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Ten Great Religions: An Essay in Comparative Theology

James Freeman Clarke


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Ten Great Religions: An Essay in Comparative Theology by American theologian James Freeman Clarke was first published in 1899. Chapters include: Introduction, Ethnic and Catholic religions; Confucius and the Chinese, or, The prose of Asia; Brahmanism; Buddhism, or, The Prostestantism of the East; Zoroaster and the Zend Avesta; The gods of Egypt; The gods of Greece; The religion of Rome; The Teutonic and Scandinavian religion; The Jewish religion; Mohammed and Islam; and, The ten religions and Christianity. The author was one of the first Americans to explore and write about Eastern religions.

This book has 376 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1899.

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Excerpt from 'Ten Great Religions: An Essay in Comparative Theology'

According to Christ and the Apostles, Christianity was to grow out of Judaism, and be developed into a universal religion. Accordingly, the method of Jesus was to go first to the Jews; and when he left the limits of Palestine on a single occasion, he declared himself as only going into Phoenicia to seek after the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But he stated that he had other sheep, not of this fold, whom he must bring, recognizing that there were, among the heathen, good and honest hearts prepared for Christianity, and already belonging to him; sheep who knew his voice and were ready to follow him. He also declared that the Roman centurion and the Phoenician woman already possessed great faith, the centurion more than he had yet found in Israel. But the most striking declaration of Jesus, and one singularly overlooked, concerning the character of the heathen, is to be found in his description of the day of judgment, in Matthew (chap. XXV.). It is very curious that men should speculate as to the fate of the heathen, when Jesus has here distinctly taught that all good men among them are his sheep, though they never heard of him. The account begins, "Before him shall be gathered all the Gentiles" (or heathen). It is not a description of the judgment of the Christian world, but of the heathen world. The word here used (τὰ ἔθνη) occurs about one hundred and sixty-four times in the New Testament. It is translated "gentiles" oftener than by any other word, that is, about ninety-three times; by "heathen" four or five times; and in the remaining passages it is mostly translated "nations." That it means the Gentiles or heathen here appears from the fact that they are represented as ignorant of Christ, and are judged, not by the standard of Christian faith, but by their humanity and charity toward those in suffering. Jesus recognizes, therefore, among these ethnic or heathen people, some as belonging to himself,—the "other sheep," not of the Jewish fold.

The Apostle Paul, who was especially commissioned to the Gentiles, must be considered as the best authority upon this question. Did he regard their religions as wholly false? On the contrary, he tells the Athenians that they are already worshipping the true God, though ignorantly. "Whom ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you." When he said this he was standing face to face with all that was most imposing in the religion of Greece. He saw the city filled with idols, majestic forms, the perfection of artistic grace and beauty. Was his spirit then moved only with indignation against this worship, and had he no sympathy with the spiritual needs which it expressed? It does not seem so. He recognized piety in their souls. "I see that ye are, in all ways, exceedingly pious." He recognized their worship as passing beyond the idols, to the true God. He did not profess that he came to revolutionize their religion, but to reform it. He does not proceed like the backwoodsman, who fells the forest and takes out the stumps in order to plant a wholly different crop; but like the nurseryman, who grafts a native stock with a better fruit. They were already ignorantly worshipping the true God. What the apostle proposed to do was to enlighten that ignorance by showing them who that true God was, and what was his character. In his subsequent remarks, therefore, he does not teach them that there is one Supreme Being, but he assumes it, as something already believed. He assumes him to be the creator of all things; to be omnipotent,—"the Lord of heaven and earth"; spiritual,—"dwelleth not in temples made with hands"; absolute,—"not needing anything," but the source of all things. He says this, as not expecting any opposition or contradiction; he reserves his criticisms on their idolatry for the end of his discourse. He then states, quite clearly, that the different nations of the world have a common origin, belong to one family, and have been providentially placed in space and time, that each might seek the Lord in its own way. He recognized in them a power of seeking and finding God, the God close at hand, and in whom we live; and he quotes one of their own poets, accepting his statement of God's fatherly character. Now, it is quite common for those who deny that there is any truth in heathenism, to admire this speech of Paul as a masterpiece of ingenuity and eloquence. But he would hardly have made it, unless he thought it to be true. Those who praise his eloquence at the expense of his veracity pay him a poor compliment. Did Paul tell the Athenians that they were worshipping the true God when they were not, and that for the sake of rhetorical effect? If we believe this concerning him, and yet admire him, let us cease henceforth to find fault with the Jesuits.

No! Paul believed what he said, that the Athenians were worshipping the true God, though ignorantly. The sentiment of reverence, of worship, was lifting them to its true object. All they needed was to have their understanding enlightened. Truth he placed in the heart rather than the understanding, but he also connected Christianity with Polytheism where the two religions touched, that is, on their pantheistic side. While placing God above the world as its ruler, "seeing he is Lord of heaven and earth," he placed him in the world as an immanent presence,—"in him we live, and move, and have our being." And afterward, in writing to the Romans, he takes the same ground. He teaches that the Gentiles had a knowledge of the eternal attributes of God (Rom. i. 19) and saw him in his works (v. 20), and that they also had in their nature a law of duty, enabling them to do the things contained in the law. This he calls "the law written in the heart" (Rom. ii. 14,15). He blames them, not for ignorance, but for disobedience. The Apostle Paul, therefore, agrees with us in finding in heathen religions essential truth in connection with their errors.

The early Christian apologists often took the same view. Thus Clement of Alexandria believed that God had one great plan for educating the world, of which Christianity was the final step. He refused to consider the Jewish religion as the only divine preparation for Christianity, but regarded the Greek philosophy as also a preparation for Christ. Neander gives his views at length, and says that Clement was the founder of the true view of history. Tertullian declared the soul to be naturally Christian. The Sibylline books were quoted as good prophetic works along with the Jewish prophets. Socrates was called by the Fathers a Christian before Christ.

Production notes: This edition of Ten Great Religions: An Essay in Comparative Theology was published by Global Grey ebooks on the 23rd March 2021. The artwork used for the cover is 'Moses with the Ten Commandments' by Philippe de Champaigne.

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