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Two Comments on Professor King's Article

Professor King's article ends without a summarizing conclusion, virtually inviting the reader to make an immediate response to the challenges he sets forth. While preparing this article for publication, two readers have done so, and their comments appear below. Thomas J. J. Altizer is Associate Professor of Bible and Religion at Emory University, the author of Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961) and of the forthcoming Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred, to be published by the Westminster Press. Harry M. Buck is Associate Professor of Bible and Religion at Wilson College and Managing Editor of The Journal of Bible and Religion.


W e are fortunate to have Professor King's lucid statement of the practical difficulties posed by the teaching of the history of religions, and I rejoice that he has chosen to emphasize the possibility of empathy, encounter, and comparison. In this brief note I should simply like to point to the further possibility of relating such encounter to the actual situation, conscious or unconscious, of the student. For I believe that the real problem posed by the student is not that he is simply ignorant of religion, but rather that he is for the most part closed to the possibility of a genuinely religious experience. His very immersion in a post-Christian age has dissolved or suspended his religious sensibility with the result that religion has become for him an alien phenomenon which poses neither a conscious threat nor a vital attraction. Not even in the South have I encountered a single student who has been hostile to the non-Christian religions. Furthermore the majority of students have been so effectively inoculated against their own religious heritage that it is almost impossible to excite their interest in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In this situation, the very alien quality of the non-Christian religions poses the possibility of significant religious communication between student and teacher if only because religion here assumes a new and exotic form. Again, we must always keep in mind the fact that the great revolutionary movements of our time have had at least an unconscious effect upon our students. If the traditional Western ideas of God, person, history, and nature are now in process either of dissolution or of transformation, then our students will not be capable of a true response to a faith that speaks through these categories (and here I am speaking of Western theology and not of the Bible itself). The Oriental religions have for the most part never employed such categories, and for this reason they offer the possibility of engaging the student's latent religious sensibility. W e should not be surprised at the great effect which Zen Buddhism can have upon our students (I have yet to meet a student who is incapable of responding to Zen). For it offers a "religious" way which has no apparent contact with anything that they have known as "religion." Moreover the student who is in any way undergoing the existential Angst which is almost an initiation rite of our time will almost inevitably be attracted to the radically world-dissolving, world-opposing, or world-transforming expressions of



Oriental mysticism. Surely it is not accidental that J. D. Salinger followed his early portrait of adolescent torment with a cycle of Zen stories. Thus by confronting the contemporary student with Oriental mysticism the teacher of religion can open himself to both the pain and the joy of his student, and thereby share that interior world which is so effectively closed to the probing of "academic" inquiry. But if we are to embark upon this voyage, we must be prepared ourselves to lose what little religious meaning may be left us and approach the non-Christian religions as either an oasis or a mirage upon that great religious desert which our history has become.


Both Professor King and Professor Altizer have stressed the problem of communicating a religious dimension to students estranged from their own heritage. "New religions," says Professor King, "are born out of old ones." They are indeed, and as King points out, whether they are perversions of the parent faiths or not, there they are. It is not enough to show simply their genesis. Buddhism and Christianity in a sense can be regarded as perversions of Hinduism and Judaism respectively, but this is not all they are. To say this, however, is the beginning of a diagnosis, not the prescription of a remedy. Professor Altizer moves another step in his perceptive observation that modern students are closed to the possibility of a genuinely religious experience, and hence unable to find the necessary empathy to understand more than superficial facts about a faith which can command wholehearted commitment from its devotees. But why are they so estranged, and, more specifically, what shall we do about it? The problem is one both of methodology and pedagogy. W e may have been attempting to relate them to something which has no viability. When we teachers of religion talk about "a religion," we usually refer to a tradition, including a set of values, a way of life, and frequently a body of doctrine — all more or less definable, at least distinct enough for outsiders to distinguish one religion from another. Religion, however, is never lived in systems. Men live out their faiths in terms of rapidly changing environments. The definitions and descriptions we are prone to communicate to our students are not religion where and as it is lived whenever it has been a vital dimension of human society. What we usually communicate is knowledge about systems, and we can scarcely hope for more than the memorization of verbal definitions. As Dr. King points out, the terms we attempt to define have meaning only in a total frame of reference, the matrix which gives validity to a religious system. Dharma, karma, and samsara cannot be defined. Nor can they be identified simply as terms peculiar to Hinduism or Buddhism. They are basic components of the matrix of South Asian thought, from which both of these systems sprang. In similar manner, American Protestant Christianity is a religious complex, combining the religious system of Christianity — or, more accurately, the sub-system of Protestantism — a historically identifiable tradition, with the environment of life in the Western Hemisphere. It is a unique combination, but it is not permanent. Even in the last decade the environment has changed profoundly, and to attempt to maintain the former complex without adjustment



as though it were the very system of faith itself is to invite fossilization. Such a faith will eventually become as extinct as the dinosaur, and for the same reason: it could not cope with changes in its environment. All religious complexes in the world are faced with a similar situation. Our task, therefore, as historians of religion, is not simply to dispense information about ancient systems but to open up avenues of creative interchange in the contemporary world as well. Probably no religion in its present form is completely adequate to the demands of today's world, and right here is the challenge to those who study and teach in this area. I am thankful for Professor King's penetrating analysis of our problem. If basic considerations are kept in mind, his pedagogical method can carry us far in the fulfillment of our task.