What is Comparative Religion Studies?
An Editorial Note on comparisons:
Calvin: "Hey Dad, know what I figured out? The meaning of words isn't a fixed thing! Any word can mean anything! By giving words new meanings, ordinary English can become an exclusionary code! Two generations can be divided by the same language! To that end, I'll be inventing new definitions for common words, so we'll be unable to communicate. Don't you think that's totally spam? It's lubricated! Well, I'm phasing." Dad: "Marvy. Fab. Far out." --Calvin & Hobbes cartoon.
Comparative religion is a topic of disciplined study of religion on three levels: discovering the outward facts; learning the religious meaning; and drawing generalizations. The first two levels are concerned with the gathering of facts. The challenge to comparative religion is learning what precisely have been and are the doctrines, institutions, and practices, the symbols and patterns, of the world’s various communities. The examiner must also seek to know what these things have meant to the system’s believers. Only at this point can the examiner draw a generalization.
What are the answers to the question of the relative values of religious faiths? There are three possible responses:
One of the religions of man is so incomparably superior that no significant religious truth is found in any of the others which is not present in equal and clearer form within this religion itself.
The relation between religions is that in all important respects they are the same (examples: Golden Rule and Man’s self-centeredness is the source of his troubles)
All religions are not the same, though there is unity in certain respects. Simultaneously, all important truths will not be found in a single tradition. The revelation of God has taken different facets and different forms according to the differences in nature of individual souls and the differences in character of local traditions and societies.
Of these, response #3 is the most measured response and in this response is the most divine truth. In comparison, response #1 is dogmatic and fearful in its path, and response #2 deprives a religious faith of its historical and tribal relevance.
It is possible that one can only truly understand a religious faith when a person has an understanding of both the faith and the religion of the beliefs. Only a “true” believer can reach this point. As an outside observer cannot reach the point of personal belief in all religious faiths, the examiner can instead grasp just a little, and perhaps draw parallels between faiths. Parallels must be drawn with great judgment. Fortunately the core faith is based on universal truths, and the reach can be made.
There are several errors made by those who seek to study religious beliefs that are not of their own. The first is not fully understanding the history of a religious faith. While the individual can escape the past, and live fully in the present, the larger tribe and society is firmly in the grasp of the past. Secondly, assumptions about parallels of belief are more likely to be wrong than right if a full understanding of the faith/history/religious beliefs is not held.
While these difficulties may lay ahead for inquiring mind, the quest is well worth the effort. The unknown is feared the most, and this is true for religions also. To know something about another person’s religion is to fear them less. It is also said that when there is nothing between us and the World, we are closer to God. Our appreciation of our own faith, not necessarily our religion, will grow as we are drawn closer to the faiths that bind believing people to God. Understanding of this nature leads to true love, and conversely love leads to understanding. The student of comparative religious studies is asked both to understand to love, and love to understand. The religious expression of the faith will differ, and the beliefs held as “faith” will vary, but the love in the insight into the pure purpose of faith as a response to God is the reward that the seeker will be given.