Comparative religion

Comparative religion is very comparative indeed.  That is, it is so much a matter of degree and distance and difference that it is only comparatively successful when it tries to compare. When we come to look at it closely we find it comparing things that are really quite incomparable.  We are accustomed to see a table or catalogue of the world’s great religions in parallel columns, until we fancy they are really parallel.  We are accustomed to see the names of the great religious founders all in a row: Christ; Mahomet; Buddha; Confucius.  But in truth this is only a trick, another of these optical illusions by which any objects may be put into a particular relation by shifting to a particular point of sight. Those religions and religious founders, or rather those whom we choose to lump together as religions and religious founders, do not really show any common character.  The illusion is partly produced by Islam coming immediately after Christianity in the list; as Islam did come after Christianity and was largely an imitation of Christianity.  But the other eastern religions, or what we call religions, not only do not resemble the Church but do not resemble each other.  When we come to Confucianism at the end of the list, we come to something in a totally different world of thought. To compare the Christian and Confucian religions is like comparing a theist with an English squire or asking whether a man is a believer in immortality or a hundred-per-cent American.  Confucianism may be a civilisation but it is not a religion.

In truth the Church 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 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.  It is quite true that not all of them have left their country for their country’s good. 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. For there really have been historians who explained the Crusades by suggesting that the Germans were found wandering (as the police say) in what happened to be the neighbourhood of Palestine.  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 its imitation in 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.

The Everlasting Man (1925).

Published in: on April 22, 2009 at 7:21 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. A-MEN!

    After reading Joseph Campbell, I was so struck by the absurdity of comparative mythology. Sure, you can derive similarities from similar things, but when you have to downplay the important and historical parts of a certain religion in order to make it fit your scheme and then openly admit that the religion is making “nonsensical” leaps that don’t fit the Grand Unified Theory of Religion, you’re off your rocker.

    What I would like to see is a serious discipline of “differential mythology” or “differential religion”: looking at the instructive differences between religions and beliefs.

  2. Would love to hear your comments and ideas regarding this post and clip:

    http://loga-abdullah.blogspot.com/2009/11/10-reasons.html

  3. I know this sounds absurd but take a peek before yourself before you Judge Joseph Campbell is alive and reincarnted check his FB page he’s proving it and all truths! Don’t belive he’s campbell then look no further than the explanation he gives on his FB page January 2nd. Still don’t belive look at his website (popculturetao.com) Check the “Miracle Page”. His new Name is Mikese Morse he has a non private FB pg, and Mikese Morse was born the day Joseph Campbell died 10/30/87.


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