Monday, November 03, 2014

非常道

I didn't take this nice picture of Daoists priests doing their thing. It's from the new Norton Anthology of World Religions (reviewed in today's New York Times), which clearly aims to be the gold standard for the ubiquitous World Religion courses taught throughout American universities. I'm curious to see it - the Norton Anthologies tend to be excellent - but my first reaction is bemusement at a new canon of "major, living, international religions": Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This isn't the occasion to wonder about the monotheisms (two of them are incontestably "major" and "international"); I'm amused that Taoism has won out over Confucianism as the "world religion" from China.

"World religions" is a fraught category. Tomoko Masuzawa's The Invention of World Religions: or, How European universalism was preserved in the language of pluralism (2005) - mentioned in the Times review! - pretty much represents the view of my generation of American religious studiesists. As if "religion" hadn't problems enough already!

But the world religions are alive and well, and perhaps serving their own important function as a staple of American college education (since religion can't be taught in public schools), and bumper stickers. Houston Smith's The Religions of Man (now The World's Religions) ruled the roost for almost half a century with accounts of:

Hinduism
Buddhism
Confucianism
Taoism
Islam
Judaism
Christianity
The Primal Religions

Two decades ago, Arvind Sharma's Our Religions updated things but stuck with Smith's seven world religions (and a slighly more sensible order, at least on the monotheistic end):

Hinduism
Buddhism
Confucianism
Taoism
Judaism
Christianity
Islam

Often you get just five - two Indian and three monotheistic. The religious tradiitons of China don't really lend themselves to "world religion" treatment, though Max Weber already made a heroic effort with his Konfuzianismus und Taoismus a century ago.

I've long enjoyed showing students John Bowker's World Religions: The Great Faiths Explored & Explained (2006), which is more generous still:

Ancient Religions
Hinduism
Jainism
Buddhism
Sikhism
Chinese and Japanese Religions
Japanese Religions [=Shinto]
Judaism
Christianity
Islam
Native Religions

This is a hodgepodge but a good one, if you ask me, showing already in the heterogeneity of its categories (historical, national, native, -isms, and the lone -ity) that "religion" isn't one thing. Does it matter? Of course! I wonder what my Chinese religious studies colleagues think about it. I'll have to ask them!

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