Will comparative religion save the world?
by Zac Alstin | April 04, 2019
Multi-faith prayer room sign in Heathrow Airport, 2008. Image: Jyri Engestrom
Recently my son’s school celebrated Harmony Day, and as part of the performance an Indian boy intoned a chant in his native language.
I caught the first few words of Om shanti om… and realised it was a prayer of some sort.
I’m not well versed enough in Hinduism to know any more than that, but the boy later explained the meaning of the prayer to the diverse assembly of parents and children.
I wonder how the other parents felt about the invocation? I don’t think they would have been as comfortable if the prayer was in English, and definitely not if it was a familiar Christian prayer. Latin chant might get a pass if it was a beautiful one.
Most of the parents, as far as I can tell, feel embarrassed by or hostile to overt expressions of Christian belief. If a decade of the Rosary had been part of the programme, someone would definitely have had words with the principal.
But none of us should be surprised at being accidentally involved in prayer even in a public school setting.
It’s not possible to invoke cultural harmony, to want to celebrate what other cultures and ethnicities find most precious, without summoning religious forms and feelings. And I am glad of it.
Camille Paglia, celebrated social critic and academic gadfly, has often commended comparative religion as the true multiculturalism, urging universities to make it part of their required study for undergrads.
Citing the failure of secular humanism, she argues that “comparative religion is the true multiculturalism and should be installed as the core curriculum in every undergraduate program.”
For me it was an elective: I studied Chinese and Indian philosophy at university as an extension of my own desperate search for answers.
Paglia laments that her contemporaries of mystical bent either destroyed their minds with drugs or eschewed the paths that would have given them greater influence on the culture.
“Interest in Hinduism and Buddhism was everywhere in the 1960s counterculture, but it gradually dissipated partly because those most drawn to ‘cosmic consciousness’ either disabled themselves by excess drug use or shunned the academic ladder of graduate school.”
They wanted to transcend, and transcended even tenure, to the detriment of a broader culture that might have benefited from their insights.
Would learning comparative religion really help us?
There is a case for saying “No”. Fr Ronald Knox, the versatile translator of the Bible, Catholic apologist and crime novelist, wrote in his book The Hidden Stream that “Comparative religion is an admirable recipe for making people comparatively religious.”
"I suppose there has been no subtler attack upon the Christian faith devised by its enemies in these last hundred years than the attack made in the name of 'comparative religion'. If you pick up a book on 'Atonement', and plough your way through ideas of atonement among primitive tribes, pagan ideas of atonement, Jewish ideas of atonement, Christian ideas of atonement, you will find by the end of it that atonement, for the author's mind, has ceased to have any meaning. And he has been successful, in so far as he has managed to infect your mind with the wooliness which is the leading characteristic of his own."
Still, if Knox were writing today he might wonder if “comparatively religious” was an improvement over absolutely irreligious. Students today would scarcely know what atonement even means, let alone run the risk of picking up a book on the subject. Will comparative religion make the situation worse?
I think it pays to have modest expectations of any effort to change culture. But at the same time, religion is undoubtedly the highest, most enduring human endeavour, bringing together the very best of what it means to be human in our understanding of the divine.
The great religions present us with varied, sometimes contradictory but often converging appreciation of transcendent realities: truth, love, joy, and faith.
We cannot say that they all teach the same thing, or that they all have the same purchase on the highest truth, or that they are equal paths to salvation. But, secular humanism, which is the closest thing to an established creed for the Anglosphere, excludes transcendence and ridicules salvation. Christians have more in common with Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists than they do with the acolytes of humanism.
Studying the world’s religions can sometimes be an education in the deepest, most keenly felt, and most powerful of our collective efforts to know, reach for, and be united with the divine.
And in learning about other religions we can also come to a better appreciation of our own. Like studying other languages, a familiarity with other religions gives us a different vantage point on the world, ourselves, others and God.
Even when things seem irreconcilable, like the supposed atheism of Buddhism or a belief in reincarnation, understanding in depth the role these diverging beliefs play in the life of the believer can show the differences are not necessarily the obstacle they may seem. Perhaps this is what Pope Francis meant in his speech in Abu Dhabi when he said:
"The first and most important aim of religions is to believe in God, to honour Him and to invite all men and women to believe that this universe depends on a God who governs it. He is the Creator who has formed us with His divine wisdom and has granted us the gift of life to protect it. It is a gift that no one has the right to take away, threaten or manipulate to suit oneself. Indeed, everyone must safeguard this gift of life from its beginning up to its natural end."
For Catholics in particular the reality of other religions and the sincere and faithful efforts to commune with the divine as understood through a different lens is something the church has sought to come to terms with more justly and charitably in recent decades.
The Second Vatican Council came to a more open interpretation of “no salvation outside the church”, following on from the sensible resolution of the centuries-old Chinese Rites debacle that finally recognised the difference between venerating one’s ancestors and worshipping them.
Finally, for the non-religious, a familiarity with the variety of world religions can foster an appreciation for religiosity per se and the spiritual element of human existence.
It’s one thing to regard cultural Christianity as irrelevant and outmoded, but to see one’s own religious heritage as part of a universal search, love, and knowing of the divine in our lives gives it context and meaning beyond the narrow scope of how we were raised and the peculiarities of our immediate culture and society.
Another famed social critic, the great Catholic journalist and author G.K. Chesterton once mused that:
“if we could tell the supernatural story of Christ word for word as of a Chinese hero, call him the Son of Heaven instead of the Son of God…there would be a unanimous testimony to the spiritual purity of the story…
We should admire the subtlety of the Chinese view of life, which perceives that all human imperfection is in very truth a crying imperfection. We should admire the Chinese esoteric and superior wisdom, which said there are higher cosmic laws than the laws we know.”
Chesterton was reacting to what he described as a “heavy bias of fatigue” born of familiarity with Christianity, and a corresponding openness and naïve receptivity towards all things Oriental amongst his peers.
Just shy of a hundred years later, Chesterton’s observations are still pertinent. But knowledge of other religions is far more accessible than before, and our exposure to the beliefs and practices of people of other faiths will only increase over time.
What Chesterton lamented is in fact a hopeful sign. A rediscovery of the spiritual dimension of life and even an appreciation for the role of their own beliefs in the lives of Christians could, for some of us at least, come through the study of comparative religion.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet.