Sunday, September 30, 2007

A spectator's guide to world religions

I've not long finished reading a fascinating book, A spectator's guide to world religions: an introduction to the big five by John Dickson* (thanks, Arthur and Annabel). The 'big five' referred to in the subtitle are Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Although the author admits he is a Christian and therefore biased, his defence is very interesting:
"It may seem at first that the more confident you are in a particular religion the more likely you are to 'fudge' your description of another religion. Actually, I think the reverse is true. Bias in the description of other Faiths is a sure sign of a lack of confidence in one's own Faith..."
"... Imagine yourself as an art curator who is convinced that one piece in his collection has an unequalled quality. What will you do? Will you dim the lights on the 'competitors' in the gallery and put spotlights on your favourite piece[?] Of course not. That would be a sure sign you were not actually convinced about the special beauty of your treasured masterpiece."
All in all I think he has succeeded. The other four (particularly, in my opinion, Hinduism and Buddhism) come out pretty well.

The chapters on Christianity assume virtually no prior knowledge, and yet I found them fascinating. It also put a few things into a clearer perspective.

The author also explains that he has approached each religion on its own terms, whereas other Christian writers have asked questions like, "What does Buddhism teach about sin?" or "How do Hindus understand forgiveness?", which are largely meaningless. He goes on to say:
'"I've often wondered what it would look like if an author set out to describe Christianity from the perspective of the Buddhist concepts of 'Self', karma and rebirth. I imagine Christianity would look rather thin."
Other things I found interesting were:
  • No one in India actually calls Hinduism 'Hinduism'. The term came into western usage via British writers in India in the 19th century who needed a term to describe the array of spiritual beliefs and practices they saw around them. Dickson says that, since the word "Hindu" comes from the name of the Indus River, calling Hinduism 'Hinduism' is like calling Indigenous Australian beliefs 'Murrumbidgeeism'.
  • Although Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam (and, to a lesser extent, Judaism) appear from the outside to be four homogeneous entities, like giant stone edifices, they are actually complex and divided.

I highly recommend this book.

[* Blue Bottle Books, Sydney, Australia 2004. Email]

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