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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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Jan 9, 2015

Our quote for today is from Albert Camus. He said, "I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live as if there isn't and to die to find out that there is."

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, "Roman Catholic Christianity" 

The first Christians had little organizational structure. Although local churches all around the Mediterranean world were in contact and even cooperated in activities (like sending support to Paul’s missionary team or providing financial assistance to the Jerusalem church during a famine), there was no central human authority. 

The apostles were a chosen group who established new churches and provided special guidance during the New Testament era. These men, primarily Peter and James in Jerusalem, and Paul, the church planter, were looked to for wisdom and advice on matters of doctrine and practice (e.g., see Acts 15 or Paul’s epistles—letters written to many of the local churches). However, the local assembly of believers in each city believed they drew their authority directly from Jesus Christ, led by the Scriptures and his Holy Spirit.

The New Testament describes three types of church leaders, always in connection with a given congregation. The first have traditionally been called bishops. The literal translation of the Greek word is “overseer,” which clearly describes their role. The second, elders, were responsible for teaching, leading, and spiritual care. Deacons primarily provided material care for the congregation, though their qualifications were similar to elders and many, like Stephen, the first Christian martyr, were gifted preachers and teachers. It seems likely there were also deaconesses. While their exact title is not certain, Paul mentions by name a number of women who served in a ministry capacity. 

This decentralized leadership aided the church’s survival through the waves of persecution it faced during its first three centuries. By the time the last of the apostles died (c. AD 90), each city where believers gathered had a bishop or overseer. Church buildings weren’t common for several centuries; groups of believers met in homes, usually with an elder present, while large, corporate gatherings were held outside or in rented facilities. 

Many bishops, especially in the larger cities, were gifted theologians, speakers, and writers— two of the better known are Athanasius and Augustine, both from North Africa. The writings of these and other influential bishops were circulated as the church refined ways of stating New Testament truths in doctrinal statements and dealt with questions and controversies that came up over the years in specific contexts. 

Persecution during the first three centuries was sporadic and sometimes localized. Begun initially by Jewish leaders, after Jerusalem’s fall (AD 70), the Romans became the persecutors. The most severe and widespread wave came under Emperor Diocletian (ruled AD 284–305). His successor, Constantine, abruptly reversed policy (through the Edict of Milan, AD 313) and granted Christianity legal status equal to all other religions in the empire. 

Constantine took two other actions that significantly shaped Christianity. In 325, he called the Council of Nicaea, to be held in present-day Turkey, inviting 1,800 bishops from all over the empire to discuss and settle questions regarding the nature of Christ. Several hundred were able to attend, and they produced the Nicene Creed, still used in some worship services today.

Then in 330, Constantine moved his political capital from Rome to Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). In the western part of the empire, the church filled the political vacuum. The bishop in Rome already held great prestige and influence over the rest of the church, and although the New Testament doesn’t mention it, there’s a church tradition that says the apostle Peter traveled there and became its first bishop. 

This influence, increasing significantly after 330, also brought increased conflict with Christianity’s eastern branch, which resisted the Roman bishop’s claim to lead all Christians. Geography, politics, and theological differences all led to a gradual and often acrimonious separation that became complete in 1204, when Crusaders from the west, en route to the Holy Land, attacked and looted Constantinople. 

Within a century, the Christian church went from persecuted minority to appointing emperors and running political systems. After the Empire’s collapse, the church became the unifying force in Europe. But with more political influence came declining spiritual fervor. In response, monastic orders were formed by those who wanted to focus on the spiritual aspects of Christianity. Yet the monks did not simply withdraw from society. They taught the people in their areas, maintained centers of learning, and sent missionaries to other parts of the world. 

Early in the Middle Ages (roughly AD 500– 1500), the bishop of Rome became the recognized head of the Western church and was called the pope. He claimed authority over all Christians, and thus the church came to be called the Catholic Church, meaning “all-embracing” or universal. It was not until the Reformation, when some Christian groups broke away from the pope’s authority, that Roman Catholic came to describe the section of the church that recognized papal leadership. Today, Christianity is described as having three major branches: Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox. 

The Reformation produced an often violent reaction (the Counter-Reformation) from the Catholic Church but also brought some positive changes. Over time, the pope’s amassing of power and wealth had led to corruption and other outrages. The Council of Trent (1545) was an effort to stem the tide of Christians leaving the Catholic Church to join the Reformers. 

The sale of indulgences and other abuses were restrained, but certain doctrines were formulated to specifically “counter” Reformation beliefs and establish the claim to be the only true and legitimate form of Christianity. Opposing Protestant trust in the Bible’s sole authority, the Council stated that church tradition carried equal weight. Protestants promoted translating the Bible into common languages and providing it to all believers (with help from the recently invented printing press); the Council maintained that the Latin Bible was the only true Scripture, and only the Catholic Church could interpret it.

Although some new dogmas (official statements of belief) were added over the centuries, the doctrines established by Trent defined Roman Catholic Christianity until the middle of the twentieth century. The First Vatican Council (Vatican I, 1869) had added the dogma of papal infallibility: that the pope’s official pronouncements (ex cathedra) are without error. In 1962, Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), which met until 1965, and wrought momentous change. Best known for replacing Latin with vernacular languages in the mass, it also recognized Protestant and Orthodox believers as true Christians and allowed ordinary members to read the Bible for themselves. Today, the Roman Catholic Church, with 1.1 billion members globally, remains the largest Christian branch. 

Now, for An Extra Minute 

The organizational structure of the Roman Catholic Church is often used as a model in business management courses because of its “flatness,” that is, minimal layers from top to bottom. With more than a billion members, there are only six layers from pope to ordinary member (layperson). In between are the offices of cardinal, archbishop, bishop, and priest.

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