Religion, Christianity, Religious, World, Buddhism, Asia
So far only particular religions, belonging to particular peoples or regions, have been considered. In recent years the question has been much discussed whether any of these may be called universal. A universal religion may be defined either as one that has been accepted by all peoples, or as one whose doctrines are such that it may be so accepted. The term is frequently used loosely to describe a religion that has passed definitely beyond its birthplace and has been adopted by different nations or districts. Obviously, if we take the stricter definition, the question at issue can be decided only by an appeal to facts. Whether or not a given religion has actually been universally accepted can be determined from statistics, and the question whether it is fitted to be generally adopted must be answered by a similar appeal. It may be held, and is held, of various religions that their standards are so high and their schemes of worship and conceptions of salvation so obviously suited to human nature that they cannot fail to be adopted when they are known; but such are the diversities of human thought that this consideration cannot be regarded as decisive—a religious system that seems to one set of men to be perfect may appear to others to be unsatisfactory, and it is only by trial that it can be determined how far it is capable of conquering new territory. The test of actual diffusion, then, must be applied to those religions for which the claim to universality has been made—these are Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Islam.
Buddhism has had a history full of vicissitudes. Beginning in Northern India as an Aryan faith, in the course of a few centuries it overran a great part of the peninsula, then began to decline, gradually lost its hold on the people, partly, it is said, by reason of the corruption of its morals, chiefly, doubtless, because it was not suited to the character of the Hindu people, and finally, in the twelfth century of our era, left its native land, to which it has never returned. Meantime it had established itself firmly in Ceylon and later in Burma and Siam and had been carried to China (not long after the beginning of our era), whence it passed to Korea, Central Asia, Japan, and adjacent islands, and as early as the sixth century gained a footing in Tibet. It has maintained its conquests outside of India to the present day, except that it has been driven out of a considerable part of Central Asia by Mohammedanism; in China and Japan it exists alongside of the native cults, its relations with which are friendly. It presents the curious spectacle of a religion, originally Hindu Aryan, that now finds a home exclusively (with one exception, Ceylon) among non-Aryan peoples; but among these peoples it has generally been degraded by the infusion of low native elements, and has discarded its original essence. By reason of its negative attitude toward life it has found no favor as a system with Western Indo-Europeans, Persians, and Semites, except that it gave a coloring to certain Persian sects (the Ismailic) and has perhaps influenced Bahaism. As far as present appearances go there is no probability of its gaining general acceptance.
Judaism is too much encumbered with peculiar national usages to commend itself to non-Jews. There was a time just before and just after the beginning of our era when a considerable number of persons resorted to it for escape from the confusion of current religious systems, and since that time there have been conversions here and there; but these have been too few to affect the general character of religion in any community. Even to Reform Judaism, which has discarded Talmudic usages and does not differ doctrinally from certain forms of Christianity, there clings a racial tone that tends to isolate it, and it does not seem that this isolation is likely to cease soon.
Christianity, beginning as a Jewish movement, speedily became Græco-Roman, and in this form took possession of the whole of Western Asia (except Jewish districts and parts of Arabia), Greece, Italy, Egypt, and the northern coast of Africa, and was adopted, under Byzantine and Roman influence, by the Celtic, Slavonic, and Teutonic tribes. Most of its Asiatic and all of its African territory except Abessinia was taken from it by Mohammedanism in the seventh century, but small bodies of Christians remained in Armenia, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt. With this exception it has since been the religion only of the Western Indo-Europeans and of a few half-civilized peoples who have been Christianized either by missionaries (the Karens of Burma, a part of the Telugus of Southeastern India and others) or by contact with Westerners (Philippine Islands, tribes of North America and South America) or by both these agencies (the Hawaiian Islands). Local peculiarities have been largely banished from its usages but not from its dogma. It is, apparently, its dogma (in the orthodox form) that has prevented its acceptance by most Semites, by the peoples of Central and Eastern Asia, and by many undeveloped tribes of Africa and Oceania.
Zoroastrianism has never advanced to any important extent beyond the boundaries of its native land. It has never recovered from the crushing blow dealt it by Mohammedanism in the seventh century, and is now professed by hardly more than 100,000 persons (mostly in Bombay).
Islam is now the religion of the Turkish empire (except the Christian groups in Europe, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Armenia), Persia, Egypt (except the Copts), and the North African coast, and has a large following in Central Asia, China, India, the Malay peninsula, the Malay Archipelago, the Sudan, and a considerable representation on the east and west coasts of Africa. Its spread, as is remarked above, has been effected sometimes by force, but oftener by social pressure and through traders and missionaries. Decadent Christianity in Palestine, Syria, and Egypt readily yielded to it; Persian Zoroastrianism made some effort to maintain itself but succumbed to the combination of military pressure and the prospect of civil advancement and peace; after the fall of Constantinople conversions of Christians in Europe were numerous, and the Moslem conquests in India were followed by a considerable accession of Hindus to the Islamic faith. At the present time it appears to be advancing only among the half-civilized tribes of Central Africa, but it maintains its position against Buddhism and Christianity.
There is, thus, now no religion that, so far as extent of diffusion is concerned, can be called universal. Omitting the Jewish and Parsi groups, the Brahmanic and other religions of India, and the Chinese Confucian cult, three great religions have divided the world among them, Buddhism taking Eastern Asia, Islam Western Asia and Northern Africa, and Christianity Europe and America. It is sometimes suggested that the religion of the leaders of civilization, the Christian nations, must become the faith of the world. But, even if we may look forward to a time when social fusion, under the control of the present Christian nations, shall have brought about substantial unity of religious thought in the world, it is impossible now to predict what the nature of that thought will be, since Christianity has undergone and is now undergoing change, and may in the far future assume a different form from that of to-day; fundamentals may remain, but opinions differ even now as to what are fundamentals.
Classification of religions. A word may be added on proposed classifications of religions. Certain resemblances and differences between religions are obvious, and groups may be made, geographical, ritualistic, theologic, or soteriological, but it is difficult to find a principle of classification that shall bring out the essential characteristic or characteristics of every religion and yet distinctly mark every one off from all others. All have much in common, and the elements in all are so mixed that divisions necessarily cross one another. Every religion is the product of some one community and represents its peculiar view of human life in its relation to the supernatural; there may be borrowings and fusions, but the final outcome is shaped by the thought of the people to whom the religion specifically belongs. The differences between various religions are the differences of thought between the communities involved, and the differences and the resemblances are often curious and sometimes defy explanation.
Leaving aside ritual, which, so far as it is a merely external form of approach to the deity, does not touch the essence of religion, the following points may be said to be common to all religions: (1) The sense of a supernatural control of life, and the conviction that the supernatural Power must be placated or obeyed. (2) The belief that religion deals with and controls the whole of life; this belief is pronounced among savages, who know nothing of natural law, and is regarded as essential in more advanced communities, in which, from the religious point of view, law, physical or mental, is taken to be an expression of the will of the deity. (3) The creation of divine personalities (representing popular ideals), and movements toward a unitary view of the divine control of the world. (4) An ethical element in the conception of the character of the supernatural Power and the modes of pleasing this Power. The ethical side of religion corresponds to the general ethical standard of the people—in savages it is low, but it exists. (5) The conception of salvation as the goal of religious faith and service; the salvation looked for is at first physical, is gradually moralized, and ultimately takes the form of spiritual union with the deity. These are the essential elements of religion; they all exist in crude form in the lowest strata of society, and are purified in the course of social growth.
A classification naturally suggested by this enumeration of fundamentals would be one based on grades of general culture, savage, half-civilized, and civilized; but such a classification would not take account of the differences of character in the members of the higher grades. These differ from one another in the conception of the ultimate Power of the world and of the nature of salvation and the mode of attaining it, and in other less important points. They are so highly composite in structure that their interrelations are complicated, and those that are brought together by one critical canon may be separated by another. Buddhism is allied on one side (the ignoring of deity) to Confucianism and Epicureanism, on another side (the hope of moral salvation) to Christianity. Zoroastrianism touches the Veda in its theistic construction, and is remarkably like Judaism in its organization. Christianity is Jewish on one side and Græco-Roman on another. Islam has Christian and Jewish conceptions attached to the old-Semitic view of life.
A distinction of importance is that between national religions and those founded each by a single man (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam). This distinction may be pressed too far—all religions have great men who have given new directions to thought, and no religion can be said to be wholly the creation of an individual man, since all, as is pointed out above, are outcomes of the ideas of communities. The distinction in question is not a satisfactory basis for a general classification since it fails to note the theological differences between the various religions. Nevertheless, it embodies a significant fact: in the course of the history of the world the three religions above-named have come to divide the civilized world among them, that is, they have been selected as best responding to the religious needs of men. No one of them is universal, but the three together practically include the civilized world. They are modified in various ways by their adherents, but they have not been superseded. They have grown beyond the ideas of their founders, but these latter nevertheless occupy a unique position. Moses and Zoroaster are dim figures whose work it is impossible to define, but the teachings of Buddha and Jesus, though they left no writings, are known with substantial accuracy, and Mohammed has expressed himself in a book. The persons of the three founders are the objects of a devotion not given to other leaders. These things justify us in putting Buddhism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism in a class by themselves, of which the distinguishing note is the discarding of local national ideas and usages. These last are not wholly given up, but they are less prominent than in Judaism and Zoroastrianism. It is to the insight of the individual founders that this relative freedom from local features is due. This characteristic does not necessarily carry with it superiority in ethical and general religious conceptions.
A different line of cleavage is indicated by the designation "religions of redemption." In one sense all religions come under this head, for all have for their object the freeing man from the ills of life. In a higher sense the term 'redemption' means deliverance from the power of sin and from its punishment, particularly in the world to come. This meaning appears in definite form in Buddhism and Christianity, and somewhat less distinctly in Mithraism and the later Judaism; in the Old Testament religion and Islam it is not clearly stated. As it appears in germinal form in the lower cults, its development may be traced up to its culmination in the systems in which man is freed from moral taint through the agency of an individual savior or in accordance with a cosmic ethical law.
Unity exists among the lowest and among the highest religious systems. Among savage and half-civilized cults there are no important differences—they all have the same ideas respecting the nature and functions of supernatural Powers and the ways of approaching them. In the higher cults a process of differentiation goes on for a certain time while each is developing its special characteristics, and then a counter-movement sets in—they all tend to come together by suppressing local features and emphasizing general ideas. Thus at the present day there are groups of Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, and Moslems that, without abandoning their several faiths, find themselves in substantial accord on some essential points. The unity of savages is the uniformity of undeveloped thought; the later unity rests on discrimination between fundamentals and accessories.
Tabulated classifications of religions, it would seem, must be arbitrary and misleading—they give undue prominence to some one religious fact, they maim the individuality of cults, and they obscure the relations between certain cults by putting these into different divisions. The true relations between the various religious systems may be brought out by comparisons. In this way individuality and unitary character may be preserved in every case, while the agreements and disagreements may be made clear by referring them to general principles of religious development.
|Written By Crawford Howell Toy|
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