December 7, 2019

Digging Into the Roots of Religion

“Religion As We Know It: An Origin Story” by Jack Miles (Norton) is modest in length, only 152 pages, but literally cosmic in its aspirations. Indeed, Miles aspires to answer the ultimate questions of religion: How does religion differ, if it does at all, from other kinds of “human activity” such as business, politics, warfare, art, law, sport, science, “or even entertainment”? 

Or, to put the same question in another way, Miles points out that each religion comes with its own primal myth, and he asks: “What is the origin story behind all these origin stories, and how far back in human evolution must we go to find it?”

The questions he asks and seeks to answer, as Miles readily acknowledges, are potentially “explosive” and “disruptive” precisely because they invite us to imagine that religion can be understood as yet another example of human invention rather than a supernatural truth imposed on humanity from above. Intriguingly, and ironically, he describes the Christian act of “abstracting Jewish religious ideas from the rich and complex Jewish way of life” — as the beginning of “a full-fledged distinction between the religious and the secular.”

Miles himself is a towering figure in American letters and, especially, in the study of religion. Starting with the Pulitzer Prize-winning “God: A Biography” in 1995, and continuing with “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God” (2002) and “God in the Qur’an” (2018),” Miles has come to serve as the Boswell to the Almighty’s Johnson. (Significantly, the Pulitzer was awarded in the category of “biography or autobiography.”) He taught religion at the Irvine campus of the University of California for many years, and, most recently, he held the 2018-19 Corcoran Visiting Chair in Christian-Jewish Relations at Boston College. And he continues to serve as the general editor of “The Norton Anthology of World Religions,” a multi-volume work in which most of “Religion as We Know It” first appeared as a general introduction. 

For centuries, the Western world recognized only four faiths — Christianity, Judaism, Islam and “Paganism.”

Yet Miles wears his learning lightly, and he invites all to partake of the conversation. “Strictly speaking,” he quips, “there is no entrance requirement for the study of religion.” He points out “[t]he inconvenient truth that no definition of religion now enjoys general acceptance,” and he quotes the “wry or rueful” title of a recent article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion: “Religions: Are There Any?” A former Jesuit seminarian, he acknowledges the divide that separates the believer from the scholar: “The term religion itself … may not be of much practical utility to the practitioner of any one of the traditions.”

Above all, he insists that every religion is essentially a moving target. “Every major religion has contained multiple versions of itself both over time and at any given time,” he 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.” Perhaps the best example is found in the intimate linkages in the origins of Judaism and Christianity, which were finally broken only when the first Christians argued that “their own Jewish religiosity [was] distinguishable from their Jewish culture and ethnicity” and Jews argued that “Jewish religiosity and Jewish ethnicity are one and indistinguishable.”

Our notion of “world religions” is purely modern, as Miles points out. For centuries, the Western world recognized only four faiths — Christianity, Judaism, Islam and “Paganism,” a catch-all term for the beliefs and practices that Western explorers, conquerors and settlers encountered in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Only in 1773, with the publication of an encyclopedia that Miles calls “the direct ancestor of ‘The Norton Anthology of World Religions,’ ” did Westerners open their eyes to what people in the rest of the world believed and practiced. The encyclopedia was titled “Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World,” and Miles sees in its pages “a pioneering openness and breadth of vision.”

“All religions resemble each other in something,” wrote Jean Frederic Bernard, one of its co-authors. “How beautiful it would be … to make people with an overly opinionated character understand that with the help of charity one finds everywhere brothers.”

Miles, who earned a doctorate at Harvard University in Near Eastern language and is fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic, emphasizes that the recovery of ancient languages and literatures played a crucial role in our understanding of the origins of modern religion. “[S]ince the Bible is an anthology produced over a millennium,” he explains, “it enabled illuminating comparisons of key motifs in Hebrew mythology with their counterparts in other ancient Near Eastern mythologies.” Yet, at the same time, scholarship was a threat to true belief “because though it corroborated the historicity of some biblical events, it undermined that of others.”

As if to remind us that religion can be a danger, Miles briefly ponders the Jewish movement known as the Haskalah, which resulted in the social, cultural and political liberation of Jews in many European countries during the 18th century. The so-called Maskilim, as the participants in the Jewish enlightenment were known, included Jewish scholars who entered the secular study of religion. Even as the Haskalah represented a turn away from “oppressive and once inescapable social restriction and confinement,” however, the ancient religious hatreds were only concealed and not eliminated.

“The dynamic entry of Europe’s Jews not just into the European study of religion but also into many other areas of European life brought about a massive backlash in the late nineteenth century, then the Nazi genocide in the twentieth, the post-World War II triumph of Zionism, and belatedly, among other consequences, a distinct mood of remorse and repentance in late twentieth-century European Christianity,” Miles writes.

Miles suggests various answers to the fundamental questions that he raises at the outset of his book, but he declines to give us the answer. “Religion seems to me to bear one aspect when considered as a special claim of knowledge,” he concludes, “and quite another aspect when considered as a special acknowledgment of ignorance.” In such modesty, we find his real wisdom.

“Religion As We Know It: An Origin Story” is available on Amazon. 


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