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.