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World Religion- A Few Basics




A few notes from Huston Smith's lecture Religions of the World:


The world's religions divide themselves into 4 groups or families-

The Western family or Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam

South Asain- Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism.

East Asian: Taoism, Confuciansim, East Asian Buddhism, Shinto

Primal (or tribal or oral) religions: no writing or sacred texts.


How religions view time-

Western: time is linear.

Asian: time is cyclical.

Primal: time is eternal or timeless.


What religions emphasize:

South Asian religions concentrate on the psychological question.

East Asian religions concentrate on the social problem.


Chinese religion compared to Western exclusivity:


"Let me mention a third point that illustrates the Chinese social emphasis. And this has to do with the way they fitted their religions together. If we think of our major religions in the west- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam- they are all exclusive of one another. If we were going to diagram them, why we might think of Judaism as a square, Christianity a circle, and Islam as a triangle. Well, you can put these together so they touch one another but they don't integrate. Whereas traditions in China- Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism as they imported it- fit together very differently. They fit together more like a jigsaw [puzzle] so they really do fit together. Traditionally every Chinese was a Confucianist, a Taoist, and a Buddhist at the same time... There was no conflict because on state occasions... everybody was a Confucianist. When disease fell they would turn to the Taoists... And then when death comes, that's the time for the Buddhist priest."


Judaism's underdog beginnings:


"...the Western idea of progress as having derived from the Jews who in their formative period were underdogs. As I say, neither of the other two families of religions had their formative outlook forged by underdogs. In the case of India, the outlook was forged by Brahmans who were at the top of the social heap. And in China it was the literati- those who could read- and the scholars who likewise were at the top of the social heap. ... If one is a member of the ruling class ...then there is no great urge to look to the future because things are already rather satisfactory... But with the Jews, as I mentioned, it was quite otherwise. They were always in a state of expectation, one of the symbols being they wanted to cross over into Jordan. ... It was this expectation of a better future, which as I say in Jewish theology crystalized in the doctrine of Messianism - the coming of a Messiah."


Primal religion and porous divisions:


"What distinguishes Primal religion is the absence of sharp divisions within the world and their experience of it. It is as if the lines that divide one thing from another... are perforated. They are not so severe, so sharp in dividing as we tend to make them...." For example, "the dividing line between the human and the rest of nature is perforated... humans can turn into animals and vice versa."






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