- Meta-Religion: Religion and Power in World History by James W. Laine
This book offers a novel, refreshing approach to the question of how to integrate religion into narratives of world history. James W. Laine begins by stating his dissatisfaction with current textbook surveys of world religions, finding them to be a “bloodless” collection of “isms” that do not convey the seriousness and passion with which religions are actually lived. He also detects in these surveys a certain Protestant bias in treating religion primarily as a set of beliefs held by individuals, whereas it may be more accurate to think of them as a set of identities held by groups. Such considerations underlie the basic premise of the book: Religion is ultimately inseparable from political and military history. The book is thus a survey of the ways in which rulers and states have legitimated their existence based on what they take for granted to be higher truths.
Laine is also deeply concerned about modern secular society. While he criticizes world history texts as being implicitly Eurocentric, his own book ironically reflects the same bias, in that most of the final third deals with the West. But the questions he poses for Western secular society [End Page 152] are important and tackle the issue of integrating religion into the rest of history. He asks, “If religion nowadays is not taking … a ‘distinctive place’ in the enterprise of world building, what has replaced it? And … if the religions we do see around us are not playing that role, what, exactly are they doing?” (p.2).
To deal coherently with this sprawling subject, Laine introduces a set of useful terms in his introduction: (1) inclusivism, whereby foreign religious elements find their place in an overarching system, as when Jesus is made an avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism; (2) exclusivism, conversely, the insistence on a particular truth or set of practices and dismissal of whatever does not fit as false or idolatrous; (3) particularism, which holds that different nations or classes should have their particular beliefs and practices rather than extending these to others, as in Judaism; and (4) universalism, the converse assumption that a religion holds for all people at all times, as in the Buddhist Four Noble Truths. The term “meta-religion” refers to a set of principles or moral codes that are held to be ultimately true, regardless of whether or not they are labelled “religious.”
The book is divided into three parts: antiquity (330 b.c.e.-710 c.e.), the Islamic millennium (700-1700 c.e.), and the modern world. For the most part, Laine is skillful in selecting representative examples without being exhaustingly comprehensive. He begins with a chapter comparing Alexander the Great and Ashoka, both of whom exemplify universalistic inclusivism. Each incorporated local gods as he built his empire, claiming that these gods were merely referred to by different names for a single set of underlying principles of reason and morality—in Alexander’s case, logos, in Ashoka’s, dharma. Of course, the emperors themselves were seen as embodying the divine—hence the phrase “son of God” in Alexander’s case. The next chapter applies the same themes to Confucian China and Augustan Rome. There were, however, limits to inclusivism in both these empires, when particular sects or “cults,” often millenarian in nature, challenged imperial authority and its gods, as in the Yellow Turban revolt in China, the several Jewish revolts around the time of Jesus, or Christianity itself in its early years. There follows an excellent chapter on India in the centuries following Ashoka, when Brahmins reinterpreted dharma in the name of particularism embodied in the caste system. This involved driving out universalistic Buddhism while incorporating some of its ascetic and contemplative practices such as yoga. The next chapter, covering roughly the fourth to eighth centuries c.e., is less tight thematically, but it does illustrate the multifarious ways in which religions and empires were entangled with each other. Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism were all...