A useful recent effort at comparative analysis Dec 5, 2012
by Stephen P
There is plenty of work out there with introductions to X and Y religions, and much of that claims to make comparisons. In my experience most such work dwells on historical details or provides defenses of a favored creed, rather than actually offering much by way of comparisons based on deeper issues stemming from the foundational preoccupations that drive religious interest in the first place.
This book provides a useful if limited corrective to that gap. The editors actually pay attention to the comparative strategy in analysis, including the types of comparisons and their content. This makes explicit rather than assumes the parameters of comparison, which is crucial for comparisons of religious beliefs.
There are six chapters on specific religions: Chinese religion, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Necessarily, each chapter reflects decisions by authors as to which texts and historical periods become the focus. And necessarily, the authors of each chapter make decisions about how they situate the religion on which they focus among others in comparative terms. Not surprisingly, the chapters vary substantially in the range of texts they address, the historical periods on which they focus, and how much they think religions can be compared. I wanted to see the comparisons by these authors, so I found the chapters on Hinduisn and Judaism disappointing, but that is because the authors there either selected texts of secondary importance, paid more attention to defending the creeds at hand, and in particular speak against the viability of comparative analysis of religion. By contrast, because they did not make similar decisions, I found the chapters on Chinese religion and especially Islam more illuminating. I note that this appraisal does not reflect my views on the religions in question per se, but how much the authors of these chapters actually situate the religions under review in the broader context of other religions.
The concluding chapters are written by the editors and take stock of the religion-specific chapters by pursuing a broader comparative analysis. There the editors revisit questions of making comparisons, the nature of the comparisons being made, and the organization of the discussion of the comparisons. Again, this is useful since they spell out rather than assume we agree with what they are up to. The comparative analysis is thus clearer and easier to follow.
The editors pick some important questions underlying religions as they address the titular focus of the book, the human condition. Hence there is discussion of concepts of God-human unity, which is very good, among other topics. For me thes chapters make the book. Whatever religion you favor, this book is instructive because rather than take sides or attack religious positions, it respectfully treats different traditions while examining their differences. Hence each of the religions under scrutiny gets attention for the unique insights it offers while recognizing other formulations.
This is a deeply satisfying statement, albeit in words, of how humans have come to understand their condition. Those who favor mysticism and the direct experience of the divine beyond words may find this a fool's errand, but it is also worth pointing out that all of the traditions at play have their mystical sects, which themselves are worthy of comparisons, and those comparisons would necessarily themselves be informed by the comparisons made here.
I would have actually liked a longer book with more than one statement on each religion to provide a broader view, since all of the religions have numerous texts and sects and have changed over time. But I understand that this book is part of a larger effort at religious comparisons. While I've not read the other books, I suspect that my minor complaint about the limited length here might be corrected after reviewing the others.