2012-10-30

Images of Eternity: Paths to the Transcendent (A Book Review)



Keith Ward's book "Concepts of God", which is also titled "Images of Eternity" when first published in the U.K., is a distillation of some of the key discussions in Ward's much larger four volume magnum opus on Comparative Theology (i.e. the academic discipline of comparing models of God across religions and across linguistic/cultural divides). This book takes a representative thinker/theologian/philosopher from each of the major world religions (Jnana and Bhakti Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity), who is considered "orthodox" within that religious tradition, and compares them with each other on key structural claims about the nature of "Ultimate Reality" or "God", which Ward tends to refer to as "The Transcendent".

Ward does two things simultaneously that are very difficult to do: On one hand, he allows each tradition to speak in its own voice without pressing them into a mold of pre-packaged politically correct "sameness". So, he allows genuine difference in the content presented by each religion. He does not pretend that all religions are simply "saying the same thing".

On the other hand, he presents a compelling case that each religion finds a way to deal with a common structure of religious experience. Ward shows how each religious tradition (including sub-traditions in each major tradition) all exhibit a six-fold "fiduciary structure" (i.e. a structure of "fides", or faith, in a Transcendent Reality). Each of the six elements in the fiduciary structure have a basic duality, or polarity, around which the element revolved. For instance, all religions have a structural element of "The Real" or "The Transcendent", with an essential bi-polarity of whether this Real is a Passive Void (an indefinable Abyss of pure Being) or is an Active Person (such as a Personal God).

The other structural elements include: 1. The Authority, alternating between pure mystical experience, or dictated revelation through a great Book or great prophetic figures; 2. The Goal, alternating between absorption into the Real, or as a personal loving relationship of obedience to the Real; 3. The Means of attaining liberation, alternating between "works" of moral, ascetic, and ritual effort, and grace, or the free, unmerited gift of the Real; 4. The Limitation of experiencing the Real, alternating between a denial of the goodness and usefulness of the material world as a vehicle for liberation, and an affirmation of the material world as a gift to help persons toward liberation; and finally, 5. The Cause of personal separation from the Real, alternating between unintentional ignorance and illusion on one hand, and intentional sin and evil leading to judgment.

What is truly interesting to see in Ward is how he shows that all religions, in fact, have means of dealing with each of these bi-polarities in the structure of religious experience. He points out that religions we would usually associate with "impersonal" and "immanent" ideas of Ultimate Reality (such as forms of Buddhism and Hinduism), actually speak of Ultimate Reality in personal terms to offset the dominant themes. Likewise, he points out that every religion- from the most "self-help" oriented religions, to those that claim to rely only on divine grace, do in fact make room for BOTH grace and works in their religious systems.

I heartily recommend this book. However, it is not an "easy read". Like this review, the sentence structure is often dense and philosophical. If you want a more accessible read from Ward that covers much the same area, try Ward's "The Case for Religion".
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