What, exactly, is religion? And why does one religious tradition often differ so markedly from another, even when you might not expect it to? Why, for example, are the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—despite their common source—often so different? And what kinds of factors separate the beliefs of a Hindu or Buddhist not only from those held by Jews, Christians, or Muslims, or by each other, but also from many who identify themselves as fellow Hindus or Buddhists?
A Powerful Force
Every day, religion affects your life, whether directly or indirectly.
- It forms the foundation for a wide range of moral codes.
- It is the driving force behind the conduct of many individuals.
- It can influence the actions of nations on the world stage.
- It can affect the public and private lives of citizens through religiously based acts of governance.
At a time when religion and religiously grounded issues are so prevalent in public and private life, it's difficult to overstate the importance of augmenting your understanding of this powerful force and its impact on so many. It's also difficult to get a solid working knowledge of the beliefs that unite and divide us—as well as the perspective from the other side of these divisions.
The 24 lectures of Comparative Religion offer you an opportunity to gain a solid grasp of the key ideas of religion itself—the issues that repeatedly surface when you look at any faith's beliefs, practices, and organization. Using five major religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism—as illustrations of how religions can address the same core issues in parallel and different ways, award-winning Professor Charles Kimball of the University of Oklahoma leads you on an exploration of religion's complex and multidimensional nature.
It's an exploration that can strengthen the interpersonal understanding that underlies your daily relationships, enhance your perception of events in a diverse world, and deepen your appreciation of your own beliefs and the traditions followed by others.
Learn the Key Components on Which Every Religion Is Built
Using the basics of these five major religions as a starting point—and explaining those basics so that no prior knowledge is needed—Professor Kimball plunges deeply into each to reveal and clarify the essential structural components shared by all faiths:
- Creation myths and sacred stories
- Concepts of the divine
- Lifecycle- and calendar-based rituals
- Various types of sacred people, texts, objects, and spaces
- Religion's ultimate goals—the reasons its adherents give them such importance
You learn, for instance, how different religions conceive of a God, or gods, or even no god, and how some emphasize the idea of an afterlife and the beliefs required and rules for conducting your life in preparation for it.
At the same time, you also see how religions offer distinct perspectives, such as the cyclical concepts of life and rebirth held by Hindus or Buddhists, which differ so markedly from the linear understanding of life and its purpose seen in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And you see how even an idea so apparently fundamental as the human predicament can vary dramatically from one religion to another.
In Judaism and Christianity, for example, sin lies at the heart of that predicament. But where the Judaic tradition saw people born in innocence, the early Christian tradition came to see sin as "original," with reconciliation with God occurring not through observance of personal sacrificial traditions, as was the belief in Judaism, but by the sacrifice of Jesus on behalf of humankind.
And while the Islamic tradition also considers humans to be sinful, its view of the fundamental problem is one of forgetfulness, with people easily distracted from a knowledge of God they already possess. It is this failing that the ritual devotional duties known as the "Five Pillars of Islam" are designed to guard against through constant reminders of God, such as the five-times-daily prayers with which non-Muslims might be most familiar.
In contrast, Hinduism and Buddhism see the major human problem as what Professor Kimball characterizes as the "illusion of reality in this world." His presentation of some of the basic ways these two linked and complex religions endeavor to penetrate that illusion through cycles of death and rebirth underscores how different religions address the many questions with which all faiths must contend.
Learn How a Startling Range of Practices Can Exist Even within the Same Faith
Such variation need not be confined to different faiths. Even within the same broad religion, the range of practices reflected in faithful observances can be startling. For some Catholics, for example, the 40-day period of Lent might involve a small symbolic sacrifice such as giving up dessert; in some parts of the Philippines, however, a few Catholic faithful allow themselves to be briefly nailed to crosses to show identification with Christ's suffering.
But religious rituals encompass far more than sacrifice and can indicate commonality as well as divergence. Throughout this course's fascinating exploration of sacred rituals, you see how those associated with one tradition so often parallel those of another, even when the tenets of the faiths cause them to differ.
Birth rituals are a typical example. In Judaism, a circumcision ceremony is used to welcome a male child into the community. In many Christian churches, a baptism serves a similar purpose for infants, although other Christians, such as the Baptists, have a dedication ceremony instead, reserving actual baptism for later in life, when a mature profession of faith can be made. This is a distinction mirrored by many of the churches that do practice infant baptism, which also offer a later-in-life confirmation ceremony where believers can affirm their desire to be full members of the faith.
Above all, as Professor Kimball makes clear, sacred rituals are more than just requirements; they are meant to accomplish something, a point underscored by his example of the rehearsal that often occurs before a traditional Christian wedding. During those rehearsals, the performative element of the ritual—the vows—are not themselves rehearsed, preserving the specific purpose of the ritual for the wedding to come.
A Professor Whose Own Diverse Background Energizes His Teaching Skills
A course like this can't help but remind you of the remarkably diverse world in which we live, and it's a diversity reflected by Professor Kimball's own unusual combination of professional, academic, and personal credentials: a doctorate of theology in comparative religion from Harvard with an emphasis on Islam; a great deal of personal experience in the Middle East; ordination as a Baptist minister; and an extended family whose members practice not only his own Christian faith, but Judaism and Buddhism as well.
By combining this background with a relaxed, likeable style, personal and humorous anecdotes, and skillful use of multiple perspectives to revisit key issues, he's created a course as enjoyable as it is provocative. After completing these lectures, you are able to "see with a native eye," as Professor Kimball puts it, when you wonder why followers of a given religion believe or act as they do.
Professor Kimball often asks his first-day students to answer the same question posed at the beginning of this article—What, exactly, is religion?—and he is struck by the difficulty they have in answering it.
He is not, however, surprised. Religion's many layers make that a hard question. But it's also a question you are much better equipped to answer after hearing these lectures and learning to see with the "native eye"—and that may be this course's greatest gift.