Four Testaments:Tao Te Ching, Analects, Dhammapada, Bhagavad Gita is an important work, suited to the times in which we live. It is a necessary work. While we ought not to assume that our world today is any worse than ages past, today’s nearly instantaneous verbal and visual interconnectedness accentuates everything good and bad happening around us and among us. It is hard, in this atmosphere of heightened awareness, not to see all that is good and bad about the human condition. In particular, we are accosted with the bad news of our times, religious discord and violence, the evident misunderstandings among traditions on the ground, at home around the globe. Deep down, we know that we very much need to learn to live together as sisters and brothers, respectful and open, living in peace and working together in justice and love for a better world. For that, we also need to understand one another better; and for that, some of us need to be better and bolder readers.

It is here that Brian Brown’s visionary project makes its welcome contribution. Three Testaments: Torah, Gospel, and Quran and now this new volume of Four Testaments simply make it enticingly easy, first of all, for interested readers to read some of the great religious classics of the human race: the Torah, the New Testament, the Quran – and now the Tao Te Ching, the Analects, the Dhammapada and the Bhagavad Gita. It is a particular merit of both volumes that these texts are given in full and not in part. There is no rush here, no list of quotable quotes, no easy path to perennial wisdom; the reader is asked to enter upon the whole of each text, to read each beginning to end, and to learn, page by page.

It is a merit that these very different texts are bound together under one cover. These are great philosophical and religious texts, not used to such binding, and some may be unsettled to see them thus published: what have the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad Gita to do with one another? But this unexpected proximity also makes possible and perhaps inevitable another real benefit of the project: to read them together, paging through them, moving back and forth from text to text, allowing reading and the reader’s imagination to bring them together. One is invited to browse religiously, intelligently, and to see what one finds.

Four Testaments therefore offers much, but accordingly it also expects much from its readers, and rightly so. Today’s needed learning cannot be delivered in a digested form, nor reduced to themes and bullet points. It is rather a much larger, longer, and deeper task of learning that is placed before us. In this book we are asked to undertake the work — all in one volume — of thinking across traditions Indian and Chinese: Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian. Of course, too, the reading is not so simple or arbitrary as to end with just one volume. All these great texts deserve to become good neighbors to one another, in this century’s greater world library. One needs to keep the Four Testaments on one’s nightstand alongside the Three Testaments, moving back and forth between the two volumes and their several great texts.

At several points in Four Testaments, particularly in Book 1, and Books 6 and 7, we find a different mode of reflection, concerning the Zoroastrian tradition of Vedic origin and The Dead Zee Scrolls, a quest to discover or imagine the lost sections of the Zoroastrian Avesta Scriptures. These are of quite a different kind than the service of publishing the Four Testaments and the Three Testaments in close proximity. Thinking about Zoroastrian wisdom and the learning of these scrolls in a series of essays and imaginative writings fosters wider speculations that interestingly enhance this project. It asks us whether it is not the case that these great traditions, now brought together in such volumes, were never really quite separate from one another, millennia ago. Perhaps the intersections, indebtedness, and meeting points go back farther than we can remember, as we are now rediscovering. Putting all these texts and speculative reflections together may in a certain sense invite a homecoming, perhaps even, some will say, a return of history’s great travelers to some common points of origin.

This is not the first effort to bring classic religious texts together; one thinks of the Sacred Books of the East, that great nineteenth century project. But in every age, the task is worth taking up again. Brian Arthur Brown and his team are to be commended for their contribution to interreligious understanding in the twenty first century, in a true and enduring way that still manages to be fresh and new.

Francis X. Clooney, SJ

Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard University