Religion as We Know It: An Origin Story
Miles (God: A Biography
), emeritus professor of religious studies at the University of California at Irvine, asks readers in this shrewd analysis to consider not only religion “as we know it” but also how the definition of the word religion
shapes a collective understanding of it. Miles argues that early Christians’ separation of religious adherence from ethnicity and culture was a novel reconceptualization—one that Medieval European Christians, Jews, and Muslims turned into a lens for understanding other religions, even as it distorted them. Secularization and the introduction of new critical fields, such as “Sanskrit Studies,” in the 18th and 19th centuries allowed European and American thinkers to frame a discipline of comparative world religions in which “the religiously unknown and therefore incomparable” could “become known and comparable.” In Miles’s estimation, these frameworks for scholarship established by Western academics were insufficient for understanding many world religions, and he argues that current global standards for scholarship are still based on this limited foundation. Miles also positions the co-operation of Buddhist, Daoist, and Hindu leaders at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions as a watershed moment for a scholarship built on these flawed concepts—revealing the dominance of Western conceptions of religion that persists in religious studies. Miles’s provocative thesis is powerful and unsettling. Any student of theology will be enlightened by this deeply satisfying work. (Nov.)
Correction: An earlier version of this review listed an incorrect subtitle for the author's previous book.