This passage from near the end of Jenkin’s latest book discusses how we in the west (both conservatives and liberals) have often viewed other religions erroneously through a Reformation-formed lens.
The Protestant inheritance [of sola scriptura] has led later writers to assume that for other religions too the scripture must represent the authoritative core of belief. As the West encountered other faiths during the age of imperialism, scholars published anthologies of thew world’s sacred texts, which set the scriptures of all the great faiths alongside on another. Such efforts made the fundamental assumption that to know a scripture was to understand the religion – although often editors had to struggle to find texts that played the same role in particular faiths that the Bible did in Christianity or Judaism. It was only after encounters with Christians that Hindus decided that the Bhagavad Gita offered a succinct description of their own faith, a counterpart to the New Testaments so freely distributed by missionaries. When Robert Ballou published his World Bible in 1944, he claimed to offer “the gist of each of the world’s eight most influential religious faiths, as revealed by their basic scriptures.”
But do scriptures, any scripture, contain the “gist” or kernel of any religion? One can make such an argument, and the compilers of such anthologies did. But they had a highly subjective view of what that gist might be, and what it “revealed.” Most editors carefully selected and stressed passages that, in their opinion, showed the religions at their ethical and even mystical best, suggesting that members of all faiths could unite in these common goals, whatever their petty differences of ritual or custom. In practice, all the world’s faiths seemed to become varieties of liberal Protestantism.[!!!]
However noble such an interpretation, it has little connection with the ordinary lived reality of any religious tradition, which is so thoroughly conditioned by its particular historical experience and cultural background.
-Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword, ch.11
He goes on to imagine an alien learning the Bible thoroughly, then visiting the earth and trying to make sense out of a Catholic mass in Chicago, a Quaker meeting in London, a pilgrimage in the Philippines and (I’ll add) a Texas megachurch. How completely baffling that would be!
This all sounds remarkably similar to how European colonialism forced African nations to define their borders with a Sharpie – just like us, lest we grab anything that wasn’t clearly marked.
In many ways, this is the same challenge we have reading the Koran. Across the world, the local culture frequently trumps theology proper. Tribal loyalties and traditions often take precedence or strongly shape interpretation. As it turns out, learning to love, understand, or at least live with your neighbor requires many, many things – a fundamental understanding of their religion being just one piece of the puzzle, albeit a very important piece.