The founders of the great, durable religions of the world were not philosophers. The intuitions that our deeds will be judged when time has run its course, or that our deeds are indeed judged in the course of time and constantly rebound upon us, life by life, or that the path of the Tao is inscribed into cosmic reality, are not philosophical, metaphysical, or properly ethical insights. Nor are they “theological”: These are not prophetic illuminations following upon God’s self-revelation, or rational reflections upon that self-revelation. They are, rather, the result of our religious awareness, putting out its feelers and blindly making contact with some umbral, barely seen reality. Our religious sense does not make a rational analysis of the real (philosophy), nor does it reflect in faith upon God’s self-revelation (theology).
Moses met God at the burning bush, outside, in daylight. Jesus was transfigured in a display of colors shining too bright for the disciples’ eyes to bear. Theological reasoning is reasoning that is illuminated by baptism, and for that reason it operates in the sunlight. Philosophy operates in the light, too—under the little lights of our own minds.
The religious sense seems to work underground, in the dark, like the ancient, pre-historic cave painters. The Cave was, of course, Plato’s great metaphor for those who do not know the Sun of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, and who therefore live in the shadows, regarding pale imitations of the “real world” outside as the real deal. Along with Homeric poetry, cave paintings would be Plato’s idea of fake news. But the sunlit reason to which Plato urgently recalled his contemporaries is not the only way of seeing truth. The religious sense does not use its own lights, like philosophy, and nor does it willingly share in the light of Another (of God), as theology does.
Rather, the religious sense sees the shadows left by the light of revelation, and sometimes glimpses some outline of reality. There is and will be a last judgement, as Muhammad prophesied; the laws of Karmic punishment and reward indicate the interweaving of fate and free-will in human action; and the roads of the Tao are the pilgrim’s authentic camino way from here to paradise.
Nostra Aetate declared that we should have “sincere reverence” for “those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6).” So the great, durable religions of mankind, such as Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, and Hinduism, are not just the product or expression of the cultures in which they were engendered. Nor are they simply the product of “artistic” or moral thinking. They are the product of properly religious insight, which is its own particular and unique way of seeing into the way of things. This unique “religious intuition” or “religious sense” has created the most lasting and important human artifacts, by shaping millions upon millions of human lives over many centuries.
The discipline of “religious studies” cannot do justice to this unique form of insight. It cannot really even concede that there is such a thing as the religious sense, which somehow sees into the heart of things. Such a statement would be embarrassing for a professor of religious studies to make in public. “Sincere reverence” for the true reflections of Truth in the world’s religions is not part of their mental training or equipment.
In the past couple of decades, as the professors abandoned the imperialist project of naming the “essence” of particular religions, the study of religions has become a study of the cultures that formed large “blocks” of religious practice. Through a kind of academic Treaty of Westphalia, religions are no longer parceled out for study under their given names, such as Islam or Buddhism. Rather, one becomes a student of “South East Asian Religions” or “Religions of the Western Pacific Basin.” Religious studies has descended into categorizing the religions by geography rather than by themselves, because the discipline has no scientific means of recognizing, evaluating, and appreciating religious insight as such. Edmund Clerihew Bentley taught us that “Geography is about maps, but biography is about chaps,” and neither the insight of the axial chaps who founded the religions nor the experience of their geographically situated disciples is reducible to geography or history.
With the strange exception of Hinduism, it is a quality of living religions that they spread and extend themselves. To equate a religion with a geographical area is to treat it as a dead thing, not a self-reproducing and growing form of life. Viewing the religions as geographical regions zombifies them, turning the shadows of religious insight into the night of the living dead. There are deep truths and resounding moral values in all the world’s religions, though often of course in distorted forms. The discipline of religious studies as such does not deal in terms like “truth” and “falsehood,” or even “good” and “evil.”
Only theologians, working in the light of faith, are able to acknowledge and grade the truth, beauty, and goodness of the non-Christian religions of the world. It takes a theologian to see and contemplate the moral truths in the world’s great religions—to see these great “cave paintings” as religions, and not simply cultural epiphenomena of ancient or modern geographical areas. It takes a theologian to see the religions as something living and dramatic, shaping lives from within for good and for ill.
But it takes all the depth of knowledge of a scholar of the religions themselves to show the theologian what to look at! The theologian can see the form and shape of a living religion, but he will have nothing to say except pious waffle and sermonic generalizations if he doesn’t know the religion itself from the inside out. Unless the theologian is also a scholar of religion and religious insight, and has therefore made a detailed study of the religion, its texts, its history, its laws, its tradition and artifacts, he cannot look its practitioners in the eye when he evaluates the good and ill in it.
We cannot have profound understanding of the religions without dialogue between the religions. Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Buddhism deserve to be studied, not as geographic or cultural entities, but as products of religious insight—and that takes studying them theologically. It is given to the theology faculties of the Christian research universities to preserve and foster the study of the religions. Without such fostering, these great religions will continue be treated within the secular universities as lifeless objects of field-work studies. But they will not die. Rather they will turn into zombies, at war with the world. It must be one of the great peace-building intellectual tasks of the coming century to cultivate the study of the religions of the world within theology.
Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is writing a fortnightly blog on religion.