What do Buddhist monks and Christian friars have in common? Quite a bit, in fact. While travelling widely across Asia in the late sixteenth century, Franciscans had rich encounters and exchanges with Buddhist monks that led them to identify Buddhism as a unified tradition and a powerful religion in the region.
Westerners encountering new cultures in the early modern period often found it difficult to categorize unfamiliar traditions. For many, the religious landscape was divided into Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Anything outside of that landscape was lumped together as idolatry or paganism – often described as superstition. Repeated new encounters with other traditions prompted new categories with newly identified religions. Many scholars of the process of the transformation of how Westerners categorized and understood religion agree that Buddhism, when it came to be identified as a single entity in the West, had the special distinction of being the first religion parallel to Christianity, and the first “world religion” next to Christianity. Scholars have largely assumed the idea of Buddhism as a common religion across Asia emerged in the west in the nineteenth century. Continue reading →
From the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, Catholic and Protestant missionaries were the eyes through which Europe viewed the religious and cultural systems of the non-European world. Merchants, soldiers and diplomats sometimes fulfilled the same function, but they were birds of passage who rarely had the necessity or inclination to observe the ritual practices of indigenous peoples at close hand. Missionaries, by contrast, were in for the long haul. The objective of conversion required careful and patient observation of local traditions, the slow learning of language, the gradual attuning of the mind to the finer points of ceremonial observance, totem or taboo. Missionaries compared and contrasted what they saw with what they had seen elsewhere, or with what was familiar to them in European Christendom. As they did so, they began to order the miscellany of phenomena they encountered into divisions, categories, even systems. Continue reading →
The United Kingdom is now in the final stages of an election campaign in which two avowedly nationalist political parties – the Scottish National Party and the United Kingdom Independence Party – seem set to re-configure the map of British politics. They will attract numerous Christian votes, but nationalism and Christian principle are uneasy bedfellows. Continue reading →