For those who have had a Comparative Religions course…or refused to take one

OK, here’s something just for people who are smart.  If you are not smart, don’t read this.  STOP…hold up, brutha….  Don’t start scrolling down.  Are you sure you are smart?  Because don’t attempt it.  You’ll be frustrated by the writing.  Maybe you’ll even get mad at me or something because of how deep the content presses into current cultural assumptions about religion.

On the other hand, if you don’t have the brain you need, you may read this and wonder what on earth the excerpt means.  Then you’ll think I am a nerd that over-hypes gobblety-goop or jibber-jabber.  SO DON’T READ UNLESS YOU’VE GOT A FAIRLY SUBSTANTIAL BRAIN.

OK, go ahead.  No hold on.  More than brains.  You need more than mere robust gray matter.  You have to have had some kind of contact point with cultural assumptions that ALL RELIGIONS ARE THE SAME THING. If I’ve heard somebody say that once, I’ve heard it gargled a thousand times.  This excerpt from G.K. Chesterton’s great writing, The Everlasting Man, does what I view is a magnificent job of pointing out how this kind of a Comparative Religions leap of assumption really is made by (1) people who don’t know the truth of it but have had their Religious-Smorgasbord Worldview re-heated by microwave for them by somebody else.  Now, the “somebody else” is actually the second group:  (2) those whose assumptions about the sameness of all religions are often rooted in an immovable agenda.  (I know…I’M PREACHING BEFORE THE SERMON, but I want you to read it.  And if some of you are reluctant because you yourself ASSUME THAT ALL RELIGIONS ARE BASICALLY THE SAME, I need to tick you off a little so you’ll be motivated to arm yourself with the kooky content I forced you to read when you return to have a conversation with me about it (read: “John, you are small-minded to agree with Chesterton’s assessment”).

Is the spiritual revolution started by Jesus (typically known as the Christian religion) unique or just one more rendition of the same tune?  Here’s how G.K. Chesterton tackles the question.

In truth [Christianity] is too unique to prove herself unique. For most popular and easy proof is by parallel; and here there is no parallel. It is not easy, therefore, to expose the fallacy by which a false classification is created to swamp a unique thing, when it really is a unique thing. As there is nowhere else exactly the same fact, so there is nowhere else exactly the same fallacy.

But I will take the nearest thing I can find to such a solitary social phenomenon, in order to show how it is thus swamped and assimilated. I imagine most of us would agree that there is something unusual and unique about the position of the Jews. There is nothing that is quite in the same sense an international nation; an ancient culture scattered in different countries but still distinct and indestructible. Now this business [of comparing religions as if they are all the same] is like an attempt to make a list of Nomadic Nations in order to soften the strange solitude of the Jew. It would be easy enough to do it, by the same process of putting a plausible approximation first, and then tailing off into totally different things thrown in somehow to make up the list. Thus in the new list of nomadic nations the Jews would be followed by the Gypsies; who at least are really nomadic if they are not really national. Then the professor of the new science of Comparative Nomadics could pass easily on to something different; even if it was very different. He could remark on the wandering adventure of the English who had scattered their colonies over so many seas; and call them nomads. It is quite true that a great many Englishmen seem to be strangely restless in England.  The moment we mention the wandering empire of the English, we must add the strange exiled empire of the Irish. For it is a curious fact, to be noted in our imperial literature, that the same ubiquity and unrest which is a proof of English enterprise and triumph is a proof of Irish futility and failure. Then the professor of Nomadism would look round thoughtfully and remember that there was great talk recently of German waiters, German barbers, German clerks, Germans naturalising themselves in England and the United States and the South American republics. The Germans would go down as the fifth nomadic race; the words Wanderlust and Folk-Wandering would come in very useful here.

Then the professor, feeling he was now near the end, would make a last leap in desperation. He would recall the fact that the French army has captured nearly every capital in Europe, that it marched across countless conquered lands under Charlemagne or Napoleon; and that would be wanderlust and that would be the note of a nomadic race. Thus he would have his six nomadic nations all compact and complete, and would feel that the Jew was no longer a sort of mysterious and even mystical exception.

But people with more common sense would probably realise that he had only extended nomadism by extending the meaning of nomadism, and that he had extended that until it really had no meaning at all. It is quite true that the French soldier has made some of the finest marches in all military history. But it is equally true, and far more self-evident, that if the French peasant is not a rooted reality there is no such thing as a rooted reality in the world; or in other words, if he is a nomad there is nobody who is not a nomad. Now that is the sort of trick that has been tried in the case of comparative religion and the world’s religious founders all standing respectably in a row. It seeks to classify Jesus as the other would classify Jews, by inventing a new class for the purpose and filling up the rest of it with stop-gaps and second-rate copies.

I do not mean that these other things are not often great things in their own real character and class. Confucianism and Buddhism are great things, but it is not true to call them Churches; just as the French and English are great peoples, but it is nonsense to call them nomads. There are some points of resemblance between Christendom and…Islam; for that matter there are some points of resemblance between Jews and Gypsies. But after that the lists are made up of anything that comes to hand; of anything that can be put in the same catalogue without being in the same category.

He wrote that in 1925.  In my humble–truthfully, more often off than on–opinion, it still stands up.

I am often humored by folks who talk about world religions, divegent philosophies, Christian denominations and sects, and any other strata of the religious/philosophical world as if understanding them requires little effort.  As if it would be as simple as going to a Comparative Religions course, have it all wrapped up in a textbook (by a person or publisher with an opinion), having SOMEONE WHO IS MOST LIKELY NOT A PRACTITIONER instruct them–while surrounded by a few other 19-year-olds who nod their heads in agreement (like they all might agree that X-Box is superior to PS3).  Thus ending their study of the issue.

I am biased, I know.  I am a pastor of a “Christian” church.  I believe in God.

Now, you’d be right in pointing out that I am not always correct with everything I think or believe or practice.  That’s true.  I am definitely human.  But, I hope that I don’t make the same self-short-circuiting leap to say that everything in the world is essentially the same thing in the same way that so many Comparative Religions courses undermine the real truth of thigns.  Think of it this way:  I will not tell a pipefitter how to do his job.  I will not act like a day’s training would have put me on the same level of know-how or experience.  Furthermore, I would not host a Career Day and say that pipe-fitting, teaching, and fire protection are all the same thing just because they all receive a paycheck at the end of the week.

They aren’t the same.  And thank God that they aren’t.  Because I would never have wanted any of my teachers to extinguish fires in high-rises or pipefitters teaching students that pipefitting history is the only one that mattered in the world or firefighters trying to make sure that my plumbing and gas lines are sealed tightly and fully-functional.

All of the world’s religions aren’t one in the same thing.  And this is important to understand, friends.   It’s important, not so we can go to battle over the differences.  It’s important because beliefs and practices are distinctives that make all the difference in the world. What one believes and how one lives is of eternal importance.  To lump us all together would be as ludicrous as saying that John Morlan and Adolf Hitler were virtually the same because both of them have a theological point of view.  Well, yeah…but…

Please send me some of your thoughts on this post and excerpt if you would.  Love you all.

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3 thoughts on “For those who have had a Comparative Religions course…or refused to take one

  1. That sir is a thick post. Definitely could not skim that one. I liked the message and it was very well written. I’ve literally heard someone say “all religions are the same”. Then I happen to ask why they think that and the reply was simply “that is what I learned in my comparative religion class”. That was end of discussion not from my end but from theirs.

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