Wednesday, May 10, 2006

On the Hoof

There’s a joke in the Pooh Perplex about the professor who published “All Previous Thought, a rather large freshman casebook.” The notion that even an elephant folio could contain that much content is pretty funny, but I have several volumes on my shelves that purport to be only marginally less capacious—the closest in view is Wing-Tsit Chan’s Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, clocking in a comparatively modest 856 pages. Sourcebooks are an improvement on the potted summaries one encounters in surveys since even translations convey something of the voice of the real thinkers instead of reducing them to a set of opinions rephrased in the conceptually impoverished pidgin language of all-to-much intellectual history. That doesn’t evade the problem of selection, however. It isn’t just a choice must be made between particular thinkers—that subtraction is often part of the value added by the editor. What is problematic is the almost inevitable systematic bias in favor of representatives of traditions whose activities come down to defending definable points of view as opposed, for example, to those for whom a philosophy is more a methodical practice than a body of results. But if the tendency of anthologies to focus on doxa misrepresents the history of philosophy, something similar has a far worse effect when it comes to compilations that survey the world’s religions.

Perhaps because in modern times having a religion is often more like having a hobby than anything else, it’s not surprising that one thinks that adherence to Christianity or Buddhism is definable as belief in a series of propositions. One can easily decide to believe this rather than that. Adapting a total manner of living and feeling is quite a different matter, especially considering the very onerous obligations that go along with the traditional practice of religions. Are you really going to give 10% of your income to the church? Are you really going to sit on a mat two hours a day? Are you really only going to have sex with your wife when you intend to reproduce? And that’s not the worst of it. The theologies of the various religions, having typically been elaborated by extremely intelligent and sophisticated men engaged in a long-range debate with other extremely intelligent and sophisticated men, are intellectually respectable while the ritual, devotional, ethical, and magical elements of the same faiths are often rather embarrassing. Small wonder if a comprehensible belief system presented in a scriptural anthology seems more congenially than the Howl’s Moving Castle of a real religion.

If, for some reason, you really want to know something about the religions of the world, you have to find a way to go beyond accounts that focus on the intellectual rationalizations of the several traditions and take a series of soundings of their daily substance. Donald S. Lopez, Jr.’s Princeton Readings in Religions series is a good place to start since these volumes focus on practice. Reading them conveys a very different picture of the reality of the world religions than the usual accounts, which, in contrast, often seem to be apologetics by proxy, appreciations of alien cultural institutions that accept the accuracy of the self-definitions of the religions they describe. The contemporary scholars who introduce the selections in the Lopez anthologies demonstrate something largely missing from popular discussions of religion: a combination of sympathetic understanding and critical distance.

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