Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Religions of history, nature and contemplation

Roland Bainton, The Penguin History of Christianity (volume 1, 1967), 9:
Judaism is a religion of history and as such may be contrasted with both religions of nature and religions of contemplation. Religions of nature discover God in the surrounding universe; for example, in the orderly course of the heavenly bodies, or more frequently in teh recurring cycle of withering and resurgence of vegetation. This cycle is interpreted as the dying and rising of a god in whose experience the devotee can sgare through various ritual acts, and thus become divine and immortal. For such a religion the past is not important, since the cycle of teh seasons is the same one year as the next. Religions of contemplation, at the other pole, regard the physical world as an impediment to the spirit which, abstracted from the things of sense, must rise by contemplation to union with the divine. The sense of time itself is to be transcended, so that here again history is of no import. But religions of history, like Judaism, discover God "in his mighty acts among the children of men". Such a religion is a compound of memory and hope. It looks backward to what God has already done ... [and it] looks forward with faith: remembrance is a reminder that God will not forsake his own.
When you look at it like that (insightfully expressed, I'd say) it's quite surprising that it is the religion of history -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam -- that have so dominate human life. Because the problematic is quite a large one: if God intervenes in human history at a certain point in time, what about all the people who happened to be born and die before then? Religions of nature and contemplation can embrace them easily; religions of history must necessarily come to terms with the ruthlessness of history. History, after all, is famously a winners' discourse; what about the losers? Calling them (say) virtuous pagans, or pretending they simply don't exist, jars awkwardly with Christian and Islamic emphases on the excluded, the underdog and the poor.

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