Chapter OnePoint of DepartureTraditionally, When People Wanted Answers to life's ultimate questions -- Where are we? Why are we here? What does it all mean? What, if anything, are we supposed to do? -- they looked to their revealed texts; or to their ancestral myths if they were oral peoples (it comes to the same thing). Since the rise of modern science, however, they have turned increasingly to it for answers. This is understandable, for controlled experiments enable science to prove its theses; and with those theses it has remade the world. It is a signal feature of our century's close that we recognize that this turn to science was mistaken. Not entirely mistaken, for science (and its spin-off, technology) have their place. What was mistaken was to expect science to answer ultimate questions, for its method doesn't connect with them. Recognizing this clears the way for looking seriously again at the enterprise that does connect with them: religion.Such serious looking and listening defines the object of this book. It may be wondered if this aim is not too broad. The religions we propose to consider belt the world. They stretch back thousands of years and are motivating more people today than ever before. Is it possible to listen seriously to them within the compass of a single book?The answer is that it is possible, because we shall be listening for well-defined themes. These must be listed at the outset or the reader will be misled.This is not a book about religious history. This explains the dearth of names, dates, and social influences in its pages. Historical facts are kept to the minimum that are needed to situate in time and space the "ideas the book deals with.
Evenrespecting ideas, the book does not attempt to provide an inclusive overview of the religions included, for each hosts too many variations to make sense of in short compass. Instead of trying to catalogue them all, I try to do reasonable justice to the leading perspectives in each tradition.
The book is not a balanced account of its subject. The full story of religion is not rose-colored -- often it is crude and barbaric. Wisdom and charity are intermittent, and the net result is profoundly ambiguous.
A balanced view of religion would include witch hunts and inquisitions, pogroms and persecution, the Christian Crusades and holy wars of Islam. The catalogue would have no end.Why then do I only mention these things? My answer is so simple that it may sound ingenuous. This is a book about values. Probably as much bad art as good has been chiseled and painted, but no one would expect it to appear in these pages. Others will be interested in weighing the virtues of religion against its atrocities. That has not been my concern.Having targeted my subject as the enduring religions at their best, let me say what I take that best to be. Their theological and metaphysical truths are, I am prepared to argue, inspired. Institutions -- religious institutions included -- are another story. Constituted as they are of uneven people (partly good, partly bad), institutions are built of vices as well as virtues, which has led one wag to suggest that the biggest mistake religion made was to get mixed up with people. This book skims the cream from religion's churning history by confining itself to its theological claims. When we limit ourselves to these, a cleaner side of the religions emerges. Theybegin to look like the world's wisdom traditions. ("Where is the knowledge that is lost in information? "Where is the wisdom that is lost in knowledge?" -- T.S. Eliot.) They look like data banks that house the winnowed wisdom of the human race.Finally, this is not a book on comparative religions in the sense of comparing their worth. I have tried to let the best in each faith shine through. Readers are free to make their own comparisons if they are inclined to do so.
In saying what this book is not, I have already suggested what it is, but let me be explicit.It is a book that seeks to embrace the world. That hope can only be approximated, of course. Arms are short and feet must be planted somewhere, so this book has a home. But it is a home whose doors swing in and out -- in study and imaginings when not in overt travel. If it is possible to be homesick for the world, even places one has never been and knows one will never see, this book is the child of such homesickness.In our century this global outreach is important, for lands around the planet have become our neighbors -- China across the street, the Middle East at our back door. The change this new situation requires of us all -- we who have been suddenly catapulted from town and country onto a world stage -- is staggering. Twenty-five hundred years ago it took an exceptional individual like Diogenes to exclaim, "I am not an Athenian or a Greek but a citizen of the world." Today we must all be struggling to make those words our own. Anyone who is only Japanese or American, only Oriental or Occidental, is but half human. The other half that beats with the pulse of all humanity has yet to be awakened.World understanding bringsmany rewards: it enables corporations to do business abroad, and diplomats to stumble less frequently. But its greatest gains need no tally. To glimpse what belonging means to the people of India; to sense with a Burmese grandmother what passes in life and what endures; to understand how Hindus can regard their personalities as masks that overlay the God within -- to swing such things into view is to add dimensions to the glance of spirit. It is to have a larger world to live in.