The Early Church Fathers were ancient and influential Christian theologians and writers. There is no definitive list. The era of these scholars who set the theological and scholarly foundations of Christianity largely ended by AD 700. In the past, the Church Fathers were regarded as authoritative and more restrictive definitions were used which sought to limit the list to authors treated as such. However, the definition has widened as scholars of patristics, the study of the Church Fathers, have expanded their scope. This collection of writings is available thanks to the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
The Avesta is the primary collection of religious texts of Zoroastrianism. The Avesta texts fall into several different categories, arranged either by dialect, or by usage. The principal text in the liturgical group is the Yasna, which takes its name from the Yasna ceremony, Zoroastrianism’s primary act of worship, and at which the Yasna text is recited. The most important portion of the Yasna texts are the five Gathas, consisting of seventeen hymns attributed to Zoroaster himself. These hymns, together with five other short Old Avestan texts that are also part of the Yasna, are in the Old (or ‘Gathic’) Avestan language. The remainder of the Yasna‘s texts are in Younger Avestan, which is not only from a later stage of the language, but also from a different geographic region.
Masao Abe (1915 – 2006) was a Japanese Buddhist and professor in religious studies, who became well known for his work in Buddhist-Christian interfaith dialogue, which later included Judaism. He wrote also on the experience of Zen. Abe was a Japanese academic in comparative religion (concluding as emeritus professor at Nara University), and a Buddhist philosopher. His mature views were developed within the Kyoto School of philosophy founded by Kitaro Nishida. Hence his interest in, and ability to compare and contrast, Buddhism and Christianity. Since the death of D. T. Suzuki in 1966, Masao Abe served as the main representative of Zen Buddhism in Europe and North America.
Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), also called Anselm of Aosta after his birthplace and Anselm of Bec after his monastery, was an Italian Benedictine monk, abbot, philosopher and theologian of the Catholic Church, who held the office of Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109. After his death, he was canonized as a saint; his feast day is 21 April.
The Proslogion (Discourse on the Existence of God), written in 1077–1078, was written as a prayer, or meditation, by the medieval cleric Anselm which serves to reflect on the attributes of God and endeavours to explain how God can have qualities which often seem contradictory. In the course of this meditation, the first known formulations of the ontological argument for the existence of God were set out.
Gaunilo or Gaunillon (11th century) was a Benedictine monk of Marmoutier Abbey in Tours, France. He is best known for his criticism of the ontological argument for the existence of God which appeared in St Anselm’s Proslogion. In his work On Behalf of the Fool, Gaunilo contends that St Anselm’s ontological argument fails because logic of the same kind would force one to conclude many things exist which certainly do not. An empiricist, Gaunilo thought that the human intellect is only able to comprehend information provided by the senses. He argues that we cannot arbitrarily pass from idea to reality. Anselm’s apology considers that Gaunilo had misunderstood his argument.
The Summa Theologica (written 1265–1274) is the best-known work of Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274). Although unfinished, the Summa is one of the classics of the history of philosophy and one of the most influential works of Western literature. It is intended as an instructional guide for theology students, including seminarians and the literate laity. It is a compendium of all of the main theological teachings of the Catholic Church. It presents the reasoning for almost all points of Christian theology in the West. The Summa’s topics follow a cycle: God; Creation, Man; Man’s purpose; Christ; the Sacraments; and back to God.
The Bible is a collection of sacred texts or scriptures. Varying parts of the Bible are considered to be a product of divine inspiration and a record of the relationship between God and humans by Christians, Jews, Samaritans, and Rastafarians. What is regarded as canonical text differs depending on traditions and groups; a number of Bible canons have evolved, with overlapping and diverging contents. The Hebrew Bible overlaps with the Greek Septuagint and the Christian Old Testament. The Christian New Testament is a collection of writings by early Christians, believed to be mostly Jewish disciples of Christ, written in first-century Koine Greek. Among Christian denominations, there is some disagreement about what should be included in the canon, primarily about the Apocrypha, a list of works that are regarded with varying levels of respect.
Gautama Buddha (c. 563/480 – c. 483/400 BCE), also known as Siddhārtha Gautama in Sanskrit or Siddhāttha Gotama in Pali, Shakyamuni (i.e. “Sage of the Shakyas”) Buddha, or simply the Buddha, after the title of Buddha, was a monk, mendicant, sage, and Teacher on whose teachings Buddhism was founded. He is believed to have lived and taught mostly in the northeastern part of ancient India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. Accounts of his life, discourses and monastic rules are believed by Buddhists to have been summarised after his death and memorized by his followers. Various collections of teachings attributed to him were passed down by oral tradition and first committed to writing about 400 years later.
Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, also known as Bukhari Sharif, is one of the Kutub al-Sittah (six major hadith collections) of Sunni Islam. These prophetic traditions, or hadith, were collected by the Muslim scholar Muhammad al-Bukhari, after being transmitted orally for generations. It was completed around 846 CE. Sunni Muslims view this as one of the two most trusted collections of hadith along with Sahih Muslim. The book covers almost all aspects of life in providing proper guidance of Islam such as the method of performing prayers and other actions of worship directly from the Islamic prophet, Muhammad. Bukhari spent the last twenty-four years of his life visiting other cities and scholars, teaching the hadith he had collected. In every city that Bukhari visited, thousands of people would gather in the main mosque to listen to him recite traditions.
Institutes of the Christian Religion is John Calvin’s seminal work of systematic theology. Regarded as one of the most influential works of Protestant theology, it was published in Latin in 1536 (at the same time as Henry VIII of England’s Dissolution of the Monasteries) and in his native French language in 1541, with the definitive editions appearing in 1559 (Latin) and in 1560 (French).
The book was written as an introductory textbook on the Protestant creed for those with some previous knowledge of theology and covered a broad range of theological topics from the doctrines of church and sacraments to justification by faith alone and Christian liberty. It vigorously attacked the teachings of those Calvin considered unorthodox, particularly Roman Catholicism, to which Calvin says he had been “strongly devoted” before his conversion to Protestantism. The Institutes is a highly regarded secondary reference for the system of doctrine adopted by the Reformed churches, usually called Calvinism.
The Analects (Edited Conversations), also known as the Analects of Confucius, is a collection of sayings and ideas attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius and his contemporaries, traditionally believed to have been compiled and written by Confucius’s followers. It is believed to have been written during the Warring States period (475–221 BC), and it achieved its final form during the mid-Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). By the early Han dynasty, the Analects was considered merely a “commentary” on the Five Classics, but the status of the Analects grew to be one of the central texts of Confucianism by the end of that dynasty.
During the late Song dynasty (960–1279) the importance of the Analects as a philosophy work was raised above that of the older Five Classics, and it was recognized as one of the “Four Books”. The Analects has been one of the most widely read and studied books in China for the last 2,000 years and continues to have a substantial influence on Chinese and East Asian thought and values today.
The Vedas (literally: “knowledge”) are a large body of religious texts originating in ancient India. Composed in Vedic Sanskrit, the texts constitute the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. Hindus consider the Vedas to be apauruṣeya, which means “not of a man, superhuman” and “impersonal, authorless”.
The various Indian philosophies and denominations have taken differing positions on the Vedas. Schools of Indian philosophy which cite the Vedas as their scriptural authority are classified as orthodox. Other śramaṇa traditions, such as Lokayata, Carvaka, Ajivika, Buddhism and Jainism, which did not regard the Vedas as authorities, are referred to as heterodox or non-orthodox schools. Despite their differences, just like the texts of the śramaṇa traditions, the layers of texts in the Vedas discuss similar ideas and concepts.
Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, also known as Pseudo-Denys, was a Christian theologian and philosopher of the late 5th to early 6th century, who wrote a set of works known as the Corpus Areopagiticum or Corpus Dionysiacum. The author pseudonymously identifies himself in the corpus as “Dionysios”, portraying himself as the figure of Dionysius the Areopagite, the Athenian convert of Paul the Apostle mentioned in Acts 17:34. This false attribution to the earliest decades of Christianity resulted in the work being given great authority in subsequent theological writing in both East and West.
The Dionysian writings and their mystical teaching were universally accepted throughout the East, amongst both Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians, and also had a strong impact in later medieval western mysticism, most notably Meister Eckhart. Its influence decreased in the West with the fifteenth-century demonstration of its later dating, but in recent decades, interest has increased again in the Corpus Areopagiticum.
Dōgen Zenji (1200 – 1253), also known as Dōgen Kigen, Eihei Dōgen, Kōso Jōyō Daishi, or Busshō Dentō Kokushi, was a Japanese Buddhist priest, writer, poet, philosopher, and founder of the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan. Originally ordained as a monk in the Tendai School in Kyoto, he was ultimately dissatisfied with its teaching and traveled to China to seek out what he believed to be a more authentic Buddhism. He remained there for five years, finally training under Tiantong Rujing, an eminent teacher of the Chinese Caodong lineage. Upon his return to Japan, he began promoting the practice of zazen (sitting meditation) through literary works such as Fukan zazengi and Bendōwa.
He eventually broke relations completely with the powerful Tendai School, and, after several years of likely friction between himself and the establishment, left Kyoto for the mountainous countryside where he founded the monastery Eihei-ji, which remains the head temple of the Sōtō school today. Dōgen is known for his extensive writing including his most famous work, the collection of 95 essays called the Shōbōgenzō, but also Eihei Kōroku, a collection of his talks, poetry, and commentaries, and Eihei Shingi, the first Zen monastic code written in Japan, among others.
Eihei Kōroku, also known by its English translation Dōgen’s Extensive Record, is a ten-volume collection of works by the Sōtō Zen monk Eihei Dōgen. The bulk of the text, accounting for volumes one through seven, are formal Dharma hall discourses given from 1236 to 1252. Volume eight consists of informal meetings that would have taken place in Dōgen’s quarters with select groups of monks, as well as Dharma words, which were letters containing practice instructions to specific students. Volume nine includes a collection of 90 traditional kōans with verse commentary by Dōgen, while volume 10 collects his Chinese poetry.
Eckhart von Hochheim (1260 – c. 1328), commonly known as Meister Eckhart or Eckehart, was a German theologian, philosopher and mystic, born near Gotha, in the Landgraviate of Thuringia (now central Germany) in the Holy Roman Empire.
Eckhart came into prominence during the Avignon Papacy, at a time of increased tensions between monastic orders, diocesan clergy, the Franciscan Order, and Eckhart’s Dominican Order of Preachers. In later life, he was accused of heresy and brought up before the local Franciscan-led Inquisition, and tried as a heretic by Pope John XXII. He seems to have died before his verdict was received.
He was well known for his work with pious lay groups such as the Friends of God and was succeeded by his more circumspect disciples John Tauler and Henry Suso. Since the 19th century, he has received renewed attention. He has acquired a status as a great mystic within contemporary popular spirituality, as well as considerable interest from scholars situating him within the medieval scholastic and philosophical tradition.
The Book of Enoch is an ancient Jewish religious work, ascribed by tradition to Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah. Enoch warrants special attention for the unique material it holds, such as the origins of supernatural demons and giants, why some angels fell from heaven, details explaining why the Great Flood was morally necessary, and prophetic exposition of the thousand-year reign of the Messiah. The older sections (mainly in the Book of the Watchers) of the text are estimated to date from about 300 BC, and the latest part (Book of Parables) probably to the 1st century BC.
The Church History of Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea was a 4th-century pioneer work giving a chronological account of the development of Early Christianity from the 1st century to the 4th century. It was written in Koine Greek and survives also in Latin, Syriac and Armenian manuscripts. The result was the first full-length historical narrative written from a Christian point of view.
The Essence of Christianity is a book by Ludwig Feuerbach first published in 1841. It explains Feuerbach’s philosophy and critique of religion. The book is often considered a classic of humanism and the author’s magnum opus. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were strongly influenced by the book, although they criticised Feuerbach for his inconsistent espousal of materialism. Feuerbach’s theory of alienation would later be used by Marx in his theory of alienation. Max Stirner directed his The Ego and Its Own against it. Rather than simply a polemic, Stirner’s work uses Feuerbach’s idea of God as a human abstraction as the basis of his critique of Feuerbach.
Norman Leo Geisler (born July 21, 1932) is a Christian systematic theologian and philosopher. He is the co-founder of two non-denominational evangelical seminaries (Veritas Evangelical Seminary and Southern Evangelical Seminary). He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Loyola University and has made scholarly contributions to the subjects of classical Christian apologetics, systematic theology, the history of philosophy, philosophy of religion, Calvinism, Roman Catholicism, biblical inerrancy, Bible difficulties, ethics, and more. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of over 90 books and hundreds of articles. Christian Apologetics (1976) represents Geisler’s attempt to defend his faith using natural theology and historical evidence.
Is there any basis in reality for a religious experience? Is there any basis in reason for belief in God? Is it even possible to speak meaningfully of a transcendent being? And how does one account for evil? Norman Geisler answers these questions, representing the four most important issues in the philosophy of religion in a comprehensive way and from the perspective of classical theism. He supports this position with in-depth argumentation, taking into account both classical and contemporary writers.
Al-Ghazali (c. 1058 – 1111) was one of the most prominent and influential philosophers, theologians, jurists, and mystics of Sunni Islam. He was of Persian origin. Islamic tradition considers him to be a Mujaddid, a renewer of the faith who, according to the prophetic hadith, appears once every century to restore the faith of the ummah (“the Islamic Community”). His works were so highly acclaimed by his contemporaries that al-Ghazali was awarded the honorific title “Proof of Islam”.
The autobiography al-Ghazali wrote towards the end of his life, Deliverance From Error is considered a work of major importance. In it, al-Ghazali recounts how, once a crisis of epistemological skepticism was resolved by “a light which God Most High cast into my breast … the key to most knowledge,” he studied and mastered the arguments of kalam, Islamic philosophy, and Ismailism. Though appreciating what was valid in the first two of these, at least, he determined that all three approaches were inadequate and found ultimate value only in the mystical experience and insight he attained as a result of following Sufi practices. William James, in Varieties of Religious Experience, considered the autobiography an important document for “the purely literary student who would like to become acquainted with the inwardness of religions other than the Christian” because of the scarcity of recorded personal religious confessions and autobiographical literature from this period outside the Christian tradition.
The Incoherence of the Philosophers is the title of a landmark 11th-century work by the Persian theologian Al-Ghazali and a student of the Asharite school of Islamic theology criticizing the Avicennian school of early Islamic philosophy. Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Al-Farabi (Alpharabius) are denounced in this book. The book favors faith over philosophy in matters specifically concerning metaphysics or knowledge of the divine. The belief that all causal events and interactions are not the product of material conjunctions but rather the immediate and present Will of God, underlies the work. The text was dramatically successful and marked a milestone in the ascendance of the Asharite school within Islamic philosophy and theological discourse.
The Principia Discordia is a Discordian religious text written by Greg Hill (Malaclypse the Younger) with Kerry Wendell Thornley (Lord Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst). The first edition was printed using Jim Garrison’s Xerox printer in 1963. The second edition was published under the title Principia Discordia or How The West Was Lost in a limited edition of five copies in 1965. The phrase Principia Discordia, reminiscent of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, is presumably intended to mean Discordant Principles or Principles of Discordance.
The Principia describes the Discordian Society and its Goddess Eris, as well as the basics of the POEE denomination of Discordianism. It features typewritten and handwritten text intermixed with clip art, stamps, and seals appropriated from other sources. While the Principia is full of literal contradictions and unusual humor, it contains several passages which propose that there is serious intent behind the work. For example, a message scrawled on page 00075: “If you think the PRINCIPIA is just a ha-ha, then go read it again.”
The Principia is quoted extensively in and shares many themes with the satirical science fiction book The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. Notable symbols in the book include the Apple of Discord, the pentagon, and the “Sacred Chao”, which resembles the Taijitu of Taoism, but the two principles depicted are “Hodge” and “Podge” rather than yin and yang, and they are represented by the apple and the pentagon, and not by dots. Saints identified include Emperor Norton, Yossarian, Don Quixote, and Bokonon.
The Perennial Philosophy is a comparative study of mysticism by the British writer and novelist Aldous Huxley. Its title derives from the theological tradition of the philosophia perennis. Perennial philosophy, also referred to as perennialism and perennial wisdom, is a perspective in modern spirituality that views each of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single metaphysical truth or origin from which all esoteric and exoteric knowledge and doctrine have grown. A popular interpretation argues for universalism, the idea that all religions, underneath seeming differences, point to the same Truth.
The Perennial Philosophy is an inspired gathering of religious writings that reveals the “divine reality” common to all faiths. “The Perennial Philosophy,” Aldous Huxley writes, “may be found among the traditional lore of peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.”
With great wit and stunning intellect—drawing on a diverse array of faiths, including Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christian mysticism, and Islam—Huxley examines the spiritual beliefs of various religious traditions and explains how they are united by a common human yearning to experience the divine. The Perennial Philosophy includes selections from Meister Eckhart, Rumi, and Lao Tzu, as well as the Bhagavad Gita, Tibetan Book of the Dead, Diamond Sutra, and Upanishads, among many others.
The I Ching or Yi Jing, also known as Classic of Changes or Book of Changes, is an ancient Chinese divination text and the oldest of the Chinese classics. Possessing a history of more than two and a half millennia of commentary and interpretation, the I Ching is an influential text read throughout the world, providing inspiration to the worlds of religion, psychoanalysis, literature, and art. Originally a divination manual in the Western Zhou period (1000–750 BC), over the course of the Warring States period and early imperial period (500–200 BC) it was transformed into a cosmological text with a series of philosophical commentaries known as the “Ten Wings”. After becoming part of the Five Classics in the 2nd century BC, the I Ching was the subject of scholarly commentary and the basis for divination practice for centuries across the Far East, and eventually took on an influential role in Western understanding of Eastern thought.
Søren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic and religious author who is widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher. He wrote critical texts on organized religion, Christendom, morality, ethics, psychology, and the philosophy of religion, displaying a fondness for metaphor, irony and parables. Much of his philosophical work deals with the issues of how one lives as a “single individual”, giving priority to concrete human reality over abstract thinking and highlighting the importance of personal choice and commitment. Attack Upon Christendom is a religious diatribe written from within the Church against the established order of things in a presumably “Christian” land.
Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) is the most important of his many theological writings. Central to all of them is his belief that every individual has within him the abilities necessary to comprehend his duty and to achieve salvation with the aid of the Scriptures. Locke was constantly trying to steer a course that would allow individuals to accept the essential doctrines of Christianity while retaining a certain freedom of conscience. According to Locke, all Christians must accept Jesus as the Messiah and live in accordance with his teachings. Within this minimum framework, however, differences of worship could and should be tolerated. Locke was thus in many ways close to the Latitudinarian movement and other liberal theological trends. His influence on Protestant Christian thought for at least the next century was substantial.
The Ninety-five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences is a list of propositions for an academic disputation written in 1517 by Martin Luther, professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg, Germany. They advance Luther’s positions against what he saw as the abuse of the practice of clergy selling plenary indulgences, which were certificates believed to reduce the temporal punishment in purgatory for sins committed by the purchasers or their loved ones. In the Theses, Luther claimed that the repentance required by Christ in order for sins to be forgiven involves inner spiritual repentance rather than merely external sacramental confession. He argued that indulgences led Christians to avoid true repentance and sorrow for sin, believing that they could forgo it by purchasing an indulgence. These indulgences, according to Luther, discouraged Christians from giving to the poor and performing other acts of mercy, believing that indulgence certificates were more spiritually valuable.
Luther sent the Theses enclosed with a letter to Albert of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz, on 31 October 1517, a date now considered the start of the Reformation and commemorated annually as Reformation Day. Luther may have also posted the Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church and other churches in Wittenberg, in accordance with University custom, on 31 October or in mid-November. The Theses were quickly reprinted, translated, and distributed throughout Germany and Europe. They initiated a pamphlet war with the indulgence preacher Johann Tetzel, which spread Luther’s fame even further. Luther’s ecclesiastical superiors had him tried for heresy, which culminated in his excommunication in 1521. Though the Theses were the start of the Reformation, Luther did not consider indulgences to be as important as other theological matters which would divide the church, such as justification by faith alone and the bondage of the will. His breakthrough on these issues would come later, and he did not see the writing of the Theses as the point at which his beliefs diverged from those of the Roman Catholic Church.
These eight volumes of 175 sermons and 3,110 pages are the classic devotional literature of Protestantism. What Luther’s two Catechisms were in the school room to teach the Christian faith to the youth, these sermons were in the homes to develop the same faith in adults.
The Guide for the Perplexed is one of the three major works of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, primarily known either as Maimonides or RAMBAM. This work seeks to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy with Hebrew Bible theology, by finding rational explanations for many events in the text.
Since many of the philosophical concepts, such as his view of theodicy and the relationship between philosophy and religion, are relevant beyond strictly Jewish theology, it has been the work most commonly associated with Maimonides in the non-Jewish world and it is known to have influenced several major non-Jewish philosophers. Following its publication, almost every philosophic work for the remainder of the Middle Ages cited, commented on, or criticized Maimonides’ views.
Sahih Muslim is one of the Kutub al-Sittah (six major hadith collections) in Sunni Islam. It is highly acclaimed by Sunni Muslims as well as Zaidi Shia Muslims. It is considered the second most authentic hadith collection after Sahih al-Bukhari. It was collected by Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, also known as Imam Muslim. Its authenticity has sometimes been questioned due to the fact that it was written over 250 years after the Islamic Prophet, Muhammed. Regardless of this, Sunni Muslims believe it to be genuine and authentic.
The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Sanskrit) or Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, is a key text of the Madhyamaka-school, written by Nagarjuna. The book is Nagarjuna’s best-known work. According to Kalupahanna, it is “not only a grand commentary on the Buddha’s discourse to Kaccayana, the only discourse cited by name, but also a detailed and careful analysis of most of the important discourses included in the Nikayas and the Agamas, especially those of the Atthakavagga of the Sutta-nipata.”
According to Kalupahanna, in this work, “Utilizing the Buddha’s theory of “dependent arising”, Nagarjuna demonstrated the futility of metaphysical speculations. His method of dealing with such metaphysics is referred to as “middle way”. It is the middle way that avoided the substantialism of the Sarvastivadins as well as the nominalism of the Sautrantikas.
According to Kalupahanna, Nagarjuna insisted that “All experienced phenomena are empty (sunya). This did not mean that they are not experienced and, therefore, non-existent; only that they are devoid of a permanent and eternal substance. Since they are experienced, they are not mere names.
On Buddhism presents the first English-language translation of a series of lectures by Keiji Nishitani (1900–1990), a major Buddhist thinker and a key figure in the Kyoto School of Japanese philosophy. Originally delivered in the early 1970s, these lectures focus on the transformation of culture in the modern age and the subsequent decline in the importance of the family and religion. Nishitani’s concern is that modernity, with its individualism, materialism, and contractual ethics, is an insufficient basis for human relationships. With deep insight into both Buddhism and Christianity, he explores such issues as the nature of genuine human existence, the major role of conscience in our advance to authenticity, and the needed transformation of religion. Nishitani criticizes contemporary Buddhism for being too esoteric and asks that it “come down from Mt. Hiei” to reestablish itself as a vital source of worthy ideals and to point toward a way of remaining human even in a modern and postmodern world.
The Upanishads, a part of the Vedas, are ancient Sanskrit texts that contain some of the central philosophical concepts and ideas of Hinduism, some of which are shared with religious traditions like Buddhism and Jainism. Among the most important literature in the history of Indian religions and culture, the Upanishads played an important role in the development of spiritual ideas in ancient India, marking a transition from Vedic ritualism to new ideas and institutions. Of all Vedic literature, the Upanishads alone are widely known, and their central ideas are at the spiritual core of Hindus.
The Upanishads are commonly referred to as Vedānta. Vedanta has been interpreted as the last chapters, parts of the Veda and alternatively as the object, the highest purpose of the Veda. The concepts of Brahman (ultimate reality) and Ātman (soul, self) are central ideas in all of the Upanishads, and “know that you are the Ātman” is their thematic focus. Along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahmasutra, the mukhya Upanishads (known collectively as the Prasthanatrayi) provide a foundation for the several later schools of Vedanta, among them, two influential monistic schools of Hinduism.
With the translation of the Upanishads in the early 19th century, they also started to attract attention from a western audience. Arthur Schopenhauer was deeply impressed by the Upanishads and called it “the production of the highest human wisdom”. Modern era Indologists have discussed the similarities between the fundamental concepts in the Upanishads and major western philosophers.
The Quran (literally meaning “the recitation”; also romanized Qur’an or Koran) is the central religious text of Islam, which Muslims believe to be a revelation from God (Allah). It is widely regarded as the finest work in classical Arabic literature. The Quran is divided into chapters, which are subdivided into verses.
Muslims believe that the Quran was orally revealed by God to the final Prophet, Muhammad, through the archangel Gabriel, incrementally over a period of some 23 years, beginning on 22 December 609 CE, when Muhammad was 40, and concluding in 632, the year of his death. Muslims regard the Quran as Muhammad’s most important miracle, a proof of his prophethood, and the culmination of a series of divine messages starting with those revealed to Adam and ending with Muhammad.
According to tradition, several of Muhammad’s companions served as scribes and recorded the revelations. Shortly after his death, the Quran was compiled by the companions, who had written down or memorized parts of it. The codices showed differences that motivated Caliph Uthman to establish a standard version, now known as Uthman’s codex, which is generally considered the archetype of the Quran known today. There are, however, variant readings, with mostly minor differences in meaning.
This challenging and beautifully written book describes the leading ideas of Indian philosophy and religion. It traces the probable influence of Indian mysticism on Greek thought and Christian development, through Alexandrian Judaism, Christian Gnosticism, and Neo-Platonism. The author argues that Christianity, which arose out of an eastern background and became wedded to Graeco-Latin culture, will find rebirth in a renewed alliance with this Eastern heritage.
On the Harmony of Religion is an Islamic philosophical treatise written by Andalusian Muslim polymath and philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126–1198), in which the author critically examines the alleged tension between philosophy and religion and concludes that philosophy (in particular, Aristotelian philosophy) is not in opposition to—and in fact, works in tandem with—Islamic thought. In the work, Averroes argues that some Muslims have an obligation to study philosophy, and that the subject should be considered an Islamic science. The work also contains several other unique ideas, including Averroes’ assertion that the Qur’an should sometimes be read in a non-literal way. According to William Theodore De Bary and Ainslie Embree, On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy represents a “classic attempt to reconcile religion and philosophy.”
The Incoherence of the Incoherence by Andalusian Muslim polymath and philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126–1198) is an important Islamic philosophical treatise in which the author defends the use of Aristotelian philosophy within Islamic thought. It was written in the style of a dialogue against al-Ghazali’s claims in The Incoherence of the Philosophers, which criticized Neoplatonic thought. Originally written in Arabic, The Incoherence of the Incoherence was subsequently translated into many other languages. The book is considered Averroes’ landmark; in it, he tries to create harmony between faith and philosophy.
Friedrich Schleiermacher was a German theologian, philosopher, and biblical scholar known for his attempt to reconcile the criticisms of the Enlightenment with traditional Protestant Christianity. He also became influential in the evolution of higher criticism, and his work forms part of the foundation of the modern field of hermeneutics. Because of his profound effect on subsequent Christian thought, he is often called the “Father of Modern Liberal Theology” and is considered an early leader in liberal Christianity. The neo-orthodox movement of the twentieth century, typically (though not without challenge) seen to be spearheaded by Karl Barth, was in many ways an attempt to challenge his influence.
On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers was originally published in 1799, two further editions were released in Schleiermacher’s lifetime in 1806 and 1831. On Religion is divided into five major sections: the Defense, the Nature of Religion, the Cultivation of Religion, Association in Religion, and the Religions.
The Quest of the Historical Jesus is a 1906 work of Biblical historical criticism written by Albert Schweitzer during the previous year, before he began to study for a medical degree. In The Quest, Schweitzer reviews all prior work on the question of the “historical Jesus” starting with the late 18th century. He points out how Jesus’ image has changed with the times and with the personal proclivities of the various authors. He concludes with his own synopsis and interpretation of what had been learned over the course of the previous century. He takes the position that the life and thinking of Jesus must be interpreted in the light of Jesus’ own convictions, which he characterizes as those of “late Jewish eschatology”, and that Jesus defies any attempt at understanding him by making parallels to the ways of thinking or feeling of modern men. In Schweitzer’s view, Jesus genuinely believed that his ministry would bring about the end of history and did not see any prolonged period elapsing between his time on earth and God’s final judgment.
Huston Smith (1919 – 2016) was a religious studies scholar in the United States. His book The World’s Religions (originally titled The Religions of Man) sold over three million copies and remains a popular introduction to comparative religion. During his career, Smith not only studied but also practiced Vedanta (studying under Swami Satprakashananda, founder of the St. Louis Vedanta Center), Zen Buddhism (studying under Goto Zuigan), and Sufism of Islam for more than ten years each. This classic companion to The World’s Religions articulates the remarkable unity that underlies the world’s religious traditions.
The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined was one of the most controversial and hotly contested books of its time. One reviewer stated that it was “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell.” Strauss rejected the idea of miracles in the Bible, instead crediting them as mythical stories used to demonstrate a point. He also discredits Jesus’s divinity, dissecting the New Testament and pointing out that Jesus was simply a manifestation of who the Jews wished their Messiah to be. The book was translated from its fourth German edition in 1843 by George Eliot. David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) was a German theologian and author who focused his work on the critical study and examination of Jesus. Strauss’ most famous and acclaimed work was The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, but he wrote many other books defending his position on the divinity of Jesus, which he denied. While his position was hotly debated and highly unpopular at the time, his work has had a great impact on the study of Christianity, the New Testament, and early religions today.
Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki was a Japanese author of books and essays on Buddhism, Zen (Chan) and Shin that were instrumental in spreading interest in both Zen and Shin (and Far Eastern philosophy in general) to the West. Suzuki was also a prolific translator of Chinese, Japanese, and Sanskrit literature. Suzuki spent several lengthy stretches teaching or lecturing at Western universities, and devoted many years to a professorship at Ōtani University, a Japanese Buddhist school. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963.
An Introduction to Zen Buddhism is a 1934 book about Zen Buddhism by Suzuki. First published in Kyoto by the Eastern Buddhist Society, it was soon published in other nations and languages, with an added preface by Carl Jung. The book has come to be regarded as one of the most influential books on Zen in the West.
The Bhagavad Gita (lit. “The Song of God”), often referred to as the Gita, is a 700-verse Hindu scripture in Sanskrit that is part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. The Gita is set in a narrative framework of a dialogue between Pandava prince Arjuna and his guide and charioteer Krishna. At the start of the Dharma Yudhha (righteous war) between Pandavas and Kauravas, Arjuna is filled with moral dilemma and despair about the violence and death the war will cause. He wonders if he should renounce and seeks Krishna’s counsel, whose answers and discourse constitute the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna counsels Arjuna to “fulfill his Kshatriya (warrior) duty to uphold the Dharma” through “selfless action”. The Krishna-Arjuna dialogue covers a broad range of spiritual topics, touching upon ethical dilemmas and philosophical issues that go far beyond the war Arjuna faces.
The Bhagavad Gita presents a synthesis of Hindu ideas about dharma, theistic bhakti, and the yogic paths to moksha. The synthesis presents four paths to spirituality – jnana, bhakti, karma, and raja yogas. These incorporate ideas from the Samkhya-Yoga and Vedanta philosophies. Numerous commentaries have been written on the Bhagavad Gita with widely differing views on the essentials. Vedanta commentators read varying relations between Self and Brahman in the text: Advaita Vedanta sees the non-dualism of Atman (soul) and Brahman as its essence, whereas Bhedabheda and Vishishtadvaita see Atman and Brahman as both different and non-different, and Dvaita sees them as different. The setting of the Gita in a battlefield has been interpreted as an allegory for the ethical and moral struggles of the human life.
The Bhagavad Gita is the best known and most famous of Hindu texts, with a unique pan-Hindu influence. The Gita’s call for selfless action inspired many leaders of the Indian independence movement including Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi referred to the Gita as his “spiritual dictionary”.
The Talmud is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law and Jewish theology. Until the advent of modernity, in nearly all Jewish communities, the Talmud was the centerpiece of Jewish cultural life and was foundational to all Jewish thought and aspirations, serving also as the guide for the daily life of Jews.
The term “Talmud” normally refers to the collection of writings named specifically the Babylonian Talmud, although there is also an earlier collection known as the Jerusalem Talmud. The Talmud has two components; the Mishnah (c. 200 CE), a written compendium of Rabbinic Judaism’s Oral Torah; and the Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah and related Tannaitic writings that often ventures onto other subjects and expounds broadly on the Hebrew Bible. The term “Talmud” may refer to either the Gemara alone or the Mishnah and Gemara together.
The entire Talmud consists of 63 tractates, and in standard print is over 6,200 pages long. It is written in Mishnaic Hebrew and Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and contains the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis (dating from before the Common Era through to the fifth century) on a variety of subjects, including halakha, Jewish ethics, philosophy, customs, history, lore and many other topics. The Talmud is the basis for all codes of Jewish law, and is widely quoted in rabbinic literature.
The Hebrew Bible, also called the Tanakh (also Tenakh, Tenak, Tanach) or Mikra, is the canonical collection of Jewish texts, which is also the textual source for the Christian Old Testament. These texts are composed mainly in Biblical Hebrew, with some passages in Biblical Aramaic (in the books of Daniel, Ezra and a few others). The form of this text that is authoritative for Rabbinic Judaism is known as the Masoretic Text (MT), and is divided into 24 books, while the Protestant Bible translations divide the same material into 39 books.
Modern scholars seeking to understand the history of the Hebrew Bible use a range of sources, in addition to the Masoretic Text. These sources include early Greek (Septuagint) and Syriac (Peshitta) translations, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Dead Sea Scrolls and quotations from rabbinic manuscripts. Many of these sources may be older than the Masoretic Text and often differ from it. These differences have given rise to the theory that yet another text, an Urtext of the Hebrew Bible, once existed and is the source of the versions extant today. However, such an Urtext has never been found, and which of the three commonly known versions (Septuagint, Masoretic Text, Samaritan Pentateuch) is closest to the Urtext is not fully determined.
The Gospel of Thomas is a non-canonical sayings gospel. It was discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in December 1945 among a group of books known as the Nag Hammadi library. Scholars speculate that the works were buried in response to a letter from Bishop Athanasius declaring a strict canon of Christian scripture.
The Gospel of Thomas is very different in tone and structure from other New Testament apocrypha and the four Canonical Gospels. Unlike the canonical Gospels, it is not a narrative account of the life of Jesus; instead, it consists of logia (sayings) attributed to Jesus, sometimes stand-alone, sometimes embedded in short dialogues or parables. The text contains a possible allusion to the death of Jesus in logion 65 (Parable of the Wicked Tenants, paralleled in the Synoptic Gospels), but does not mention his crucifixion, his resurrection, or the final judgment; nor does it mention a messianic understanding of Jesus.
Paul Tillich (1886 – 1965) was a German-American Christian existentialist philosopher and Lutheran Protestant theologian who is widely regarded as one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. Among the general public, he is best known for his works The Courage to Be (1952) and Dynamics of Faith (1957), which introduced issues of theology and modern culture to a general readership. In academic theology, he is best known for his major three-volume work Systematic Theology (1951–63) in which he developed his “method of correlation”, an approach of exploring the symbols of Christian revelation as answers to the problems of human existence raised by contemporary existential philosophical analysis. In The Courage to Be, Tillich describes the dilemma of modern man and points a way to the conquest of the problem of anxiety.
These twenty-three meditations on key passages from the Bible were originally delivered as addresses at colleges and universities. They are short, powerful, and persuasive examinations of the effect of God’s love on the life of the believer and the challenges of living the New Creation—“the infinite passion of every human being.”
Matthew Tindal (1657 – 1733) was an eminent English deist author. His works, highly influential at the dawn of the Enlightenment, caused great controversy and challenged the Christian consensus of his time. Christianity as Old as the Creation; or, the Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature (1730), came to be regarded as the “Bible” of deism. It was really only the first part of the whole work, and the second, though written and entrusted in manuscript to a friend, never saw the light.
Tindal’s ‘deist Bible’ redefined the foundation of deist epistemology as knowledge based on experience or human reason. This effectively widened the gap between traditional Christians and what he called “Christian deists” since this new foundation required that revealed truth be validated through human reason. In Christianity as Old as the Creation, Tindal articulates many prominent facets of deism that have continued to characterize that belief through subsequent centuries unto the present day.
The Way of Zen is a 1957 non-fiction book on Zen Buddhism and Eastern philosophy by philosopher and religious scholar Alan Watts. It was a bestseller and played a major role in introducing Buddhism to a mostly young, Western audience.
The Way of Zen is divided into two sections, the first which deals with the background and historical development of Zen Buddhism, and the latter which focuses on the principles and practices. The second half has sections that include “Empty and Marvelous,” “Sitting Quietly, Doing Nothing,” “Za-zen and the Koan,” and “Zen and the Arts.”
Watts traces the origin of Zen Buddhism as a synthesis of Chinese Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. Watts introduces the reader to a variety of Eastern philosophical concepts such as wuwei, The Middle Way and anatman. Watts portrays the western philosophical tradition as being intrinsically limited by the strict adherence to logical structures as opposed to eastern philosophy which is not bound by these structures.
The Zohar (lit. “Splendor” or “Radiance”) is the foundational work in the literature of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah. It is a group of books including commentary on the mystical aspects of the Torah (the five books of Moses) and scriptural interpretations as well as material on mysticism, mythical cosmogony, and mystical psychology. The Zohar contains discussions of the nature of God, the origin and structure of the universe, the nature of souls, redemption, the relationship of Ego to Darkness and “true self” to “The Light of God”, and the relationship between the “universal energy” and man. Its scriptural exegesis can be considered an esoteric form of the Rabbinic literature known as Midrash, which elaborates on the Torah.
Note: Internet Sacred Text Archive hosts an archive of online books about religion, mythology, folklore and the esoteric. Christian Classics Ethereal Library hosts an archive of classic Christian literature. You can find free e-books and free online courses at Open Culture. Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive both host vast libraries of e-books for free to the public.