Friday, October 26, 2018

Why Study Comparative Religion?


My idea of a good day off is to head to the swimming pool, pull up a reclining chair, and either read the Upanishads (that was my obsession last month), or settle down to read apocryphal stories about Daniel in Persia (which is what I was reading last week).

Ok.. Yes, I’m weird. I understand.

When I was teaching at the University, or writing as an apologist for my Church, my interest in all things religious made sense to everyone. It even made sense to those who didn't share my particular obsession. My goal must have been to “defend the faith,” so no one was surprised by it. Of course, even at the time, that was only a small part of what interested me about the subject.

Since my faith transition, my continued interest in comparative religion seems surprising to everyone.

My secular friends can’t understand why I would care to study things that are all just “made up”. My religious friends wonder if my interest isn’t just cover for some shady motive to discredit their faith. Both sides tend to react to my interest in the topic with either confusion, mild incredulity, shocked disbelief, or sometimes even outright hostility.

So why do I spend so much time and energy studying about and then educating people about the world’s different religions?

That’s a question I take rather seriously, but there is more than one answer to it.

Personal preference

The simplest answer is: “I like it.” Ok, fine, I love it. I love it in the way that a math teacher might love math, or that an art teacher might love art, or that a history teacher might love history. But that argument is somewhat circular. After all, it still doesn’t explain why I love the subject.

There really is no accounting for taste. Some people like chocolate, some like vanilla. But saying that I just like to study religion because of my personal taste is a bit of a cop-out. The truth is that there are reasons I am especially drawn to this subject. I am a person who enjoys puzzles. And there are quite a few fascinating puzzles buried in this field. But the puzzles of religious history are not like the Rubik's cube that fascinated me for hours as a child, because the answers to these particular puzzles matter in the real world.

The Influence of Religion

Religion motivates the ascetic to live alone, and motivates the saint to charity. Religion builds nations, and moves armies. Religion drives our most intractable conflicts, and religion motivates people to seek peace.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is impossible to comprehend without at least some degree of religious literacy, and the nuclear armed standoff between Pakistan and India is explicitly religious. The civil rights movement in America was religiously motivated, as was the fight for independence in India. Gandhi's opposition to the oppression of the untouchables, and those who opposed him, were both motivated by religion. And throughout the world, the fight for equality for homosexuals finds itself opposed on nearly every side by religious traditions of one sort or another.

The American political landscape where the so called “religious right” wields incredible power and influence is even less comprehensible without understanding the influence of religion. The Bible is evoked both by those in power to justify their actions, and by those who view themselves as the resistance.

According to polls, nearly 4 in 10 adults in America believe that humans have existed in our present form since the beginning of time, an extreme form of creationism. This stubborn resistance to the truth can’t be understood without a rather sophisticated understanding of the Bible and Paul’s analogy between Christ and Adam found in Romans 5.

Claims that America is secularizing seem to be premature. In reality, liberal Mainline Protestant Churches are on the decline, while religious fundamentalism is as strong as ever. This is yet another form of the intense social and political polarization that is plaguing American life.

Source: The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity ofAmerican Religion: A Response to Recent Research.
For better or worse, we cannot understand the world in which we live without understanding religion. This is true of our past, is true of our present, and it appears that it will remain true for the foreseeable future. But as important as religious literacy is for understanding our geopolitical world, I believe that it is not the most compelling reason why one might be interested in religion.

The Human Condition

The religions of the world are far more than a collection of myths and dogmas, made up or otherwise. A religion is a complex combination of stories, texts, philosophies, practices, rituals, communities, and hierarchies, all bound up in an entire world view. Religions provide those who follow them with a way of contextualizing and perceiving the world around them.

Most people’s religious journeys begin with discontent. They start by realizing that there is something that is deeply and disturbingly wrong with the world. It is from this starting place that the world’s religions diverge, each to their own unique diagnoses of the problem, and then to their unique proscription for the solution.

Is the problem suffering? Buddhism provides an answer. Is it sin? Christianity had the cure. Is the problem wandering and exile? Judaism tells the story. Are we lost because we forgot our true place and calling? Yoruba can help you remember. Or is the problem chaos and death? The religion of ancient Egypt proposed a solution to that. Or perhaps the problem is pride? Islam can teach you how to submit. Or is the problem the illusion of separateness? Hinduism can show you how you are connected, and that all things are one. Is the problem found in the lack of social order and convention? Confucius will teach you how to become a sage. Or is the problem found in constraining social orders and convention? Taoism will set you free. Or is the problem the presence of religion itself? Atheism will purge you of your “silly” superstitions.

Or… perhaps, is the problem composed of all these things together? At least we know that something is wrong.

But is the solution faith in Christ? Or is it Buddhism’s noble eightfold path? Or is it Islamic submission to the one undivided God? Or is it perhaps ritual and ethical purity? Or is it return and reconciliation? Or is it obedience to law? Or is it rejection of law? Or is it the rejection of religious superstition? Is it the training of Confucian culture? Or is it the rejection of Culture for the natural way of the Tao? Or is it the realization born in meditation, that you are one with all that is?

Religious traditions evolved in order to address the problem of the human condition in a compelling manner. Those religions that proposed solutions that were not compelling did not survive. Therefore, each proposed problem and solution provides a useful window into the human condition. Because the human condition is something we all share, we should not be surprised to find similar concepts repeated across the world’s religions from wildly different times and places. These similarities tell us important things about what all humans share. But the world’s religions are not all the same, and their very real differences and conflicts are illustrative of the conflicts within our own natures.

For example. Because we evolved as tribal entities, most humans have an innate desire to find and follow a powerful yet worthy leader who will save us from our enemies, our troubles, or from ourselves. Even the most anarchist among us can sometimes feel this desire pulling at us. It’s what makes great movie scenes like the coronation of Aragorn at the end of the Lord of the Rings so moving. And it’s one reason why movies like The Return of the Jedi, and The Matrix are so compelling. This is what the world’s monotheistic religions claim to offer, a deity that is both powerful, but also good and worthy of our respect, worship, and emulation.

But those same tribal origins have also gifted us with the conflicting desire for autonomy, individuality, and freedom. Speaking to this impulse is the genius of religions such as Taoism. And it is also why we feel so betrayed when we come to see serious signs of immorality in the way the religious texts of Monotheism choose to portray the supposedly all good and all powerful God. These are both inherent elements of human nature. And they are in fundamental conflict.

There is actual relief and release in letting go of our thoughts, preoccupations, frustrations, and lust for the material things we normally chase. Buddhism offers practical techniques for doing just that. Most people can instinctively feel the attraction of that sort of peace.

Similarly, we all want to be part of something larger than ourselves. This desire is perhaps taken to its most extreme in the traditions of the Islamic Sufis and the philosophical Hinduism of the Upanishads. There, we are told that the separate self is an illusion. In truth, the self is already eternal, immortal, and one with all things. God is thus the unity of all creation. And we are that unity. You are this. But you are also that. You are all things. And the unity of all things is God. Thus, we discover that We. Are. God. And the experience of this unity is the ultimate release from rebirth and samsara, enlightenment itself.

I still can’t tell if that is the ultimate expression of humility, or of pride. But I can see why the idea is so very compelling. And when something like this is experienced in meditation, the idea becomes even more compelling.

We are all sinful, and righteous, prideful, and humble, autocratic and anarchist, suffering, and free, isolated, and interconnected. To come to know the world's religions is an exercise in knowing ourselves. 

Cure for Fundamentalism

I have often wished that world religions and religious history were offered in our public schools. The separation of church and state is often cited as the reason why this is impossible, although I do not think that this is actually an insurmountable obstacle. After all, religious history is… well… history.

Either way, I wish we could give our children the window into human nature that the world's religions can offer.

But there is at least one more essential lesson we can learn from the world's religions. Most people approach the study of religion as an excuse to figure out why their own religion is superior to everyone else's. We don't study other people's beliefs in order to see what they can teach us, but in order to figure out why they are all wrong, and by extension, why we alone are right. Of course this is the apologist’s approach to religious studies. And it was therefore my approach for years.

But it is ultimately unsustainable.

Eventually, if we study religious history long enough, we come to see the evolutionary origins of our own beliefs in the parallels they share with the traditions that came before. And once that truth is seen, it cannot be unseen. That does not mean that your tradition, whatever it is, does not have a valid and even useful diagnosis of the human problem. Nor does it mean that it does not have a useful prescription for the solution to that problem. It does not even mean that there can be no God, or that your tradition does not bear a measure of inspiration. But what it does mean, is that there is no one religion that has a monopoly on the truth. The one true religion does not exist.

No one religion is true. They are all false. And yet, they are also all true.

If, like me, you believe that the world's religious conflicts are born less from the irrationality of religious “superstitions”, and more from the dogmatic and fundamentalist way in which some religious practitioners tend to approach those beliefs, then a knowledge of religious history is ultimately the cure.

Given all the hundreds of religious traditions that flourish today, and the thousands that have existed in recorded history, and the millions that have vanished without leaving a textual record, each evolved from the ones that came before them, it would be arrogant to assume that the single tradition we have embraced has the single perfect answer to the human problem, leaving us with nothing to learn from any other tradition.

There are many possible ways out of the trap of fundamentalism, but I believe that religious literacy is the best. Down this path, one does not simply trade one form of dogmatism for another, but dogmatism is traded for humility and an openness to being taught. When this works, we are no longer just open to being taught from our own tradition, but from them all. We are also more willing to admit the flaws in our own tradition.

We can trade our dogmatic pride, for teachable humility.

Is there any wonder that I find great value in knowing and studying the world's religious traditions? And is there any wonder that I find value in teaching these things to others?

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