Final Essay for Comparative Religion Masters
Rev. Katherine MacDowell
The Comparative Religion Masters course distilled a complex topic in a coherent and well-designed format with super adjunctive reading recommendations and website options. One of the critical elements I gained through exploring the material of the course is not only an appreciation of the shared elements of faiths, but also their unique differences. As I read through the opening lesson’s discussion of the philosophical interpretations of the nature of God, I could not help but also ask what is the nature of the differences between these faiths and how do these differences ultimately shape how we find our religion. As a psychologist, I am deeply embedded in questions associated with how individuals come to make their choices, as well as issues of cultural difference. Recently, I finished reading Chet Raymo’s When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy and he emphasizes the role of parents and our primary cultures determining our religious affiliation—in his own bias (he is largely against religion as something that is counterintuitive to the revelations of our contemporary sciences, but that is for another discussion all together!) he holds that such determination cannot truly reflect the development of an authentic religious self, which must be engaged with and consciously chosen. I would hazard a guess that many faiths would take issue with the notion that one should “choose” their faith, as many hold that God “chooses” you. Nevertheless, as I read through the lesson material, I wondered at the process unique to our contemporary time and increasing global culture of how we come to choose our faiths. What are the subtle differences that draw our focus? I asked myself, having grown up an Episcopalian and traversing through many religious paths before settling on religious naturalism and shamanism, what invites me in to these paths? When I consider the elements of Catholicism that I feel drawn to—what stops me from considering myself a Catholic? I found it amusing that the author of our material found a website that allows you to input answers to find which faith resonates most closely with you! This of course added to my own questioning of how has our access to the Internet changed how we relate to religion and are we really the first generation who has choice and thus can embody a new kind of fervor in our faith? I know that these are more questions than specific facts learned, but this is how I engage with material and likely is a reflection of my own background in the sciences. I find more is gained when I retain an openness to being deepened by questions than by answers.
There were specific elements of the course that I thoroughly enjoyed, such as the ongoing use of recommended reading at the end of each lesson, thus allowing me to deepen my knowledge of a topic that struck me. I thoroughly enjoyed discourse 19′s discussion of religious archetypes and found this a superb way of exploring the shared elements of religious roles in an organized fashion. This also appeals to my psychological background in the possibility of how might individuals, not attaining a more professional role in a religion, engage with these roles on a personal level either through embodying them or through relating to others in these roles. I also found discourse 11′s exploration of the fundamental questions religion seeks to answer (afterlife, painful experiences, suffering, etc.) to be well organized and providing some areas for fascinating further examination. I loved the definition of sacrament: “It has at its core the belief that taking into the body something that is divinely charged will unify the microcosm and the macrocosm” (Discourse 12). I found this to be a profound statement that explores an underlying philosophical position of what is above, so it is below. As such it highlights the notion of union with the Divine and speaks to our hopes of bringing this energy and the associated conceptions of the afterlife or the personality of the Divine into everyday human existence. It does also suggest that human also hold a fundamental conception of themselves as somehow lacking and their surrounding world as that which is filled with suffering. Indeed, the sacrament appears to be the solution to the issue of suffering and may provide a fascinating psychological benefit to allow individuals to experience a sense of resiliency and power through their capacity to engage in this specific behavior (likewise underlying ritual/ceremonial behavior whereby individuals provide an offering to a deity in the hopes of securing a different outcome in their physical, every-day life). I absolutely loved the flow chart in the concluding chapter about the interconnective development of religion, although I would disagree with the notion that a Goddess tradition underlay all others—more on this in a moment.
I think what I least liked was the two discourses on hermeticism, alchemy, and secret societies. I would not consider these religions per se as systems of magic or perhaps philosophy as they lack real theological clarity and other elements that define religion. I think a chapter on philosophical influences would have been enough to explore hermeticism. I would have liked to have seen greater exploration of the philosophical elements of religion that are introduced in discourse one and how religions seek to answer these philosophical positions. I do think Neopaganism and its religious children (Wicca, Druidism, etc.) should have been more widely visible in the entirety of the lesson alongside older faiths.
My main point of contention with the course is the author’s supposition that a Goddess faith underlay all other traditions in the last discourse. There is substantial archeological dispute about this view largely asserted first by Robert Graves in The White Goddess and later by Marja Gimbutas and a handful of feminist scholars—none of whom other than Gimbutas are in fact archaeologists. All of which has been argued against by mainstream archaeology, including women within this field. I would direct the author to Lotte Motz’s The Faces of the Goddess, which provides counter arguments to the underlying beliefs that God was initially a woman. It’s worth the read to ensure that one’s assertions are accurately and not presented as “fact”. What would be a more historical accuracy would be to discuss the Goddess traditions within the contemporary context, where they have a powerful life of their own as explored by Starhawk, Z Budapest, and Carol Christ for example. Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed the course.
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This is an excellent course which is recommended as required reading for all those who seek to understand more fully the nature, provenance and future prospects for religious belief and faith groups in the modern world. Past approaches and contemporary studies are outlined succinctly and effectively and the amount of useful information of offer is highly impressive.
Although, in essence, this is a fairly new field of academic research and interest, it also draws together a wealth of approaches, sources and content that span the centuries and provide an overview of a phenomenon that has influenced and moulded human affairs since first we sought to come to terms with the realities and challenges of our existence.
At the outset, in the nineteenth century, studies tended to focus more on the shortcomings of other faiths rather than neutral appraisal, in order to bolster the common perception that monotheistic, Christian practice was the ideal against which all other belief systems were to be assessed. Nevertheless, similarities were detected at the outset by researchers such as Feuerbach, noting the theophany in Hinduism, and these studies were soon overladen with deeper psychological explanations. Sigmund Freud suggested that all belief systems emerged to combat the ’trauma of consciousness’ which evolved along with the realisation by early homo sapiens that the world about him was cruel, unforgiving and incomprehensible. This harsh backdrop to existence could be made more bearable by attributing a god or spirit to every aspect of nature and developing rituals of prostration and sacrifice to placate them and ward off calamitous natural events such as earthquakes and sacrifices. This animistic prescription reached a highly developed form within the boundaries of the Roman Empire and much of this motivation was imported into early Christianity to accommodate the prevailing mindset and to aid recruitment to the new dispensation. Studies of eastern religions indicate similar initial approaches although divergence may have occurred later.
Various suggestions have been advanced to explain degrees of similarity between faiths which often developed in different eras and geographical areas, seemingly without any discernible line of transmission or cultural contact. The great American sociologist and researcher into the power and nature of myth in religion and culture, articulated the idea of the ‘Monomyth’ in his 1949 work, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’. The ‘Hero’ is an archetypal figure who seems to come to the fore in most cultures and literatures over time. The myth can be summarised thus,
‘A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural
wonder; fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won. The
hero comes back from this adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow
As we look back, we can see many examples of this scenario which run true to the above screenplay: Osiris, the Buddha, Moses, Christ, even Harry Potter! It is, indeed, a theme taken up in 2005 by B J Oropeza in his book, The Gospel according to Superheroes, in which he relates characters such as Superman, Batman, X-men, Hulk, Wonder Woman and the Fantastic Four to gospel themes in a very plausible way.
Organised religions have tended to move on, however, from relatively primitive metaphor to flesh out what is usually a rather spare outline or a set of aspirational promptings with layer after layer of convoluted doctrine and elaborate ceremonial. This, then, is where we move into dangerous territory when institutionalised religions with claims to the monopoly of truth replace reassurance and comfort grounded in attempts to appease nature. Joseph Campbell expresses his view thus:
‘Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood
metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them
as facts, then you are in trouble.
No longer are we projecting our fears and uncertainties about belonging, sense of purpose, self-worth and the like onto a local god or gods made in our image and rooted in nature, we are now serving the one true god, at least in Christianity and Islam, under pain of dire consequences if we fail to observe strict codes of conduct. The stage is then set for rivalry and conflict as different sets of values clash over minute interpretations of holy texts or traditional practices, a situation satirised by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels where he describes the decades of conflict between Lilliput and Blefescu over the Big-end versus Little-end controversy.
An enduring question is why, in the realm of religious belief, similarities are so often overlooked and differences magnified leading to events such as the Crusades, conflict in Northern Ireland or the burgeoning schism in the Anglican communion. If we examine the core beliefs of most religions such as the Golden Rule, we identify clear agreement between major faiths such as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. We encounter this, too, with many of the iconic stories that occur in numerous religions, the story of the Flood being a good example; we are all aware of the story of Noah’s Ark but this metaphor for fall and redemption seems to occur in so many cultures that it suggests a cast of mind common to all mankind when attempting to explain a relationship with the divine. In Hinduism, Manu is warned by a grateful fish that he must build a boat to save himself from the coming annihilation; this he does, and is enabled to repopulate the world. In Assyrian myth, Utnapishtim is urged by a benevolent god to gather his family and a pair of every animal to avoid the wrath of the gods and the imminent flood. Similarly, Atrahasis in Babylonian mythology, is urged by Ekni to build a boat and sail away with his family and breeding stock to avoid inundation. Almost identical legends are to be found in Sumerian, Chinese, Druidic and Zoroastrian sources as well as amongst the African religions.
One interesting resonance is that in ancient Egypt, Osiris, the Saviour God was called Lord of Lords, King of Kings and God of Gods, the Resurrection and the Life, the Good Shepherd and it is said that his birth was witnessed by three wise men. By the time of the emperor Aurelian, in fact, there were so many saviour-gods in the pantheon that their celebration was combined into one festival on December 25th, namely the birthday of the Unconquered Sun, a date that was imported into Christianity despite any clear connection with the birth of Jesus. The Bahai teaching handles this rather well by stating:
‘The birth of every manifestation is the rebirth of the world. In that simple fact lies
profundity and the glory of every day that is celebrated as the coming of God’s
messenger, be it the birth of Osiris, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed or the Bab. May we all
find blessing within their light.’
Sadly, many other faiths are not so accommodating.
So, in terms of content and structure, the exoteric and the esoteric, the stress on fine buildings surging towards the heavens, the pomp and panoply of a priestly hierarchy and sacred spaces where the importance of mystery and ritual is evident, whether it be a cathedral, a mosque, a temple or a synagogue, the same elements will be discernible.
According to Karl Marx, ‘religion is the opium of the people’ distracting them from the harsh inequalities of their lives and helping to maintain the status quo in society. Certainly, there is some truth in this but it is unlikely to be the explanation in all cases.
Dr. Huston Smith has suggested that religion is a set of criteria which helps believers to establish their relationship with nature, with others and with themselves. For many, as in Jewish communities, the faith is valued for its role in transmitting the law and culture from generation to generation, for others it can be a bridge between reality and an otherwise unattainable ideal. For some, like Albert Schweitzer, it is tied in with a reverence for nature and creation which we should always regard as a priority in our lives. Many rely on their religious beliefs to shape their attitudes towards others and this can lead to various responses such as the need to proselytize and convert or even the wholly unacceptable stance of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, based upon bigotry, hatred and an uncritical self-righteousness.. It is worth noting, however, that there are countries such as Japan, with a very small proportion of believers, (around 3% are church goers, which have a low level of crime and anti-social behaviour, compared for example with the United States with around 50% church attendance and a very high level of violent crime. The suggestion is that the absence of religious precepts causes a self-interest factor to ‘kick in’ based upon the notion of ‘do as you would be done by’ and a personal calculation as to what would be the right and prudent way to behave.
Of late, a school of thought has begun to emerge which indicates that human behaviour in the context of religious organisation, tends to conform to a prescribed pattern, possibly due to factors within the human psyche. Professor Roger Twigg of the University of Oxford, in answer to the question whether human beings are predisposed to believe in God, has written, ‘Not quite, but it is all in the mind’. Speaking last year, he said, ‘We have gathered a body of evidence that suggests that religion is a common fact of nature across different societies. Attempts to suppress religion are likely to be short-lived as human thought seems to be rooted to religious concepts such as the existence of supernatural gods or agencies or of an after or pre-life…It isn’t just the quirky interest of the few, it’s a basic human nature. You just can’t pretend it’s not there.’ Paul Bloom, of Yale writes that some of the foundations for our religious beliefs are hard-wired, concluding that ‘all human beings possess the brain circuitry and it never goes away’. Much research has also been done by Dean Hamer who has speculated on the possible existence of a ‘god gene’, and by scientists who are investigating the effect of serotonin and serotonin receptors upon our mental processes and our susceptibility to abstract ideas. Clearly, the whole question of why, what and how people believe is being addressed from many different angles.
This certainly helps to address the basic question as to why people are drawn to religious beliefs and rituals and to systematise to a degree, the vast plethora of varying religious persuasions which are to be found world-wide. Dr. AF Wallace suggested a scheme for classification based upon four sub-divisions, namely individualistic, communal, shamanistic and ecclesiastical which does enable us to establish parameters and norms as a prelude to further study. Bertrand Russell and Huston Smith both added to the methodology by suggesting that religion helps with three basic problems: those posed by nature, by others and by one’s own nature, otherwise designated as the natural, the social and the psychological problems. If we then add to these possible approaches, other schema based upon problems caused by political interaction and globalisation, the way in which currently religious morality may conflict with a settled public morality especially on issues such as gay marriage, gender equality, women bishops, etc., we can appreciate the complexity of this issue. No longer is it simply a matter of recording and commenting upon doctrinal disputes or the differences between millenarian, eschatological and apocalyptic faiths, it is now a matter of assessing religion against a wider backdrop of global ethical standards and progress. In the past, it was the churches that were regarded as the repository of moral guidance; today, paradoxically, the churches are more and more judged against the wider public morality and not infrequently, found wanting. It is, perhaps, this element in the equation that will determine whether or not organised religion, in the developed world especially, withers away or enjoys a revival.
This course reaffirmed for me many long-held beliefs in the commonality of man, as well as helped me discover new connections across traditions and times that I had never known of before but always felt must exist. I am much more confident in discussing various traditions with others than I was before taking this course, as I was at a loss for the words to describe my ideas. We are all wrapped in God’s everlasting grace, though in our limited human vision we can only seem to embrace one of God’s infinite versions at a time.
Imagine my surprise, learning in my 40′s what I thought was true since I was a child: we are all children of God, by whatever names and forms we envision for our Higher Power. Newly-empowered with the right terms and a thirst to learn about my human brothers and sisters, I have reached out to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists. My rewards are immeasurable, and the friendships I’ve made are strong and true and based on shared love of the spirit of God that lives within us all. In the case of my atheist friend, it is the love of humanity that we share.
I found nothing in the Comparative Religion course that needed improvement. I’m pleased with the content and I refer to my printed discourses often for information and refreshers. Occasionally I would run into a broken or outdated link, but not to be dismayed, I’d google my way to alternate sites for related information and allow the journey to circle me back to Kythera Ann’s material for the week. Her writing style and presentation is exceptionally beautiful, professional, and of the quality that one finds in a hard bound book. My expectations were not only met but exceeded and made me want to delve further into each subject when I was finished reading the discourse.
I’m definitely going to continue learning with ULC courses as the format is perfect for me. Living with MS (multiple sclerosis) means having to be flexible and always be prepared to go with Plan B should my true ambitions fall through for the day. The unpredictable nature of the disease means rigid classroom schedules are an insurmountable obstacle. ULC gives me back my Plan A and allows me to read and research on my time as my situation allows. That translates for me into a fuller learning experience and not just an exercise in stressful deadlines and commutes. My gratitude is immeasurable. Finishing this course, my first course at ULC and the first class I’ve been able to finish since MS, means something incredibly special to me. I am looking forward to working my way through another course and then another.
Thank you for your time and consideration. Peace be yours!
Joy Lynn Zen Rosenberg
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