Thursday, January 6, 2011

Imagination, Fiction and Faith

Carole M. Cusack, Associate Professor of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, Australia, in her book, Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, September 1, 2010, 192 pages, hardback, $99.95), investigates four new religious movements founded in the West that are intentionally fictional. Writing of the philosophical background that prepared the way for the current climate of religious development, she notes:

The academic study of religions other than Christianity began in European universities in the first half of the nineteenth century, but at that time it was assumed that the study of the Gita, the Upanishads or the Analects was a purely intellectual exercise. As Christianity was believed to be the ‘highest’ religion, the notion that Christians might want to convert to Buddhism or Hinduism was not entertained. Towards the end of the nineteenth century this situation changed; the founding of the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875 by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott marked an important transition; it was possible for modern individuals to turn away from the Judeo-Christian tradition and seek religious and spiritual satisfaction in Eastern religions. The publication of the Sacred Books of the East series, edited by Max Muller, by Oxford University Press from 1879 to 1900 greatly increased knowledge of world religions, as did popular books like Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia (1879), a biography of the Buddha that enjoyed high sales. The 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago introduced the West to Swami Vivekananda, the charismatic Hindu teacher, and Anagarika Dharmapala, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk who had worked with Colonel Olcott, and who preached Buddhism in Asia, North America, and Europe. Theosophy itself provided the inspiration and model for multiple new religious movements.

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