a work of this kind. Nonetheless it represents a "position" on the telling of Church history just as distinctive as that of the Vatican or the Plymouth Brethren, while lacking the fire which would drive a more obviously biased and committed narrative. So much of religion has been about conflict and persecution and even sheer hatred, that the detached scholarly account somehow fails to ring true, lacking an essential dimension. It might almost have been better to commission several mutually opposed and unashamedly prejudiced versions of the Christian story, and just let them be told side by side with no attempt to harmonise them. But I suppose that would never do. How strange that Christian scholars seem so easily to distance themselves from their religious taboos, but are incapable of escaping their academic ones.

One of the most fascinating chapters is that on Native North American Religions, completely rewritten by Armin Geertz for this revision of the original 1984 edition of the book. As well as giving useful positive information, it also demonstrates how the Native Americans continue to be romanticised and their name exploited, just as much (though in a different way) as in the bad old days of cowboys and indians. For example, Chief Seattle's much admired and endlessly quoted "ecology speech" was not his. It was in a film script written in 1970 for the Southern Baptist Convention. It is encouraging that such a body should be willing to propagate the views in the speech, but the spurious attribution is a telling comment on the nature of religious authority.

Part two of Hinnells's handbook concerns cross-cultural issues. It reflects especially the editor's own interest in what he calls "diaspora religion", the term originally applied to Jewish settlements in the Graeco-Roman world. It is extended by Hinnells to cover other situations where migrating populations have brought their religion to a new home where it forms part of a minority culture. The focus is on migrants from the Indian subcontinent who have settled in English-speaking lands, bringing with them a large number of religious traditions, and on the black African diaspora, especially in Latin and North America.

The concern of these chapters is to compare the effect of isolation from the "mother country" on the attitude to religion. One observation relates to the role of religion in cultural identity. Many migrants admit to taking their religion more seriously in their new environment than they did in the old country.

The character of the religion can be affected in different ways. Cut off from the natural growth and development of the religion in its homeland, diaspora forms can become like old photographs, encapsulating a past expression of faith and practice, no longer to be found elsewhere. On the other hand, the influence of the surrounding majority culture can carry the diaspora religion in new directions.

An instructive example is the way English religious words tend to carry built-in Christian meanings. A word like "prayer" or "god" may be the nearest equivalent to a Hindu or Parsi term, but its use may well introduce novel (Christian) overtones which subtly alter the sense of the word for a new generation of Hindus or Parsis brought up in an English-speaking context. I have myself long pleaded that the very term "faith" as a synonym for "religious tradition" betrays a Christian bias.

No other religion puts such an emphasis on belief as does Christianity, and I was pleased to see that Hinnells also quotes the phrase "inter-faith dialogue" as an example of unintended Christian imperialism.

This whole book is a joy to read. The authors have provided interesting and readable contributions - not always a hallmark of this kind of book - and the publishers have been correspondingly generous in matters of type-size and layout. Only the illustrations have a second-hand feel to them, recalling a more old-fashioned style of comparative religion, but this is a minor blemish in an otherwise excellent volume.

Reverend Anthony Freeman is managing editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies.

The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions

Editor - John Bowker
ISBN - 0 19 213965 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 1,111

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