Back to Index

RELIGION: What is it?

In the latest issue of Stanford, President John Hennessy, a thoughtful, broadminded individual, makes a plea for the humanities, a generous plea since he is an electrical engineer. However, he singles out French, disregarding the continuous civil or incivil war among the language groups, near unanimity being reached only in resentment at the claim of French to have a special cultural status. Indeed, the term "humanities" is a label on a can of worms, history having proclaimed that it was a social science, not a humanity.Then, with the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities, it announced its primacy among them.

I would suggest the primacy of comparative religion, defining religion as an attempt to answer the questions "What is life all about ?" and consequently "How must I behave?". "Religion" is another label on a can of worms. or rather of ammunition, as events in the Middle East remind us. The Christmas--Epiphany season is a good time to ponder this. My passion was great ecclesiastical architecture and I visited many great European churches, where there was normally an open Bible on a lectern. I would go up to it and read the page at which it was opened. My comment often was "weird stuff". While fundamentalist Christians believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, the Catholic Church has a lectionary of those passages fit for reading.

It does not go far enough. At the Vatican ceremony at which Pope John Paul II closed the Holy Door, there was a reading from Isaiah 60, presumably viewed as a prophecy of the Three Kings, except that it about tribute to a powerful state, not to a helpless child. Here is part of the passage from Isaiah: "The multitude of camels shall cover thee,; the dromedaries will bring gold and incense. For bronze I will bring gold, and for iron I will bring silver". This does not fit into my definition of religion. The epiphany turns the story on its head and seems like a parody of it. No wonder the Jews were incensed (! burning with wrath).

Confucianism is often denied the label of religion, yet it certainly offers a code of conduct compatible with. Christianity. Indeed, some Eastern Christian leaders such as Ebina Danzo said it should be incorporated into Christianity. There is much interest among WAISers in these subjects. Hungarian-born Steve Torok spend some time in Japan, where he made a study comparing Zen Buddhism with the philosophy of Kant. Stanford`s new Dean of Religious Life, Scotty McLennan, has just arrived. We welcome him as bringing strength to the religious ecumenism of Stanford. There is even an Associate Dean who is muslim. A final note: I started out as a Professor of French and possessed the many-volume series by Nyrop on the history of the French language. Reading it did little for my soul. Would the real Humanity please stand up?

Ronald Hilton - 1/07/01