Taktsang Palphug Monastery, popularly known as Tiger’s Nest, is a sacred place of worship for Buddhists. The 17th century structure is perched in the cliffside of Bhutan.

Taktsang Palphug Monastery, popularly known as Tiger’s Nest, is a sacred place of worship for Buddhists. The 17th century structure is perched in the cliffside of Bhutan.

A team of experts has assembled a two-volume library of more than 1,000 primary texts from the world’s major religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The anthology pairs the writings that underpin these living faiths with essays, poems and even hip-hop lyrics from both believers and skeptics, as a way to help scholars and lay readers alike define and understand faith. We talk with the editor about the project and fostering better understanding about religious faiths.


  • Jack Miles General editor, The Norton Anthology of World Religions; Distinguished Professor of English and Religious Studies, University of California at Irvine; author, 'GOD: A Biography’ and ‘Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God’

Book Excerpt

Excerpted from The Norton Anthology of World Religions, edited by Jack Miles. Copyright © 2015 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


  • 13:28:30

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAn ambitious project nearly a decade in the making recently came to fruition, "The Norton Anthology of World Religions." It's a two-volume library of more than a thousand primary texts from the world's major religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The anthology, which weighs in at just over eight pounds, is literality and figuratively weighty. It pairs the writings that underpin these living faiths with essays, poems and even hip-hop lyrics from believers and skeptics alike.

  • 13:29:01

    MR. KOJO NNAMDITime spent perusing its pages is meant to help scholars and lay readers alike better understand and define faith, in a time when understanding seems to be increasingly important. Joining us to explain the project and the value of fostering greater understanding of religion in our society is Jack Miles. He is the general editor of "The Norton Anthony of World Religions." He's also a distinguished professor of English and religious studies at the University of California at Irvine, and author of the Pulitzer Price-winning book "God: A Biography" and "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God." Jack Miles joins us in studio. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:29:39

    MR. JACK MILESPleasure to be here, Kojo.

  • 13:29:40

    NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Have you read the foundational text of the faith you practice or were raised in? Tell us what you've learned from doing so or why you've not, 800-433-8850. You can send us email to kojo@wamu.org or a tweet @kojoshow. Jack Miles, you're no stranger to editing projects but this was one you initially demurred from. Can you explain just how this project came about and what people will find in the final product?

  • 13:30:12

    MILESI was approached by Roby Harrington, the publisher of the college division of W.W. Norton and Company to be the general editor for an anthology whose contents were to be defined. And I initially declined his offer to head the project because I didn't really think that I knew enough. But Roby shrewdly asked me not to decide on the spot, to sleep on it. And then my journalistic half kicked in. I spent half my life as a professor and half as a journalist. And journalists do rush in where professors fear to tread.

  • 13:30:50

    MILESSo part of the time during this project I have been professor conceptualizing it. But much of the time I've been a reporter interrogating my colleagues and having them tell me what I didn't know.

  • 13:31:02

    NNAMDISo the professor half of you said, I don't know enough. The journalist half of you said, hey, this is a story to be pursued here.

  • 13:31:11

    MILESThat's right.

  • 13:31:12

    NNAMDISo the journalist side eventually won over. As I pointed out, this is at its initial printing a hefty, lovely two-volume hardback set coming in at about eight pounds. But paperback versions of each of the six faiths are forthcoming. Is that correct?

  • 13:31:29

    MILESYes. The volume number when we appear in paperback will be six. So there will be a separate book for each of the six anthologized religions, which are not -- I hesitate to use the definite article the -- they are six. They are not necessarily the six. There are other world religions. But it was conceived to be freestanding so that each explains everything in its own terms and does not jester to any other part of the book.

  • 13:32:04

    MILESWhen it comes out in spring, early spring in six volumes, it will be possible to order, for example, a pair shrink-wrapped. So if someone wanted to do, for example, Judaism and Islam, a professor could order those two. And the prices will be quite affordable. I can't quote them at the moment but they'll be kept modest.

  • 13:32:28

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Have you read the foundational text of the faith you practice or the faith you were raised in? Tell us what you've learned from doing so or why you've not. Have you taken a religious course? Tell us what you took away from it, 800-433-8850. This anthology has value for scholarly and lay readers alike. And I wonder if you would read for us from the introduction on how to read this collection, a big of direction that is quite useful in facing what may seem a daunting undertaking.

  • 13:33:00

    MILESHow to read this book, a poetic prelude. "The Norton Anthology of World Religions" is designed to be read in either of two ways. You may read it from start to finish or you may pick and choose from the table of contents. As in a museum you might choose to view one gallery rather than another or one painting rather than another. If you read it straight through, it will take you awhile but when you are finished you will have walked through much of recorded human history several times over.

  • 13:33:32

    MILESThe great cultural divisions of the world still correspond strikingly to the great religious divisions. Religion will thus have provided you with a set of lenses through which to view the emergence of the world that we all share. If you mix and match selections, you are unlikely to get lost because the work has been designed to permit just that kind of reading. It does not attempt to compare one religion with another but as we later note, all religions resemble each other in something. Whether reading for similarities or differences or reading around in simple curiosity, you will embark on another kind of exploratory journey.

  • 13:34:18

    MILESImagine yourself at the entrance to a large museum containing a great many strange works of religious art. Then hear in your mind's ear a quiet voice of poets Todd Boss saying, it is enough to enter the templar halls of museums, for example, or the chambers of churches and admire no more than the beauty there or remember the graveness of stone or whatever. You don't have to do any better. You don't have to understand the liturgy or no history to feel holy in a gallery or presbytery. It is enough to have come just so far. You need not be opened anymore than does a door standing ajar.

  • 13:35:09

    NNAMDIThis reading comes from the general introduction of the anthology. Those interested will find a preface to these volumes on our website kojoshow.org. We're talking with Jack Miles. He is the general editor of "The Norton Anthology of World Religions." He's also distinguished professor of English and religious studies at the University of California at Irvine. If you'd like to join the conversation, the number's 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website kojoshow.org where you will find the previously mentioned preface.

  • 13:35:41

    NNAMDIJust as readers may decide how to approach this collection, so too did you. What were the guiding principles you went with into this project working on it?

  • 13:35:52

    MILESI had three criteria for inclusion. The religions that we anthologize with one exception, and I'll mention the exception, are major living international religions. That means that we do not deal with the religions of ancient Greece and Rome, for example. They are no longer living. We don't deal with, for example, the Hopi religion, which is fascinating but not international. It's confined to the Hopi Nation.

  • 13:36:24

    MILESMajor generally means demographically major, populace in other words. Judaism would have not made the cut on that ground but had to be included on other grounds if only because one cannot understand Islam or Christianity without understanding it.

  • 13:36:44

    NNAMDIAnd of course there is Daoism or Taoism about which there has been, over the years, major controversy about what's the appropriate term to use for this religion.

  • 13:36:54

    MILESRight. Whether you use a D or a T at the beginning of the words has to do with custom among scholars in how you transcribe the Chinese characters. But there's something rather more important of a controversy regarding Daoism. As late as the last quarter of the 20th century, it was thought that Daoism had been driven to extinction by persecution that began in the 19th century under the Ching Dynasty, continued in the Chinese Republic and climaxed at the Red Guard period under Maoism.

  • 13:37:37

    MILESIt was seriously thought that the scriptures had been lost and that the practice had died out. In fact, the scriptures had survived by a lucky publishing break in the 1920s. And I've learned to suspect that because China has a very tyrannical government and the Chinese are very clever people that their ability to deal with tyranny must be pretty fabulous. Because as things have eased up just a bit, it has been discovered that Daoism has indeed survived. And the story of how all this has happened has not really been very widely told, but we managed to tell it pretty effectively, I think, in our Daoism Anthology.

  • 13:38:24

    NNAMDIPut on your headphones, please. I'm about to go to the telephones because Emid in Bethesda, Md. awaits us. Emid, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:38:33

    EMIDHey, I just wanted to say that, you know, growing up in Pakistan and around an Islam family, I did notice -- I mean, the fact is that the majority of Pakistanis do not speak Arabic but the text that they're supposed to read and understand as a religious text is the Quran. I just personally had a huge issue understanding it myself because I don't speak Arabic. Like the majority of Pakistanis who seem to, you know, say that, okay, we really understand it but they really don't because of course in translation a lot is lost anyway. But also it doesn't happen to be our native language. So that's all I wanted to say.

  • 13:39:12

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for that comment because, Jack Miles, you had oversight over the project as a whole but each of the six faiths, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam that are explored had an expert editor of its own. How did you go about recruiting your team of experts?

  • 13:39:31

    MILESWell, it -- I didn't do it with a dragnet. It was more like detective work. I would ask one scholar. I'd pick up a scrap of information, a lead, I'd try another scholar. I talked quite a bit to publishers who are a good source of information. And we did interview several people. The Islam editor, since that's what we were just talking about just now, is Jane Dammen McAuliffe who is the general editor of the World's First Encyclopedia of the Quran, currently directs all scholarly programs at the Library of Congress, the John Kluge Center.

  • 13:40:11

    NNAMDIAnd to our caller Emid's question, how much is lost in translation? Because all of these foundational texts are translated.

  • 13:40:25

    MILESThey're all translated, but -- though the Quran would not be an example of this -- many of the texts have only practically been available in their translated forms in the libraries of major research universities and the very few of the wealthiest city libraries. The fact of the Quran's continued use in Arabic in countries that don't speak Arabic goes to the question of what the status of a scripture is. Is a translation of the Bible as inspired as the Biblical original? Generally speaking, the Christian answer is, yes, and has been that from as far back as the original Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.

  • 13:41:14

    MILESIslam takes a different view. And the Arabic -- the sound of the Arabic has a different status, which Muslims cherish. Although I can take from Emid's call that certain Muslims also are now raising questions about this. And that's hardly to be a surprise.

  • 13:41:34

    NNAMDIIf you have questions of your own to raise, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you taken a religion course? Tell us what you took away from it. If you're an atheist or agnostic, have you researched religions? 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to kojo@wamu.org. We're going to take a short break. When we return, we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:42:21

    NNAMDIJack Miles, he's the general editor of "The Norton Anthology of World Religions." He's also distinguished professor of English and religious studies at the University of California at Irvine and author of the Pulitzer Prize Winning "GOD: A Biography" and "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God." We're talking about "The Norton Anthology," and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. In this anthology, we find the foundation text of religions, but also writings elaborating on them from theologians, scholars and laymen alike, including hip-hop artists. What do you think readers will be most surprised to find in this anthology?

  • 13:42:59

    MILESWell, that's very, very difficult to say. We had an event at the 92nd Street Y in New York. I was accompanied there by the Judaism editor and someone from the floor expressed surprise that the last selection in the anthology was by the novelist Philip Roth, not ordinarily thought of as a great defender of religion.

  • 13:43:24

    NNAMDICorrect. In addition to which, there is something from a member of Wu-Tang Clan on the Taoism section of the book -- in the Taoism section of the book.

  • 13:43:35

    MILESThe Taoism anthologist, James Robson, a professor at Harvard University, has exceeded I think all of his colleagues in finding widely-scattered, contemporary allusions to or employment of Taoist material. The Wu-Tang Clan is pretty hard to top. That's probably...

  • 13:43:57

    NNAMDIYeah, that's what you'll probably be most surprised to find in this book. On to Sriram in Chevy Chase, Md. Sriram, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:44:06

    SRIRAMThank you very much, Kojo. We follow you daily.

  • 13:44:09

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 13:44:09

    SRIRAMLove your shows. I wanted to ask the -- I look forward to reading the anthology because -- being brought up in India in a Muslim city with Christians, Jews, Farsi, et cetera, all around us -- we've always been interested in comparative religion. I was wondering though, which of the old books you read for Hinduism, because there are so many. And as you know, Hinduism is a word that was coined by Sir Monier-Williams because he just saw this practice that was similar in different parts but also varied. And he called it the Hindus, because they were east of the Indus.

  • 13:44:49


  • 13:44:49

    SRIRAMThat's how the term came about, so.

  • 13:44:52

    MILESThere's no doubt that Hinduism is a Western coinage, although now Indians have embraced it for some of the same practical terms that Western scholars retain it. Though they're aware that it is not a native term. Our anthologist for Hinduism is Wendy Doniger. And you'll be interested to hear, I think, that she divides her anthology by language. India is as complicated as Europe or probably even more complicated in the number of languages. And in each language, there's a list of fascinating texts, often poetry. We begin with the Rigveda and we end with Indian writers, including some novelists and poets of the 20th century. But the variety there is extraordinary.

  • 13:45:47

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. At one point in our not-so-distant-past, secularism seemed to be the wave of the future. With the increasingly global nature of our society, the last few decades have brought a variety of stark reminders of just how relevant religion is and how relevant understanding religion is in our modern culture. How do you put religions' importance in context for people who might question its relevance?

  • 13:46:15

    MILESThere's some reason to suppose that the real high tide of secularism might have come in the late 19th century, before World War I. And in World War I, as the proud Europeans saw to what levels they could descend, there then began a kind of reevaluation of how final a stage the secularism that was then triumphant really was. Changes of this sort, shifts of this sort don't come about quickly. So in the Second World War, there was, you know, on the one hand, a great resurgence -- through the entire 20th century, a huge resurgence of atheism. Atheism triumphed in the Soviet Union. Atheism triumphed in Communist China. And after World War II, secularism achieved a kind of dominance in Western Europe.

  • 13:47:24

    MILESBut the final returns are really not in. That we're experiencing religious violence in the Middle East, it doesn't mean that the world as a whole is returning to religion. It just means that the world has to talk about religion more. I believe the final state is going to be a kind of pluralism, in which there will be a variety of religions and a variety of different flavors of secularism.

  • 13:47:52

    NNAMDIBut you haven't answered the most important question.

  • 13:47:54

    MILESWell, what is that?

  • 13:47:54

    NNAMDIWill you and I live to see that?

  • 13:47:58

    MILESProbably not. Probably not.

  • 13:48:00

    NNAMDIAn exploration of the world's religion provides a lot of historic context for our current state of world affairs. And you already mentioned what's going on in the Islamic world. You note that a lot of people who are baffled by the breakdown between the Sunni and Shia within Islam might apply some insights from a breakdown centuries prior within Christianity. What can we learn from past periods of violence over faith?

  • 13:48:25

    MILESIn the first half of the 17th century, the Protestants and Catholics were at each other's throats in Europe. Greater Germany lost a third of its population at that time. And the British Isles lost more dead, proportionately, than they would lose in World War I. Finally, the two contending sides had to recognize that neither Protestantism nor Catholicism was going to determine the future of Christianity in the world or even in Europe. And the Peace of Westphalia allowed the establishment of state religions within a state, but eliminated any risk of an attempt by one state to impose its religion on another. If parties hadn't been exhausted, I don't think they would have come to that agreement.

  • 13:49:21

    MILESSo the question in my mind -- and it's hardly a happy question to entertain -- is whether the Sunni and Shia, who are at war with one another now in the Middle East, may have to come to a state of similar exhaustion before achieving peace on their own. I do think that they must do this essentially themselves. I don't think that any outside power -- certainly not the United States -- can either impose a solution or even really lead the way to a solution. I'm afraid that, at the moment, we're fighting for the Sunni in one theater of this conflict and for the Shia in another theater. And the American trumpet sounds a very uncertain sound just now.

  • 13:50:07

    MILESOne has to hope that the two sides will finally come to mutual acceptance. Though the Sunni vastly outnumber the Shia if you count, for example, Indonesia into the mix, there in the Middle East the two sides are so evenly matched that I don't think either side can win militarily.

  • 13:50:25

    NNAMDII'll quote from the piece you wrote for the Huffington Post, "Meanwhile, a chastened American diplomacy must finally recognize that there are conflicts for which, even with the best of intentions, there is no American solution." On therefore to Lewis in Tunis Mills, Md. Lewis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:50:45

    LEWISWhat a treat. Love your show, Kojo. I haven't been a commenter for probably -- well, many, many years. But at any rate, this is a subject that's near and dear to my heart. I did religious studies as an undergraduate and to some extent as a graduate at the University of Virginia and have lived in Monastic communities around the world. One of the areas that's really of interest to me, that must have been a delight for all of those working on these volumes, would be the intersections of these faith traditions and how they've rubbed up against each other in interesting corners of the world and sort of, you know, maybe sort of Medieval Spain.

  • 13:51:25

    LEWISAn area of interest for me has always been sort of the Hindu -- the sort of Indian-Greek intersection -- the Hindu, Buddhist, Greek intersection and the sort of aftermath of Alexander's marching around the Himalayas. And how Greek philosophy and art and the sort of northern branch of Mahayana Buddhism kind of mixed it up so that, you know, you never had a depiction of -- okay, yeah.

  • 13:51:57

    NNAMDIWe're running out of time, so allow me to ask Jack Miles how that is addressed in this anthology of world religions.

  • 13:52:04

    MILESYou get that here and there. We have in the Hindu art section -- or rather the Buddhist art section, an example of sculpture from the area that you're alluding to, where Greek tradition has affected actually the depiction of the Buddha, for example. One has a text in the Buddhism section also that alludes to the Buddha's rejection of the Rigveda, the key scripture of Hinduism. We never had a board in which all of the editors would sit down and talk about these intersections. Each of them found examples on his or her own. And it's an important sub-theme, as you allude.

  • 13:52:47

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Here's Mohib in Rockville, Md. Mohib, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:52:53

    MOHIBThank you for taking my call, Kojo. I really appreciate your programs. In terms of the various languages of the six anthologies, the original languages that the people have in their devotions, what percentage of the people actually recited in their daily prayers? For example, I'm not talking about the priest, but the common people. For example, in Islam, the Sudah Fata (sp?) is required to be recited five times a day for all the people. Similarly, are there any requirements of the originals to be recited amongst the other five religions? And what is the reason that there may be more or less in the percentage that actually recite?

  • 13:53:38

    MILESWell, this is a question from the sociology of religion and would call for statistical research. We don't really do research of that sort, so I really can't quote numbers to you. As I alluded earlier, original languages have differing status from one tradition to another. So in some traditions, translations are regarded as no less inspired by the lord than originals. And in some, that is not the case.

  • 13:54:06

    NNAMDIFinally, given how long this project was in the making, how good did it feel to be done with it? And what kind of reaction have you been getting so far, now that it's actually in print?

  • 13:54:16

    MILESWell, as I've been traveling the country now, on the book tour, on good days, I feel that I'm on the victory lap. And on bad days, I feel like I'm on the final 500 yards of a marathon, hoping that I don't fall to the track. So it -- the initial reactions have been very gratifying. My colleagues and I have really be cheered after working so long in such secrecy.

  • 13:54:43

    NNAMDII'll share my reaction with you. Thank you. What took you so long?

  • 13:54:47

    MILESThank you, Kojo.

  • 13:54:48

    NNAMDIJack Miles is the general editor of "The Norton Anthology of World Religions." He's also distinguished professor of English and religious studies at the University of California at Irvine and author of the Pulitzer Prize Winning, "GOD: A Biography" and "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God." Jack Miles, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:55:06

    MILESMy pleasure.

  • 13:55:07

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows