Edited by Jack Miles, Wendy Doniger, Donald Lopez Jr. and James Robson (vol. 1); and Jack Miles, David Biale, Lawrence Cunningham and Jane Dammen McAuliffe (vol. 2)
(New York, London: W.W. Norton, 2015), lxiv + 2250 pp. (Vol. 1), lxiv + 2079 pp. (vol. 2), $100 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Bruce Chilton
These two elegantly produced volumes, vast in scope and (for their contents) reasonably priced, will perform both service and disservice for some time to come.
The editors of each of the entries—Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism and then Judaism, Christianity and Islam—have provided rich slices of the literary inheritance of each of these traditions. Everyone in the field would profit from considering the texts presented here; they take us up to our own time, well beyond any restrictive notion of canon. At the same time, texts typically considered to be authoritative are also represented.
The format of presentation is rigorously chronological, and the discussion for the most part is historical (with some theological consideration), so that students as well as teachers will profit from considering the range of literature involved. Indeed, the chronologies of the literature presented undermine the order of presentation in the volumes, a point that should have been addressed by the general editor in the introduction. Other editors might have made different choices of texts, preferred other translations, and/or taken a different route in assessing the development of a given tradition. But that is the world of critical discussion.
The editors have provided more detailed chronologies than might have been expected from a project of this breadth, and the illustrations—both black and white and color—enhance the volume (although some of the choices may seem pedestrian to experts in the field). Each editor also decides how a religion is presented; that is, they individually determine what makes their religion a religion. That is a fraught question, of course, because one of the first things (if not the first thing) any scholar will say about religious tradition is that it is not uniform, and that multiplicity within any religion makes it problematic to speak of religion as a generic category.
Yet somehow scholars engaged in teaching about religion find an approach, and the editors of these volumes choose tried and approved (if not proven) options in the study of religion. Wendy Doniger defines the scope of her inquiry along the lines of clusters of repeated themes within the Hindu literature selected; Donald Lopez focuses on the troika of the Buddha, teaching and community; and James Robson explores the definition of the “Way” referenced in Daoism. David Biale thinks of Judaism in terms of the history of the Jewish people; Lawrence Cunningham sees the eternity of Christ as the Word of God as the center of Christianity; and Jane Dammen McAuliffe presents Islam in terms of submission to the exact disclosure of Allah’s message in the Qur’an.
Confronted with vast traditions, the editors make wise as well as defensible choices and select theoretical points of view that are widely followed. Two related difficulties emerge, however, which together factor into the disservice that these volumes also perform. The general editor, Jack Miles, sets out the purpose of the project in terms of “comparison,” one tradition to others. But the lack of discussion among the editors on the definition of “religion” means that the comparison is bound to be one of apples to oranges. Miles himself claims that an interest in practice unifies the approaches and suggests that Doniger’s idea of the cluster of themes would work more generally. But the themes of Hinduism cannot be applied without distortion to other systems of religion, and the other editors do not take up Miles’s provisional views.
In his introduction, which opens the first volume and is repeated verbatim in the second volume, Miles identifies confusion in the study of religion as the reason for a lack of theoretical coherence. When he does cite scholars of religion, it is to stress observations of continuing uncertainty. He does refer to allegedly big events in scholarship such as the World’s Parliament of Religions (which met in Chicago in 1893) and the foundation of the American Academy of Religion (in 1909). What made these events significant, however, was not the production of any communiqué, but the quality of the approaches involved.
Lack of an overall theoretical approach is not surprising and for many purposes would not be significant. But in this case, the claim is to provide an anthology of world religions. For all the disagreement there is concerning how to define and study religion, the discipline is quite clear that the great traditions under discussion do more than produce words, documents and ideas. They certainly do so, but they engage those ideological forms with ritual activities and ethical imperatives. Indeed, for most practitioners at most times, the life of the traditions—even the intellectual life—may prove more ritual and ethical than ideological or literary.
Although it is helpful to have this anthology, edited by experts in the field, it is less than helpful to approach texts as if they were the religion concerned. Doing so does not promote comparison or understanding, but reverts to a treatment of religions as purely speculative, which is not what makes them a force in our world.
Bruce Chilton is the Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College in New York. His most recent book is Christianity: The Basics (London: Routledge, 2015).
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