Understanding World Religions

Religion is the driving force behind much of what happens in the world today -- particularly when it comes to the "big three" religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Religious differences have and continue to spark wars, create nations, and spawn ongoing conflict down through the centuries. No matter what religion you adhere to (or even if you claim that you don't adhere to any religion at all), you need to have a basic understanding of the world's religions in order to understand what is happening in the world today so that you can be better informed and a more useful citizen of your nation and of the world. Without some knowledge of religion, you will not understand the underpinnings of what is happening in an increasingly global society.
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Understanding World Religions




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Nov 12, 2015

Our quote for today is from Lao Tzu [LAH-O-ZAH]. He said, "In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don't try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day." 

Our Understanding World Religions topic for today is, "Taoism"

Because Taoism and Confucianism are so opposite in philosophy and concept, they're commonly treated as separate religions. Also, combining them would result in a very lengthy chapter, so the usual custom has been followed here. This is somewhat artificial, however, since Chinese religion as it is actually practiced combines these along with ancient polytheistic religions, including ancestor veneration and Buddhism. This is a community religion, and a traditional temple in Taiwan or rural China frequently contains statues of Confucius, Lao-tzu, Buddha, and many traditional deities all together.

Taoism takes its name from the title of the book "Tao Te Ching," or "The Way of Nature." In modern slang we might call this philosophy "It is what it is." This brief work—its length is about the same as five chapters of this book—rivals the "Analects of Confucius" as the most influential literature in Chinese history. Only the Bible has been translated more times than the Tao Te Ching, and more than a thousand commentaries have been written about it.

The man traditionally credited with having written it and with starting Taoism was named Li-poh-yang, but he is better known by the title given him by his disciples, Lao-tzu, meaning "Old Master." In China, where age is highly revered, this title of respect even gave rise to a legend that he was born old. There is less historical information about Lao-tzu than any other founder of a world religion. Some scholars even doubt that this historical person ever existed. Confucian sources say he was born about 500 BC, and that the two shapers of Chinese life met in person. Many literary scholars believe the Tao Te Ching was compiled from multiple sources over several centuries.

Jan 22, 2015

Our quote for today is from Galileo. He said, "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day." Garry Morgan is a Professor of Intercultural Studies at Northwestern College. He served with World Venture for 20 years in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania. 

Our topic for today is, "Protestant Christianity" 

Protestant is an umbrella term generally used to describe a vast variety of churches that are neither Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox. The name comes from the "protests" by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and many others against abuses of power and some doctrines in the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformers were people of the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries who sought to bring change to Christianity in Europe. Their writings continue to exert substantial influence over hundreds of millions of believers today. 

Historically, the Protestant Reformation began as an attempt to, as the word implies, reform Christianity. Luther and the others saw their efforts not as bringing anything new to the faith but as restoring biblical teaching and practice established prior to the development of Rome's papal system. They didn't intend initially to form a new church organization—they did so only after they were excommunicated (removed from membership) and threatened with death by the Catholic Church hierarchy. The congregations that followed the Reformers became the Protestant churches. 

That the word “reformed” is utilized in countless ways today can be confusing. The Reformation period produced several organizations. The churches following Luther's teaching and leadership came to be called Lutheran, while those that followed Calvin were called Reformed, even though both were part of the Reformation and are relatively similar in doctrine. Over time, the Reformed churches subdivided, usually along national lines, into many denominations (such as the Dutch Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America). Calvin's doctrines, with additions by a number of others, came to be called Reformed Theology, best known for its doctrine of God's sovereignty, especially in election -- God's choosing of who will be saved. Over the years, newer denominations, notably the Presbyterians and many Baptist groups, embraced most of Calvin's "reformed" doctrines, while disagreeing with some beliefs and practices of the Reformed Church. 

Historically, two core issues framed the Protestant disagreement with Catholicism. The first concerns salvation, the way in which a person avoids God's righteous judgment on the sinful nature and is reconciled into right relationship with him. Protestants insist that the Bible clearly states salvation is "by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone," in contrast to a combination of grace and good works. The second, Sola Scriptura, is the belief that the Bible is the final authority for determining doctrine and practice rather than a combination of Scripture and tradition. Additional areas of divergence grew over time as Protestant leaders refined and developed their doctrines. 

The various Protestant churches survived Roman Catholic attempts to exterminate them, in part because many European political leaders saw in them the chance to escape papal oppression and attain greater regional autonomy. Ultimately, Protestants contributed considerably to the rise of nationalism and the development of today's European countries. This association developed into the state church system, in which a whole country officially recognized just one denomination (such as the Lutheran Church in Sweden or Norway). 

Unfortunately, this also led to a number of wars, both civil (within one country) and between Catholic and Protestant countries. Some nations were tolerant of those whose beliefs were not in step with the state church, such as Holland, which, although officially Dutch Reformed, became a haven for persecuted Christians from France, England, and elsewhere (such as the Pilgrims who later settled Plymouth Colony in North America). Elsewhere, persecution of dissenters ranged from moderate to severe. In some Protestant countries, Catholics were persecuted, and many Protestants were killed in France and other Catholic countries. 

Persecution extended even to other Protestants of the "wrong" variety. The Baptist pastor John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress, spent much of his adult life in prison for refusal to "conform" to the Anglican Church. 

New denominations proliferated as Protestant Christianity spread across Europe and then into North America. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the changes reached Africa and Asia. Without the central leadership authority that characterizes the Catholic Church, formation of new organizations is much easier. Sometimes these groups began because of doctrinal disputes. For example, Freewill Baptists in England split from the majority of Baptists (who theologically were closer to the Reformed Church). Some developed due to geography and politics. After American independence, for instance, Presbyterians in the U.S. chose independence from their Scottish origins. Baptists and many other American denominations split over slavery (although it has been argued that this was more a doctrinal dispute than a political one). 

Spiritual revival has also led to the creation of denominations. The Azusa Street Revival of 1906, for example, led to the formation of the Apostolic Faith Movement, the Assemblies of God, and many other Pentecostal groups. Sometimes new groups form because of conflict of personality or conviction between leaders. 

The twentieth-century Ecumenical Movement attempted to reverse the trend of proliferation with the goal of merging Protestants into one organizational structure. They've seen limited success with the United and Uniting Churches in Canada and Australia respectively; in both countries Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists merged into one organization. The movement has had more success encouraging cooperation between denominations through the World Council of Churches and its national affiliates than in bringing about organizational mergers and a reduction in the number of denominations.

Now, for An Extra Minute 

How many Protestant denominations are there? The diversity and geographic expansion of Protestant Christianity makes counting difficult. There are more than fifty different Baptist groups just in the U.S., where the largest, the Southern Baptist Convention, has more than sixteen million members. Adding to the complications is globalization: If missionaries of one denomination in one country start new churches in another country and those churches form an association, is that a new denomination or part of the original? They are usually independent (though related) organizations, but not always. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, renowned researcher David Barrett counted 33,830 Protestant denominations globally. 

Jan 14, 2015

Our quote for today is from G.K. Chesterton. He said, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day." Garry Morgan is a Professor of Intercultural Studies at Northwestern College. He served with World Venture for 20 years in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania. 

Our topic for today is, "Eastern Orthodox Christianity" 

Eastern Orthodoxy, the smallest of Christianity’s three major branches and perhaps the least-known by other Christians, has its geographic roots in the Middle East, where the faith began. As it spread, Orthodox Christianity developed regional variations, although most share similar beliefs and practices. Today, it remains dominant in Greece, Russia, and Romania (among other countries) and is the most common form of Christianity in Muslim-majority countries like Egypt and Turkey. 

Due to cultural and political differences, the Eastern Orthodox Church quickly developed differences with the Western form that became the Roman Catholic Church. It tended to be more contemplative; the Western church was more pragmatic. Although very much integrated into political life, especially during the Byzantine period, Eastern Christianity did not develop the Roman Church’s secular power. In fact, emperors tended to have influence over the running of the church, whereas the reverse was true in Rome.

Furthermore, after the seventh century, much of the Eastern Orthodox Church came under the political domination of Muslim rulers as Islam spread westward, and this influenced its theology and practice. Although the Western church lost territory to Islam in North Africa and Spain, Charles Martel’s decisive victory at the Battle of Tours in 732 kept most of Europe in Christian hands. 

In our last episode, we discussed other key historical and political factors that led to schism between the Western (Roman Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) branches; there were theological elements, too. Because it produced some of the early church’s most influential theologians and writers, the East resented the insistence that Rome have the final say in all matters. This unwillingness to bow to the pope’s authority was at the heart of this growing divide. 

One early theological controversy had to do with understanding relationships within the Trinity. Both branches agreed that God is one being who has existed eternally as three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. Both rejected poly-theism and mo-dal-ism, the heretical idea that God originally manifested himself as the Father, then became the Son, and now is the Holy Spirit. But the Western church held that the Spirit “proceeded from both the Father and the Son,” while the Eastern branch took Jesus’ words in John’s gospel about the Father sending the Spirit to mean that he “proceeded [only] from the Father.” 

More widely familiar was what has come to be called the “Icon-o-clas-tic Controversy.” The Western church used statues of Jesus, Mary, and many saints in their worship. To the Eastern church, this was idolatrous, in violation of the second commandment (to have no graven image). They developed a two-dimensional art form called the icon, a picture for use in worship and prayer. 

Before the final split in 1054, the Western church insisted on celibacy for priests, while marriage was permitted in the East. The West baptized infants by sprinkling; the East baptized infants by immersion. The West began giving laypeople only bread during Communion, whereas the laity in the East continued to receive both bread and wine. 

Language was important in how the two branches spread and developed. The West used Latin for worship and resisted further translation of the Bible into other tongues. The East used Greek and promoted translation of God’s Word into the vernacular. The Orthodox monk Cyril developed an alphabet for the Slavic languages that bears his name; Cy-rill-ic or-thog-ra-phy is used today for Russian, Polish, Czech, and Bulgarian, among other languages. 

Through the missionary work of dedicated monks, Eastern Christianity spread from the Middle East into Eastern Europe and northward into Russia, as well as into what is now Iraq and Iran. By the close of the first millennium, geographic expansion slowed and eventually halted. Leading up to and into the twentieth century, Eastern European and Russian immigrants brought the Orthodox faith to Australia and North America. Today, 270 million Eastern Orthodox members are organized into fellowships of independent churches, usually by country, including Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and the Orthodox Church in America, each with its own synod of bishops. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is given the honor of "first among equals" and holds significant influence but does not have the power or authority that the pope has over the Roman Catholic Church. 

The Eastern Orthodox Church is also officially known as the Orthodox Catholic Church. Similar to but separate from the Eastern Orthodox Church is the Oriental Orthodox Church (though oriental means "eastern"), which includes the Egyptian Coptic Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and several smaller groups. These differ from Eastern Orthodoxy in that they accept only the first three of seven ecumenical councils that Eastern Orthodoxy considers to be the definitive interpretation of Scripture for belief and practice. 

The Oriental Orthodox churches are of ancient origin. The Coptic Church traces its beginnings to Mark the Evangelist, while the Ethiopian Orthodox Church traces its beginning to the return of the eunuch who encountered Philip, in Acts 8. These churches refused the conclusions of the Council of Chal-ce-don (in 451) and broke away prior to the East-West split (in 1054). Note: The Orthodox Church of Alexandria, in Egypt, is part of Eastern (not Oriental) Orthodoxy. 

Now, for An Extra Minute 

How does the name Orthodox differ from the term orthodox? The term comes from two Greek words literally rendered "right belief." So the term orthodox means believing in line with accepted Christian teaching (as opposed to heresy, wrong belief). Any right-believing Christian is orthodox. The Eastern Church adopted the word into their name in the conviction that their belief was correct. 

Jan 2, 2015

Our quote for today is from C.S. Lewis. He said, "Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day." Garry Morgan is a Professor of Intercultural Studies at Northwestern College. He served with World Venture for 20 years in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania. 

Our topic for today is, "Christianity: What Sets It Apart?" 

“Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship!” We often hear this when someone’s trying to set Christianity apart from “religion.” Is it accurate? Is this the characteristic that makes Christianity unique? And if not, what does? 

Based on our description of religion, Christianity clearly fits the definition. It is an organized system of belief and practice that answers ultimate questions and guides daily life. But why have we come to think of religion as a negative term in the first place? 

Due to historical abuses, we tend to view it as something artificial or without true meaning. However, the New Testament uses the term in James 1:27 with the adjectives pure and undefiled. Religion can become tradition without meaning, yet that isn’t the fault of religion itself— responsibility would belong with those who wrongly practice a given faith. 

So believers could say that Christianity is the religious expression of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Our faith uses the Bible to answer ultimate questions about God and life. Because the Christian’s relationship with God through Christ is lived out with other followers of Jesus (what the New Testament calls “the body of Christ”), we worship and engage in other activities as a unified group, and this also is what characterizes religion. 

Also, regarding the “religion vs. relationship” debate, we should keep in mind that other religious systems claim a relationship with the god or gods they revere and worship. The Qur’an says, “God is nearer [to a man] than [his] jugular vein”. The Bha-ga-vad Gita describes an incarnation of the god Krishna who helps a warrior king make significant life decisions. Many animists maintain relationships with ancestral spirits. 

If relationship itself is not what makes Christianity unique, what does? Starting with stating the obvious, Jesus of Nazareth is the most compelling religious figure of all time. Historians, scholars, and even leaders of other religions widely acknowledge and admire (although sometimes distort) the unique quality of his life and teachings. 

For the Christian, however, it is not Jesus’ teachings or even his earthly life that are most important. We look to Jesus not just as a gifted teacher and moral example but as our Savior. His death and resurrection are the watershed events that stand at the center of our faith. By them, Jesus established the truth of his claim to be God’s unique Son— fully human and fully divine— and provided the means of salvation for humankind, separated from God by sin. 

Another way to describe the faith’s uniqueness is with the word grace. Grace means giving someone something they don’t deserve. Because the God of the Bible is a God of grace, he takes the first step to repair our relationship with him after disobedience (sin). Because of grace, God provides the way of salvation in Jesus, who takes our punishment for wrongdoing. Because of grace, God can be both just (punishing sin) and forgiving (removing sin).

All other religious systems believe the main responsibility for solving life’s problems rests upon people. Christianity reveals and demonstrates that we cannot set things right by our own efforts, which makes grace all the more astounding and precious. 

Historically, the Christian church is widely regarded to have begun on the day of Pentecost (described in Acts 2). It spread widely and grew quickly over the next several centuries. Early on, even as seen within the pages of the New Testament, it began developing religious forms. Initially, these were heavily influenced by Judaism. The first Christians worshiped in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and used the Hebrew Scriptures we now call the Old Testament. 

But as non-Jews accepted the Christian message (the gospel) and became followers of Jesus, the church began adopting Hellenistic (Greek) forms, especially in how the message of Jesus was explained to others. John’s gospel, for example, describes Jesus as the Logos (Word), a term with significant meaning to those influenced by Greek philosophy.

Indeed, Christianity can flourish in any culture. The New Testament focuses more on principles for living and the type of people we’re supposed to be (i.e., character qualities) than on specific behaviors, so its practices and forms tend to take on the local flavor of surrounding cultures. For example, the apostle Paul commands husbands to love their wives; the specific ways Christians obey this order look different from culture to culture. 

This flexibility, coupled with extensive geographic expansion, political issues (especially after Christianity received favored status from the Roman Empire in the late fourth century), and theological differences of opinion, eventually led to divisions. The Western church, centered in Rome, became what is now the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern church, based in Constantinople, became the (Eastern) Orthodox Church with its regional fellowships (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.). 

Later, near the end of the fifteenth century, various reformers protested against abuses within the Catholic Church. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others, largely after being excommunicated, organized new expressions of the Christian faith that came to be known as Protestant churches. While there are smaller branches on the Christian church tree, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant form the largest or primary three. 

From AD 500, and for more than a millennium, the Christian message was largely spread by groups of Catholic monks, reaching eastward as far as Japan and west to the New World. By the eighteenth century, Protestants began what came to be called the modern missionary movement, taking the gospel to every part of the world. Today, Christianity truly is a global faith. While there are still areas and people groups that have not heard the name of Jesus Christ, he has followers in virtually every country.

Now, for An Extra Minute

Christians of all walks comprise about a third of the world’s population (about 2.1 billion in 2010). Approximately 1.1 billion belong to the Roman Catholic Church, about 600 million to Protestant churches, and about 270 million are Eastern Orthodox, with the balance in independent groups. In 1900, about 68 percent of the world’s Christians lived on the European continent, with about 14 percent in North America. By 2050, Africa is likely to have about 29 percent of the world’s Christians, followed by Asia with 20 percent. Church historians refer to this trend as Christianity’s “global center” shifting from north to south.

Dec 17, 2014

Our quote for today is from Mahatma Gandhi. He said, "When I admire the wonders of a sunset or the beauty of the moon, my soul expands in the worship of the creator."

In this podcast, we will be making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day: Learn the Basics of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Christianity, and many more." Garry Morgan is a Professor of Intercultural Studies at Northwestern College. He served with World Venture for 20 years in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania. 

Our topic for today is titled, "What is Religion?" Part 2: 

Despite the variety of ways people define religion, sifting through definitions does steer us toward helpful principles. First, one religion component is an organized system of beliefs. In some cases the organization may not be obvious to outsiders, but no religion is made up of random, unrelated creeds. Second, not all religions involve worship, but they do all mandate or at least commend certain behaviors and actions — corporate, individual, or both — that are related to the belief system. Third, a religion answers questions about the unknown. 

What William James called an "unseen order" relates to how a religion answers what are usually termed ultimate questions. The various religions respond to these queries in an astonishing array of ways. Whether or not the answers are interwoven in a systematic manner, they guide people in thinking about what is beyond that which our five senses can perceive. 

The foremost ultimate question is "What is ultimate reality?" For theists (primarily, adherents to Christianity, Judaism, or Islam), the answer is God. Buddhists say the answer is Nothing (specifically, a void, or Nirvana). Secular Humanists say it's the material universe, beyond which nothing else exists. 

The next question is "What is the nature of the universe?" Theists maintain that God created it. Secular Humanists believe the universe (or the material components that comprise it) is eternal and has no beginning or creator (First Cause). Hindus say the material universe is an illusion; we think it's real, but it doesn't actually exist — rather, all reality is spiritual in nature. Other questions asked are:

"What does it mean to be human?"

"What is humanity's primary problem?"

"What happens after death?" 

From one religion to another, the answers vary as much as their outward practices. Clearly, all religions are not basically the same.

In summary, there is no single right answer to defining religion. For this podcast we'll use this working definition: "Religion is an organized system of beliefs that answers ultimate questions and commends certain actions or behaviors based on the answers to those questions." 

NOW, FOR "AN EXTRA MINUTE", let's look at the question: Is Secular Humanism a religion? 

Academic textbooks do not include it among the religions studied. Books that Christians write on world religions normally do include a chapter on secularism or atheism (though these are not exactly the same thing). 

Why the difference? 

Secular Humanists are vociferously opposed to being considered a religion, largely because most people assume religion involves belief in the supernatural. State universities won't buy textbooks over the objections of Secular Humanists. 

However, like Confucianism, Taoism, Jainism, and other nontheistic belief systems included in academic textbooks, Secular Humanism fits our working definition, has significant impact on today's world, and serves functionally as a religion. For consistency, this podcast will includes an episode on it.


Dec 3, 2014

Our quote for today is from  C.S. Lewis. He said, “The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.”

In this podcast, we will be making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day: Learn the Basics of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Christianity, and many more." Garry Morgan is a Professor of Intercultural Studies at Northwestern College. He served with World Venture for 20 years in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania. 

We are going to begin this podcast series with the introductory section of Morgan's book. He writes: 

Today nearly six billion people profess some form of religion. Not only is there tremendous variety of religious beliefs, within any given religion there are disparities in some beliefs and practices. Add to this the cultural variations that impact any religion practiced in multiple parts of the world and a kaleidoscope of differences emerges. 

The migration patterns of recent decades (over one billion people on the move since 1970) have brought previously isolated religious groups into contact with followers of other religions, or into new settings that have compelled some alteration of practices, resulting in even more changes. (This is not a new phenomenon in India, where Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians and Buddhists already have lived together for centuries.) 

Trying to describe this vast religious array is challenging, since there are exceptions to almost anything one would say; trying to do so with brevity is even more difficult. It is my sincere hope that this podcast will bring clarity rather than confusion to those who may know little about religions outside (or including) their own.

This podcast intends to be descriptive rather than evaluative or polemic. It is designed to offer a concise overview of the major world religions and a sampling of some newer religious movements. Undoubtedly my own convictions have impacted my writing, but I have tried to be accurate and fair even when describing belief systems with which I personally disagree. Far too much contemporary writing by followers of one religion about others utilizes caricature and straw man arguments. My goal always is to be respectful.