God and Mankind: Comparative Religions

Course No. 616
Professor Robert Oden, Ph.D.
Carleton College
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Course No. 616
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Course Overview

How do the major religions answer unanswerable questions? What can we gain from their answers? Why are we here? What is my purpose? Where do we go when we die? Will I be forgiven? Will we ever discover the source of the mystery? Each of these questions raises countless more.

God and Mankind: Comparative Religions by Professor Robert Oden is an ideal starting point for gaining some progress in considering these questions. And if you've been thinking about them for a while, as so many do, you will likely discover he has many fresh insights to offer you.

Professor Oden, who holds degrees in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and Theology, has taught at Harvard University and Dartmouth College over a long and exceptionally distinguished career as both teacher and college president.

His lectures approach religious belief and ritual as possible answers to these most difficult and enduring questions, which have occupied humanity from the beginning.

An Ideal Starting Point for Inquiry

The lectures underscore both the unity and the diversity of religious approaches to life in a sweeping conceptual grasp.

Professor Oden begins with a discussion of the nature and study of religion, distinguishing between religion as both a matter of faith and as an appropriate subject of intellectual and academic pursuit.

In addition to discussing the four traditional views of religion, Professor Oden proposes another: a system of communication.

This serves as a crucial conceptual framework for exploring the thoughts of Mircea Eliade, a historian of religion, philosopher, and professor at the University of Chicago, who proposed that the best way to understand religions is to examine their views of how the world came into being and how it operates on a daily basis.

How Do We Reconcile Suffering and a Benevolent Deity?

Professor Oden continues with an investigation of the problem of reconciling an all-powerful and benevolent deity with the suffering and evil that are part of human existence.

You will also look at the dynamics of religious communities in general and the impact of the Puritan religious tradition on America.

The introductory lecture lays out a framework for the study of religion, beginning with the "what" and "why" of the matter, and moving to how religions have been compared with history, science, psychology, and society.

You learn that for religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism that see the world as old, salvation comes by escaping from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. But Judaism and Christianity, however, see the world as relatively new, and the goal is to gain more chances at life, either collectively or individually.

Professor Oden addresses the centrality of myth in making sense of religious cosmologies, and he places special emphasis on the birth narratives of religious heroes, particularly the unusual circumstances surrounding their conception and birth.

Religious Heroes and Teachers in developing a framework for an extensive discussion of the ancient Sumerian myth, the Epic of Gilgamesh and its cosmological implications.

You explore the notion of the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, later expanded by the American anthropologist Victor Turner, that the rite of passage theme must be understood as central for religious cosmologies in general.

As with Gilgamesh, this lecture looks at the stories of Moses, Jesus, Krishna, and Gautama the Buddha, unearthing in each a key point that aptly reflects the cosmology of the religion in question.

Professor Oden goes into a systematic analysis of the "theodicy" problem, which is: How can an all-powerful and benevolent deity allow innocent people to suffer while often success and happiness seem to come to those who are evil? All world religions have attempted to deal with this dilemma—and five answers have been produced.

The discussion of theodicy continues by examining the most famous example in the Western religious tradition—the book of Job—and two of the main sources of Christian thinking on the topic, the Apostle Paul and the 16th-century Swiss theologian, John Calvin.

By way of comparison, Professor Oden also discusses the Hindu and Buddhist responses to the theodicy question, including the Hindu doctrines of karmic law and transmigration of souls, and the Buddhist teaching that life is suffering, with the only release an acceptance of the impermanence of the universe and everything in it.

Ritual, Sect, and Church

In examining ritual, Professor Oden places special emphasis on its nature, importance, and ramifications for the religious community, and then describes the dynamics of the development of two types of religious communities: sect and church.

Professor Oden moves from the comparative sociology of religion to what might be termed the religious nature of a particular society: the United States. Drawing on the work of the Harvard scholar Sacvan Bercovitch, the lecture addresses the American identity with reference to its Puritan origins.

Taking the theme of America and Americans being "God's elect" and the parallels between America and ancient Israel, Professor Oden proposes an American civil religion whose themes include:

  • The "chosen" history of America
  • A strong notion of covenant, with America's fate emblematic of the world's
  • The idea that, in America, the ultimate sovereignty is not the people's, but God's.

In conclusion, Professor Oden discusses four aspects of today's American identity that seem to have come directly from the Puritan tradition:

  • An anti-intellectual bias toward individualism rather than collective experience and theory
  • A bias against ritual
  • The strongest fundamentalist tradition in the advanced industrialized world
  • A uniquely American anxiety over vocational and occupational calling that is not found elsewhere in the world.

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8 lectures
 |  Average 43 minutes each
  • 1
    Why Nothing Is as Intriguing as the Study of Religion
    The series is introduced with a definition of the word religion. Why should we study it? Dr. Oden establishes how we should best study and compare religions. x
  • 2
    Orienting Humanity—Religions as Spiritual Compasses
    The many ways religions explain the origin of the universe are compared. The effects of different theories of origin on other aspects of religious belief and even religious architecture are also analyzed. x
  • 3
    Religious Heroes 1—Gilgamesh and the Dawn of History
    With a brief review of the elements of religious myth, Dr. Oden discusses elements of the Mesopotamian myth The Epic of Gilgamesh: Gilgamesh's encounter with his equal Enkidu, the spiritual crisis brought on by Enkidu's death, and its resolution. x
  • 4
    Religious Heroes 2—Moses and Jesus
    Dr. Oden proposes that we should understand the lives of religious heroes in the framework of a rite of passage—the movement from ignorance to crisis to post-threshold awareness. Gilgamesh, Moses, and Jesus all fit this scheme. Jesus' argument is that life itself is a crisis presaging the threshold. Hindu and Buddhist belief are included in this analysis. x
  • 5
    Pondering Divine Justice—Do We Suffer for Naught?
    How can a benevolent God permit needless human suffering? The five answers of religion to this question are discussed, as is the Book of Job. x
  • 6
    Defending Divine Justice—Religious Accounts of Suffering
    Continuing the discussion begun in Lecture 5, Dr. Oden explains and examines the responses of St. Paul, Calvin, and Hindu and Buddhist theologians to the problem of human suffering in a world with God. x
  • 7
    Religious Rituals and Communities
    Dr. Oden first reviews the importance of ritual in defining a religious community. He examines the historical development of religious practices and how they are organized into distinct churches; the inevitability of sects which split off from the church and how these sects become churches; and the intriguing ways Buddhist and Hindu religious practices address the tensions that give rise to sects. x
  • 8
    Bringing It All Back Home
    This lecture explores the extraordinary impact of religious belief and thought on the American character. Dr. Oden makes clear the central importance of Luther, Calvin, and Puritanism on American political behavior, religious fundamentalism, and even career choice anxiety. x

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  • 64-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

Robert Oden

About Your Professor

Robert Oden, Ph.D.
Carleton College
Dr. Robert Oden is the former president of Carleton College and Kenyon College. He earned his bachelor's degree in history and literature magna cum laude from Harvard University, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Dr. Oden earned a Th.M. and Ph.D. with highest distinctions from Harvard Divinity School, as well as earning the Whiting Fellowship in the Humanities. He also earned an honorary master's degree from Dartmouth...
Learn More About This Professor


God and Mankind: Comparative Religions is rated 3.8 out of 5 by 66.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Lots of knowledge, no heart. I could barely make it through the first course. The instructor goes on and on about what he thinks etc etc, but fails to get into the actual stories and share them from a place of reverence and authenticity.
Date published: 2019-02-13
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not terribly informative I bought this course thinking that I would be listening to an introduction to comparative religion. As several other reviewers have noted, this is not a comparative religion course in any way. (So I'm not sure why it's the course's subtitle.) There's also very little in the way of G-d and mankind. The lectures on theodicy are the only ones that focus on the relationship between G-d and humanity, but I've heard a number of lectures on the topic in other TC courses that I thought did a better job of covering the topic. (In particular, he tells us in the first of two lectures on the topic that there are five major approaches to the problem. Then, in the next lecture, when he talks about the Book of Job, he argues a sixth. I didn't think the five he covered in the first lecture were particularly compelling, and he doesn't go into great length to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each. But they are presented as the five principal responses to the problem. So to hear about a sixth only one lecture later was confusing and undermined my faith in his discussion. And that, ultimately, is my greatest criticism: That the arguments he makes are neither compelling nor interesting. We get two lectures on origin myths. He argues that religious origin stories have deeper effects on the growth and later (?) theology but I was not persuaded that there was anything meaningful there. Then we get two lectures on religious heroes. (The Gilgamesh lecture serves both as an origin and a hero story, serving double duty.) He argues in these lectures that religious heroes should be seen as epitomizing a rite of passage, and that therefore religion in general serve as rites of passage mechanisms. I was not convinced of either point: that the stories should be seen as rites of passage or that, even if they are, that this defines the purpose of religion in general. I've heard far better discussions of the Gilgamesh epic (it's discussed in a number of TC courses) and far better analyses of the broad outline of the Jesus and Moses stories. The theodicy lectures I mentioned above. Although they are decent, I don't think they do a good job of discussing either the problem or religious answers to the problem. Lecture 7 is meant to be a discussion of religious ritual but Professor Oden spends most of his time discussing "church" and "sect", by which he broadly means hierarchical institutions ("church", which he argues arise inevitably as religions mature) and individual based religious practice ("sect" which he argues can only survive a generation or two). He argues that each give rise to the other: sects give rise to churches as they mature and churches give rise to sects as they splinter. It's an interesting argument, but again, I'm unconvinced. Lecture 8 is the best of the bunch. He talks about American religious experience and how and why the American character is informed by its religious history. This was really a good lecture, and has inspired me to buy (and hopefully listen to) Professor Allitt's American Religious History course. Overall, lecture 8 served only to highlight how disappointing the rest of the course was. An 8 lecture (45 mins each) course is really meant to serve as an introduction to deeper study. Only lecture 8 can really be seen as an inspiration that way. I think there are definitely better places to spend our time.
Date published: 2018-03-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Moderate features and presentation. I bought this a month ago in audio form and I am glad enough I did. It gives me more understanding about the past of God and mankind relationship.
Date published: 2017-10-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Intriguing introduction to the subject, not a form As a lifelong learner and thinker, I was interested in this course as my first foray into comparative religions. Professor Oden is delightful to listen to (to me), but does have a tendency to go off on tangents, and his talks are more akin to rambling discussions. I found them very interesting discussions, raising lots of philosophical and spiritual questions and exploring how these were embodied over the course of history. I think it is a fabulous intro for someone completely outside the field, to dabble their toes in the material; the rambling style feels like an informal armchair talk.
Date published: 2017-07-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from First study of believe systems from the outside looking in, the educational system is not my favorite way to experience life, but you all are good conveyors of information !
Date published: 2017-03-12
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Did not Enjoy I cannot think of any part of this course that I really enjoyed. This was not the course that I was hoping for. I should have read more of the reviews. I thought this was going to give me information about different religions and instead it just gave the instructor's opinions on thoughts and feelings he had about what the different religions think and feel. This was a very opinionated course based on his ideas not on what different religions actually teach, which after listening to this, I still wonder what the different religions even teach because I was not told at all in these lectures. He menioned the Book of Job during one of his lectures -which took him forever to finally get to the subject matter. He said that the idea of an afterlife was not even thought of during the time period of Job in the Bible and that this topic (an afterlife) did not even come into existence until the Hellenistic age. But what does Job 19:25-27 teach if not the idea that there is an afterlife and Job thought he would see God again after he had already died. For a person who enjoyed mentioning the amount of his schooling and education to us during his lectures, I would think that he could have given us a better more thorough presentation.
Date published: 2016-11-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from God and Mankind: Comparative Religions This course, as all other courses I have purchased on religion or theology, is excellent. Comprehensive, educational and very entertaining. Now that I can download to my Kindle, I'll be more likely to purchase not only religion courses but also course that have to do with prehistoric cultures, or cultures and archaeology in general, are superb and a very easy way to learn new items or refresh our memories , back to school days. Great educational material. Dr Sherrington
Date published: 2016-07-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Limited, But Good For starters, this is an older lecture. But don't let that put you off. I find that it is a bit refreshing to have people laugh at appropriate moments. Dr. Oden is a fantastic speaker and really engages his audience. I am in the process of listening to this one for the third time and, although the comparative part is a bit lacking, the subject matter is still interesting. Not to say that there are no comparisons, but it could have done with a bit more depth. Admittedly, it is hard to put all the religions into 360 minutes, but I would appreciate a longer series with a broader list of religions. Dr. Oden touches on a number of religions, but only focuses on a few. With the time given, I can't say I'm surprised. A good base for future learning, but a longer series with a wider range of religions and topics to compare would be appreciated.
Date published: 2016-06-25
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