January 27, 2020

Norton’s ‘Anthology of World Religions’: Our Prayers Have Been Answered

The publishing house of W.W. Norton is celebrated for the art of the anthology, whether it is a classic like “The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry” or Reza Aslan’s recent groundbreaking collection, “Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes From the Modern Middle East.” Now comes “The Norton Anthology of World Religions,” a work so accomplished that it can be regarded as definitive immediately upon publication.

This two-volume anthology has been master-minded by Jack Miles, its general editor and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “God: A Biography,” among other best-selling books on religion. He has enlisted six leading scholars to curate the writings from six major world religions: David Biale (Judaism), Lawrence S. Cunningham (Christianity), Wendy Doniger (Hinduism), Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Buddhism), Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Islam) and James Robson (Daoism). The selections chosen by these scholars are authoritative and accessible, sometimes surprising and even shocking.

Miles, no less than his collaborators, deserves praise for bringing all of these qualities to “The Norton Anthology of World Religions.” His general introduction, which serves as a kind of map and user’s manual, is deeply informed and yet contains not a whiff of academic pomposity. Quite to the contrary, Miles empowers the reader to treat the anthology as a kind of museum-in-print and invites us to wander the galleries at our pleasure.

“Take the words assembled here as lightly as you wish,” he instructs us.  “A new path begins to open into the consideration of religion when it is regarded as unserious, un-adult — but only in the way that art, poetry, and fiction in all its forms (including the theatrical and the cinematic) are so regarded. They all deal with made-up stuff. And yet will we ever be so adult as to outgrow them?”

Yet, at the same time, the anthology is never lacking in scholarly rigor. Miles, in fact, questions what is meant by terms such as Hinduism or Buddhism, both of which are “abstractions” that originate with Western observers rather than terms used by people who practice these faiths. But he is also aware of the danger of looking on a faith other than our own as something strange and forbidding, and he urges us to use the anthology to enter into astonishingly rich worlds of thought and imagination: “Looking at the religions of others even from the outside but with a measure of openness, empathy, and good will can enable those of any religious tradition or none to see themselves from the outside as well, and that capacity is the very foundation of human sympathy and cultural wisdom.”

Why only six religions? If the short list strikes the reader as too limiting, Miles explains that the decision was made to include only “the six most important major, living, international religions, a rubric in which each of the three italicized words counted.” Even so, none of the religions that satisfied the editorial criteria are monolithic, which may be the whole point of the project. “What is true of the six religions anthologized here may be true of religion in general,” Miles writes. “Just as there is no Hinduism as such but only a polythetic array of practices that may be differently combined, so there may be no religion as such but only a far greater array of practices that, again, may be differently combined….”

Then, too, it would have been impossible to include more than six major religions in only two volumes even if each one is more than 2,000 pages in length. The point is made by Biale in his introduction to the selection of Jewish writings: “Like an ancient worm spinning a gossamer of silk out of itself, Scripture seemingly has the power to produce an infinite range of new expressions.”  The challenge of encompassing Christian ritual and theology in all of its diversity is noted by Cunningham in his comments on the selection of Christian writings: “What is there in common between, say, an austere Quaker meeting, where people sit silently awaiting the Spirit to prompt them to speak, and the gorgeous panoply of a Russian Orthodox liturgy on a feast day?”

The section devoted to Judaism serves as a good example of the astonishing breadth and depth of the anthology in its entirety. Biale starts with pre-biblical writings of the ancient Near East such as the creation story as it appears in the Akkadian text known as the Enuma Elish and ends with a passage about circumcision from Philip Roth’s “The Counterlife.” In between, he offers illuminating samples of the Tanakh and the Talmud, Maimonides and Nahmanides, the Baal Shem Tov as well as Baruch Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn, the Zohar and kabbalistic writings of Isaac Luria, but also the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Alphabet of Ben Sira, the work of Jewish poets ranging from Judah Halevi to Nelly Sachs and Emma Lazarus, the groundbreaking scholarship of Heinrich Graetz and Gershom Scholem, and the modern feminist writings of Rachel Adler and Judith Plaskow, among others. The illustrative examples given above are only a sampling of the 700 pages of Jewish texts that Biale has assembled and annotated.

The same brave eclecticism is found throughout the two volumes of “The Norton Anthology of World Religions.” Kancha Ilaiah’s “Why I Am Not a Hindu” has been included in the section on Hinduism, and Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” appears in the section on Christianity. We are reminded that Lazarus wrote poems other than the one inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. And, importantly, the complexity and diversity of Islamic tradition is emphasized in the selection of Muslim texts: “Like other important scriptural traditions, the Qur’an has generated a vast library of exegetical literature,” McAuliffe writes. “Conflicting interpretations and ideologies compete for the attention of an audience whose demographic midpoint grows younger every year and whose access to new media enables it to ignore borders that constrained older generations.”

Miles himself is aware that his work will be compared to the standard of excellence that has been established by “the venerable family of Norton anthologies.” The fact is that he has not only matched the work of his predecessors. Rather, he and his colleagues have set an entirely new benchmark in “The Norton Anthology of World Religions.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.