A friendly study of the world's religions is a sacred duty
. -Mahatma Gandhi

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

What makes the world go round

According to the US Center for World Mission about 54% of the world's population is either Jewish, Muslim or Christian. (That was in the year 2000 and surely the number has fluctuated somewhat since then.) More than half of the entire world is a member of one of these three religions. This first makes me think about how as humans, we must not be quite as different as we sometimes think! Judaism, Islam and Christianity have a handful of important, good, intriguing similarities and if more than half of the world believes in either Judaism, Islam or Christianity, then more than half of the humans in the world have a handful of important, good, intriguing similarities, too.

Of all the similarities these three grand religions share, one of the very most important and interesting to me would have to be that all three teach the importance, meaning, and indispensable nature of prayer to God. Jews pray to God silently and out loud, they sing and speak their prayers, they pray in private and in public. In the Torah, prayer is taught as being something from the heart, not just the mouth -- meaningful, genuine supplication and devotion to God is key.

Muslims pray five times a day and this daily prayer is part of their religious structure, the Five Pillars of Islam. However, it is not only required that Muslims physically pray these prayers, it is (just as it is for Jews) crucial that each prayer comes from the heart and that the one praying is in the right mindset for worshipping their one, true, omnipotent God. The "call to prayer" is what is sung or spoken five times each day, in places where it is permitted or required by law, in order to remind each Muslim that it's that time again. Here's a clip of a beautiful "call to prayer" that I found on YouTube, it's in Abu Dhabi (I hope my husband and I go there someday soon...).

Christians pray to God, too. They also pray to Mary and other saints, but I want to talk about how they pray to God, just like Jews and Muslims pray to God. Some Christian worshippers pray memorized prayers, prayers from the Bible, sometimes they, too, pray in private and sometimes in public. They say grace, that prayer right before you eat dinner, much like Jews and how Jewish Rabbis bless certain foods. I am a Christian. The children in my church, all around the world, are taught the importance of prayer when they're just tiny. Children All Over the World is one of many songs that the kids learn, every song teaching a different important principle. This one is about how we thank God in prayer. Christians thank God in prayer, they ask for things, and they even share with God their personal feelings of joy or sadness or concern or whatever else.

I'm so intrigued by the amazing way Jews, Muslims and Christians pray. All three love their God, all three feel the need to thank Him, all three recognize their own lowliness in God's sight, all recognize the need for God.

While it is fun and happy to note these wonderful similarities, I think it's important to remember that they all three have stark contrasts as well. Think about this: if all humans were the same then there'd only be one religion (or maybe there wouldn't be one at all?) and we'd all do the same thing in the same way, interpreting things the same and living out the same traditions as each other. The most important difference, I think, between these three religions is simply just that, that they're different. That's what makes the world go round.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

We all can be a chosen people

Why do the three largest denominations of Judaism all agree that they are a chosen people? The Tanakh can answer this question. It is their sacred text and is commonly referred to as the Jewish Bible. There are several passages in the Bible that talk about the children of Israel being God's chosen people:

"For thou are an holy people unto the Lord thy God; the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth." -Deuteronomy 7:6

"Ye are children of the Lord your God... For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth." -Deuteronomy 14:1, 2

There are many more references to the children of Israel and their "chosen-ness" in the Bible, and something I love about each reference is that more often than not, when the Lord is speaking, and calls the children of Israel His chosen people, the idea of keeping His commandments or loving Him back is clear. "... the Lord thy God... keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations..." I believe that one reason why Orthodox, Reformed, and Conservative Jews agree that they are a "chosen people" is because they do keep God's commandments. What they learn from the Tanakh is that if they continue as their forefathers did, thousands and thousands of years ago, things won't change and they'll continue to be a chosen people, for the Bible tells them so.

Some 21st-century Jews would want to reject this idea because it is exclusive. Perhaps God loves and has chosen any people that love Him, or worship only Him, or keep His commandments without following all Jewish traditions. What Michael Chabon, author of an op-ed piece in the NY Times, believes is that Jews are just like every other people on the earth. Every society, every religion, every people has their "village idiot". He believes that Jews are chosen, as the Bible says, but that they aren't necessarily special. I think that this is a liberal, 21st- century way to view Judaism. I think Chabon is right when he talks about how not all Jews are so much more intelligent than the next non-Jew, but that there are superior people in and outside of the Jewish realm.

I believe that God loves all of His children. And I admire stalwart people of the Jewish faith who continue to strive to do as the Bible teaches and be a part of a chosen people that God would be proud of -- non judgmental, and faithful to God's commandments.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The rhythm

On the lonely side of Mount T'ai, Confucius heard the mourning wail of a woman. Asked why she wept she replied, "My husband's father was killed here by a tiger, my husband also, and now my son as met the same fate." "Then why do you dwell in such a dreadful place?" Confucius asked. "Because here there is no oppressive ruler," the woman replied. "Never forget, scholars," said Confucius to his disciples, "that an oppressive ruler is more cruel than a tiger." -The World's Religions, Huston Smith, page 177.

Confucius was indeed an enlightened storyteller. His stories, idioms, parables, teachings, wisdoms and ideas are an integral part of China. Confucius is not alone, however, in deeply influencing Chinese culture and society -- he is as essential as Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism.

In this week's prompt, we're asked to discuss the most important aspects of Confucianism and Taoism, then write about how believers of either one could adhere to both.

Confucius taught that "you are never alone when you act" because everything you do affects someone else in one way or another. He taught that all relationships (his Five Constant Relationships: parent/child, husband/wife, elder/younger sibling, elder/junior friend and ruler/subject) must be correctly upheld and doing well, or happy, or good. If all of these relationships reach perfection, so will society's health as a whole. In Taoism, one sense of Tao is the "way of the universe", the rhythm; it is the soul of the universe and it endlessly continues with determination and purpose. Would it not benefit the Tao of the universe to make sure all of your relationships were rightly upheld? It would contribute to the healthy flow of the universe and strengthen it's Tao. Hence, the two philosophies cooperate and compliment each other.

Another very important Confucius teaching is that of Li -- it's first meaning is propriety, or adhering to established terms of refinement or correct manners. Confucius wanted to have certain models of society so that the general public could look to them and learn. You might say he valued a knowledgeable society, one that sought great examples and followed them. In Philosophical Taoism, also known as "School Taoism" in China, knowledge follows philosophy. Knowledge is wisdom and when you are wise, in Taoist belief, you are better able to conserve "life's vitality" or energy, it's ch'i. One who studies both Confucianism and Taoism could pattern his or her life after some who is intelligent, wise, calm and proper, and in doing so would be an All-Confucianist and All-Taoist at the same time and wouldn't break the rhythm of either religion.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hinduism and Buddha

Hinduism is one of the great religions of the world. It is a complex religion with many gods, goddesses, choices, consequences, rituals, goals, and rewards. Much of the religion focuses on samsara (the vicious cycle of life, death, rebirth) and how to achieve moksha (liberty from samsara). The "life" part of samsara is where we learn how we must have done in our previous life, are we currently of the Brahmins? Kshatriyas? Vaishyas? Shudras? Dalits? Those being, respectively, the priests, warriors, householders, servants and controversially the untouchables. These are the castes of Hindu society that cannot be broken free from; if you were born a Kshatriya, you will die (this time around) a Kshatriya. Higher caste, better person you must have been in your previous life. Samsara, moksha, and castes are three major aspects of Hinduism.

Sometime around 500 BCE, a young prince was born who would put his own spin on Hinduism.

Buddha. Born to a king and queen in India somewhere between 563 and 483 BCE, Siddhartha Gautama (later to become Buddha) was wealthy, educated, handsome, and Hindu. As a young teenager he would often take rides around the country which his father had planned, making sure the young prince would never encounter any sign of death, sickness, or ugliness. One particular ride, however, the young prince mistakenly came upon an old, sick man. This was the first time Siddhartha Gautama realized that there was more to life than perishable things and beauty.

Gautama had had an educated upbringing and was familiar with all the aspects of Hinduism including the different paths to moksha (path of devotion, path of action, path of knowledge). He joined with the Hindi ascetics on the path of knowledge (jnana yoga) -- those that renounced all they had, even declared themselves dead to their own families, in search of truth, knowledge, enlightenment and moksha. He gave jnana yoga his best shot. With intense dicipline and self mastery, Gautama would fast until near death, hold his breath until his face turned blue, all in an attempt to master his own self, renounce everything physical, and reach enlightenment. Despite his unbroken will and severe truth seeking, the extreme asceticism never helped the young man reach true enlightenment; however, he truly appreciated the knowledge he had gained and the peace that meditation brought him.

Hindu practices and beliefs truly set Siddartha Gautama up to becoming Buddha. He was taught to seek truth by the Hindu religion. He was taught to love truth more than perishable, finite things and pleasure. He was taught to act and therefore tried out the way of knowledge and gave asceticism a fair shot. In the end, he found a "better" way -- the middle way, of moderation, peace, nothing too extreme, freedom from humanness, the true path to awakening. He became Buddha. He founded Buddhism.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

John Shore stirs it up

Huffingtonpost.com/religion is a crazy place! There are a million blog posts about a million subjects and I was to choose one to read and think about. Well, I read about eight articles/blog posts and picked one I found, well, amusing. Win Friends and Influence People by Condemning Others and Speaking for God. His title alone makes it clear that the author, John Shore, has attitude, but is, unfortunately, how some extreme Christians feel (condemn others and speak for God). But how can you condemn kind, wise, religious people if you believe in God? Shore has written a handful of books, articles and blog posts that I looked over and seems to be somewhat of a comedian. He is a Christian himself -- a liberal, tolerant, world-loving Christian (and I think that's kind of like me!). I decided that this would be the article to write about today because John Shore and I have something in common: everyone gets to choose what they believe and not a single soul should be made to feel bad about it.

The blog post, you should read it, is extremely sarcastic. The entire five paragraph post is pure sarcasm. The whole thing! I felt like he might have been prompted to write it by Pastor Jones' idea to burn copies of the Quran. He sarcastically claims that the best thing to do for a "non-Christian" friend, is tell them they're wrong and will burn eternally if they don't get to know "the real God". Of course that's not Shore's true meaning. He says that the best way to make someone really happy is to point out all their faults. Yeah right! (Although I do think constructive criticism is a good thing -- it's all about the right time and the right place!)

I'm sure his true meaning, behind the sarcasm, is just exactly the opposite of the words he uses. If you truly love someone, you will share what you believe, sure! But you won't be belittling or mean or abrasive or prideful. God means a lot of things to a lot of people. I personally believe in Jesus Christ and that He was the literal Son of God, our Heavenly Father. But if my best friend is a Muslim and doesn't believe that same thing, then I would love nothing more than to sit down with her and talk about what she does believe and together realize how many things we have in common.

I like John Shore, I think. Maybe I'll go check out one of his books...

To tell you what I'm doing

"If you cannot -- in the long run -- tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing has been worthless." -Erwin Schrodinger

Om. So here I am! And this is what I'm doing! I'm happy to tell you, actually, about all of this and hope you find that it gets you thinking about some of the things I'm thinking about. And what I'm thinking about is the world's religions; the captivating, spectacular, sometimes peculiar, wonderful, vast and enormous list of the world's religions. I'll have responses to prompts from my World Religions class professor where I will get to think and then write about Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Confucianism and Taoism. As I learn about the religions and people of the world, I'm sure to learn more of my own little place in it.