Religious Eclecticism

By Gottlieb, Roger S. | Tikkun, July/August 1999 | Go to article overview

Religious Eclecticism


Gottlieb, Roger S., Tikkun


Religious Eclecticism

Roger S. Gottlieb

The Illustrated Book of Sacred Scriptures, by Timothy Freke. Quest Books, 1998.

This is a lovely collection of selections from a wide range of the world's scriptures, superbly illustrated with exquisite religious artwork, and intelligently grouped and introduced by the editor. Timothy Freke divides religious concerns into fourteen major groupings (God, the Path, Love and Service, etc.) and for each category offers thirty to forty excerpts from virtually all of the "major" world religions, some mystical sects, and a few indigenous traditions.

While the splendid quality of the presentation makes this book a delight, Freke's orientation to the world of the spirit raises some perplexing questions. His position-that "at the core of" their seeming differences, world religions share a common set of beliefs, values, and experiences-is common nowadays, but too often unexamined.

The great virtue of such religious eclecticism is that it allows people of different faiths to stop murdering, envying, or looking down on each other. It helps people to learn not only what is different about each faith, but also how what is different might be of value. The Christian-Buddhist dialogue of recent years has enabled the West to profit from the sophisticated concepts of Buddhist psychology; the Dalai Lama has studied Judaism to find out how religious traditions can be maintained in exile.

Freke's own suggestion that we try to interchange religious idioms is creative and engaging. Reading "God" for "Way" in the Tao Te Ching's signature claim that "The Way that can be spoken of is not the true Way," for instance, is provocative to both classical monotheists and non-theistic Taoists. Similarly, to suggest that all religions reflect a universal human situation can help us appreciate that Sikhs and Buddhists, just like Gnostic Christians or Moslems, utilize their traditions to face birth and death, ethical problems, and the search for spiritual truth.

Yet religious eclecticism is not without its pitfalls, and Sacred Scriptures exemplifies some of them. For instance, in the attempt to characterize the "core" which all traditions share, one or two religions are typically taken as normative and used to define what "sacred scriptures" say in a given area; ways in which non-normative religious perspectives fail to conform are glossed over. Thus Freke's assertion that the "ultimate" religious question concerns the nature of God simply misses how Buddhism centers on the psychological problem of human suffering. …

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