Title: Religion: History of Religion, Christianity (World Religions Series)
Author: Michael J Stewart
Name of Publisher: Amazon Asia-Pacific Holdings Private Limited
Date of Publication: 6 October 2017
Derived from the Latin word ‘religio’ meaning ‘restraint’ or ‘relegere’ which means ‘to show respect’, religion is a form of social consciousness that has been present since time immemorial. The book defines religion as “a set of beliefs and practices centered around the idea of, and worship of, one or more supernatural powers.” In an age of ever-increasing connectivity where we are more often to come across people of varying cultures and religious practices, this book becomes an important step towards creating an inter faith dialogue to ease tensions and differences. This in turn creates healthy inter- personal relationships that aspires to create a more peaceful world with mutual cooperation.
Beginning with explaining the differences between polytheistic and monotheistic religions, Stewart extends the idea that early religion was only polytheistic as it was nature oriented. Monotheistic religion has a tendency to spread across the world and more modern day religions are monotheistic for their global nature. This is very different from ‘myth’ which is a pre-logical moment of philosophical and scientific awareness. One theory about the origin of myths is ‘Euhemerism’ which is contradicted with personification. Myth is also said to precede religion and philosophy and belongs to a very uncritical stage of human psychological development. Yet, it is an essential part of human civilization seen in the incarnations of Gods in temples of ancient Mesopotamia or the Totemistic beliefs of Egypt.
But with each passing view people have only been seeking the same thing: an attempt to understand where they came from and where they will go to. Archaeological remains have been very helpful in studying all these. The book also explains the various historical events that led to changes in people’s beliefs from the Homeric to the Hellenistic Roman age and then a drastic shift to a modern mechanistic world. Human thought does not exist in the void but in connection to other happenings. A list of Greek Gods with their unique individual attributes is provided in brief. The book charts all major religions like Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Chinese beliefs based on I Ching, Mayans, Aztecs till the coming of monotheism through the Abrahamic league of religions. It is very well researched and chronologically compiled. The sense of balance and sensitivity given to the topic brings an added maturity. Interestingly, Stewart also features the darker sides of human psyche that has put efforts into constructing some occult practices and institutionalizing them under the banner of mass religion such as Satanism, People’s Temple, Heaven’s Gate, Church of Euthanasia and Aum Shinrikyo. On the contrary some parody religions desire to mock spiritual beliefs on the whole and their practices are strangely hilarious.
The inclusivity of the book is commendable. In very few pages it has been able to condense many things under the sun without neither gliding over nor getting caught down in the controversies or arguments that researchers, social scientists and academics usually put forth. It provides a very balanced outlook into the variety of religious thoughts available and doesn’t demean or glorify partially. It is amusing to note the evolution of human thought from the ancient ideas to the present day where religion is gradually and deliberately being replaced by science and technology and any form of religious practice is considered backdated and primitive. Though highly informative, it is a lot to take in all at one time. The book, however, stays away from any sectarian political misunderstandings and tensions existent within most major religions. It also creates room for mutual understanding though one can still remain in disagreement with the others but be at peace together. Yet, Stewart does not seek to validate or negate any ideas no matter how absurd the practices.
Rooted in Israel at the once known cross cultural hub of Judea about 2000 years ago, Christianity originated with Jesus and his faithful group of followers, the Disciples. And how did the followers of the Judaic faith relate to Jesus? The book gives a very detailed idea of the position of the Jews before receiving the message of Christianity and their reaction to it which showed a lot of resistance initially. To them following Jesus meant denying the Mosaic Law.
The turning point is on the road to Damascus when St. Paul has a change of heart as he sees a vision of Jesus face to face. The fall of Jerusalem(70) and Hadrian’s exclusion of the Jews from the city leave a noteworthy decline in the numbers of Jewish Christian community. Each chapter ends with Common Misconceptions About Christianity and Interesting Facts that only go on to shed more light on the topic. If the Choice Were Yours section asks the reader to place themselves in the historical events and question if they would have converted to the new message placed forth by the Messiah. It is thought provoking to wonder about the dilemmas and confusions that people had faced at that time when the religion was relatively new and not in trend, whose principles were highly contested and the plight of those who became Christian at that time.
The book further delineates the development of the early Christian Church and the clashes with the Roman Empire. Positioning itself deeply in the real historical facts, the book comprehends for the urban reader, the cultural context that led to the rise of Orthodox Christianity, the Church of Imperial Byzantium and the relationship between the Church and the State. It also draws on some extreme practices of denominations like Jehovah’s Witness and the differences they have with one another. Though it comes a little later in the book, but the chapter on Jewish culture helps to set things straight chronologically in terms of contextualizing Christianity and the situation in which it had been put. Stewart charts down very well some common misconceptions held about Judaism in the public domain. Similarly, learning more about people in history who defined Christianity and helped take its message forward only shows the global reach that it has received as a message due to those who worked philanthropically in setting up charities besides translating ancient scriptural texts and creating newer Christian literature. Though their work and lives are mentioned in short 10-12 lines passages but it’s an insightful overview.
Christianity found itself in a similar situation (as Judaism had previously) with the rise and spread of Islam. The chapter on the Crusades forms a major turning point in the narrative as the circumstances and situations that set events turning forth are pointed with finesse. It is an honest and fair attempt at trying to explain the difficult situations. Though the ideas are factually apt, however, it is not exhaustive like The Crusades; The War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbridge which is a far more stirring, illustrative and extensively researched account. While Stewart clarifies that the Muslims in no way triggered the Crusades neither were the Christians greedy but it was more about the rising power of the Golden age of Islam that automatically caused an Islamic expansionism and rapid proliferation in terms of astronomy, humanities and other sciences. This age saw the broken down European nations (Dark Ages for them) constantly bickering amongst each other. The constant domination felt by Christianity which was also as relatively new a faith, led to exploits in the Middle East that surprisingly saw Jews and Muslims ally together to defend themselves and their land. Though largely the wars were a counter attack to the expansionist process undertaken by Kurdish leader Saladin but the complicacies of the events and their after math perhaps being felt even today in the ongoing brittle situations of what comprises the modern day Middle East, are not elaborated in detail. Stewart glides through but maintains the unbiased balance that historians ought to keep. Understandably, such a complex topic cannot be done justice to in so few pages. But what Stewart does bring out of it all is that neither was Christianity spread by the sword nor Islam.
With only one life to live and rejecting the idea of reincarnation, it is the afterlife that is held as perpetual and the real goal to be worked towards. The book leaves the reader to decide and dwell on the concepts of Heaven or Hell and whether to believe in them or not. Stewart argues that this ancient faith has withstood the challenges of time and agrees to the existence of one true God and man’s purpose of being put on the Earth is to serve Him. He leaves the final decision to the reader and the book is in no way evangelical, puritanical or cajoling readers to accept its views for the characteristic of true faith is honesty and that should come from the heart’s core. It makes a highly enlightening read for Christians and non-Christians alike.
The bundle as a whole is an enriching read for people of all religious backgrounds, agnostics, atheists, naturalists, conservationists, science buffs, obstinate arguers and definitely to believers of Humanity as the greatest religion.
Click the book cover to grab your copy. Happy reading!