Publication Date

December 1, 1995

Twenty years ago, when I first became interested in world religions, I had no academic background in the field and no clear idea of how to begin learning about the subject I later discovered that Lao Tzu, the semimythical founder of Taoism, had offered sound advice: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

I took my first step in learning about world religions by reading as much as I could about all the world's principal faith traditions. After a year of reading, I knew a little about a lot, and I began to offer a course on the subject. Now, as I look back, I wince at how little I actually had to impart to students, who sometimes knew far more than I about the faiths under review.

For the next several years, I investigated each, major faith tradition in depth. During this time, I also explored lesser-known religion. Judaism was studied in conjunction with Zoroastrianism (which helped shape development of Judaism after the Babylonian captivity). Hinduism was reviewed in relation to its ancient Vedic antecedents and the Upanishadic Reform of 800 to 500 B.C.E. Buddhism was studied in contrast to both Jainism (which began in India at roughly the same time as Buddhism [500 B.C.E.]) and the later Chinese influences of Confucianism and Taoism. Christianity was seen within the hothouse of Gnosticism, which dominated the Hellenistic world at the time of the former's creation. Islam was studied with an eye toward how Hinduism and Islam eventually blended in Sikhism,

After completing a six-year study (while simultaneously teaching full time), I reflected on how each of these traditions had mystical expressions that all said essentially the same thing, At the risk of oversimplification, these mystical voices said that God (or Enlightenment) could only be discovered in the process of diminishing ego, Only by denying "self" could "Self" be found. As I had first become interested in the subject of religion after contracting a life-threatening disease in my early thirties (an experience that thoroughly humbled me), I knew this to be true. Sufism m Islam, Zen in Buddhism Advaita Vedanta and bhakti yoga in Hinduism and the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth (whom Sufis call "The Seal of the Saints") all speak to this same core teaching. In Judaism, kabbalism, for the esoteric few, and Hasidism, for many more, touch upon the same theme: the kingdom of God is at hand; the Messiah is in every moment; joy is even in life's seemingly darkest moments.

I found this thread of unity among the world's faiths intriguing. So often we are distracted by claims of exclusivity and examples of religious intolerance that we fail to recognize this arena of agreement. In apluralistic American classroom, I highlight this unity. With so much dividing our nation and our world, it is constructive to drawattention to that which binds us together,

"Education" comes from a Latin root meaning to lead out, "religion" from a Latin root meaning to bind. The two may seem to be diametrically opposed, but each ultimately strengthens and relies upon the other. Education (leading out) without any grounding ultimately leads to chaos. Religion (binding) without any educationwill lead to intolerance and genocide. In teaching about world religions, whether in specific courses devoted to the subject or in more general world civilization courses, I try to keep the purposes of both education and religion in tension, for the mutual benefit of both.

As should be obvious at this point, I do not treat the material in a disengaged manner. Religion is the very stuff of life and should be studied as such. It is necessarily subjective. While academic analysis definitely tends toward objectification, I think that it is important to avoid a sterile neutrality, I attempt to engage my material subjectively by regularly returning to the unifying theme of mysticism and the denial of selfishness in the world's major faith traditions. All seekers, relying upon unprovable belief, are accommodated in this approach. Even atheists, whose position (as that of theists) rests upon belief, normally appreciate the societal benefits of diminishing individual selfishness. I do not proselytize in class, although the foregoing paragraph may suggest that I do. To proselytize necessitates an argumentative stance that would shut down a desirable open-ended educational experience as well as violate the American value of separation of church and state (l am on the payroll at a state university),

At the same time, I do not hide my own religious beliefs (I am a member of the United Methodist Church and am the spouse of a United Methodist minister), Students have a right to know their teachers' orientations to life, especially in courses exploring religious or ideological belief systems, In class I emphasize to, students that I am not all knowing or all Wise. If I cannot answer a particular question I try to find the best answer supportable by historical evidence. I am a fellow seeker with my students, not some divinely appointed authority or expert placed above them. In this light, I am not afraid of saying, "I don't know."

My most common challenge in teaching world religions comes from Christian Fundamentalists, who upon hearing my paeans to mysticism frequently suspect I am motivated by some New Age guru lurking in the wings. They usually fear I am going to use logic or liberal United Methodist theology to attack their position, whereas in fact I have no such hidden agenda, I have found their opposition to be fed usually by a need for absolute certainty that is heightened in our most uncertain, unpredictable world. I do not treat such students as "the enemy." To the contrary, I regard them as serious seekers. That they have placed themselves in a university classroom indicates they are open to the liberating vistas of education, while understandably they want to retain their own bedrock of faith.

One approach I use to establish successful communication with Christian Fundamentalists is to emphasize that their own faith tradition is founded upon inexplicable mystery, not human rationality, (In taking this approach, I throwaway the weapon—logic—that they fear I am going to use against them and, at the same time, hope to disabuse them of using similar weapons against my approach.) In drawing their attention to the traditional reliance of Christianity upon mystery, I might point out that the doctrine of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit constituting One Godhead) is beyond rational explanation and resides in the realm of faith. Or I might talk about the inexplicable mystery involved in the unresolvable tension between the biblical concepts of individual freedom of choice (freewill) and of divine omniscience and omnipotence. St. Augustine, certainly a traditional voice in Christianity, sought to lay this apparent logical conflict to rest by claiming both exist simultaneously, but in a mysterious way not understandable by the rational mind (his "theory of divine concurrence”). Usually, this Bible-based approach keeps Fundamentalists open to the teaching orientation described above.

Another problem usually encountered with Fundamentalists is their ahistoric tendency to believe that their own faith tradition has not evolved over time but has always existed unchanged through the ages. For students who think their faith has remained static over the millennia, I offer the idea that God can use history as a potter molds clay into a finished work of beauty. This usually suffices and allows minds that otherwise would have remained closed to consider changing emphases in their own faith tradition. Finally, I explain the late 19th-century historical conditions that encouraged the emergence of modern Christian Fundamentalism.

I handle each faith tradition with an attitude of respect. Certainly, many ugly things have occurred in the name of religion throughout history. I do not ignore such occurrences, but neither do I dwell on them to the exclusion of what is finest. Along these lines, I focus on what I regard as the essence of each faith. For example, in Judaism, the importance of communal ethics is central. Specific ancient prohibitions against harvesting the comers of agricultural fields in order to leave the gleanings for the poor speak to this. Similarly, the stoning of sinners in ancient times reflects the belief that "one rotten apple can spoil an entire barrel," and that the well-being of the barrel (the community) is ultimately more important than individual survival. Individual selfishness is confronted at every tum by specific commands in the Torah, or by specific elaborations in the Talmud. The individual is held to a community understanding that sets the boundaries of human existence and gives individual lives meaning.

In the modern liberated expression of Reform Judaism, the heritage of communal life continues. Even among those Jews who have rejected the notion of a personal godhead (as in the 20th-century American expression of Reconstructionism), communal life remains center stage. Peoples of other faiths or of no apparent faith need to be introduced to the beauties of this Jewish emphasis. Especially in our modem age, when individualism often threatens to destroy beauty and order, this nucleus of Judaism deserves to be held up for subjective appreciation.

In Hinduism, the admirable quality is tolerance. While the intolerant acts of Hindu mobs against Muslims on the Indian subcontinent are occasionally the subject of newspaper accounts, the fact remains that the dynamic that enables us to refer to Hinduism as one faith tradition is an unusual tolerance for the religious differences found among Hindus. In explaining the quality, it cannot be overemphasized that "Hinduism" is a Western construct meant to describe myriad harmonious religions on the Indian subcontinent. These religions span a spectrum that includes blood sacrifice all the way to monism (nondualistic philosophizing upon ultimate reality). What they hold in common is a negative perception of this world. Whereas Judaism teaches that worldly existence includes milk and honey, Hinduism emphasizes that the milk and honey only come in occasional drops, whereas vinegar and gall exist in abundance. Hindu eyes are fixed upon moksha, or liberation from this world of pain and misery (samsara). From their parable of the blind men and the elephant, Hindus learn to accept that everyone appreciates different aspects of “the elephant” of spiritual reality. Because of this tolerance, widely diverse approaches to working toward moksha are acceptable. Exclusivity, a characteristic common to Western religions, is foreign in the essentially tolerant Hindu world view.

If communal ethics areat the core of Judaism, and if tolerance binds the various faith traditions of Hinduism, the central focus of Buddhism is a practical program by which serenity may be achieved. Buddhism at least in its original teaching, doesnot rely upon gods or God but rather upon a “how to” method to achieve enlightenment. This orientation has made Buddhism popular within American culture, which places great value on programs concerning how to pursue happiness.

The central idea in Buddhism is that pain and craving (desire) are intimately linked. Therefore, to break the habit of living in a torture chamber, one must first diminish and then eliminate desires—including even the desire to be free of the torture chamber Given the practical emphasis of Buddhism, all things are possible within it-even worshipping the Buddha as a god, if that helps one diminish selfish craving by the act of devotion to another more powerful divine personality. The Buddha told his followers to be "lamps" unto themselves, to blaze their own trails to enlightenment, deviating even from his own apparent teachings in order to receive good results.

Unlike the Buddhist, the Christian is not an independent seeker but rather is totally dependent for salvation upon a martyred savior. If practicality is the essence of Buddhism, dependency marks the Christian. This dependency to a mysterious godhead fosters within the serious Christian a genuine attitude of humility, the admirable emphasis of Christianity. The stories of Christianity speak to this point. The brave Peter was broken in the self-realization of his own weakness. Those who are proud were told they would be the last into Christ's kingdom. Legend regards a woman (and a former prostitute) as the first to see the risen Christ. Christian dependency is called for in two laws, given by Christ to his followers: 1) be dependent upon God and 2) meet the needs of one's neighbors.

Jesus taught his followers not to be above being dependent. At his final meal with his disciples, he washed their feet. Peter recoiled, wanting to remain independent of such a humiliating rite. But Jesus told him that unless he was willing to submit to this practice, he could not be his follower. Christians were not only to be willing to have their feet washed, but also to wash the feet of others. They were to be willing to give up all worldly status and to live as servants of others. In this mystery they find salvation. The witness of Jesus himself, dependent upon the cross, suffering in agony before the silence of God, provides the model. "Pick up your cross and follow me," Jesus told his followers.

Of all the world's religions, Christianity is least amenable to the modem age, which celebrated independence and human power. It was well suited to the feudal Middle Ages, when obligations both upward toward lords and downward toward serfs characterized the social system. Capitalism produced abundance by breaking the obligations that fettered individual enterprise. The avarice that accompanied its growth could be harmonized with Jesus's message and example only by increasing hypocrisies. Nevertheless, Christianity continues to thrive in regions where human misery abounds. There the essential message of dependency on both God and neighbor can still be heard.

Islam, founded by the Prophet Muhamad early in the seventh century, also emphasizes dependency, but in a different way from Christianity. The very word "Islam" means "to submit” and "Muslim" means "one who submits." On the surface, submission and dependency may appear identical, as both involve a surrender of human ego. The difference lies in the fact that Muslim submission suggests a surrender to an established worldly order, whereas Christian dependency is a more fluid concept. Muhammad was a head of state as well as the head of a religion. Originally, a Muslim's submission was to a theocracy. Beyond this historical meaning, Islam also suggests submission to a specific way of life, described in the Qur'an and elaborated upon in the Shari'ah (Islamic law). As such, Islam is an admirable religious system that demands that human humility be practiced daily, in concrete ways in the real world, such as praying five times each day by touching one's head to the floor in a kneeling, submissive position. It requires human weakness to be experienced, as in fasting during the daylight hours of the holy month of Ramadan, not simply talked about as a spiritual virtue divorced fromreal living.

Holy War (jihad) was practiced during the lifetime of Muhammad and after, as a means of spreading the faith. Today, despite all Western attempts to compromise the issue, Israel's existence keeps the fires of jihad burning. Muslims regard Jerusalem as Muslim holy ground, because it was from Jerusalem (the Qur'an informs the faithful) that Muhammad ascended into heaven on his mysterious night journey. Jews also regard Jerusalem as holy, since it was established over 1,600 years before Muhammad as King David's capital city. Christians, too, hold Jerusalem dear, because Jerusalem was where Jesus Christ was crucified and rose from the dead. Given the deep religious feelings involved, Jerusalem will continue to be a focal point of world conflict.

My goal in teaching about world religions is to get today's students to appreciate the benefits of human history’s religious traditions. Throughout recorded time, humans have wrestled with fundamental questions relating to the origins of their existence and the mysteries of death. Various eschatologies (or theologies concerning how the world will end) usually succeed in winning student attention. Similarities in these visions, such as a rider of a pale horse marking the end of time in both Christian and Buddhist eschatologies, are intriguing. Differences are also interesting-such as the contrast between one beginning and one end in the Western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and multiple creations and end times in Hindu theology.

For students, interest in how the world's various religious traditions have affected gender relationships is especially high. The question of why bad things happen to good people (called "theodicy" by theologians) has always captured human interest. Different religious conceptions' of human nature also can be used to generate meaningful class discussions. For example, Christianity assumes the inherent sinfulness of humans, whereas Buddhism assumes that human nature is essentially perfect, ignorance alone clouding its true being.

Teachers developing a proficiency in handling the history of the world's great religions necessarily must blaze their own trails of discovery. They must, to paraphrase the Buddha's words, be lamps unto themselves. In lighting the way, several extraordinarily good resources can be explored with profit. The books of Huston Smith, Ellis Rifkin, Adin Steinsaltz, Elie Weisel, Martin Marty, Kenneth Latourette, A.L. Basham, Richard C. Zaehner, EdwardConze, Kenneth Ch’en, Bernard Lewis, F.E. Peters, H.A.R. Gibb, and W.A. Watt are useful. All the books of Max Weber on religious topics are extraordinarily rich. Especially useful for beginners is a set of six separate books under the general editorship of Richard A. Gard, with the overall title of Great Religions of Modern Man (1962); they provide a blend of scriptures and narrative and assume that the reader unfamiliar with the subject. Specific titles in this set: Arthur Hertzberg, ed., Judaism; Louis Renou, ed., Hinduism; Richard Gard, ed., Buddhism; George Brantl, ed., Catholicism; J. Leslie Dunstan, ed., Protestantism; and John Alden Williams, ed., Islam. Vergilius Ferm, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion (1945) is a general reference work of great utility. Fiction can also inform the seeker in an almost painless way. Some interesting novels with religious themes are James A. Michener, The Source (1965), on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; Hermann Hesse, Siddartha (1951), on Hinduism and Buddhism; Shusaku Endo, Silence (1982), on Christianity; and Naguib Mahfouz, Children of Gebelawi (1981), on Islam.

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