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Comparative Religion

Comparative Religion

Professor Charles Kimball Th.D.
University of Oklahoma
Course No.  6172
Course No.  6172
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

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.
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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.

View Less
24 Lectures
  • 1
    Comparative Religion—Who, What, Why, How
    Religion can be difficult to define. Most people say, "I know it when I see it." But what is the "it" you see? This lecture introduces an approach to help you answer this question and also addresses both subjectivity and the importance of understanding human religiousness. x
  • 2
    Exploring Similarities and Differences
    You learn 12 common features found in all religions and begin gaining the foundation for broader inquiries about similarities and differences among Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, including those that occur not only between faiths, but within the same one. x
  • 3
    The Sacred, the Holy, and the Profane
    Following a brief overview of some prominent single-discipline attempts to explain religion's origins, you explore three broader frameworks for understanding: Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy, Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and The Profane, and Wilfred Cantwell Smith's The Meaning and End of Religion. x
  • 4
    Sacred Time, Sacred Space, Sacred Objects
    Eliade's observations about how different religions distinguish between the sacred and the profane (ordinary) and assign sacred meaning to times, places, and objects come alive for you through examples drawn from several of those religions. x
  • 5
    Sacred People—Prophets, Sages, Saviors
    Foundational religious leaders fulfill vital purposes in all religions. In the first of two lectures devoted to such sacred people, you learn the different roles played by figures like Confucius, Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Muhammad, Jesus, and Krishna. x
  • 6
    Sacred People—Clergy, Monastics, Shamans
    You explore some of the more familiar figures charged with carrying out essential functions and rituals in their religious communities and learn how their roles have evolved. You also encounter the shaman, a lesser-known figure found not just in tribal cultures but in the great world religions as well. x
  • 7
    Sacred Signs, Analogues, and Sacraments
    Symbols are how human beings communicate. This lecture reveals to you how different religions employ these essential tools, not only through "representational" symbols whose meanings must be learned, but especially through "presentational" symbols whose meanings are experienced on a deeper level. x
  • 8
    Creation Myths and Sacred Stories
    A religion's sacred stories are profoundly true to those who embrace them. One type—the creation story—is common to all religions, which have given us hundreds of such stories and myths. You learn their categories and the four functions they serve. x
  • 9
    From Sacred Stories and Letters to Doctrine
    What happens when a religion's founding figures and first adherents are gone, and divergent views arise among later generations? By looking at the early history of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, you see how adherents of the three great missionary religions developed frameworks for sustaining their faiths. x
  • 10
    Sacred Texts—The Bible and the Qur'an
    In examining the processes by which authoritative scriptures of the three Abrahamic religions became fixed, you see common approaches and distinctive differences. And you learn that even within the same faith, differences persist over what constitutes authoritative texts and how to interpret them. x
  • 11
    Sacred Texts for Hindus and Buddhists
    The massive body of literature deemed sacred by Hindus and Buddhists can be as bewildering as the number of ways in which they are understood and used. This lecture gives you a demystifying guide to the major types of sacred literature. x
  • 12
    Polytheism, Dualism, Monism, and Monotheism
    Nearly all religions include some concept of divinity, each fitting into one of four distinct categories. But you quickly see that the lines of separation can be fluid, and the question, "What do we mean when we say God?" can be more provocative than you might imagine. x
  • 13
    From Birth to Death—Religious Rituals
    You explore the rituals that mark key stages in life—birth, childhood, coming of age, marriage, and death—and see striking similarity across all religions, as seen in the rituals of baptism, bar mitzvah, Buddhist and Christian ordination, and funerals. x
  • 14
    Daily, Weekly, Annual Religious Rituals
    In a lecture that may forever change your perception of Passover, Christmas, or noon prayers at the mosque, you learn how calendar-based rituals use sacred stories, time, space, and objects to fulfill important pedagogical, sociological, and psychological functions. x
  • 15
    Ritual Sacrifice in the World's Religions
    At first glance, ancient practices involving animal or human sacrifice are shocking to modern sensibilities. An examination of ritual sacrifice reveals common understandings and outcomes and leaves you with new insight into why people—even today—engage in sacrificial rituals. x
  • 16
    The Human Predicament—How to Overcome It
    Every religion is predicated on the notion that the world we experience is not ideal and tries to explain the nature and purpose of existence. This lecture provides a framework for the next five lectures, including a consideration of the universal problems of evil and injustice. x
  • 17
    The Problems of Sin and Forgetfulness
    Although Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share many roots, the three Abrahamic traditions approach the human predicament in different ways. This lecture offers you the chance to observe through a new lens the ways in which the three faiths approach issues like sin, sacrifice, and ultimate accountability. x
  • 18
    Breaking through the Illusion of Reality
    Although Hinduism and Buddhism encompass hundreds of varying traditions, all address the "illusion of reality" as the predicament trapping people in the cycles of death and rebirth. This lecture explains this cyclical perspective and how it differs from the linear viewpoint of the Abrahamic traditions. x
  • 19
    The Goals of Religious Life
    Are the goals of existence only otherworldly? Can any be experienced here and now? You learn that no matter how the different religions conceive of the afterlife, they are united in a shared understanding that ultimate meaning must be found beyond physical existence. x
  • 20
    The Way of Faith and the Way of Devotion
    Religion provides four basic paths by which faithful followers may pursue the ultimate goals: the ways of faith, devotion, disciplined action, and meditation. This lecture explores the first two, using examples drawn from Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism. x
  • 21
    The Way of Action and the Way of Meditation
    Disciplined action is the most widely practiced path, shown to you here in the legal traditions of Islam and biblical Israel and the rigid Hindu caste system. You also examine disciplined meditation, a form of action practiced by Buddhists and Hindus. x
  • 22
    The Way of the Mystics
    Virtually all religions include adherents whose religious practice centers on the mystical path. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, the lines separating religions become blurred or erased. You explore several key commonalities and differences among Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim mystics. x
  • 23
    The Evolution of Religious Institutions
    As religions begin to grow, structure becomes a requirement, whether for perpetuation, organization, or doctrinal clarification. You see how the first followers of the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad attempted to resolve challenges through institutional structures, as often borrowed or adapted as created anew. x
  • 24
    Religious Diversity in the 21st Century
    Your course concludes with a consideration of the ways people in different religions understand their particular experiences and traditions in the context of religious diversity. You see several examples of the positive and inclusive approaches that are now part of the 21st century landscape. x

Lecture Titles

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Charles Kimball
Th.D. Charles Kimball
University of Oklahoma

Dr. Charles Kimball is Presidential Professor and Director of the Religious Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma. A graduate of Oklahoma State University, Professor Kimball holds an M.Div. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Th.D. from Harvard University in Comparative Religion with a specialization in Islamic studies. Before joining the University of Oklahoma, Professor Kimball taught for 12 years at Wake Forest University, where he was Professor of Comparative Religion. An ordained Baptist minister, Professor Kimball is a frequent lecturer and an expert analyst on issues on the Middle East, Islam, Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations, and the intersection of religion and politics in the United States. From 1983 to 1990, he was the Director of the Middle East Office at the National Council of Churches. During the past 25 years, Professor Kimball has visited the Middle East more than 35 times and has worked with Congress, the White House, and the State Department. Professor Kimball is the author of four books, including When Religion Becomes Evil (named one of the Top 15 Books on Religion for 2002 by Publishers Weekly) and Striving Together: A Way Forward in Christian-Muslim Relations.

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Reviews

Rated 4 out of 5 by 43 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Comparative Religion I found this course to be the best that I have viewed through the Great Courses. I teach a similar course at a local college and I found the information and presentation of it to be excellent. The ability to access further resources to go deeper and engage other authors was very helpful. This is obviously a broad stroke overview of these religions, but I truly appreciated the similarities and notable differences in the religions that are presented. I highly recommend this to the casual student, lifelong learner and instructors of similar material like myself. Thank you Dr. Kimball. August 14, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Enlightening I found this course to be a balanced, enlightening and comprehensive survey of the world's main religions. One could not ask for much more. July 31, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Broaden your understanding Excellent introduction to 5 major world religions, focusing on how they compare and contrast. Professor Kimball's explanations are clear and his choice of topics provides a sound overview of many aspects of these religions, which have much in common in some respects, yet fundamentally differ in many. He promotes an appreciation of other viewpoints, and espouses learning important ideas about ourselves from the perspectives of each of these religions. I wholeheartedly recommend this class to any who seek to understand differing religious viewpoints. May 26, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Worthwhile overview of the five major religions This is an introductory course and does not claim or pretend to be an in depth course on any one religion. There are other Great Courses that do that. Keeping this in mind this course covers a very large range comparing the five major religions of the world and the major sects within those religions. The presenter has a very quiet style of presentation compared to other Great Courses presenters. Nevertheless he did keep my attention most of the time and he provides useful insight into the various religions which are helpful whether you are approaching this from a theological, historical or geopolitical standpoint. As the globe becomes smaller with travel, international business and ever increasing population having an understanding of religion can help to better understand people of different faiths and hopefully avoid offending those who have deep convictions differing from our own. His approach is interesting in that it does not take each of the major religions separately but compares their theology, their practices and their sacred texts, symbols, etc. in individual lectures addressing a variety of theological topics. Personally I have strong feelings that coming into contact with other cultures and religions not only broadens your thought process but opens you to a better understanding and tolerance of others that is increasingly important in a shrinking world. Whether you travel the world and live in foreign countries as I have exposure to the belief systems of other cultures helps to understand your own and perhaps will help to understand not only what makes us different but what we also share in common. There are very few graphics and pictures in the course although there are some. As a result this is probably a course that you could enjoy on CD or other audio as much as on DVD. For those wishing an introduction tot the five major religions and the sects or major denominations within those religions this is a worthwhile course and one I can recommend . February 18, 2014
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