Two words in the title of "A New Handbook of Living Religions" are especially arresting and provocative--"new" and "living," each of which suggests that even the most ancient and enduring of religions grow and change and, sometimes, die. For that reason, the "New Handbook" suggests, what we think we know about the religions of the world may be wrong because our information is simply out of date.
"This book seeks to challenge many commonly held assumptions," said the editor, John R. Hinnells. "That India is changeless; that Christianity is a single, easily recognized phenomenon; that religions are monolithic wholes; that Jainism and Zoroastrianism are dead religions."
Although I would argue with the notion that these assumptions are commonly held, Hinnells deserves credit for delivering on the promise implied in the title by telling us something new and unsuspected about even the oldest of faiths. First published in 1984, the book has been considerably freshened up by Hinnells, a professor of comparative religion at London University, and some two dozen scholarly contributors.
Recent developments in Judaism, Christianity and Islam are summarized, as they are for Hinduism and Buddhism. But equal or greater attention is paid to less familiar faiths, including Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, Jainism and Baha'ism. New or substantially revised chapters are devoted to the religions of China, Japan, Africa, the Pacific and faiths of Native Americans, including the Hopis, Kwakiutl and the Iroquois.
Fresher still is a new section on "cross-cultural" issues. Theologian Ursula King, for example, contributes chapters on "Religion and Gender" and "Spirituality," in which she complains that something crucial is sacrificed when the religious experiences of female saints and mystics are regarded "as if [they were] derived from asexual beings." Gender counts, according to King, when it comes to revelation: "Here, more than anywhere else, women ask searching questions about which elements of the past remain usable for a viable religiosity and spirituality today."
Even the New Age falls within the reach of the "New Handbook." J. Gordon Melton, a professor at the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, counts more than 700 "alternative" religions in the United States, ranging from the Latter-day Saints and Christian Scientists to Rosicrucians and Theosophists to Wiccans and Neo-Pagans. He offers a table in which he sums up the geographic distribution of alternative religions of the early 1990s--California, of course, tops the list with 191 "new religions," nearly three times more than second-ranking New York.
Most ambitious of all is a collection of seven new chapters that focus on "religion in migration"--a phrase that describes the remarkable cosmopolitanism of 20th century religion. Nowadays, as the various contributors point out, the religions that started out in Asia, Africa and elsewhere around the world have rooted themselves throughout the West, where they seem to take on a new vigor. For example, more than 600 mosques have been established to serve the Muslim community in the United States, which may number as many as 6 million followers. "The diaspora communities can no longer be seen as peripheral to the story of their religions," Hinnells says. "There are almost as many Muslims in the West as in Saudi Arabia."
Even at 900-plus pages, the "New Handbook" still suffers from sins of compression. Alan Unterman is compelled to sum up 3,000 years of Jewish history and theology in 40 breathless pages, and Andrew Walls is allotted only 100 pages or so to consider Christianity in all of its "profusion of different forms and expressions." The text tends toward an encyclopedia-style shorthand with occasional pauses to illustrate an intriguing but esoteric detail--the differences in church architecture between Eastern and Western Christianity, or the attributes that must be included in a statue of the Hindu god, Vishnu.
A sharp irony is buried deep inside the "New Handbook." Christians, Jews and Muslims may fancy themselves worshipers of one God, but even within their own denominations, they cannot agree on who God is, what God wants or how God should be worshiped. "There are almost as many 'Hinduisms' as there are authors who write about it," writes Simon Weightman about the rich diversity of that religion--but the same can also be said about virtually every expression of faith in the "New Handbook."
Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to The Times Book Review, is the author, most recently, of "Moses, a Life" (Ballantine).