Sunday, June 3, 2012

Higher Religions

By higher religions I mean religions designed to bring human beings into direct communion with absolute spiritual Reality as individuals, in contrast to earlier forms of religion that have brought them only into indirect communion with It through the medium of the particular society in which they have happened to be participants.
     [Arnold Toynbee, in A Study of History, Vol. XII]

Toynbee’s governing image of civilization was progressive in character, thus he imagined each cycle of civilization as yet another attempt at achieving a kind of transcendence; each one, thus far, has fallen short, but in the end, perhaps… This view then produced the notion that later civilization are in some ways an advancement on their “parents,” and that the higher religions arise relatively late in known history. Our own western religion, Christianity, would then seem to be a “first generation” higher religion because Zeus and Juno, let’s call it the Olympian religion, did not make Toynbee’s list—but we are the spawn of the Graeco-Roman.

He contrasted the “higher” to the “primitive” religions, thus essentially nature-worship. But his list of higher religions, in A Study of History, goes far enough back (to Tammuz coupled with Inanna in Babylonia, to Osiris coupled with Isis in Egypt) so that the category becomes almost meaningless. His much later list, in An Historian’s Approach to Religion, includes Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, both Buddhisms (Hinayana and Mahayana), Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Interesting listing. What strikes me about it is that all but one had a founding figure known by name; the exception is Hinduism; at the source of Hinduism we find only Vedic hymns. Toynbee would have had some trouble excluding Hindusim, but since worshippers of Tammuz and Osiris are hard to find, those two, along with others equally obscure, have been purged from the surviving list. Or was Toynbee intent only on naming still living religions?

A basic problem arises when we attempt to relate events in this dimension to human beliefs that transcend this realm. Therefore to view religion as a progressive phenomenon produces puzzlement for me. Maybe all religions are “higher”—as all children in Lake Wobegone are “above average.” Maybe in seeking the founders of primitive religions we are looking at shamans—who could not write and therefore their revelations are lost in the mists of time.

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