The Religions of Man

Huston Smith, 1958 (Harper and Row Inc. New York)

     This renowned book, which is written in as simple a language as its subject permits, develops a section to each of the following religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism,  Judaism, and Christ-ianity. In addition, at the end of each section, the author provides a list of recommended readings on that religion.

     Besides its history, its theology, and its founding personality (if there was one), the author traces the beginning of the religion right through to its present day theology and philosophy. This article presents a summary of  what the author says about the beginnings of Christianity.

     Basically, Christianity is an historical religion. That is to say, it is not founded primarily on universal principles but in concrete events--actual historical happenings. The most important of these is the life of a little known Jewish carpenter who was born in a stable, died at the age of thirty three as a criminal rather than as a hero, never travelled more than ninety miles from his birthplace, owned nothing, attended no college, marshalled no army, and, instead of producing books, did his only writing in the sand! Nevertheless his birthday is kept across the world and his death day sets a gallows against every skyline. Who then, was he?

     When we try to pin down the biographical details of Jesus life we are immediately stuck--and disappointed by how little information is available. We do not know what he looked like, and when we pass from physiognomy to biography, solid information is again surprisingly scant. We know that he was born in Palestine during the reign of Herod the Great, probably around 4 B.C. He grew up in or near Nazareth, presumably after the fashion of the normal Jew of the times. He was baptised by John, a dedicated prophet who was electrifying the region with his proclamation of God's coming judgment. In his early thirties he had a teaching-healing career, focussed largely in Galilee, which lasted no more than three years. In time, he incurred the hostility of some of his compatriots and also the suspicions of Rome, which led to his execution by crucifixion on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

     These come close to being all the undisputed facts of Jesus' career that we have. One cannot relate them without sensing how unimportant such facts really are when taken by themselves. To see the stature of his life and its historical moment we must turn to the
kind of person he was, the quality and power of his life. Here, fortunately, we are on much firmer ground, for though, as John Knox said, the gospels do not succeed in fully revealing Jesus, they are utterly unable to conceal him. Whatever may be lacking in our picture of Jesus, we know more than enough to characterize him as a person of strange and incomparable greatness. Out of obscurity, he steps forth in heroic dimensions. He belonged to first century Palestine. It produced him but it cannot explain him.

     No man in history has been more exalted since his death--but it is important to remember that no generation has exalted Jesus more than did his own, the generation of Peter, James, and Paul.

     What was there in this life that forced those who knew it best to come to the conclusion that it was divine? The answer takes three parts--what he did, what he said, and what he was.

     As Peter put it simply, "
He went about doing good." Easily and without self-consciousness, he moved among the dregs of his society, prostitutes and tax extortionists. Healing, helping people out of the chasms of despair, counselling them in their crises, he went about doing good. He went about doing it with such single-mindedness and effectiveness in fact that the people that were with him from day to day found their estimate of him modulating to a new category. They found themselves thinking that if God is pure goodness, if he were to take human form, then this is how he would act.

     It was not only what Jesus did, however, that made his contemporaries think of him in new dimensions. It was also what he said.

     There has been a great deal of controversy over the originality of Jesus teachings. Possibly the most balanced view is that of the great Jewish scholar, Klausner. If you take the teachings of Jesus separately, he wrote, you can find every one of them parallelled in either the Old Testament or its commentary, the Talmud. If, on the other hand, you take them as a whole, they have an urgency, an ardent vivid quality, an abandon, and, above all, a complete absence of second rate material that makes them refreshingly new.

     The language of Jesus is, in fact, a fascinating study in itself, quite apart from its content. If simplicity, concentration, and the sense of what is vital are marks of great religious literature, these qualities alone would make Jesus' words immortal. But this is just the beginning. They carry an extravagance of which wiser men, mindful of capacity for balanced judgment, are incapable. Indeed, their passionate quality has led one poet to coin a special word for Jesus' language, calling it "gigantesque." If your hand offends you, cut it off. If you eye stands between you and the best, gouge it out. Jesus is always talking about things like camels going through needles' eyes, about men who fastidiously strain the gnats from their drink while oblivious of the camels humping down their gullet. His characters go round with timbers protruding from their eyes while looking for tiny specks in the eyes of their neighbors.

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