Friday, August 10, 2012

Wide diversity

The complexities of religion, like those of politics, gender, families and most other aspects of human life are wide, deep and numerous.  Yet, as some have known since ancient times, it helps us all to have an idea of what is going on, what is believed, what is being celebrated or worshiped by others.  The first dozen times, we meet an idea, belief or practice, it can seem strange, wrong-headed, mis-conceived.  To further complicate matters, if we try to take an empirical turn and be modern by gathering data, we quickly run into the research obstacle of "which data?" , "from whom?"

I have only dipped into two books that try to span in a helpful way, the world's religions: Huston Smith's "The World's Religions" and Sister Joan Chittester's "Welcome to the Wisdom of the World And Its Meaning for You."  Smith is a religious scholar and the child of American missionaries in China and Chittister is an American Catholic Benedictine nun, author and Phd from Penn State.  Part of Smith's introduction articulates the complexity and breadth of any of the great religions, with their centuries of history and tradition, the variety of interpretations and emphases:

3. This book is not a balanced account of its subject. The warning is important. I wince to think of the shock if the reader were to close the chapter on Hinduism and step directly into the Hinduism described by Nehru as "a religion that enslaves you": its Kali Temple in Calcutta, the curse of her caste system, her two million cows revered to the point of nuisance, her fakirs offering their bodies as sacrifice to bedbugs. Or what if the reader were transported to Bali, with its theaters named the Vishnu-Hollywood and its bookstores that do brisk business in Klasik Comics, in which Hindu gods and goddesses mow down hosts of unsightly demons with cosmic ray guns? I know the contrast. I sense it sharply between what I have written of Taoism and the Taoism that surrounded me as a boy in China: its almost complete submergence in augury, necromancy, and superstition. It is like the contrast between the Silent Christ and the Grand Inquisitor, or between the stillness of Bethlehem and department stores blaring "Silent Night" to promote Christmas shopping. The full story of religion is not rose-colored; often it is crude. Wisdom and charity are intermittent, and the net result is profoundly ambiguous. A balanced view of religion would include human sacrifice and scapegoating, fanaticism and persecution, the Christian Crusades and the holy wars of Islam. It would include witch hunts in Massachusetts, monkey trials in Tennessee, and snake worship in the Ozarks. The list would have no end.

Smith, Huston (2004-05-10). The World's Religions, Revised and Updated (Plus) (Kindle Locations 252-263). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

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