Unity In Diversity - Essays in religion by members of the faculty of the Unification Theological Seminary - Edited by Henry O. Thompson - 1984

What Every Religion Needs -- Jan Knappert

The history of religion shows that religions have a number of aspects, qualities or properties in common, which help them to survive. When examining these common qualities I discovered that they were numerous and complex. I will here discuss a number of them briefly. I have started from a wide base, drawing on not only the history of some of the Christian churches, but also Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as the African and Indonesian religions that I have studied.1 We shall end with the question: what does a religion require in the future of the modern world, where there is strong competition from secular ideologies? I believe that the militant attitudes of old religions now work against them.

A. First and foremost, all religious leaders must keep in mind that religion is for man as well as for God. In other words, the leaders must not rule their community as if only God needed to be pleased. Men are no longer slaves. They can vote with their feet in a religion where there is too much discipline and not enough communication. Churches have to be more careful than in the days when men of different opinions could be burned at the stake. Only a few can still defy public opinion in the world by executing apostates.

B. Religious leaders often hope that their religion will become a world religion. By sending missionaries to the far corners of the world they hope to achieve this, often even before their nuclear community has been consolidated. In the past, great numbers of converts were often made by conquest and by high birthrate. Modern religious groups should rely rather on the zeal of their members and the good example of their leaders.

1. The Genesis of a Religion

A new religion may be born from contact between the deity and the man (on rare occasions a woman) who has been chosen to receive and divulge the first knowledge of the new religion. Thus Yahweh spoke to Moses, Allah to Muhammad,2 and Vishnu to Manu in early India.3 In each of these cases the initiative was taken by the deity, the prophet was chosen as worthy and capable of the task, and the contents of the revelation were entirely determined by the deity. In these cases also, the revelation resulted in laws, a code of behavior for the society in which these prophets lived. There was also a nation in statu nascendi although the Jewish, Arabian and Indian tribes might not be described as nations in our sense of the term today. The prophet rallied disparate fragments of tribes and created a nation by means of a new religion, law and political structure. Moses and Muhammad, at least, were political leaders who created and maintained the unity of their respective groups. All three of these prophets were also law-givers, with rules for life, of which the Ten Commandments may be the best known. In those days, law had to be divinely formulated and ordained.

God may take the initiative by calling (the Arabic word originally meant 'awakening') his prophet to fulfill his mission. The Lord showed a sign of his revelation on the persons of some of his prophets. Moses, Muhammad and Guru Nanak are said to have radiated the divine light, so that all men could see that the light of God had come to dwell among them.

2. The Founder's Image

The founder of a religion may never forget that his followers will believe him to be their own channel of information from God to themselves on earth where they are walking in darkness. He should be seen and heard every day by his followers for whom he is the only 'window to Heaven,' and that not only for as long as he walks on this earth. Moses and Aaron were amidst their people day and night. Jesus could be seen, heard and touched by the multitudes and he let the children come near him. The Prophet Muhammad could invariably be found in his mosque at Medina, praying, preaching or explaining the word of God to the circle of his followers who would always be there listening and memorizing. Thanks to this, many followers of Muhammad knew his teachings by heart and could recite them 20 years later when the Koran was finally compiled in writing. The hadith, the tradition of Muhammad's sayings (sunna) was also compiled entirely on the basis of what followers remembered. The Christian Gospels were composed from the reports of those who had seen and heard Jesus and memorized his words, according to modern scholars. Confucius traveled widely, teaching in many towns of China, after which he returned to his native Lu in Shantung, to teach until he died in 479 B.C. His writings are believed to have been preserved in the Chinese classics in which he set out his philosophy.

The Buddha preached in the populous city of Benares. He was usually followed by a crowd of listeners. To have a following, leaders must be heard and seen, and that applies to religious leaders as well as to political leaders. Hermits have found admirers, even imitators, but they never founded a religion. No missionary can make converts without teaching and preaching, and giving people a feeling of togetherness.

A modern example of such religious leadership is Mahatma Gandhi, the creator of India as a modern nation. He was always ready to speak with friends, to receive visitors, to mingle even with the humblest of his followers for he considered himself as one of them. In addition, he wrote numerous articles in which his philosophy can be found, set out very clearly in English as well as his native Gujerati, and in Hindi.4

3. Preaching And Teaching

When a prophet has received a revelation, he tells it to his people. Confucius, Buddha, and Guru Nanak traveled around their countries, preaching and teaching. The messages of Confucius and Buddha were exceptions to the above in that they were not inspired by any divine revelation, nor does a deity function in their doctrine. In the case of Jesus, many Christians believe that he was himself an incarnation of the divine spirit, like Rama and Krishna whom their followers believe to be incarnations of Vishnu. The question is a crucial one since the justification of their authority may stand or fall with the belief in their inspiration. Buddha's philosophy and that of Confucius were to be accepted purely on the basis of merit. To aid their work, several founders chose amongst their followers a man or a number of men who would act as their deputies and successors. Buddha and Jesus were surrounded by an inner circle of disciples who carried their teaching to distant peoples. This was vital for the survival of their religions, for neither religion survives on a large scale in the founder's native land.

For preaching and teaching, a good command of language is vital and several of the languages of the world's prophets have become classical and are studied by theologians today, especially Hebrew, Arabic, Sanskrit, Pali, Gurmukhi (the language of the Sikh scriptures), Avestan, (the language of the Parsee scriptures), and classical Chinese, the language of the ancient philosophers of China, such as Confucius. One of the important instruments for the survival of Christianity was the diligence of its translators. Before the end of the Roman Empire, translations of the Gospel existed in Latin, Syriac, Gothic and Coptic. But better than any tools are the builders of the church, for they are the workers whose edifice will stand for centuries. They are the apostles, the disciples who themselves became masters and taught His word to the nations.

4. Priests, Preachers And People

A religion is destined to be embraced by the broad masses of the people, rather than being a philosophy for scholars alone. The founder of the religion, the one who had the original inspiration for it, does not want it to die with him. He will then have to think of and prepare in time, three things: a successor, or a group of disciples, a method of training them, and a textbook. The Prophet Muhammad did not prepare any of these, and the effect was nearly disaster: three of his successors were assassinated (Omar, Uthman and Ali) and the text of the Koran was almost lost before it was committed to writing nearly twenty years after the Prophet's death. The training of the 'spreaders of the faith' was a problem that took even longer to solve. However, Islam spread mainly through military conquests and the travels of Muslim merchants and through migration. Islam is now the third largest religion in the United States, largely the result of migration. There are over 20,000 Muslims in Korea. The faith there stems from Turkish soldiers in the armies of the United Nations in the Korean war. Guru Nanak (1469-1539 A.D.) appointed a successor, Guru Angad. He gave Angad the manuscripts of his writings, including prayers, hymns and rules for life. He had already made converts across the width of India. His community, the Sikh Khalsa, needed a good organization in the years of persecution in the Moghul Empire (1526-1857 A.D.) which had only just been founded. The Sikh community is well organized in local committees supervised by a manji or episcopal court in provincial headquarters.5

A religion may require a special class of priests, recruited by birth like the Brahmins of Hinduism, or by training and ordaining, like the Catholic priests. They function in a ritualistic religion as the ceremonial intermediaries between their flock and the deity. They call the faithful to prayer and remind them of the teachings.

5. The Preachers, The Pillars Of The Church

The young Methodist Church was successful because it provided spiritual uplift to the uneducated poor in the squalid cities of England. More than a century later, the young socialists were successful with the same methods: preaching to the lowest classes, giving them new hope, a sense of purpose and a feeling of their own worth. This could be done through education. Earlier the Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands realized at its foundation in the 16th Century that it needed many ministers and so it organized their education at the highest available level. Still today, its ministers are true scholars. Earlier still the Christians had been successful in the Roman Empire because the lowest classes, the slaves and proletarians, were won over with new knowledge. Teaching the masses to raise their spirit can be done through a group of preachers and teachers who combine dedication to the cause of the underprivileged with a very high standard of education. The Islamic preachers that I have met are all real scholars. The same is true for most of the many Christian missionaries I met in Africa. Socialist and Communist propagandists that I have heard are all highly educated.

In order to preach to the masses, teach the new converts, educate their children, debate with opponents, argue with the authorities, the leaders of the church need the highest level of education, the most sophisticated form of scholarship. I have seen simple people in small towns reach in their own pockets, add penny to penny, in order to send one of their sons to a university so that he might come back and become their spiritual leader, explain the Scriptures to them, and enlighten his fellow townsmen. That is the best method to further the cause of one's religion. The success of a religion depends on the organization of its local and supra-local communities, and good organization depends on devoted, well-educated leaders, the preachers and pastors who must maintain contact between themselves, their parishes and each other.

6. The Books: Doctrine, Law And The Community

New religions often fix rules of conduct or establish a philosophy for their community. These may be written down as texts in a codebook. Frequently it is the community, the believers themselves, who ask their leaders what they must do. How to pray and how to marry, how to conduct a funeral service and how to divide an inheritance are but a few of their questions. Are all people equal in the sight of God, even His chosen prophet? Should all share in the decision-making process? Is it a good thing to earn money? If so, should a father not bequeath his wealth to his children, or else what does he work for? If not, how will the community live? There are literally thousands of questions that followers have asked their religious leaders ranging from "is smoking and drinking bad?" to "how often should a man embrace his wife?"(three times a week, according to Luther; twice a night, according to the Rabbinical literature).

These questions can be divided into four categories, viz.:

1. Rules of conduct for daily life: diet, trade, relations with other people.
2. Rules for religious ritual: baptism, interment, prayer, fasting, thanksgiving.
3. Rules for right thinking and speaking: theology, philosophy, doctrine.
4. Rules of law.

Some religions have fixed these rules down to the minutest details properly recorded in textbooks. Whenever this was not done by the founder of the religion, there has arisen dissidence, e.g., in both Islam and the Christian Church over the question of who has the right to rule. Disputes have arisen over any point that was not settled explicitly by the founder, for a man will disagree with his own brothers, even over the food they eat. Ideally these matters should be settled and put in writing and the answers distributed by the founder himself during his lifetime so that his disciples can ask him yet more questions before he dies. He owes his followers precise and complete instructions for the correct way of thinking and acting, for he is their guide on the path to Heaven or Nirvana.

7. The Community And Its Leaders

People are contradictory creatures: they want leadership, but at the same time they want to be independent; they want freedom but no responsibilities. Leaders need to sail between these two rocks. If their course is too dictatorial, they will lose members, but if they leave too much freedom to their members, they will be accused of not having enough confidence in their own authority. The pope has been accused of the former, the leaders of certain liberal protestant churches of the latter.

In the early days of Islam, the prophet Muhammad and his successors united and ruled Arabia where there had not been a state previously. The Christian bishops of the early fifth century saw the western Roman Empire collapsing, so they had to became secular rulers. They were ill-prepared for this rule. Yet, until the establishment of the Carolingian empire almost tour hundred years later, they ruled their dioceses with remarkable success, unity and harmony. In modern societies though, there is no place for religious leaders in political power. Still, in the tolerant states of the western world, they have a large leeway to rule their flocks as they think fit. They can raise untaxed money, set rules for marriage and divorce and in many other ways control the behavior of their members. As soon as the members' numbers inside a given state rise to several percent of the population, the leaders may form a political party which, if they are determined and purposeful, may exercise influence far beyond the effect their numbers would cause one to expect.

8. The Community As Nucleus Of Life

Many men want immortality. One way to find immortality in this world is to create great works made with stone and mortar, or with pen and ink, or with brush and canvas. The commonest way to perpetuate one's name is by creating a family, the larger the better. The family is biological ordinarily, but in religion the family is spiritual. The prophet Muhammad had no son to survive him. He called his followers collectively in Arabic ummati which we translate as 'my community' but originally the word meant 'my family,' from umm 'mother', and Muslims call each other 'brother.' 'Father' is the term of address for all priests in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, whose parishioners are their children, spiritually.

An almost perfect model for founders of new churches are the Wesley brothers who found their field of mission in the neglected urban populations of England and Wales. They preached eloquently wherever they went; like St. Paul, wrote numerous letters to friends of kindred spirit; composed hymns for their liturgy; and most of all, showed a remarkable talent to organize groups of new converts into parishes.

Religions which have to survive on conversion alone do not do so well today. The religious family expands biologically as well. Buddhism, which once covered most of the south-eastern corner of Asia, has lost most of that territory to Islam and Communism, and India itself to Hinduism. I attribute that to the strong monastic tradition of Buddhism. Many religious leaders oppose birth control. The continuity and growth of the movement depends on children.

9. Will The New Religions Be Successful?

By extrapolation from a comparative study of the history of the Christian churches, the religions from the Middle East, India and other parts of the world, it is possible to sketch a few outlines for the future. We assume that there will not be any rapid and world shaking changes in the culture of mankind, such as a new world war (read holocaust) or a complete computerization of our lives.

We can already see the inexorable impact on the Western mind of the continuous progress of scientific thinking, crowding out the poetic thinking of myth and belief. In that spiritual climate, any new religion has to row upstream, even the "big" churches may become minority communities (which, as one theologian remarked, may be salutary for them). To be successful in spite of that adverse climate, religion must have more than good leaders, good organization, good family life, good community structure and devoted members. For a religion to survive it is essential that it be a living religion. A living religion is one in which the members participate in the ceremonies and have a large amount of freedom in their organization. Rigidly prescribed ceremonies in which the members do not participate will die out.

The essence of the religion of the future will no longer be its attractive mythology, its system of beliefs, the colorful beauty of its ritual processions, nor, at least to a much lesser extent than before, the assertiveness of its priestly hierarchy based hitherto on their believed superiority. The religion of the future will in the first place be the protective spiritual framework for a social structure, like the beehive for the honeycombs in which the bees live.

It is therefore possible to foresee that the young religions of the world, which emphasize social activities rather than ritualistic precision, will gain the upper hand, much against the expectation of the leading authorities in the present established churches. They cannot imagine the day in which the sun will not shine upon their buildings full of worshippers. Yet that day may well arrive, earlier than many priests think. Many church buildings are empty in France, the Netherlands and England, as are many temples in Asia. We do not realize how powerful the gods of the Romans, with whom those of the Celtic and Germanic tribes were identified, once were over all of Western Europe and North Africa, where the ruins of their temples can still be seen. Yet who worships them today? Nothing is eternal in this world, not even a religion, since all human institutions are perishable. The religions of antiquity have all been crowded out by the newer religions, Islam and Christianity, in Europe and the Middle East. Only in remote parts of Africa, India, and the Indian reservations of America, can the old religions still be observed. Buddhism spread over most of the Far East, though the autochthonous religions of China, Japan and Indonesia are still alive.

Of the now powerful religions like Islam and Christianity, the early history is well known. We know that their beginnings were as threatened and uncertain as those of the new religions today. The same was true of Protestant Christianity when it started in the 16th century.

Times change and so do human beings, changing their cultures as they go along the paths of their lives. Nothing remains the same. What was once important is now negligible and vice versa. There is thus every reason to assume that today's persecuted minority groups will one day be the established groups in the world, whereas the 'old' bodies will survive only if they adapt themselves drastically to the changing ideology of the times. Social consciousness seems to be the essential quality for a modern religion.

Editorial Notes

1. Dr. Knappert's many published studies include such works as:

Bantu Myths and Other Tales. (Nisaba Series No. VII); Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1977.

Fables from Africa. London: Evans Brothers, 1980.

Malay Myths and Legends. Heinemann Educational Books, 1981.

Myths and Legends of the Congo. Heinemann Educational Books, 1971.

Myths and Legends of Indonesia. Heinemann Educational Books, 1977.

Myths and Legends of the Swahili. Heinemann Educational Books, 1970.

Namibia: Land and Peoples, Myths and Fables. (Nisaba Series, No. 11); 1981.

"The Religions of Africa," pp. 223-233, in The Global Congress of the World's Religions: Proceedings 1980-1982, ed. Henry O. Thompson. New York: Rose of Sharon Press, 1982.

2. Dr. Knappert notes here that whether Allah spoke directly to Muhammad or through the intermediary of his angel Jibril, is not the relevant point. The point is the revelation.

3. For a general introduction to these and other world religions, cf. Young Oon Kim, World Religions, 2nd ed.; New York: Golden Gate Publishing Co., 1982.

4. Cf. K. L. Seshagiri Rao, "Mahatma Gandhi's Experience in Inter-religious Dialogue," World Faiths Insight, New Series 6 (Jan. 83), 2-10, and literature cited there. Cf. also Rao's "Mohandas Gandhi and the Hindu Vision of Religious Co-Existence," pp. 50-63, in Towards a Global Congress of World Religions, ed. Warren Lewis; New "York: Rose of Sharon Press, 1979.

5. For recent developments in this tradition, cf. Mark Juergensmeyer and N. Gerald Barrier, eds., Sikh Studies: Comparative Perspectives on a Changing Tradition: Berkeley: Graduate Theological Union, 1979. 

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