Monday, December 13, 2010


The antique works of the Chinese tradition—the Analects of Confucius, the Mencius, the Chuang Tzu—are collections of the sayings attributed to the eponymous wise men. If anthology is their principle of composition, there is good reason to suspect that sayings and commentaries coming from later in the traditions came to be included in the growing text.

The Lao Tzu, also known as the Tao Te Ching, is no exception. Like the other ancient texts, it, too, was written in its various iterations on such materials as paper, silk, and strips of bamboo.

The Tao Te Ching, like The Laws of Manu, is a mix of cosmogonic myth and instruction in correct living, with this difference: the Chinese classic contains several cosmogonies:

The world had a beginning
And this beginning could be the mother of the world.

The way begets one; one begets two; two begets three; three begets the myriad creatures.

There is a thing confusedly formed,
Born before heaven and earth.
Silent and void
It stands alone and does not change,
Goes round and does not weary.
It is capable of being the mother of the world.
I know not its name
So I style it “the way.”

Hence the way is great; heaven is great; earth is great; and the king is also great. Within the realm there are four things that are great, and the king counts as one.

Then, having set forth this last hierarchy, the writer concludes:

Man models himself on earth,
Earth on heaven,
Heaven on the way,
And the way on that which is naturally so.

Now, if we indeed model ourselves on earth, it follows that we also model ourselves on both “the Way” and “that which is naturally so.” The world has a structure, and in order to achieve liberation, we must attune ourselves, both to that structure and to the nature of things.

Reading this Chinese classic in its entirety, we come to see that the vision behind it prescribes the behavior not just of the individual, but of the empire as well. The ruler of this utopian empire is the individual king, who must also be a sage, one who blends himself into the quietude of the cosmos.

“The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects,” says the sage.

Friday, December 3, 2010


I’ve mentioned “legitimation” in several of these blogs: Religious Traditions: Statics; The Laws of Manu; and The Pentateuch. Now is an apt time to expand on this concept.

Suppose I wrote something in this blog that you doubted. You might write me and say, “How do you know?” In asking this question, you’re asking for me to legitimize my point. You are asking for a legitimation.

Being something of a scholar, I might have mentioned that my thoughts on the subject of legitimation follow those of Max Weber, specifically, his theory of “the types of legitimate authority” as set forth in his major tome, Economy and Society. It’s a well-known theory, and many thinkers have found it useful for explaining how the human world works. They’ve modified it, but they still acknowledge its explanatory power. Weber remains, as if by coincidence, something of an authority on the issue of legitimation.

My example shows how legitimation works in ordinary secular life, how it is important and how we make our decisions based on our judgment of how persuasive an argument is.

In the world of traditional religion, legitimation takes a standard form. Let’s say there’s a mindset common to the traditional religions, great or small. Let’s say that those who share this mindset think about legitimacy assuming three unstated axioms and several corollaries. (The first of these axioms also exists in the minds of most nontraditional, secular people.)

The first axiom is that there are directives that should guide human behavior and thought. The second, that these directives come from a charter, which consists of myths, whether they be cosmogonic, founder, both, or other, and whether the myths are passed along orally or are set down in writing. The third axiom is that the charter has a source. This source is always something beyond the everyday, the ordinary, the natural. It can be a god or gods, ancestors, heroes, or some impersonal metaphysical reality. Supernatural is a term that comes to mind.

As for the corollaries, they augment the axioms by clarifying the traits of the charter. They concern the relation between a charter and its source. The first corollary is: The charter partakes of the source. It is, or contains, a mythology (a set of interrelated myths); the mythology concerns the relation between the higher power(s) and the transcendent. A second corollary is that the charter is superior to and thus authoritative for the community that takes it for its own. It belongs to that transcendental, supernatural order that the traditional mind-set assumes to be eternally in place and that the center spends its time interpreting.

The charter is significant. It tells the community what to do: what the ritual taboos and requirements are; what is moral and what immoral; what the proper human relationships are. Last of all, the charter is univocal. It speaks with a single voice. It contains no contradictions.

So when a question arises within the community concerning the proper course of action, it knows where to go for answers. It knows that any such course must be legitimized by appealing to the authoritative, significant, univocal charter, which reflects the ultimate source to which it is bound.

Friday, November 26, 2010


The Pentateuch (also known to Jews as the Torah, or the Books of Moses, and to Christians as the Old Testament) consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Jewish tradition has it that the Torah was revealed to Moses on his expedition on Mount Sinai, which occurred in either 1312 or 1280 BCE. Modern scholarship has come to doubt this tradition. There is no claim within these five books that Moses is their author, and, following the impeccable logic of the philosopher Benedict Baruch Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise (1670), Moses could not have written them, given the indisputable fact that the book of Deuteronomy contains an account of his death.

No contemporary mention of the Pentateuch/Torah is complete without reference to the Wellhausen hypothesis. In 1883, the German Christian biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen published a tome entitled Prolegomena to the History of Israel, which theorized that the “five books of Moses” consisted of four original strands that had, over a period of half a millennium, been stitched together and interwoven by a succession of editors. These strands, JED and P (the Yahwist—or, in German, the Jahwist; the Elohist, the Deuteronomist, and the Priestly writer) not only had different authors, as shown by their literary styles; J and E had different names for the Holy One, (J[Y]ahweh and Elohim); there are two creation stories (P’s account of God’s six-day work week, J’s story of Adam and Eve); and there are often two versions of the same event, such as the Flood). Etcetera.

While this hypothesis held sway throughout much of the twentieth century, two alternatives have more recently been proposed. One is the supplementary theory, which says that there was an original book that was supplemented by later additions; another is the fragmentary theory, which suggests that there were simply many fragments, which were continuously edited.

There’s no need here to decide on the accuracy of these hypotheses. It is enough to say that the finished whole does show multiple authors and editors, and that the process took hundreds of years.

The Pentateuch consists of a medley of genres. There are laws: page upon page of commandments, dietary and other prescriptions covering every conceivable aspect of the life of the Israelites. There are stories of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There is, in Exodus, the story of how those Israelites escaped their Egyptian captors, and of how Moses, their general, climbed a mountain (Sinai, sometimes called Horeb) to receive the laws from the Almighty. And there are those cosmogonic myths.

Comparing the Pentateuch to the Laws of Manu, we find that both contain legal codes that are intended to guide the lives of the respective communities. But in the case of the Hindu text, that is all--except for the creation myth that legitimizes the laws. The ancient Israelite text has much extra material, including the founder myth regarding Moses.

We might summarize this comparison in these formulas:

Content of The Laws of Manu:
Creation myth legitimizes laws

Content of Pentateuch
Creation myth legitimizes Sabbath observance; founder myth legitimizes laws

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


As I’ve already said, the gods of the religious devotees are mythological beings. But returning to the distinction between the God of revelation and the God of reason, recall that “not all the gods ‘reveal’ something to those who venerate them.” To put it differently, the God of revelation is the god who anchors a given religious tradition, in the sense that “he”—there is seldom if ever a “she”—sanctions the teachings and practices of that religion.

The God of revelation is, then, a mythological god. But before citing examples, let’s revert to another distinction, the one between creation myths and founder myths. Creation myths are stories of how a god, or gods, created the world. Founder myths are stories of how a founder either received a revelation from a god or discovered the truth about life.

Let’s begin with an example of a creation myths, from ancient India.

There were various law codes in archaic India, but none achieved the authority of the Law Code of Manu.

Manava Dharma Sastra is a long treatise consisting of both a creation myth and the religious laws on social demeanor.

The Creator, Brahma, is said to have composed the law code and recited it to his son—the first human, Manu—who then taught it to his students, including Bhrgu, who recites the entire treatise to an assembly of seers. Like his father, Manu is a mythical rather than a historical being—a kind of Indian Adam. The author of the treatise is anonymous, though the material of the treatise leads one to conclude that he is a Brahmin. In the hierarchical caste system, Brahmins (priests) are at the acme, followed by Ksatriyas (rulers), then Vaisyas (merchants), and finally, Sudras (workers).

The laws themselves are intricate and detailed, and cover almost every aspect of the lives of the population.

A sampling:

For Brahmins: “The knowledge of the Law is prescribed for people who are unattached to wealth or pleasures; and for people who seek to know the Law, scripture is the highest authority.”

For students: “Even out of sight, he must not refer to his teacher by just his name or mimic his walk, speech, or mannerisms.”

For males contemplating marriage: “He must not marry a girl who has red hair or an extra limb . . . He should marry a woman . . . who has a pleasant name; who walks like a goose or an elephant; and who has fine body and head hair, small teeth and delicate limbs.”

For a Brahmin: “Except during a time of adversity, a Brahmin ought to sustain himself by following a livelihood that causes little or no harm to creatures. He should gather wealth just sufficient for his subsistence through irreproachable activities that are specific to him, without fatiguing his body.”

For reading late obituaries: “When a man hears about the death of a paternal relative or the birth of a son after ten days, he becomes pure by immersing himself in water with his clothes on.”

Speaking of death, the authority of this Manu’s Code came under severe stress in the twentieth century, when the liberals took exception both to the caste system and to the secondary status of women that it legitimized.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Missing on Stephen Prothero’s list of writers who think that God is One is John Hick. In fact, nowhere in his book God Is Not One is there even a mention of Hick.

This is strange. For of all those who were, or could have been, on this list, it is Hick who has given the question the most and the closest attention. Hick it is who gives one of the strongest arguments for what he calls the “hypothesis” that “the response to a transcendent reality has taken the bewildering plurality of forms that history records.” Hick it is who, in 1986-87 gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures.

Regardless. Even when we compare Prothero’s miniature arguments with Hick’s hypothesis, it seems to me that the burden of proof remains with Hick. I’m more interested in what Hick would have to say about Prothero’s arguments than vice versa.

Let’s look once more at Prothero’s arguments. The first two, as I said in the last post, are based on analogies. Any such argument must give reasons for thinking that an analogy is spot on; Prothero doesn’t give these reasons.

The third argument, which pits the wisdom of the ordinary devotee against that of the mystic or the philosopher religion, is similar to what logicians call the fallacious argumentum ad populum, or “appeal to the people.” It needs to be expanded in order to be evaluated.

As for the fourth argument, which assumes that the God-is-One thesis embraces religious tolerance, is that there wouldn’t be a need to tolerate another religion if it were at base like our own. But, we wonder, what if this assumption isn’t made by many of those who urge mutual tolerance among the religions? Presumably, the argument doesn’t hold.

Prothero’s fifth argument is as obvious as it is strong. “The characters of these gods,” he says, “differs widely.”

And that, as I’ll show in the next few posts, is the decisive argument for the proposition that God is not one.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


A nice foil to John Hick’s theory that “God has many names” is Stephen Prothero’s recent book, God Is Not One, which bears the provocative subtitle, The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.

The entire title tells it all. We need only to cite the chapters on the eight religions, find why their differences matter, and uncover Prothero’s argument for his contention that God is not one.

As for the eight chapters, I'll simply enumerate them in the order of what Prothero judges to be their contemporary impact: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, and Daoism.

Prothero begins to defend his thesis with a list of those who think God is one and the same in all religions. This includes the aforementioned William Blake, who in 1795 published the illustrated book All Religions Are One. Prothero then quotes Mohandas Gandhi’s statement that “Belief in one God is the cornerstone of all religions” and the Dalai Lama’s affirmation that “the essential message of all religions is very much the same.” Huston Smith’s 1958 book, The World’s Religions is also mentioned. Along the way he cites the books of such fellow-travelers as Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Karen Armstrong, and Dan Brown.

“The most popular metaphor for this view,” Prothero says, “portrays the great religions as different paths up the same mountain.” Half the introductory textbooks in this commodious genre, it seems, use this metaphor to lead students astray. “It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side,” he quotes Huston Smith as saying, “but when the top is reached the trails converge.” The religions have distinct rituals, theologies, and organizational structures, “but beyond these differences, the same goal beckons.”

There are at least two reasons for this disinformation campaign. One motivation, explains Prothero, is that those who hold this idea are rejecting the missionary view that only their path leads to the peak. The other reason for repeating the “all religions are one” mantra is the hope that it will somehow lead to world peace.

Prothero has no difficulty with the alternative to the many-paths doctrine, which is to embrace the eighteenth century ideal of religious tolerance. “But the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naïve theological groupthink . . . has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide.”

Hidden behind Prothero’s grand rhetoric, there are arguments. Two are based on analogy. (1) “No one argues that different economic systems or political regimes are one and the same.” And (2) “What is required in any relationship is knowing who the other person really is. And this requirement is only frustrated by the naïve hope that somehow you and your partner are magically the same.”

Besides these two arguments, there are three others.

First, the differences in the religions’ doctrines, rituals, mythologies, and laws “may not matter to mystics or philosophers of religion, but they matter to ordinary religious people.” Just as do the religions’ gods.

Second, if we hold to the idea of religious tolerance, we are assuming essential differences among the religions, because there wouldn’t be a need to tolerate another religion if it were essentially like our own.

A third argument is that “the characters of these gods differ wildly.” One god (Yahweh, for example) may be personal while another (say, the Tao of Taoism) is impersonal. One may be male, another female. One might be a warrior, another mild-mannered.

And so on.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


When John Hick (1922- ) published a collection of essays entitled God Has Many Names back in 1982, he wasn’t the first writer to adopt the notion that all the religious traditions are, at core, one, and that the differences in religious practices and doctrines are the result of the different locales and cultures in which humans find themselves. There have been others, including the poet and artist William Blake, who, late in the eighteenth century, wrote and illustrated a little book called All Religions Are One.

But it is Hick who has made the fullest argument for this notion. His grand theory is spelled out in great detail in his 1989 tome, An Interpretation of Religion, which is tellingly subtitled Human Responses to the Transcendent.

Who is John Hick?

The first thing he tells us in an autobiographical essay is that as a child, he was taken every Sunday to an Anglican church, where he found the services infinitely boring.

Many of us, Anglican or otherwise, recognize the sentiment. But none of us have spent our lives moving from a brief fling with theosophy, converting to fundamentalism, joining the Presbyterian Church of England, becoming a conscientious objector, joining an ambulance unit during World War II, writing a few theological books before moving to Birmingham, England where, it seems, there were large Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and Jewish communities, which provided friends with whom he found common ground. The latter experience led him to see the world religions as just so many responses to the Eternal One, the divine Reality that seeks “to be known and responded to by man, and [seeks] through man’s free responses to create the human animal into (in our Judeo-Christian language) a child of God, or toward a perfected humanity.”

To be brief, this vision bought him trouble with Christian authorities but later led to his selection to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures that became An Interpretation of Religion.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Let’s return to the common interpretation of Pascal’s distinction between (1) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and (2) the God of the philosophers, as the contrast between the God of revelation and the God of reason.

It’s clear that the God of reason is aptly named; for what is that God if not a philosophical entity? What isn’t at all accurate is the interpretation of the God of the Patriarchs as being the God of revelation. If Pascal had thought in those terms, he might better have spoken of the God of Moses, Jesus, and Paul. This is to say that not all the gods “reveal” something to those who venerate them. (Yahweh, the God of the Patriarchs, appeared to all three of them, but these appearances were not revelations in the narrow sense that we say God revealed himself to the founders of Israel and Christianity.)

Better, then, to speak of the god(s) of the religions, consisting of those who worship and adore their deity. Or to speak of the mythological beings who inhabit the world of myth.

Recall my earlier definition of myth as “a story about metaphysical beings that provides a model for human behavior,” etc. A myth, whether told in Israelite, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Mormon, or other precincts, typically spells out a narrative of a God, or gods, in relation to human beings.

These myths typically assume that there are two worlds: the natural world and a supernatural world above and beyond nature. Furthermore, the supernatural realm provides the model for much of human behavior, i.e., the rituals and moral actions that occur within the visible world of nature.

Monday, October 11, 2010


To speak of the God of the philosophers, as Blaise Pascal does, is to speak in general terms. It is to assume that the philosophers are all part of what we’ve come to call “the Western tradition.” It’s also to assume that “the philosophers” are in agreement on the question of what God is.

These assumptions call for scrutiny.

The question regarding God’s existence, or nonexistence, has no doubt been a major theme in Western philosophy. Both Plato and Aristotle gave reasons to think that some god exists. After Christianity came on the scene, theologians such as Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas set forth arguments for the Judaic and Christian God’s existence. “Pure” philosophers, including Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, and, more recently, Charles Hartshorne also entered into the fray.

But what is less known are philosophical theologians from other traditions. Before Aquinas, using Aristotle, came up with his famous “Five Ways” to prove that God exists, the Islamic thinkers Avicenna and Averroes had found benefit in Aristotle’s thought in order to come to the same conclusion. And in early medieval India, Adi Sankara worked with the pan-Indian concept of karma with the same result.

What is God? All kinds of metaphysical compliments have been given to a Higher Being. God has been conceived as omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, all good, and so forth—in other words, the sum of all perfections. Nevertheless, not all philosophers would subscribe to these doctrines. Following Alfred North Whitehead, the twentieth-century process theologian Hartshorne held that God is neither omniscient nor omnipotent: he cannot foretell the future of free-willed human agents, and thus he can’t possibly be in a position to cause humans to act in a predetermined way.

But is this philosophical God the same as the God who is spoken of in many of the religions? Pascal says no. Here we leave the question dangling while we move over to the God, or gods, of those religions.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


The French mathematician, physicist, inventor, bachelor-about-Paris, and theologian Blaise Pascal (1623-62) cryptically, famously, and immediately after an intense religious experience, stitched into the lining of his coat the aphorism: “Feu. Dieu d’Abraham, Dieu d’Isaac, Dieu d’Jacob, non des philosophes et savants....”

This is usually translated as “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the philosophers,” with no mention of either fire or the savants. Nor did Pascal name the philosophers, though a good surmise would be that he was thinking of his older contemporary Rene Descartes as well as such scholastic thinkers as Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas, all of whom devised arguments for the existence of God.

Whatever Pascal meant by this aphorism, interpreters have cited it to distinguish between the God of revelation and the God of reason, and to favor the former God while censuring the latter.

If we want to deal with the God questions, we can’t ignore this distinction. But it has limits. It can hardly apply to the Buddhist tradition or those of the Far East, let alone the smaller traditions. Like the concept of religion itself, it is a construct of Western civilization.

The same can be said for the standard categories used by those born to philosophize.

Here’s a list of these categories, including the date a recent Webster’s marks as their arrival to our common English vocabulary:

Atheism (1546 )
Polytheism (1613)
Monotheism (1660)
Theism (1678)
Deism (1682)
Pantheism (1732)
Panentheism (1828)
Henotheism (1860)
Agnosticism (1869)

To the contemporary scholar of religion, there’s something ancient about this list; ancient, and too neat. Most of these items are not useful for the comparative study of religion.

Four are worth keeping. Monotheism (the belief that there is one God) is useful, as is its polar twin, polytheism (belief in a group of Gods, which may or may not have a leader; if so, it becomes henotheism). The other twins, theism (belief in a personal God who both created the universe and continues to intervene in its daily workings) and atheism, (the denial of this belief), make sense, especially within the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The other categories can be consigned to the sterile, dated debates carried on by philosophers of religion.

Note: Agnosticism (either the statement that one doesn’t know whether or not there is a God, or the claim that it is impossible to know) appears to be a halfway house between theism and atheism, but is often a dodge for the atheist who wants to be accepted in the company of believers.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Religious traditions are subject to the dynamics of history. They come into being, they change, they suffer schisms, and they can very well become extinct.

The beginnings of these traditions occur in at least two ways. One way is for a collection of small, tribal religions to join for a common interest—for example, military protection. Apparently a group of tribes came together in ancient Israel as an amphictyony (a good word to add to your vocabulary). After suffering a series of attacks from neighboring empires, these tribes became what is now known, by Jews and Gentiles alike, as Judaism. The second way is for a founder, a charismatic leader, to establish a new tradition, either accidentally (as in the likely case of Jesus) or on purpose (as in the case of Muhammed).

Once in play, a religious tradition becomes subject to further change. Traditions expand; they move from one area to another; and within any area, they adapt to the culture of their new hosts. This is especially the case with missionary traditions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. But after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., Judaism was forced to disperse to other regions of the world.

As for schisms, every religious tradition suffers them. These are brought about in various ways, including power struggles among the elites and the appearance of secondary charismatic figures, or secondary founders. After the death of Muhammed, there was a struggle within Islam over the question of his successor, creating the schism between Shia and Sunni. Christianity has undergone two major schisms, one between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism (on the question of leadership), the other between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism (brought about largely by the secondary founder Martin Luther’s breakaway from Rome).

Religious traditions die. No longer is there Egyptian religion, and ancient Greek religions have gone the way of the dodo. They have been supplanted by Islam and Christianity. And there is no reason to believe that the so-called “world religions” will exist into perpetuity, centuries or millennia from now.

Friday, September 24, 2010


Now is a good time to talk about religious traditions.

The phrase “religious traditions” is superior to the word “religions.” It avoids the problem that Wilfred Cantwell Smith warns us about, the problem of reification—making a religion a static, real thing existing outside the mind. Because every historian of a religion thinks of that religion as a living, changing thing, a good way to acknowledge this insight is to speak, not of religions, but of religious traditions.

Let’s start with a distinction between the statics and the dynamics of religious traditions. There’s a pattern that is common to all religious traditions; I call this the statics of religious traditions. Think of this as like a photo, taken at a specific period in time. But traditions exist within history, which means they are living, changing things. I acknowledge this fact by saying that there is a dynamics of religious traditions. And this is like a moving picture, which chronicles the chief moments within a typical tradition: for example, it is born, it suffers schisms, and it sometimes dies.

Now let’s focus on the statics of religious traditions. Think first of the indisputable fact that a religious tradition is composed of a community of the faithful. Using the language of the great twentieth century sociologist Edward Shils, any community has both a center and a periphery. (See his collection of essays, Center and Periphery, 1975.) In other words, there are the elite leaders at the center, and there are the followers on the periphery. Now, add to this the fact that not all human beings are members of any given tradition. I call those nonmembers aliens to the given community.

These, then, are the actors in the drama of a religious tradition. The center consists of those who mediate the teachings and practices of the tradition, both to those who aspire to the center and to those at the near and far peripheries. (One can also change the image of center/periphery from two dimensions to three, thinking of a hierarchy of the faithful.) The center consists of such figures as the shaman, the guru, the priest, the prophet, the bishop, the cardinal, the pope, the preacher, the pastor, the president, etc.

Both center and periphery are aware of the presence of aliens. Therefore, any religious tradition must develop a “foreign policy” toward those outsiders. The options run from a policy of extermination to that of missionizing, with avoidance as a distinct possibility. Religious wars have abounded in the history of the world; the Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic traditions have busied themselves with spreading their messages beyond their native territories; and the Judaic and Hindu traditions have, for the most part, been content to replenish their membership solely by reproducing themselves.

Returning to the sociological center of a tradition, let me expand the idea that its members “mediate the teachings and practices of the tradition.” This is to say that the members of the center have the responsibility of interpreting the charter that guides the tradition. (See the influential anthropologist Branislaw Malinowski’s collection of essays, Magic, Science, and Religion, 1948.) This charter consists of a mix of myths and teachings and practices.

But the charter would be a set of artificial, human preferences if there were nothing beyond it to sanction or legitimize it. This “something” is always an anchor, a source, whether it be Yahweh, the gods of the ten-thousand-world system, God, Allah, or the Self-Existent One.

Friday, September 17, 2010


Suppose Pilate had asked Jesus, “What’s this I hear about you being the founder of a new religion?”

We can only imagine such a scenario. Pilate wouldn’t have been able to ask this question. Even if he had, Jesus wouldn’t have known what his interrogator was getting at. The word “religion” wasn’t in their vocabularies; there wasn’t even an Aramaic equivalent. Pilate’s question would have made sense only in a modern context.

The concepts of “religion” and “religions” came to achieve their contemporary meanings in 1799, when a German theologian named Friedrich Schleiermacher published a book that has been translated as On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith has shown in The Meaning and End of Religion (1963), up until that time “religion” (from the Latin, religio) had a variety of other meanings.

Smith wasn’t satisfied with tracing a history of the concept and its meanings. He went further. To him, the evolution of “religion” has been a process of reification, that is, making religion an objective systematic entity that exists outside our minds. And this process has included a series of entities called “religions,” such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the like.

To avoid this reification, Smith suggested that we replace “religion” and “the religions” with “cumulative tradition” and “faith.”

Smith’s recommendation has been hugely ignored. In an ordinary Religious Studies 101 course, a student will still be treated to chapters on Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, often preceded by ones on preliterate/tribal/primitive and dead religions. It seems that Smith himself wasn’t immune to the reification bug. Shortly after he wrote his controversial book, he became Director of Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions; after a decade in that post, he moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he founded Dalhousie University’s Department of—you guessed it—Religion.

Like it or not, we seem to be stuck with these words. But what meaning can we give them?

Without swimming in the swamp of the discussion of definitions of “religion” and “religions”—how Great Thinkers have defined them, how those definitions have failed, what a definition should be—let me dangle a toe in this quagmire. Let me stipulate a pair of definitions.

Religion is the activity (1) in which humans seek liberation from whatever they consider the greatest evil, and (2) in which this liberation is legitimized by a mythology.

Religion is about liberation and legitimation. Or, maintaining the mood of alliteration: religion is about soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and its sanctions.

Religions are variations on this theme.

Monday, September 6, 2010


Let’s now return to the understanding of the word “myth” that I have already stipulated. A myth is a story about supernatural beings, a story that provides a model for human behavior, thus giving meaning and value to life. Recall that in offering this definition, I cited its similarity to the one offered by Mircea Eliade, among the leading comparative religionists of the last century.

In his book Myth and Reality, published in 1963, Eliade states that “a myth supplies a model for human behavior and, by that very fact, gives meaning and value to life.” But when it comes time to offer an actual definition, this is what he says: “Myth narrates a sacred history; it relates an event that took place in primordial Time, the fabled time of the ‘beginnings.’”

Notice that this definition appears to apply only to cosmogonic myths, that is, stories (myths) of the genesis (-gonic) of the cosmos (cosmo-). And the examples Eliade discusses in this and other of his books are generally cosmogonic. But sometimes he seems to refer to another kind of myth. In Cosmos and History (1949), for example, he mentions Jesus’ act of washing the feet of his disciples, after which Jesus instructs them to follow his example. This is almost, but not quite, what can be said to be part of a “founder myth.”

There is little if any discussion of this type of myth among comparative religionists, let alone historians of religion or other scholars. Yet Eliade’s statement, that myths are models for human behavior, does not preclude the possibility of founder myths—that is, myths about founders of religions.

My own definition is designed to include both cosmogonic myths and founder myths.

Throughout human history, there have been multitudes of stories told about both the creation of the world and the founding of new religions. These stories are about supernatural beings; they provide models for human behavior. Ethnographers, including both anthropologists and missionaries, have found multitudes of stories, from ancient Egypt to Australia to Tierra del Fuego, that describe how supernatural beings created the cosmos. And the list of stories about founders of religions contains not only Moses and Jesus but Gautama, Muhammed, Zoroaster, Mahavira, and Joseph Smith—all of whom either embodied a divine revelation or were prophets dispensing a new revelation to their followers.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Our two outside perspectives on myth and religion are, unlike the theological, thoroughly secular. When at their purest, history and comparative religion neither require nor tolerate viewing their objects with sacral eyes.

Otherwise, there is a distinct difference between the two.

History wants to know what religious events—such as foundings, political intrigues, and schisms—have occurred, in what chronological order they appeared, and, often as not, why they happened.

Comparative Religion tries to locate and analyze the similarities and differences of themes, myths, social structures, practices, and ideas that are found in the religions of the world, great or small, archaic or modern. Instead of viewing single events in their particularity, it seeks patterns that have appeared throughout human history.

Going beyond these catalogue copy definitions, we may say that the history of religions will use historical methods to ask when a text was produced, by whom, within what cultural context, and from what other texts, in order to ferret out the original meaning of that text. And comparative religion will examine such things as creation myths, rituals, beliefs, and so on, in order to see what they have in common and how they differ.

Both perspectives can ask why these patterns occur. For a moment, let’s wonder why both Buddhism and Christianity, among other religions, have founder myths. Did the miracle-filled stories about Gotama’s life influence the stories about Jesus, as a purely historical investigation might theorize? Or is there some universal archetype that underlies all hero myths, as Joseph Campbell claimed?

There appears to be an analogy between biological life and religion. Think, say, of the variety of turtle species that are found throughout the world. Species of the order Testudines are found on every continent except Antarctica, on many islands, and in the oceans. They’ve been around for the last 215 million years.

Now, think of the variety of creation myths. From tribal societies to the American present, these stories continue to be recited. They, too, are found everywhere on the inhabited earth, though their appearance has been relatively recent.

This analogy might be more than coincidence. Just as the fact that biological commonality and diversity are determined by both genetics and circumstance, it may be that religious commonality and diversity are determined by the same factors.

But so far, that’s speculation.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


We could do with a fuller understanding of what it means to say that Christ and the Christian God, among others, are mythological beings.

Let’s start with the New Testament, which contains many of the documents of early Christianity. (There are others--more about that later.)

Now let’s distinguish among three scholarly approaches to these documents: (1) the theological, (2) the historical, and (3) the comparative. The theological way is from the perspective of the believer, the historical way from the perspective of the historian, and the comparative way from the perspective of comparative religion.

We’ll call the theological way an “inside” perspective, because a theologian is a player in the Christian game; the other two are “outside” perspectives. This doesn't imply that either the historian or the comparativist can’t also be believers, just as the historian might also use comparative methods, or vice versa.

Christian theologians are believers who investigate the New Testament in the light of some creed (for instance, the Apostle’s Creed) or theological system (say, that of Thomas Aquinas). They might subscribe to the idea that Scripture is inerrant; or that when the Pope speaks ex cathedra (Latin, “from the chair”), his interpretation of church doctrine is correct and fixed. Moreover, they might interpret Scripture either literally or as consisting of a mix of literal and symbolic material. They might also use the historical and/or comparative methods. But the point is that a Christian theologian views the writings included in the Bible with the eyes of faith.

Theologians can be either conservative or liberal, or somewhere in between. Basic conservatives will argue that the Bible in inerrant and therefore authoritative, citing verses such as I Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God,” or II Peter 1:21: “Holy men spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (King James Version)  In other words, the conservative theologian will cite Scripture to prove its inerrancy, thus committing the logical fallacy of petitio principii, or “begging the question”--that is, assuming the truth of the conclusion in arguing for that conclusion.

Liberal theologians, on the other hand, will accept the findings of Historical Criticism (for example, by accepting a historian’s finding that Jesus never thought of himself as the Christ) yet find ways to maintain their faith by adhering to some theme of Christianity, whether it be certain teachings of Jesus, forgiveness, or those parts of Scripture that speak of peace and justice.

Whatever form it takes, the inside perspective runs the risk of either ignoring or being ignorant of the historical and comparative methods and their results. Christian theologians can certainly incorporate these two “outside” perspectives into their work, though if they are to consider all available evidence, they must be able to “bracket” their convictions, at least temporarily. Put differently, they must learn to view the evidence as if they were uncommitted outsiders.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


What does it mean to say that God, Christ, and unnamed others are mythological beings?

Let's start with that vile word, mythological. The first thing we do is to shorten it to myth. Then we look it up.

My online dictionary assigns two meanings to the word. One is the most common: a myth is "a widely held but false belief or idea." The other is: "a traditional story, especially one concerning the history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events."

Notice the difference between these two definitions. The first one immediately rings true; it's obvious. The second sounds as if it were written by a scholar. And the meanings given in the definitions to the word are also different. In ordinary language, the word refers to some common beliefs, ideas, or theories as lies. But in the language of scholarspeak, a myth is simply a story "involving supernatural beings or events"; there are no disparaging strings attached.

Because I come from the land of scholars, I'm naturally more interested in the second definition, though I take exception to the clause, "especially one concerning the history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon." It appears to contain a theory of myth that I find unconvincing, and that I don't find useful for my purposes. I like the second clause, though, because I do find it useful.

At this point, I might appeal to a consensus of scholars who study myth. But there is no such consensus. Instead, there are books and academic papers written by different scholars treating the many theories of myth--theories that tell us what myth is, how it functions in society, how myths should be interpreted, etc. Important names are bandied about: Tylor, Muller, Frazer, Levy-Bruhl, Jung, Levi-Strauss, Malinowski, Eliade, Barthes. You may have heard of a few of these icons. You may even have read one or two of these cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and comparative religionists. The chances aren't good that you've written a book about one or all of them. A blog, maybe. A book, no.

In order to cut this Gordian knot, let me stipulate a definition. A myth is a story about supernatural beings, a story that provides a model for human behavior, thus giving meaning and value to life. (If you think this sounds like Eliade, give yourself a pre-grade-inflation A.)

A mythology, then, is simply a complex of myths.

That said, it makes good sense to call God and Christ mythological beings.

But I anticipate an objection. "Christ? a metaphysical being?" Yes. But Jesus is not. Jesus was, in the highest probability, an actual, living human being. "Christ" is the supernatural title given to him by some of his followers.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


This blog will expand some of the ideas I developed in two of my books. (See my Amazon Bibliography.) I wrote The Architecture of Religion when I was a professor. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone except other professors, or advanced students, of religion. After I took early retirement from academia, I began to get serious about writing comic novels. One of them, The Church of the Comic Spirit, contains a dozen "Bear Lake Scrolls," which were "discovered" by a roguish dropout from a rabbinical school, with the help of a few angels disguised as waitresses.

Some of the topics I'll cover are:
  • Comparative religion
  • Historical criticism of the Bible
  • The formation of the New Testament Canon
  • The arguments for the existence of God
  • The New Atheism
  • Science and religion
  • Evolution and religion
  • Laughter
I'll approach each topic using the framework of the premises I laid out in The Architecture of Religion. These commonplace subjects will appear in a different light than they ordinarily do.

If you're a Christian--evangelical, mainstream, or liberal--I hope to challenge you. If you're committed to another faith, you might find that what I say about Christianity can be applied to your religion. If you're an atheist, I'd like to enlighten you. If you describe yourself as "spiritual but not religious," I want to help you clarify your ideas. Agnostic, or just perplexed? I mean to offer you an intellectually satisfying way of viewing not only Christianity, but its competitors.