Tuesday, April 26, 2011

PUSHING THE RESTART BUTTON

I have been away.

My last post was dated January 1. Now, nearly four months later, this blog is back in business.

The reason for my absence is that I have been facing a question that has haunted me since I started teaching Comparative Religion. It is a “Why” question.

Why are there patterns in Comparative Religion? Why is it possible to set forth what I call “the structure of religious traditions,” to say nothing of the cosmogonic myths I’ve been describing and the founder myths I plan to describe?

When I began teaching Comparative Religion, many if not all the books I was reading on the subject avoided the question. The “phenomenologists of religion” (including Gerardus van der Leeuw and Mircea Eliade) were intent on describing the patterns they saw throughout human history. Whether or not it was influenced by Edmund Husserl, the father of philosophical phenomenology, their discipline did not ask causal questions; it was content to study “what appears” (phenomenon=that which appears; ology=the science of).

But can’t we go beyond describing? Can’t we dig deeper? Shouldn’t we try to figure out why there are these and other patterns in religion? Why, for example, are there Buddha myths as well as Christ myths, to say nothing of the stories spun by Joseph Smith and his disciples?

I have been doing a fair amount of digging. One obvious explanation is that even in those relatively primitive times, when the world wasn’t yet wired, or before the Age of European Exploration and Colonization, there were such things as borrowing and historical influence. The Austrian Kulturkreis (culture circle) school of anthropology of a century ago taught that we could explain common patterns of human behavior by assuming diffusion from a central point. Instead of assuming an innate predisposition to devise founder myths, their hypothesis would assume that the ability of a community to come up with a founder myth is a matter of cultural influence.

It is common for Biblical scholars make a similar assumption. Here’s an instance. It is not uncommon for a scholar pondering the creation story of Genesis 1:1 to 2:3 to mention the Ancient Near East context within which it was composed. Invariably, they point to a parallel with the nearby Babylonian story called the Enuma Elish. In doing so, they are ignoring the fact that there have been legions of creation myths throughout human history.

What about the Christ myths, that is, the stories about Jesus that include such supernatural events as voices from heaven, temptations by Satan, and miracles? Are there parallels in the Buddha myths—or, if not parallels, items for comparison? There are. But in this case can we account for one of them by appealing to cultural influence (which would run from ancient India to the Ancient Near East)?

I don’t know. But my ignorance on this point makes me look for another explanation.

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