Professor Gustav Mensching of Bonn is today one of the most significant among the German-speaking researchers of Comparative Theology. His book on religion is indeed a model of books of its type. The experimental confrontation with the holy . . . . is what remains as the basic content of religion. How this confrontation takes place concretely is studied by Mensching in the case of ethnic and universal religions. . . .This study is followed by a display of the scientific methods with the help of which this abundance is divided into structural types: into religions of nature and culture, into revealed and book religions into naturally grown and founded, mystic and prophetic religions…..A book that unfolds such an abundance of aspects and such a richness of religious forms, is justly confronted with the final question of the unity of the religion. . . . Mensching is confident that he can comprehend an already existing unity: unity not instead of multiplicity, not out of multiplicity, but in the multiplicity, not out of multiplicity of the existing religions.
Fustav Mensching studied Theology and Sanskrit at the University of Goettingen, Marburg and Berlin and got his Doctorate from Marburg in 1924. In 1927 he got qualified to teach General History of Religion at the Technical Hochschule in Braunschweig (Brunswick). In the same year he was appointed to the chair for the History of Religion at the Lettland State University in Riga. In 1936 he was appointed to teach at the University of Bonn and in 1942 he occupied the chair for Comparative Theology at the same University. In 1951 he was awarded an honorary Doctorate by the University of Marburg.
In all his works Gustav Mensching deals with the questions of Theology and with the research into the great religions of the world.
Comparing and Understanding
In this book we shall approach the world of religion not from a preconceived theological or confessional position but from the perspective of the student of religion who desires to gain understanding. We shall not bring to this task any criteria with which to measure the value or the truth of religions or religious views and practices. For the student of Comparative Religion there are no such criteria. Whence should they be derived and on what should they be based if one does not wish to presuppose one's own faith as the norm?
Yet our endeavour to understand will not be "without presuppositions," for every relevant engagement with religion, its essence and phenomena, presupposes inner involvement and the capacity for sympathy. Whoever lacks these prerequisites and views the often strange world of religious phenomena from a detached rational perspective will soon turn aside unappreciatively and often disapprovingly. The systematic study of religions, a child of the Enlightenment, has long assumed such a perspective and has often produced a false image of what religion actually is. We shall now endeavour to avoid this error and to do justice to the living reality of religion. Two factors are of decisive importance for this type of scholarly study of religion: comparing and understanding.
Any systematic comparison of religions, such as the one upon which this book is based, must shield itself against two dangers: rash identification and its counterpart, hasty differentiation. The early systematic study of religion often fell prey to the first of these two dangers. The numerous and astonishing parallels between Christian ideas and cult practices and those discovered in other religions were unhesitatingly identified, without asking if these were perhaps only outer similarities without inner correspondence. This danger can be expressed as the tendency to confuse the homologues among religious phenomena with the analogues. Homologues are phenomena which are indeed similar and perhaps even bear the same name, but which, nevertheless, signify something different within the religions which are to be compared. The following example well illustrates this distinction. In considering the concepts of God in Buddhism and in Christianity, the student not aware of the difference between the homologue and the analogue will tend to compare the beings designated "gods" with the Christian God. A completely distorted picture would emerge since the Buddhist gods are only homologous and not truly analogous to the Christian God. The analogue to the Christian idea of God is the Buddhist nirvana, the absolutely impersonal, numinous reality. The Buddhist gods, however, are merely beings needing salvation themselves and representing a form of reincarnation just as do men, animals and minor spirits. Thus, we must not allow ourselves to be led astray by what appears to be similar but is not essentially analogous. Rather, in comparing, we must concentrate upon those entities which have an essentially analogous significance within the life of their respective religions, although they may be designated quite differently. The main point is to seek the life that is effective in and behind the perceived phenomena of religious history. The true analogues perform the same vital functions within the religious organisms, while the homologues do not.
A careful study of the peculiarities and the uniqueness of the phenomena in a religion is a safeguard against rash identifications. Every religion has its unmistakable living core, as is to be discussed in the following chapter. This peculiarity of a religion manifests itself not only on the level of phenomena, but also on that of religious intention. The living core is not to be found, however, in the dogmatic claims of absoluteness through which orthodox theologies establish the uniqueness and incomparability of their own religion over against all others. The peculiarity of a religion does not entail an absoluteness which renders every comparison meaningless.
In comparing, there is also the opposite danger of rashly differentiating between different religions or religious views. For example, a false differentiation is made when the religious ideals of one's own religion are contrasted with the practices of other religions, as is often done in apologetic presentations. Obviously, here again we must strive for exact correspondence between what we are comparing. The modern study of religion seeks to understand what is meant by all religious phenomena. If this methodical question is not asked, as was often the case in the earlier study of religion, then one can easily make the mistake of maintaining basic differences where the differences exist only on the phenomenal level and not on the level of religious intention. In comparing the spiritual veneradon of God as in, say, Christianity with the veneration of stones, which is very widespread in the world of religions, it would be false to assume that in stone-veneration it is the stones themselves which are worshipped. This misjudgement is avoided if one first seeks to discern the religious intention of such veneration and thus realizes that the actual object of worship is not the dead stone but something immaterial, supernatural, sacred. Naturally there are important differences between these two examples of veneration, but these major distinctions are not the same as those revealed by a comparison oriented towards the external phenomena.
We have already used the concept of understanding several times. It is the task of the scholar of Comparative Religion to understand the phenomena brought to light by historical research as "possibilities" for the manifestation of religious meaning. Through comparison and discrimination, the meaning which enlivens all of the phenomena is discovered. And thus, the isolated individual facts which history presents to us are apprehended as the "possibilities" for the embodiment of religious intuitions and intentions. If the historical facts are thus comprehended as possible manifestations of living meaning, then their essential character will also become apparent. Such is what is meant by understanding, the taking of the historical facts into one's own experience in order to grasp their inner life and to bring this life into our own feeling and consciousness through the medium of conceptualization. The mere study of facts points only to the disparate elements of reality, but not to their mysterious relationship to a life which gives them all their meaning. The disciplined understanding of religion is thus largely the understanding of symbols. Every symbol, as we shall see more precisely later, consists of two dimensions which are related to one another in a definite manner; the dimension of empirical reality and the dimension of meaning. To grasp the meaning through the empirical reality, the concrete symbol, is to understand the symbol.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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