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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Mar 18, 2015

Our quote for today is from journalist Bruce Buursma. He said, “Almost every story around the world has a religion sub-plot."

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, "The Beginning of Islam." 

Islam is the world's second largest religion, with about 1.6 billion followers in 2010 (more than 20 percent of the earth's population). Including  biological growth, it is also the globe's fastest-growing, and is the majority religion in forty-nine countries. Contemporary politics and the issue of terrorism have thrust Islam into the worldwide spotlight as never before. 

Islam is an Arabic word meaning "submission," and the religion's central theme is submission to the will of God. So a Muslim is one who submits to God's will, which is revealed in the Qur'an, the Islamic holy book. Qur'an, which is an Arabic word meaning "recite," is often transliterated Koran in English texts. Although the Arabic language and culture are central to Islam, only 25 percent of the world's Muslims are ethnically Arab, and the four countries with the largest Muslim populations (Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India) are all outside the Middle East. 

Some older books on history and religion refer to this faith as Mohammedanism. This is inaccurate and offensive to Muslims, as they do not worship Muhammad. Although they revere him greatly and follow his example in many ways, they insist he was just a man. To deify him, they say, is contrary to Muhammad's own teaching. 

Islam teaches that God has sent a long line of prophets to reveal his will to humans, and many Muslims would say Islam has existed since Adam's creation. However, to understand Islam today, we need to look at sixth-century Arabia and a man named Muhammad, considered Islam's final and greatest prophet.

Mar 11, 2015

Our quote for today is from Francis of Assisi. He said, "I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, he can work through anyone."

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, "Zoroastrianism." 

How many people do you know who believe that after they die God will weigh their deeds and, as long as they have at least 50 percent good deeds, will allow them into heaven? This idea of God using balance scales to weigh deeds is held by many, including quite a number who call themselves Christians. But this concept is definitely not found in the Bible. So where did it come from? 

Zoroastrianism, a religion most people have never heard of, was the first to put forth the concept of judgment by weighing good and bad deeds, called ethical dualism. Due to their geographic distribution today, and because persecution in some countries forces them to keep a low profile, it is difficult to know how many Zoroastrians there are. Estimates range from a low of 150,000 to as many as several million worldwide. The most reliable figures place the number at 250,000. 

Mar 4, 2015

Our quote for today is from Anne Graham Lotz. She said, "Abraham is such a fascinating figure. Three world religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- all claim him as a patriarch. He was raised in a religious home. And yet he rejected religion in order to pursue a personal relationship with God."

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

"It is impossible to understand modern Judaism without knowing the events and experiences of the Jewish people since the time of Moses. In its number of followers, Judaism is among the smallest of the world's living religions, with slightly more than fourteen million adherents globally, yet it exerts a proportionally larger influence on world affairs today, in part because of the modern state of Israel, formed in 1948. 

"Many people, particularly Christians familiar with the Old Testament—the Hebrew Scriptures—think of Judaism in terms of what they've read in Exodus or Deuteronomy. Therefore, we must note that modern Judaism is Rabbinic, or Talmudic. Without a temple or sacrificial system, much of the Law cannot be followed. Over many centuries, influential rabbis have reflected and written on how to practice the Jewish faith under changed circumstances. The Talmud is the collection of those reflections and the basis for modern Judaism. 

"Jewish life today is primarily lived out in the home and secondarily in the synagogue. Practicing Judaism is more about daily life than about specific beliefs or formal rituals, although these do exist..."

Feb 26, 2015

Our quote for today is from Eliezer Berkovits. He said, "The foundation of religion is not the affirmation that God is, but that God is concerned with man and the world; that, having created the world, he has not abandoned it, leaving it to its own devices; that he cares for his creation."

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, "The Historical Development of Judaism"

What makes a person Jewish? This seemingly basic question is not so easy to answer, even for Jewish people. 

For most particular faiths described in this book, a person identifies either by birth—into a family belonging to that religion—or by adherence (even nominally) to its beliefs and practices. While that is true for some Jewish people, many who identify as Jewish practice no religion, or practice one other than Judaism. So for some, being Jewish is more about ethnicity or family traditions than religious beliefs. Generally, if one has a Jewish mother, one is considered Jewish. On the other hand, a few people who are not ethnically Jewish convert to Judaism through profession of belief in its teachings. 

So what follows is primarily a description of the religion. Many who self-identify as Jewish do not hold these beliefs or follow these practices. 

Feb 18, 2015

Our quote for today is from Desmond Tutu. He said, "God's dream is that you and I and all of us will realize that we are family, that we are made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion."

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, "African Traditional Religions" 

In terms of adherents, the largest animistic family is the African Traditional religions. Africa contains fifty-plus countries and more than one thousand different people groups, each with its own religious variations on the animistic theme. Here, too, generalizations are possible, with exceptions. 

African Traditional religions have proven exceptionally resilient in the face of modernization. As Christianity and Islam spread across Africa, it was widely predicted that traditional religions would disappear by the end of the twentieth century. On the contrary, though a majority of today's Africans claim to be either Christian or Muslim, traditional religions are widely practiced. Both monotheistic religions face the problem of nominalism (from Latin, meaning "in name only"). Syncretism and parallelism are pervasive.


Feb 12, 2015

Our quote for today is from Luther Standing Bear. He said, "Out of the Indian approach to life there came a great freedom, an intense and absorbing respect for life, enriching faith in a Supreme Power, and principles of truth, honesty, generosity, equity and brotherhood as a guide to mundane relations."

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. And, I want to remind you to take advantage of our special offer. If you enjoy this podcast, please feel free to purchase a copy of the book that we are using -- "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day" by Garry R. Morgan. It is available on our website for just $20. You can make your purchase today at

Our topic for today is, "Native American Religions" 

Like all animistic religions, Native American religions (NARs) provide a variety of beliefs and practices that make generalizations challenging. Thus it is necessary to speak in the plural of Native religions. Depending on where they have settled, the various Native American people groups, or tribes, have made their living through agriculture, pastoral tending of livestock, or hunting and gathering. Some have lived in settled towns or small cities. Others have lived nomadically, following herds of buffalo or other wild game. One consequence has been an assortment of religious expressions and rituals. 

Another factor inhibiting description of these religions is that in most cases Native Americans left no written records of life before the arrival of European immigrants. Written sources, therefore, usually have been produced by outside observers of Native life, which inserts a non-Native worldview into depictions and explanations, even when the writer strives to avoid bias. Many early sources, unfortunately, did not even attempt neutrality but describe these religions in negative terms. 

Finally, Native American interactions with European settlers from the seventeenth century onward resulted in extensive conversion, at least outwardly, to Christianity. By the mid-twentieth century, most Native people professed to be Christian, though many mixed traditional practices with their new faith. Since 1960, there has been a massive resurgence of interest in Native culture and religions, with a subsequent reversal of the number of Native Americans professing Christianity. However, we cannot always know whether today's post-Christian Native practices and rituals are the same as they were before interaction with Europeans. 

One applicable generalization is that Native American religions have a strong emphasis on the spirit world, something they share with the rest of the huge animistic category. But specific beliefs about its traits vary. Some Native tribes have worship rituals of key spirits such as Mother Earth, thunder and/or lightning, and guardian spirits; these might be considered polytheistic, since they lack one central deity. Many other tribes, however, believe in a Great Spirit or Creator Spirit who exists above the rest of the spirit world. This spirit may be impersonal, leading to Deism, or personal and so more monotheistic in nature. Still others see this Great Spirit as a divine force in nature and, accordingly, are more pantheistic in outlook. 

Another generally valid observation is that Native peoples highly value living in balance with the natural environment. While traditionally this was a physical necessity, it also found and continues today to find validity in their respect for the spirits they believe live in the natural realm. There have been exceptions on both sides, but among the most common sources of conflict between Native American and European American cultures has been disparity in how the land and nature are treated. As European settlement moved west across the continent, the cutting of forests, plowing of the soil, and decimation of buffalo herds and other game were viewed by Native peoples as a physical encroachment on their livelihood and an attack upon the spirits that were the providers of and even dwellers in those natural resources. 

The focus of Native religions, even for believers in a Great Spirit or Creator, is not typically on that central deity (as in monotheistic religions), but rather on the surrounding spirit world that is believed to impact daily life. As with other animistic systems, maintaining good relations with the spirit realm is at the core of most beliefs and practices. Again, these religions are often described as practical, as they deal primarily with the pragmatic present. 

Because the spirits are nearby and have certain demands or requirements in order to keep relationships with humans, it is possible to offend them, with negative consequences for individuals or even entire communities. Therefore, taboos are a common feature. In Western culture, this term is often used for actions prohibited on social, moral, or ethical grounds. In Native religions, taboos are behavioral requirements or prohibitions such that doing (or not doing) them would upset the balance of nature, bring negative magical power into individuals, or offend the spirits. Taboos are rigidly enforced, since failure to follow them may bring disastrous corporate consequences. 

Native American religions rarely have priests or other full-time leaders. Everyone participates at some level. A few may have closer relationships with the spirit world and thus have ability or spiritual insight that benefits the community, most commonly in the form of healing. These medicine men (or women), as they were called by European observers, hold significant power but also great responsibility for the community's well-being. 

The usual purpose of the many types of rituals and ceremonies is to draw the physical and spiritual worlds closer together. A familiar goal is that humans may obtain strength, endurance, or wisdom from one or more spirits. The best-known ritual for an individual is the Vision Quest, which, in some tribes, may be done by anyone needing special spiritual assistance, though they're most common for young men (occasionally young women) as part of entrance into adulthood. The quest typically involves isolation from the community and fasting for several days. The aim is to receive a vision of an animal (visually representing a particular spirit) that becomes the person's totem, believed then to guard and guide him or her throughout the rest of life. 

The most common group ceremonies involve dancing and drumming, activities intended to help humans become more open to the spirit world. Dances may go on for hours or even days as the dancers disengage from the everyday world and seek communion with the spirits. Today, powwows are becoming increasingly common and nearly always include dancing. For some, this is more about recovering their culture than a religious exercise, but, again, Native peoples characteristically do not separate the sacred from the secular. 

Beliefs regarding the afterlife are variable, but generally Native people do not fear dying. Most believe there is a place to which one's spirit goes at death. For some this is a happy place; for others it contains sadness. Usually people's spirits are considered to abide in this other plane of existence as long as they are remembered by those still living. As they are forgotten, their spirit gradually fades from existence. 

Now, for An Extra Minute 

Native American religions are seeing a resurgence of interest on the part of both Natives and non-Natives (usually those exploring New Age religions). Attendance at powwows has soared, and Natives knowledgeable about traditional practices are in great demand. While some Natives are pleased that outsiders are interested, many others are concerned that more will be lost than gained. Some Native religious teachers have been known to alter symbols and practices slightly when teaching non-Natives. 

Feb 5, 2015

Our quote for today is from Albert Einstein. He said, "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind."

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, "Animism and Folk Religions" 

Animism, from the Latin anima, meaning "breath" or "spirit," is an umbrella term for a global family of thousands of religions. In textbooks, they're often called "basic religions," based on the evolutionary assumption that in human development animistic religions came first, then polytheistic, followed eventually by monotheistic (and today by atheistic). They're also known as traditional religions, since many followers see their practices as cultural traditions, in contrast to more formally organized faiths (such as Christianity or Islam). These religions rarely have written scriptures or sacred writings; beliefs and practices are passed along orally from one generation to the next. 

The label “tribal religions” represents two features: First, the cultural groups most commonly thought of as practicing animistic religion are remote tribes that still have minimal contact with the rest of the world (such as South American Indian tribes in the Amazon jungles, or the isolated tribes of Papua New Guinea). Second, each group sees their religious beliefs and practices as exclusive to their own tribe. There is no thought that other people from different cultural groups ought to believe in the same spirits they serve. 

However, the idea that only tribal groups practice animistic religion is a common mistake. Folk religion describes animistic beliefs and practices that are adapted into one of the formal world religions. Examples include spiritism in Brazilian Catholicism, Muslim prayers offered at the tombs of sheiks and martyrs, and the occult practices of Tibetan Buddhism. 

In fact, all major religions have some followers who practice animistic rituals alongside formal activities. These may happen undercover, when the formal religion prohibits such activities, or they may be incorporated into the formal structure and ritual in a process called syncretism. Folk religion has a significant impact on billions of people who self-identify with Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, or one of the other major religions. Additionally, many New Age religions, although typically based on the Hindu concepts of karma and reincarnation, also include beliefs and practices related to animism, as do the rapidly growing Neopagan religions. 

The animistic belief system is phenomenally pervasive; conservatively, 40 percent of the earth's population holds some form of animistic belief Some textbooks just a half century ago predicted the dying out of animistic religions by the year 2000, as Western-style education progressed in developing nations. In actuality, there has been a resurgence of interest in this manner of connecting or dealing with the spirit world. 

Not even the modernized West is exempt. Some Americans who profess to be Christian and attend church regularly believe the number thirteen is unlucky, won't walk under ladders, and seek four-leaf clovers for good luck. These practices are vestiges of European, pre-Christian animism. 

How could such a vast variety of religious expression ever be joined together under one label? Well, despite tremendous differences in outward form, all animistic groups share certain common beliefs about the nature of the world. Animists believe the world is filled with spiritual powers. These may be personal spirit beings, such as ancestral spirits or nature-dwelling spirits. They may be impersonal forces, like Fate or the Evil Eye. Often it is a combination of several or all of these. These spiritual forces are believed to have influence, if not outright control, over people and events. Therefore, the animist's goal is to find out what spirits or forces are at work so that steps can be taken to protect oneself from harm and harness spiritual power for one's benefit. Manipulating the spirit world to obtain power or influence is at the core of this worldview. 

Many educated people today, even religious ones, deride animistic beliefs as mere superstition, which implies that the spirit world isn't real. However, the scriptures of the formal world religions, including the Bible, acknowledge the reality of spiritual powers. Denial of the spiritual realm comes out of a rationalistic mindset, not formal religious belief. 

Most animistic religions acknowledge the existence of a high creator god, but he is considered to be distant and unapproachable, perhaps even aloof to humans and their problems. It is the spirits that are near, active, and involved, and thus they must be dealt with to avoid or repair calamity and to gain power for achieving goals. Unlike the Holy Spirit of the Christian faith, these spirits are not considered to be God (or equal to God). 

Though some of these beings are believed to be the spirits of recently departed ancestors, they're rarely regarded as benevolent or loving toward humans. At best, they're neutral; they may even be considered malevolent. Although believers may sometimes approach spirits proactively for help with life issues (such as doing well on a test or getting a job), most animistic rituals are in response to a problem (such as illness or drought), and involve divining which spirit or spirits are causing the particular calamity so that they can be appeased and convinced to stop causing the issue. In some cases, the ritual might involve calling on a stronger spirit to drive out a weaker spirit. 

animistic religions are generally pragmatic in the sense of focusing on the here-and-now; daily life matters more than eternal destiny or life after death. When an animistic culture has adopted a formal religion, a parallel form of religious practice is common. People claim to be Christian or Muslim and attend church or mosque for matters of the next life, but retain animistic rituals to deal with matters of this life. In our next two broadcasts, we will take a more detailed looks at two animistic groupings: Native American religions and African Traditional religions. 

Now, for An Extra Minute 

Some people incorrectly use the word “pagan” to refer to a nonreligious person. Historically, and conversely, Paganism was the name given to the ancient European animistic (in some cases, polytheistic) religions preceding the arrival of Christianity from the Middle East. Neopaganism is now a growing movement that seeks to revive these religions with something of a New Age twist. Some practitioners aim to accurately restore the old traditions to look and be just as they were in the past; others are more eclectic and advocate reconstruction. Either way, a pagan is a religious person. 

Jan 28, 2015

Our quote for today is from Mahatma Gandhi. He said, "It is easy enough to be friendly to one's friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business."

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, "Evangelical Christianity" 

Evangelicalism is a movement in Protestant Christianity that began in the twentieth century as a response to changes in the beliefs, or doctrines, of some Protestant churches, especially with regard to the Bible's authority. 

Modernism, and more recently postmodernism, have influenced the thinking of many and cast doubt in their minds about some scriptural teachings. While there is a broad range of belief within Protestantism, some see the Bible as an ancient, error-filled human record of religious experience rather than a divinely inspired revelation from God. As a result, they reject one or more foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. 

For example, some dismiss "Jesus as the only way to salvation" as arrogance. Some consider the need for salvation at all from "God's wrath" to be an abhorrent myth. They might say Jesus is a remarkable human teacher, but not the divine-human Son of God. They deny his miracles and his resurrection and, in the extreme, question whether he actually existed as a historical person. And, despite all these denials of historic orthodoxy, many who hold these beliefs still consider themselves Christian and remain active in churches and seminaries. They find the content of Jesus' teaching to be mostly a useful source of principles for right living. 

Catholicism has been impacted by the same philosophical and worldview trends, and many today, including some leaders, hold one or more of the above beliefs. Certainly this has brought dissension and debate into Catholic scholarship and writing. Unlike some Protestant denominations, though, the Roman Church's official teachings still reflect a more traditional stance with regard to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

How did these changes come about? In seventeenth-century Europe, new ways of thinking produced what is now called the Enlightenment. One key Enlightenment facet was its emphasis on rationalism, the elevation of human reason in determining truth. If something could not be understood by the human mind, it was rejected as false. 

There were positive aspects to rationalism—for example, the development of the scientific method—but it also rejected revealed religion and made humankind the ultimate authority. By the eighteenth century, a different way of studying the Scriptures emerged. Biblical accounts of miracles were assumed to be fictitious, since Europeans of that era couldn't produce miracles themselves. Biblical statements about Jesus' deity and resurrection were dismissed as the fabrications of "primitive" human minds in the ancient world. The worldview that evolved from these ideas was called modernism. The macroevolutionary hypotheses brought forth by Charles Darwin's theories further influenced modernism's focus on the material world and rejection of the supernatural. 

Initially, these humanistic ideas were limited to the educated elite and had little impact on the masses of European and North American Christians. But theological education would come to be influenced by modernistic views, and some Christian leaders became convinced that the church needed to change or else the faith would become irrelevant and die out. This process, over several decades, led some entire denominations to alter their doctrinal statements toward a modernist viewpoint. 

The reaction by those who still believed in the Bible as God's authoritative Word was strong. Dozens of new denominations were formed as churches split over belief in Jesus' virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection. By the 1920s, the labels “liberal” and “fundamentalist” were used to identify these two Christian groups. As modernist teachings grew in long-established seminaries, fundamentalists (so-called because they held to the "fundamentals" of biblical Christianity) started a number of Bible schools around the United States. 

By the mid-1940s, fundamentalists had become increasingly disengaged from American society, separating themselves even from other Christians who did not believe exactly the same way. Some within fundamentalism became uncomfortable with this rigidity and negativism. (Fundamentalists, it was said, "were known more for what they were against than what they were for.") While still holding to biblical fundamentals regarding Christ's person and work, this new movement sought increased cooperation with other Christians, engaged in the pursuit of scholarship (the fundamentalist movement had become strongly anti-intellectual), and generally became more involved in society. Those within this group came to be known as evangelicals. 

Today, “evangelical” has become an umbrella term for Christians who believe in the Bible's accuracy (its inerrancy) and full authority. They also believe in the necessity of being born again for salvation. 

The term is used broadly. It may describe an individual, a local church, or an entire denomination. It's used to identify subgroups within larger denominations, like the "evangelical wing" of the global Anglican Church. There are evangelical organizations, such as the Evangelical Theological Society. The World Evangelical Alliance is made up of more than a hundred national evangelical associations representing thousands of denominations, hundreds of thousands of churches, and approximately four hundred million Christians. 

As the movement has grown, it's become more diverse nationally, ethnically, and culturally. Since modernist or liberal churches no longer believed in the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, most twentieth-century missionary work was carried out by evangelicals. Although Pentecostal Christianity had earlier and different origins and for decades remained separate from evangelicalism, the two are often considered part of the same branch of Christianity. Now almost all non-biological growth in Christianity, globally, is in the evangelical-Pentecostal wing.  

Now, for An Extra Minute 

What's in a label? Terms can be perplexing. In contrast to liberal Christians, evangelicals are often labeled conservative. But liberal may refer to politics as well as theology, or it may mean a person is generous. Someone who's theologically liberal may be politically conservative, and vice versa. Denominations that generally have liberal theology in the sense described above are also known as conciliar, mainline Protestant, and ecumenical. Denominational labels aren't always reliable guides either. For example, some Presbyterian denominations are conciliar/liberal and others are evangelical/conservative. And despite the name, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S., isn't evangelical, doctrinally speaking (there are individual ELCA churches that hold evangelical views). It's more reliable to listen with discernment to the preaching and teaching of a local church than to go by any label. 

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. 

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