THE HARPER COLLINS DICTIONARY OF RELIGION Edited by Jonathan Z. Smith and William Scott Green with The American Academy of Religion HarperCollins, 1,154pp, Pounds 40.00 ISBN 0 00 6967 8
At the beginning of one of his books on religious experience David Hay describes the famous first meeting in 1519 between Cortes and the Aztecs. Here were two cultures, separated from one another possibly since palaeolithic times, which had no difficulty in recognising in each other the presence of religion. Cortes knew what he was doing when he set up his images of the saints in the shrines where Quetzalcoatl had been worshipped.
Religion is not hard to identify, but almost impossible to define. The editors of this ambitious dictionary have drawn the boundaries wide. The Aztecs, alas, do not make it, despite the stated intention to include extinct religions as well as living ones, and localised traditional or tribal religions as well as world faiths. The determined browser can delight in the Bladder Festival on the coast of Alaska, where the souls of seals are held to reside in their bladders; or can trace thuggery back to its origin in the worship of Kali; or can recoil in horror from a modern movement in the United States, known as Identity Christianity, which seems to embody the worst excesses of bigotry.
But merely to browse is to miss some of the best things the dictionary has to offer. The major religious faiths are given full treatment, each in a series of articles linked to a general introduction. The scale is generous. In each of the 11 groups the combined articles total some 20,000 words. These are informative and accurate, and there is an excellent system of cross-referencing. The introductory essay on new religions, for example, gives a preliminary classification based on types and geographical regions, and points the reader to 19 substantial articles. The first of these, on African new religions, runs to about 3,000 words and refers to a further 12 articles on particular movements. And so on. There is enough detail to provide the nonexpert reader with a good overview, and even experts are likely to make discoveries, given the Dictionary's scale.
In its conception, and to a large extent in its execution, this is an impressive work. Inevitably there are disappointments and puzzling omissions. The introductory article on religions of antiquity, for example, is unhelpfully idiosyncratic for a beginner's guide. Many of the pictures are excessively muddy. Thomas a Becket is somewhat bizarrely illustrated by a picture of Anglicans from Papua New Guinea dancing in full tribal dress to celebrate his feast day. I searched in vain for a mention of the great Hebrew prophets. Jerome is there, but not Jeremiah. One of the time charts contains a list of more than 100 unexplained Buddhist worthies. Judaism is presented entirely in its post-exilic form, and the brief article on prophets concentrates on Islam and the Baha'is. Even the entry on monotheism gives no access to Isaiah, despite the fact that his school of prophecy was probably the first to give clear expression to it. Theism itself gets one-and-a-half lines.
What is going on here? The group of general articles on religion provide a clue. Its subject is religion without theology, religion as an object of study and interpretation by a variety of academic disciplines. It is a splendidly comprehensive description of religious phenomena, which leans over backwards to avoid any bias towards western Christian cultural imperialism. Of the Dictionary's 340 or so subeditors and contributors, 95 per cent are American academics, seemingly determined to make amends for the past, even to the point of listing some 0 North American traditional tribal names. What more telling way to demonstrate one's objectivity than to leave out some of the obvious western Judaeo-Christian references?
There is another clue in the definition of religion as "a system of beliefs and practices that are relative to superhuman beings". My hunch that "superhuman beings" are far too reminiscent of Nietzsche for religious comfort, illustrates the pitfalls in attempts to find a single formula.
Wilfred Cantwell Smith made the point more than 30 years ago that religion per se is a modern western concept. It is a term used by outsiders to describe what other people are doing as they relate to those realities which are for them life-determining, and which transcend description or definition. "Religions" in this very general sense take many forms and are shaped by numerous factors. Wittgenstein's concept of family resemblances among which one can recognise overlaps and continuities, just as Cortes and Moctezuma were able to discern each other's faiths, is perhaps the most helpful way of characterising the sheer complexity of the religious scene.
In the end, though, religion is nothing if it is not lived, and that is why dictionaries can only take one so far into what it is actually about. Perhaps the most significant omission from this one is the word spirit. To be strictly truthful, the word is there, but the entire entry reads "Spirit. see Soul". In my view this is to blur a highly significant distinction. Soul is an attribute of humanity. Spirit is a key word in many faiths because its meanings slide between the human and the divine. Of all religious words it is the one which captures most fully the sense of commerce between the human and the divine as life-giving.
This volume is a worthy addition to anyone's shelves, and is packed with information not easily obtainable elsewhere. The religious studies approach it embodies is nevertheless only a step to understanding, not understanding itself.
The Rt Rev Lord Habgood was formerly Archbishop of York.