The Joy of Sects: A Spirited Guide to the World's Religious Traditions

Article excerpt

A BOOK WITH A TITLE AS CATCHY AS THIS calls for a lively review. Fun is to be had here, to be sure, and I will get to it soon enough, but duty demands that I pull a long face for several lines at least. Occhiogrosso, the man once called "the Studs Terkel of American spirituality," undertakes to give us encyclopedic access not only to the historical origins of the world's great religions (culminating in "the New Age and Beyond," chap. 7), but to their countless past and present manifestations as "sects" (a rough nonpejorative equivalent of "denomination"). Even within the scope of 625 pages, such an ambitious project is bound to result in superficialities and disproportionalities (e.g., the Inquisition gets two pages; boring old Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Methodists get a half page each; Christian Science has two full pages; "channeling," eleven; and "the Goddess," a generous seventeen pages) .

Animating the entire work is the author's admitted "bias toward religious pluralism in general and the nondualistic substratum common to all the great religious traditions in particular" (p. 586). The "substratum" is the "unitive condition" recognized by mystics everywhere that holds that "any sense of a division between oneself and others, between oneself and the material universe, and between oneself and God . . . is an illusion" (p. xvii). What Leibnitz and Aldous Huxley called the "Perennial Philosophy" sets forth as the supreme enlightenment the direct experience of Spirit within each person, leading to an absorption in the Divine which overcomes sin and suffering and results in acts of mercy toward all creatures. Worthy as such outcomes may be, such premises remain eminently dubitable to us who continue to believe that the Creator is wholly other than the creatures, that what we see in our neighbor's face is not the face of God, but a witness to the love and compassion of God, and that in the end, we join the company of the saints in God's presence rather than disappear into the all-encompassing Absolute. …