Tag Archive | religion

The World’s Religions – A Book Review

I think  Huston Smith wanted his book to be an introduction to the world’s religions. He tried to distill each religion down to the basics with which everyone who practiced that religion would agree. He hoped to sift out the cultural and moralistic components so that his readers would see just how alike they all are. When you do this, he argued, what you have left is the common wisdom tradition. But unlike many religions, this wisdom tradition has no god. In chapter one, he defines religion as “the clearest opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos enter human life.”

Inexhaustible energies of the cosmos does not equate with a personal Creator God.

Smith’s practical definition for god is personal fulfillment.

He wanted his explanations to have no judgments or biases attached. Religions, and the study of them, should bring people together. He wrote about embracing the world and our longing for togetherness.

I wanted to update my understanding of different religions with which I come into contact in our pluralistic society. Having only an understanding of the fundamental beliefs of a religion is not really going to help without knowing how those beliefs translate into actual practice or affect the daily lives of people. I want the people with whom I engage to know that I care about their culture and religious practices, about them. I also want to acquire an understanding of how people of other religions or philosophies see me as a Christian.

If you take away the culture and moralistic aspects, you take away the context.

People don’t see me as a follower of Jesus Christ; they see whatever generalized version of Christianity they have developed. The reverse is also true. I cannot see them as people without their context. I will just see a stereotype.

To me, the universe speaks to a Creator and logic tells me that if there is a Creator, then that Creator has purposes and desires for His creation.

It is philosophically untenable that God would say, “Any way you want to come to me will do.”

Smith’s lack of belief in a personal God causes Smith to fail, at least with Christianity, in his non-judgmental goal. In his treatment of the other religions, he ignored any issues of historicity but with Christianity, he felt the need to offer a mild reproof on the resurrection and the deity/humanity of Jesus. Zen could have its paradox but in Christianity, regarding the incarnation, “to say that such a contention is paradoxical seems a charitable way to put the matter…”*  He wanted to believe that Jesus was just a man, albeit a very charismatic one and this bias interfered with his desire to be even-handed.

There is one area in which I found Smith’s book helpful. Although I believe that Jesus Christ is the way to God, I also believe, perhaps contrarily, that God has spoken to people everywhere through the ages and that humankind’s attempts to understand Him have resulted in seeds of truth sprinkled across the world. In ancient Egypt, Akhnaten preached one god; that was a seed that didn’t grow in that time and place. Hinduism’s goal is release from the bondage of existence. The Buddha preached “his ego-shattering, life-redeeming message.” The full connotation of Islam is “the peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God.” Christianity is about the release from the bondage of fear, guilt, and self through the love of God. The peace beyond all understanding that comes from surrendering your cares to God comes right out of Philippians. Smith’s emphasis on the likenesses showed me more of those scattered kernels than I might otherwise have seen. Although he never stated it, people want purpose and he showed how different peoples have taken their kernels of truth and interpreted them to answer the ultimate question: why am I here?

Smith’s worldview contrasts sharply with my own. His god was self-fulfillment, while mine is a transcendent personal God. He assumed that whatever works for a person is fine. I assume God has a particular way. He believed getting to the core of each religion would bring people together. I believe that the core is not where people live and only God Himself can bring us together. He valued comparisons over contrasts. I value knowing both. If I don’t know the contrasts, I could misstep. Even though Smith’s methods have limited application for my own learning goals, they do have some. Not only do the likenesses show to me God’s work in our world, but they also give me points of agreement in conversation, which is the beginning of understanding.

Devil’s Advocate

I try to be an equal opportunity devil’s advocate. Let me know where I fail.

Reflections on religious studies.

To people who don’t want anyone to challenge their Christianity:

Having people ask questions should cause you to seek answers and thereby strengthen your faith. Are you not supposed to be always ready to give an answer as to why you believe (I Peter 3:15)? No reasonable person should expect you to have all the answers but when you keep seeking answers, you can live your life with what you do understand, accept the rest, and answer better next time.


To the Christians who do not want to try to convert others:

Are you not commanded to tell the Gospel to the world (Matthew 28:19-20)? Some Christians have created a bad taste in the mouths of the world by being aggressive, overbearing… domineering. Doesn’t Jesus’ example tell you to see others with love, compassion, and with the desire for them know the truth? If you or your message is not received, shut up and leave it alone (my paraphrase of Matthew 10:14). It is not your job to hound them. Maybe God will send them someone else.


To the atheist and the Satanist:

Where does your morality come from? The Satanist says, “and do no harm.” I have heard this phrase from Wiccans too. Why not harm anyone? If there is no higher power, why shouldn’t we just do whatever it takes to get what we want despite stepping on the backs of others to get it, other than the actions being illegal. I have heard atheists say that banding together for the common good was a survival mechanism. This banding together may have helped us fight against predators and to hunt food, but in the main, it helped us develop an us versus them mentality. It made us stronger to fight against other humans in competition for territory and food. If there is no higher power to fear, then the only thing to fear, (besides fear itself,) is other people. Might makes right. The same survival mechanism that brought us together was the catalyst for bigger wars.


Another general point:

Our worldview must make philosophical sense. For example, If I believe that Christianity is true, then Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, and Taoism cannot be true. They cannot all be true. One truth for me and another truth for you is illogical and philosophically unsound. We would never accept this sort of reasoning in politics, business, or science. When we say that something is true for you but not for me, we are really saying something else.


Truth is not very important so it’s okay if people believe a falsehood.

This leads down some rocky roads because this worldview does not affect only religion; it bleeds over into what we expect of government, personal relationships, and other areas.


We don’t care enough about others to discourse on truth.

For those of us who profess Christianity, numbers two and three are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. We should care about all people, even those who mock us for our faith.


We aren’t sure in our own minds that what we believe is true.

When questions come up that we can’t answer, It’s time to study to show ourselves approved 2 Timothy 2:15.



Please respond. Do you disagree? Is my logic sound? Let me know. I’m asking for it.

RFRA is not Christian versus Gay

RFRAThe Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is not Christian versus Gay. I have said before that regardless of anyone’s feelings the morality of gay marriage, I feel that it would be unconstitutional to deny the LGBT population that right. However, matters of conscience can be tricky things and should not be ignored. For my own (and hopefully your) edification, I would like to give a brief history of the law and discuss Christian reactions to it that have come across my Facebook feed.

The original RFRA was passed in 1993 by Congress, unanimously in the house and 97-3 in the Senate. It states, “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” So even if a law was not intentionally a burden to the free practice of religion, it could still be a burden and thus would be illegal. The exception to the rule would be if it were unavoidable for the furthering of a compelling government interest. Compelling government interests are things that refer to public good, law and order, and constitutionality. A friend of mine explained it to me like this.

The upshot is that if the government unduly interferes in the religious practice of a person (the law above was passed in response to the Employment Division v Smith, in which a couple of Native American men were denied employment based on their use of peyote in long-standing religious rituals) that person or those persons have the right to sue for damages. It makes an exception for government “interests” or activities that we expect the government to enforce or uphold, regardless of religious beliefs.

There was an instance in which a Muslim man in prison wasn’t permitted to wear a beard, although his religion required him to have a beard at least half an inch long. There were exceptions for medical reasons but not for religious reasons. In that instance, because it didn’t interfere with the compelling interest of the government, which was to keep him in prison for the duration of his sentence, it was considered a violation of RFRA. If he had argued that he should be released so that he could make a pilgrimage to Mecca, that would have been ignored as it went counter to the government’s compelling interest to keep him incarcerated for the duration of his sentence.

This applied only to violations by the Federal government. Thirty-one states now have RFRA protections either by legislation or by state court decisions. From the Washing Post blog of April 1:

“These state RFRAs were enacted in response to Supreme Court decisions that had nothing to do with gay rights or same-sex marriage,” explained University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock in an e-mail. “And the state court decisions interpreting their state constitutions arose in all sorts of contexts, mostly far removed from gay rights or same-sex marriage. There were cases about Amish buggies, hunting moose for native Alaskan funeral rituals, an attempt to take a church building by eminent domain, landmark laws that prohibited churches from modifying their buildings – all sorts of diverse conflicts between religious practice and pervasive regulation.”

Why is there such an uproar about Indiana? Indiana, unlike most other states, allowed any for-profit business to assert a right to “the free exercise of religion,” and any individual could assert a violation whether or not any government entity was a party to the proceeding. This was seen as a license to refuse service to members of the LGBT. community. There has been such a backlash against Indiana and their law that they hastily passed an amendment. In Mike Pence’s own words on April 2:

Hoosiers deserve to know, that even with this legislation, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act enhances protections for every church, non-profit religious organization or society, religious school, rabbi, priest, preacher, minister or pastor in the review of government action where their religious liberty is infringed. The law also enhances protection in religious liberty cases for groups of individuals and businesses in conscience decisions that do not involve provision of goods and services, employment and housing.


Crisis in Conscience

Comments on a Facebook Christian page showed that these Christians had no problem with serving gay customers in a store or selling them a birthday cake. But they feel that coercing them to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, however, is forcing them to participate in an event which they believe to be wrong. Serving gays in general is not the problem but the specific event. One person said,

I have asked a gay friend, “What if gay bakers were asked to make cupcakes for an anti-gay marriage rally? Should they be compelled to serve that event?” When the shoe is on the other foot it makes sense to them (sometimes). My friend replied that the gay bakers should in fact “comply,” but it I think it gave him some good perspective. They would obviously be serving an event they disagree with, and I wouldn’t want them to be compelled to do such a thing. Honestly, i can’t even believe we have to ask these questions; it seems so obvious to me that one should not have to burden one’s conscience that way, especially when there are alternative providers willing to serve such an event.

Randall Smith wrote a good post commenting that there is a difference between having to tolerate things with which you disagree; it is another entirely to force someone to participate in those things. This can create a crisis in conscience.

Another person pointed out a potential hypocrisy wondering how many Christian businesses refuse to serve bachelor parties or baby showers for unwed cohabitants. On another page, a Christian commenter took this one step further and said that because no one refused to serve these events, to refuse to serve a gay wedding was blatant and purposeful discrimination. Some expressed reservations about giving special powers of refusal to certain jobs or vocations: pastor vs wedding planner. Some took the capitalistic approach.

I’m of the opinion that businesses have the right to refuse service to anyone they please for any reason they like.
“Are those the new Jordans?”
“No soup for you!”
Can’t believe is even a debate.
If you think the business owner’s a bigot… don’t hire them.

I would like everyone to understand that while there are undoubtedly some Christians who are bigots and discriminatory, that is not the norm. Many of the comments talked about how to go about acting in love without compromising the conscience. We have differences of opinion but can discuss them with civility. People have different experiences and histories that affect their consciences and how they think about political and cultural issues. Our country should maintain the right of every citizen to act or not act, on matters of conscience. RFRA isn’t just for Christians.

I had copied the legal summary of the RFRA law onto my FB status and asked, “What does this mean exactly?” I got the following comment.

This law allows idiot, ill-informed, bigoted Religion and Faith Needers to exercise their right to be just that without any hope of litigation and or restitution. It allows discriminatory practices, legal snow-blowing as well as Character Assassination if it fits within the religious framework of the defendant. It’s a right to be insane without any actual consequences. It’s the first step in a violation of Church and State Separation, and I told you it was coming. It’s like Med-Fair, only the idiots here who dress up are supposed to be taken seriously when it comes to your rights as an American Citizen and not a citizen of a Theocracy. It’s Nazi and It’s Christian in its inception. Welcome to the world that Faith (STUPIDITY) can provide.

“Religious” people do not have a monopoly on hate and vitriol.