During my 25 years of retirement, I have been frequently asked what I do with all my time. I don’t remember ever giving the correct answer, which would scare off many good people. I study the world’s religions, even those in my own backyard. If it were a college course, it would probably be called Comparative Religion 101.
Like all studies, it is a long journey that never ends. I have read many books, and each was a detailed learning process. First, I read in the usual way to grasp the overall concepts. If they are important, I will re-read it and mark passages with a highlighter pen. Then I will combine the highlights in a prose summary on word-processing that may be twenty or thirty pages long. I can easily spend a year on one book, but, from then on, I can review the summaries rather than re-read the entire book, and even use the search function of Word to find a particular topic. In our high school days, we would have written an outline to study from, but with word-processing I find prose is much easier to write and to later read.
Here are the most influential books I have discovered, books full of concepts I was unaware of:
The Book, by Alan Watts, the author who popularized Eastern religions for the hippie generation of the 1970s. As he explains the title, sex was once a taboo subject, and embarrassed parents would simply slip a book on the subject to their adolescent children. Sex is no longer such an embarrassing subject, but religion still is, so this is like a book parents could slip to their children of today. It covers the broad Eastern and mystic Christian concepts in an easily readable, slim book, free from the flowery language and jargon often found in books written by swamis and gurus of India. It is a good book to begin a spiritual journey.
The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell, a long-time professor of mythology at Bryn Mawr. (In his younger years, Campbell hung out with author Jack London who made him a character in Cannery Row.) About twenty years ago, PBS ran a three-part series of his interview with Bill Moyers. It was so popular, they repeated it several times during their annual fundraisers. Amazon and many libraries have a DVD of the programs, and this book is an edited transcript of them in paperback. Campbell has written many books, most notably his massive quadrilogy on religion: The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Oriental Mythology, Occidental Mythology, and Creative Mythology. All of his books are fascinating and full of gems. The two on oriental and occidental mythologies are the most relevant, but are somewhat difficult to follow because Campbell’s organization is often evident only in his own mind. Reading them is like having a rambling conversation with an interesting friend. Correcting his organization is what first got me writing the summaries.
A History of God, by Karen Armstrong. A modern New York Times best seller by a former Catholic nun, an amazingly detailed historic study on the varied and changing concepts of God. Very relevant and another good place to start. If anyone claims to be an atheist, she states in the Introduction, which one of the many concepts of God do they not believe in? Do they even realize there are others?
The Perennial Philosophy, by Aldous Huxley. The perennial philosophy is the philosophic thread running through all religions of a single divine Reality underlying the temporal world, individual souls that may be a part of, or identical with, that Reality, and a universal desire to discover and unite with that Reality. This is an unbelievable amount of scholarship that sums up and illustrates the theology in the previous books and the one that opened my eyes to the breadth of orthodox Christianity. If you have any doubts about the commonality of diverse religions, this will prove it. A dedicated Buddhist could find a home in Christianity, just as a Christian could find a home in Buddhism (unbelievable as this may seem).
I suspect this would be a difficult book for a beginner not familiar with the terms, but try it anyway. It is mostly quotes from an amazing breadth of sources with a minimal commentary to tie them together, and is probably the most concentrated source of wisdom I have ever seen. You can digest the quotes one at a time. The book is a classic and is widely available. Huxley reads like William Buckley used to talk, and he deserves his reputation as a giant intellect. Just keep your dictionary handy, or, better yet, the Google site.
I would be happy to e-mail you a copy of any of my summaries, all in Word format. Just ask.