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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Religion, philosophy and me (pt 1)

pt 1<<<you are here | pt 2home | WHAT'S NEW! | stories from my past

Teaching comparative religions to undergraduates was very fulfilling as an occupation, though it wasn’t on my job description at the start. I was hired to teach Indian cultural history, and that meant learning about the Indian religious traditions; Hinduism and Buddhism in particular.

  Given that Islam was the religion of the rulers of India for nigh on eight centuries when the Europeans came in for their cut of India’s wealth, I needed to understand Islam and its impact on India, its philosophies and history.

  I had studied Chinese and Japanese history, ancient and modern, and developed a course on Asian cultural history. That demanded an understanding of Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), Japanese primal religion, and how Buddhism transformed itself in China and Japan on contact with Daoism, producing, e.g., Zen in Japan.

  When I was drafted into teaching in Comparative Religions as well as Asian cultural history, I had no choice but to get some depth to my knowledge of Judaism and Christianity. I was very happy to be a part of the Comparative Religions course, I should add, as this was an area where I needed to build my understanding.

  The goal of a comparative religions course isn’t to turn it into some sort of philosophy competition, I feel bound to say. It was to view each of the major religious traditions in its historical context and observe as independently of value judgments as possible how they tackled the same problems of life, death and the spirit.

  I faced a real learning experience – Christianity and Judaism from the viewpoint of comparative religion. I still feel that when it comes to religions, these are the two I know least. But neither of these had any real impact on India, and never has had, even though there are 25 million Christians in India today. That's more than the entire population of Australia, but 25 million out of 1200 million aren’t many.

  This re-learning Christianity, I admit, was a shock to my system. I had grown up in a society that was rooted in a Christian ethos. We were given Religious Instruction at school, at a time in Australian history where no religion other than Christianity existed as far as we were concerned. We were raised on official State Education Department Reading Books, one per year, along with Bible story booklets and secular stories. All these were heavily moralistic, not far removed from Nineteenth Century Christian values.

  But we all have to start somewhere. My journey was a leap from the child’s vision of religion to the sophisticated philosophies of the East, without much in between. I needed a sophisticated view of Judaism and Christianity, or any comparisons I might make would be very skewed indeed.

  If we make comparisons between religions, we must make comparisons between the ideals of religions, and separately, we make comparisons between the practices. To compare the ideals of one with the practices of another happens all the time, and this is what leads to most of the misunderstandings. Just watch the news on TV and you'll see it happening continually. But to return to the story....

  Islam had been mellowed in India by its contact with local religions. Sufism in Islam and bhakti in Hinduism had explored common ground and enjoyed each other’s company. Buddhism, though it had virtually disappeared from India for centuries, had made a huge impact on East and Southeast Asia.

  Oddly enough, there were Jewish and Christian enclaves in India and China long before the Europeans brought their brand of Christianity to Asia, some nearly as old as Christianity itself. India had allowed them to mellow as well, in the Asian spirit of acceptance of the view that all pathways could lead to the same goal. But that’s another story, and a fascinating one. Let’s not get sidetracked.

  The main Semitic religions are Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I discovered, after long years with the Eastern religions, how different from the Asian ones they were, especially outside an Asian environment. Christianity emerged from Judaism, and was repackaged for the European market by St Paul, just as Buddhism was the export product of Hindu culture and repackaged to suit East and Southeast Asian tastes. Islam developed out of the older Semitic religions, as any reading of the Qur'an demonstrates.

  Traditionally, all of the Semitic religions have one thing in common, and that is the conviction that theirs is the highest expression of truth. In their crudest and most dogmatic forms, they were mutually exclusive, and still are. With this mentality, I cannot, e.g., be a Christian and a Muslim at the same time. This leads to the uncomfortable corollary:  ‘If I am right, then you must be wrong.’

  This is what dogma does. Dogma is composed of words. Words are interpreted according to the understanding of the listener/reader. The meaning of words changes over time, as does the environment in which they were spoken. Words are translated into other languages. Translations rarely impart full or true meaning. All the textual expertise in the world fails to guarantee the precise meaning of what was intended by the person saying the words in the first place.

  Any person who says it’s possible is deluded.  Anyone who believes in literal meaning of dogma is equally so. Yet wars are fought over dogma, and people will die for what they believe to be true meaning.

  Religion is dogged by dogma. That much is obvious. Fortunately, not all religious people are dogmatic.


pt 1<<<you are here | pt 2home | WHAT'S NEW! | stories from my past

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