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Eight Sacred Horizons : THE RELIGIOUS IMAGINATION EAST AND WEST by Vernon Ruland SJ (Macmillan: $19.95; 230 pp.)

October 13, 1985|John K. Roth | Roth is professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College. and

Karl Marx took religion so seriously that he wanted human consciousness rid of it. One way to expose religion's illusory character, he believed, was to "bring your gods to a land where other gods prevail." Then, Marx claimed, "everybody will laugh at your subjective imagination."

Very differently, Vernon Ruland also takes religion seriously: He wants it to expand our awareness. Urging people to bring their customary religious practices into contact with horizons where unfamiliar ways prevail, his book encourages not the mocking laughter of disillusioned secularity but the liberating joy of spiritual enlightenment.

Priest and poet, counselor as well as scholar, the author studied under Mircea Eliade at the University of Chicago and now teaches world religions and psychology of religion at the University of San Francisco. "Eight Sacred Horizons" originated from his experiences with inquiring students. Ruland accurately insists, however, that "it is not a factual encyclopedic textbook, nor an apologia blueprint for interfaith dialogue." Instead, the author wants to say "how it feels in the pulse" to appreciate diverse spiritual quests and to discern their essential unity.

While traditional faiths--Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Islamic--figure prominently in Ruland's comparative explorations, they receive unconventional treatment. This book is full of surprises. Its fascinating essay on "Chinese-Japanese Tao," for example, draws from contemporary film and fiction to illustrate the wisdom of Confucius, Lao-tzu, and ancient Shinto legend. Arguably the most novel chapter, "Humanist Rights," construes Bertrand Russell, Sigmund Freud and John Dewey not simply as critics of religion but as spiritual guides who shared much with the best expressions of the religious imagination East and West.

Analysis of great minds is balanced with description of spiritual disciplines sustained by generations whom fame never touched. Before discussing any traditions that depend on written texts, Ruland properly introduces more primordial religious experiences. Making good his intention to center on rites and themes as well as on decisive personalities, the initial chapter, entitled "Primal Hunt," concentrates effectively on the religious hunting rituals of the Huichol Indians who inhabit the Sierra Madre of north-central Mexico.

Repeatedly, Ruland stimulates reflection. Yet all does not go well in the process. Quick turns, unexpected connections, sudden intrusions--their abundance creates puzzlement more than lucidity. In a few paragraphs on "Christian Spirit," the reader must race past the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, the 17th-Century Puritan John Cotton, the 20th-Century poet T. S. Eliot, as well as the Russian novelists Dostoevski and Solzhenitsyn. Few readers will be in shape to match Ruland's pace. Too much compresses too fast for even the specially trained interpreter, let alone the uninitiated, to be confident that the author's account is comprehensible. Erudite but impressionistic, idiosyncratic and esoteric--that judgment sums up the difficulty.

Ruland's scholarship does locate shared visions of power and promise in the various sacred horizons. Specifically--the author contends persuasively--those unifying elements include: similar experiences of wonder and mystery; a moral consensus that emphasizes justice; prophetic voices that protest corruption, and the conviction that all beings are at once interrelated and valuable in their own right. Nevertheless, Ruland's horizons remain elusively clouded because his scanning relies on background more extensive than most people possess or his own fast-moving thoughts provide.

"Eight Sacred Horizons" is daring, far more so than typical attempts to accomplish the arduous task of comparing religions. Its shortcomings and considerable successes alike show the importance--but even more, the complexity--of communicating how people from different faiths can glimpse the sacred together.

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