Otherwise known as “the history of religions,” Religionswissenschaft, etc., the term originated in the last quarter of the nineteenth century to denote one of the sciences based on the evolutionary theories of Darwin and Spencer. In its first phase it attempted to compare religions with a view to assigning each a place on an evolutionary ladder, and was especially concerned with the problem of the origins of religion, usually independent of any doctrine of revelation. Early representatives included, C.P. Tiele, J.G. Frazer, W.R. Smith, and A. Lang, who were as a rule liberal Christians, though some were agnostics, and comparative religion tended as a result to be classified by evangelicals as a species of “modernism.” After World War I, as the idea of unilinear evolution began to lose ground, and as material accumulated, comparative religion split into specialist fields-the history of religion, the psychology of religion, the sociology of religion, and the phenomenology of religion among them-and the synthetic approach was less and less cultivated. The present situation is that scholars in comparative religion agree that all religions are worthy of dispassionate study as phenomena in their own right, but there is otherwise little agreement concerning precise methods. A broad division may, however, be observed between “pure historians,” who study phenomena in sequence within given traditions, and “phenomenologists,” who prefer to take a cross section of religious phenomena from a variety of traditions. Strictly speaking, it is an axiom with comparative religion that no value judgments may be imposed on the material; the student's first duty is to describe and (hopefully) to understand. To pass beyond this to theological or philosophical evaluation, however legitimate, is not comparative religion.
L.H. Jordan,: Its Genesis and Growth (1905); J.N.D. Anderson, Christianity and Comparative Religion (1970); S.G.F. Brandon (ed.), A Dictionary of Comparative Religion (1970); E.J. Sharpe, Fifty Key Words: Comparative Religion (1971).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
I. THE SUBJECT IN GENERAL
1. Universality of Religion
2. Theories of Its Origin and Growth of Religion
II. RELATION OF CHRISTIANITY TO ETHNIC FAITHS AND THEIR TENETS
3. The Summum Bonum
4. Self-Revelation of God
8. Approach to God
III. GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF ETHNIC FAITHS
1. Tenets Common to All Religions
2. Tendency to Degradation, not to Progress, in Ethnic Faiths
3. Mythology and Religion
4. Religion And Morality in Ethnic Faiths
IV. SUPPOSED RESEMBLANCES TO REVEALED RELIGION
3. Asserted Parallels to Gospel History
5. Heathen Aspirations and Unconscious Prophecies
6. Lessons Taught by
I. The Subject in General.
The science of comparative religion is perhaps the latest born of all sciences. Largely in consequence of this fact, our knowledge of what it really proves is still far from definite, and men draw most contradictory conclusions on this point. As in the case of all new sciences in the past, not a few people have endeavored under its shelter to attack Christianity and all revealed religion. These assaults already give signs of failure--as in similar cases previously-- and a new evidence of Christianity is emerging from the conflict. It is only "a little learning" that is proverbially dangerous. The subject with which the science of comparative religion deals is religion in general and all the facts which can be learnt about all religions ancient and modern, whether professed by savages or prevalent among highly civilized communities, whether to be studied in sacred books or learnt orally from the people.
1. Universality of Religion:
In this way we learn first of all that religion is a universal phenomenon, found among all nations, in all conditions, though differing immensely in its teachings, ceremonies and effects in different places. It is perhaps the most powerful for good or evil of all the instincts (for it is an instinct) which influence mankind.
2. Theories of Origin and Growth of Religion:
To account for the origin and growth of religion various theories have been propounded:
(1) "Humanism," which is the revival of the ancient view of Euhemeros (circa 400 BC) that all religion arose from fear of ghosts, and all the gods were but men who had died;
(2) "Animism," which traces religion to early man’s fancy that every object in Nature had a personality like his own;
(3) the Astral Theory, which supposes that religion originated from worship of the heavenly bodies.
It is clear that there are facts to support each of these hypotheses, yet no one of them satisfies all the conditions of the case. To (1) it has been replied that most tribes from the earliest times clearly distinguished between those deities who had been men, and the gods proper, who had never been men and had never died. Regarding (2), it should be observed that it admits that man’s consciousness of his own personality and his fancy that it exists in other creatures also does not account for his worshipping them, unless we grant the existence of the sensus numinis within him: if so, then this explains, justifies, and necessitates religion. (3) The Astral Theory is in direct opposition to Euhemerism or Humanism. It ascribes personality to the heavenly bodies in man’s early fancy; but it, too, has to presuppose the sensus numinis, without which religion would be impossible, as would be the science of optics if man had not the sense of sight.
It is often held that religion is due to evolution. If so, then its evolution, resulting ex hypothesi in Christianity as its acme, must be the working out of a Divine "Eternal Purpose" (prothesis ton aionon,
II. Relation of Christianity to Ethnic Faiths and Their Tenets.
It is very remarkable that Christianity--though clearly not a philosophy but a religion that has arisen under historical circumstances which preclude the possibility of supposing it the product of Eclecticism--yet sums up in itself all that is good in all religions and philosophies, without the bad, the fearful perversions and corruptions of the moral sense, too often found in them. The more the study of comparative religion is carried on the more plainly evident does this become. It also supplements in a wonderful way the half-truths concealed rather than revealed in other systems, whether religious or philosophical. We subjoin a few instances of this.
Karma is strongly insisted on in Hinduism and Buddhism. These teach that every deed, good or bad, must have its result, that "its fruit must be eaten" here or hereafter. So does Christianity quite as forcibly (
Mahayana Buddhism proclaims an immanent but not transcendent being (Dharma-kaya), who is "the ultimate reality that underlies all particular phenomena" (Suzuki), who wills and reflects, though not fully personal. He is not the Creator of the world but a kind of Animus mundi. He is the sum total of all sentient beings, and they have no individual existence, no "ego-soul." The world of matter has no real existence but is his self-manifestation. Christianity supplements and corrects this by teaching the transcendence as well as the immanence (
3. The "Summum Bonum":
Vedantism and Cuffiism proclaim that ultimr~te absorption in the impersonal "It" is the summum bonum, and the Chandogya Upanishad says, "There is just one thing, without a second" (Book VI, 2 1, 2). Of this one thing everything is, so to speak, a part: there being no ultimate difference between the human and the Divine. Thus sin is denied and unreality proclaimed (Maya, illusion). The yearning for union with God underlying all this is satisfied in Christianity, which provides reconciliation with God and shows how by new spiritual birth men may become children of God (
4. Self-Revelation of God:
Orthodox (Sunni) Muslim theology declares God to be separated from man by an impassable gulf and hence, to be unknowable. Philosophically this leads to Agnosticism, though opposed to Polytheism. Among the Jews the philosophy of Maimonides ends in the same failure to attain to a knowledge of the Divine or to describe God except by negations (Cepher Ha-madda`, 1 11). The Bible, on the other hand, while speaking of Him as invisible, and unknowable through merely human effort (
Heathenism seeks to give some idea of the Invisible by means of idols; Vaishnavism has its doctrine of avataras; Babiism and Bahaiism their dogma of "manifestations" (mazhar) in human beings; the `Ali-ilahis are so called because they regard `Ali as God. Instead of these unworthy theories and deifications, Christianity supplies the holy, sinless, perfect Incarnation in Christ.
Hinduism offers mukti (moksha), "deliverance" from a miserable existence; Christianity in Christ offers pardon, deliverance from sin, and reconciliation with God.
Krishnaism teaches unreasoning "devotion" (bhakti) of "mind, body, property" to certain supposed incarnations of Krishna (Vishnu), quite regardless of their immoral conduct; Christianity inculcates a manly, reasonable "faith" in Christ, but only after "proving all things."
8. Approach to God:
Pilgrimages in Islam and Hinduism indicate but do not satisfy a need for approach to God; Christianity teaches a growth in grace. and in likeness to Christ, and so a spiritual drawing near to God.
III. General Characteristics of Ethnic Faiths.
1. Tenets Common to All Religions:
In all religions we find, though in many various forms, certain common beliefs, such as:
(1) the existence of some spiritual power or powers, good or bad, superior to man and able to affect his present and future life;
(2) that there is a difference between right and wrong, even though not clearly defined;
(3) that there is an afterlife of some sort, with happiness or misery often regarded as in some measure dependent upon conduct or upon the observance of certain rites here.
In the main the fact of the all but universal agreement of religions upon these points proves that they are true in substance. Even such an agnostic philosophy as original Buddhism was, has been constrained by human need to evolve from itself or admit from without deistic or theistic elements, and thus Buddha himself has been deified by the Mahayana School. Yet no ethnic faith satisfies the "human soul naturally Christian," as Tertullian calls it (Liber Apologeticus, cap. 17), for none of them reveals One God, personal, holy, loving, just, merciful, omniscient and omnipotent. Even Islam fails here. Ethnic religions are either
(1) polytheistic, worshipping many gods, all imperfect and some evil, or
(2) mystical, evaporating away, as it were, God’s Personality, thus rendering Him a mental abstraction, as in the Hindu philosophical systems and in Mahayana Buddhism. Christianity as revealed in Christ does just what all other faiths fail to do, reconciling these two tendencies and correcting both.
2. Tendency to Degradation, not to Progress, in Ethnic Faiths:
As a general rule, the nearer to their source we can trace religions, the purer we find them. In most cases a degradation and not to progressive improvement manifests itself as time goes on, and this is sometimes carried to such an extent that, as Lucretius found in Rome and Greece, religion becomes a curse and not a blessing. Thus, for example, regarding ancient Egypt, Professor Renouf says: "The sublimer portions of the Egyptian religion are not the comparatively late result of a process of development. The sublimer portions are demonstrably ancient, and the last stage of the Egyptian religion was by far the grossest and most corrupt" (Hibbert Lectures, 91). Modern Hinduism, again, is incomparably lower in its religious conceptions than the religion of the Vedas. In Polynesia the same rule holds good, as is evident from the myths about Tangaroa. In Samoa he was said to be the son of two beings, the "Cloudless Heaven" and the "Outspread Heaven." He originally existed in open space. He made the sky to dwell in. He then made the earth. Somewhat later he was supposed to be visible in the moon! But a lower depth was reached. In Hawaii, Tangaroa has sunk to an evil being, the leader of a rebellion against another god, Tane, and is now condemned to abide in the lowest depths of darkness and be the god of death. In South Africa, Australia and elsewhere, traditions still linger of a Creator of all things, but his worship has been entirely laid aside in favor of lower and more evil deities.
3. Mythology and Religion:
Almost everywhere mythology has arisen and perverted religion into something very different from what it once was. The same tendency has more than once manitested itself in the Christian church, thus rendering a return to Christ’s teachings necessary. As an instance, compare the modern popular religion of Italy with that of the. It is remarkable that no religion but the Christian, however, has shown its capability of reform.
4. Religion and Morality in Ethnic Faiths:
For the most part, in ethnic religions, there is no recognized connection between religion and morality. The wide extension of phallic rites and the existence of hierodoulai and hierodouloi in many lands show that religion has often consecrated gross immorality. Mythology aids in this degradation. Hence, Seneca, after mentioning many evil myths related of Jupiter, etc., says: "By which nothing else was effected but the removal from men of their shame at sinning, if they deemed such beings goals" (L. A. Seneca, De beata vita cap. 26). With the possibly doubtful exception of the religion of certain savage tribes, in no religion is the holiness of God taught except in Christianity and its initial stage, Judaism. Ethnic deities are mostly born of heaven and earth, if not identified with them in part, and are rarely regarded as creating them. It was otherwise, however, with Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism, and with certain Sumerian deities, and there are other exceptions, too. The "religions of Nature" have generally produced gross immorality, encouraged and even insisted upon as a part of their ritual; compare Mylitta-worship in Babylon and that of the "Mater deum," Venus, Anahita, etc.
IV. Supposed Resemblances to Revealed Religion.
Much attention has been called to real or supposed community of rites and "myths," especially when any ethnic faith is compared with Christianity. Sacrifice, for instance, is an essential part of every religion. In Christianity none are now offered, except the "living sacrifice" of the believer, though that of Christ offered once for all is held to be the substance foreshadowed by Jewish sacrifices. Purificatory bathings are found almost everywhere, and that very naturally, because of the universality of conscience and of some sense of sin.
Belief in the fiery end of the world existed among the Stoics, and is found in the Eddas of Scandinavia and the Puranas of India. Traditions of an age before sin and death came upon mankind occur in many different lands. Many of these traditions may easily be accounted for. But in some cases the supposed resemblance to revealed religion does not exist, or is vastly exaggerated. The Yoga philosophy in India is popularly supposed to aim at union with God, as does Christianity; but (so understood) the Yoga system, as has already been said, implies loss of personality and absorption into the impersonal, unconscious "It" (Tat). The doctrine of a Trinity is nowhere found, only Triads of separate deities. Belief in a resurrection is found in only very late parts of the Persian (Zoroastrian) scriptures, composed after centuries of communication with Jews and Christians. In the earlier Avesta only a "restoration" of the world is mentioned (compare
3. Asserted Parallels to Gospel History:
The assertion is often made that many of the leading gospel incidents in the life of our Lord are paralleled in other religions. It is said, for instance, that the resurrection of Adonis, Osiris and Mithra was believed in by their followers. It is true that, in some places, Adonis was said to have come to life the day after he had met his death by the tusk of a boar (the cold of winter); but everywhere it was recognized that he was not a man who had been killed, but the representative of the produce of the soil, slain or dying down in the cold weather and growing again in spring. As to Osiris, his tomb was shown in more than one place in Egypt, and his body was never supposed to have come to life again, though his spirit was alive and was ruler of the underworld. Mithra was admitted to be the genius of the sun. He was said to have sprung from a rock (in old Persian and Sanskrit the same word means "sky," "cloud" and "rock"), but not to have been incarnated, nor to have died, much less to have risen from the dead. The modern erroneous fancy that Mithraists believed in his resurrection rests solely on one or at most two passages in Christian writers, which really refer to the burial of Osiris and the removal of his body from the tomb by his hostile brother Typhon (Set). The high morality attributed to Mithraism and even to the worship of Isis rests on no better foundation than the wrong rendering of a few passages and the deliberate ignoring of many which contradict theory.
4. Virgin Birth:
Virgin birth, we have been told, is a doctrine of many religions. As a matter of fact, it is found in hardly one ethnic faith. Nothing of the kind was believed regarding Osiris, Adonis, Horus, Mithra, Krishna, Zoroaster. Of Buddha it is denied entirely in all the books of the Southern Canon (Pali), and is found expressed only vaguely in one or two late uncanonical works of the Northern (Sanskrit) School. It was doubtless borrowed from Christianity. Supernatural birth of quite a different (and very repulsive) kind is found in many mythologies, but that is quite another thing.
5. Heathen Aspirations and Unconscious Prophecies:
Heathenism contains some vague aspirations and unconscious prophecies, the best example of which is to be found in Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue, if that be not rather due to Jewish influence. Any such foregleams of the coming light as are real and not merely imaginary, such, for instance, as the Indian doctrine of the avataras or "descents" of Vishnu, are to be accounted for as part of the Divine education of the human race. The "false dawn," so well known in the East, is not a proof that the sun is not about to rise, nor can its existence justify anyone in shutting his eyes to stud rejecting the daylight when it comes. It is but a harbinger of the real dawn.
6. Lessons Taught by Comparative Religion:
Comparative religion teaches us that religion is essential to and distinctive of humanity. The failures of the ethnic faiths no less than their aspirations show how great is man’s need of Christ, and how utterly unable imagination has ever proved itself to be even to conceive of such an ideal character as He revealed to us in the full light of history and in the wonder-working effects of His character upon the lives and hearts of those who then and in all ages since have in Him received life and light.
Tylor, Anthropology; Jordan, Comparative Religion, Its Genesis and Growth; Falke, Zum Kampfe der drei Weltreligionen; Gould, Origin and Development of Religious Belief; Jevons, Introduction to the History of Religion; Reville, Prolegomena to the History of Religions; Max Muller, Introduction to the; Hardwick, Christ and Other Masters; Kellogg, The Light of Asia and the Light of the World; Farrar, The Witness of History to Christ; A. Lung, Magic and Religion; The Making of Religion; Johnson, Oriental Religions and Their Relation to Universal Religion; Farnell, The Evolution of Religion; Howitt, The Native Tribes of Southeast Australia; Smith, Religion of the Semites; Reinach, Cultes, mythes et religions; Dilger, Erloschen des Menschen nach Hinduismus und Christentum; Rhys Davids, Origin and Growth of Religion; Kuenen, National Religions and Universal Religion (Hibbert Lectures, 1882); Dollinger, The Gentile and the Jew in the Courts of the Temple of Christ (1862); Dodson, Evolution and Its Bearing on Religion; MacCulloch, Comparative Theology; Baumann, Uber Religionen und Religion; Waitz, Anthropologie der Naturvolker; Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics; Frazer, Adonis, Attis, Osiris; Dufourcq, Hist. comparee des rel. paiennes et de la religion juive; Oesterley, Evolution of Religious Ideas; Martindale, Bearing of Comp. Study of Religions on Claims of Christianity; W. Clair Tisdall, Comparative Religion.
W. St. Clair Tisdall