Western Religion

The Bible
 [ca. 1200 BC-100 AD]
      I strongly dislike many aspects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which is why there are far fewer recommendations here than in the “Eastern Religion” section. The Bible, however, is such a historically important book that you really can’t afford to skip it. Everyone should have some familiarity with Genesis and the four Gospels. Readers with more secular tastes will probably prefer the three rather untypical books which seem to have gotten into the Bible almost by accident: Job (a dramatic dialogue on the “problem of evil” with some resemblances to Greek tragedy), Ecclesiastes (an eloquent skepticism camouflaged by an orthodox editorial conclusion), and the Song of Songs (a.k.a. the Song of Solomon, a collection of love songs which, like the Chinese Book of Songs, probably originated from folk courtship or fertility rites).
      The King James Bible is the supreme masterpiece of English prose, but it may seem too old-fashioned to some contemporary readers. On the other hand, most modern translations are far too prosaic. I use The New Oxford Annotated Bible, which uses the Revised Standard version and includes the Apocrypha.
      [Rexroth essay on Ecclesiastes]
      [Rexroth essay on The New English Bible]

Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus  [1906]
      A penetrating examination of the successively more critical and scientific investigations of the life of Jesus from the late eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. The interest for me, and presumably for most of you reading this, is not any particular religious concern with Jesus, but that this is one of the most fascinating of all detective stories — and one that has still not been solved, though the Dead Sea Scrolls and other modern findings have brought many new factors into the data and spawned countless new interpretations, finding Jesus to be an Essene monk, or a revivalist prophet, or an anti-Roman revolutionary leader, or the husband of Mary Magdalene, or a Gnostic seer influenced by Buddhism. . . .

G.R.S. Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten  [1906]
      A pioneering early study of Gnosticism (with an introduction by Rexroth). I remember it as being pretty interesting, but it may now be superseded by modern studies taking account of more recent discoveries.
      [Rexroth essay on Gnosticism]

Meister Eckhart  [1260-1328]
      Eckhart is probably the greatest Western mystic. Though a medieval Christian, he often sounds like a Vedantist or even a Zen master — so much so that many of his views were condemned as heretical. Walter Stace’s Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation is a good selection, but there are several others.

John Woolman, Journal  [1772]
      Personal reflections of the eighteenth-century Quaker who more than anyone else initiated the antislavery movement in America. When you first read it, it seems like very little is happening. Woolman is very low-key, not at all dramatic. But as you continue, you get some sense of the quiet spiritual strength characteristic of the Quakers at their best, that combination of dignity, modesty and compassion that represents the finest potential of Christianity — so rarely manifested, alas!

Friedrich von Hügel  [1852-1925]
      Von Hügel was what was then called a “Modernist” Catholic. Although the Modernist movement was denounced in a Papal encyclical of 1907, it was hardly very radical. It simply called for freedom of conscience, tolerance of other religions, unfettered scientific and historical research, and similar qualities that were later largely accepted by the Church after Vatican II. I was turned on to von Hügel by Rexroth. What I like about him is not, needless to say, his Catholicism, but his genial and magnanimous personality, the way he combines his scholarly investigations and ethical admonitions with humility and good humor. These qualities are most evident in his Spiritual Counsels and Letters (ed. Douglas Steere) and Letters to a Niece. His magnum opus is The Mystical Element of Religion, a two-volume study of St. Catherine of Genoa.

Martin Buber, I and Thou; Tales of the Hasidim  [1923, 1948]
      Martin Buber has been one of the big influences on my life. I was first struck by I and Thou, but then came to be moved even more by Tales of the Hasidim — legends and anecdotes from the popular mystical movement that arose in the Jewish communities of eastern Europe in the eighteenth century. I have no interest in the orthodox Judaic context in which these tales take place, but I share Rexroth’s delight in their “holy good humor” and their striving toward a communitarian form of mysticism (as opposed to the usual separation of social and spiritual). If you read nothing else, try The Way of Man According to the Teachings of Hasidism (included in Hasidism and Modern Man, but also published as a separate booklet). The six chapters of this little work, each a brief Hasidic tale with Buber’s commentary, give a taste of the richness to be found in the larger Hasidic collection.
      Of Buber’s other books I recommend For the Sake of Heaven (a historical novel about Hasidism, set in the era of Napoleon), Pointing the Way (a collection of essays), Between Man and Man (further studies in the issues of dialogical life raised in I and Thou) and Paths in Utopia (an examination of various forms of utopian socialism and anarchism).
      I and Thou is available in two translations. Walter Kaufmann’s improves on the earlier one by Ronald Gregor Smith in some ways, but it is sometimes a bit too literal and Kaufmann’s long introduction, devoted primarily to expounding his own views, gets between the reader and Buber’s work. I usually check both versions. You can compare them here.
      [Rexroth essay on Martin Buber]

Idries Shah, The Sufis  [1964]
Sufism is the only form of Islam that somewhat appeals to me. It seems like a universal form of mysticism that just happened to take shape within the context of Islam. Despite the cultural and religious differences, Sufi stories often resemble the Hasidic tales or even the anecdotes of Zen and Taoism. Idries Shah’s The Sufis is probably the best general introduction, but he has also written many other lively and provocative works on the same topic. Bear in mind, however, that the field contains many controversies. Some other authors have criticized Shah as an opportunistic popularizer; and it is certainly true that many of the most popular translations of Sufi writings (e.g. Coleman Barks’s versions of Rumi) take enormous liberties with the original texts. So it’s a good idea to take whatever you read with a grain of salt, at least until you’ve become more familiar with the territory.

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience  [1902]
      Classic study of the psychology of religion by the genial philosopher of pragmatism.

Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy  [1944]
      Excellent compilation of passages from the world’s greatest mystics and mystical texts, with comments by Huxley.

Walter T. Stace, The Teachings of the Mystics  [1960]
      Another selection tending, like Huxley’s, to show the resemblance of various forms of mystical experience despite different cultural and religious backgrounds.


Section from Gateway to the Vast Realms (Ken Knabb, 2004).

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