“COMPARING THE WORLD’S GREAT RELIGIONS”
For a long time I have wanted to take a class about the comparative religions of the world, but it has never worked out. Nevertheless, and especially considering last week’s column about the dangerous situations all around the world due to the merging of church and state, I thought I would try to learn about and then discuss one or two of the world’s great religions in each of our upcoming columns for the next few weeks. Unfortunately, our public schools seem to have treated this fascinating and critical subject as taboo for many decades, but there is no logical reason for this situation to continue.
Please join me in this endeavor. Each day the world seems to become a smaller place, which means that all of our “neighbors” keep getting closer to us. So it would promote peace in the world for all of us to have a better understanding of each other’s religions, customs and points of view.
But as we begin, please understand that, although I will consult with knowledgeable people, I myself have no particular expertise or background in these subjects. That means I might at times misspeak or make other mistakes. Please do not take offense if I do, and please feel free to correct me. But if this will make us all a little less ignorant about our own and other people’s religions, it will be well worth the effort.
Of course, let us also not delude ourselves that simply by espousing universal education about each other’s religions, or engaging in interfaith dialogue we will somehow miraculously close the divide among Muslims, Christians, Jews and others. Throughout history, even a common religious background has not deterred significant difficulties among people of the same faith, such as Catholic and Protestant Christians, Orthodox and Reformed Jews, and Sunni and Shiite Muslims. But such efforts will at least allow us to focus upon real differences instead of false or even imagined ones.
Let us begin by making the point that each of the world’s great religions has similar values of peace, justice and respect for our parents and elders. Of course all of them are quite different from each other in many ways, but their basic values are similar. In addition, it is also true that each of the holy books of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths contain some “problematic” passages that can be interpreted as asserting superiority of its particular faith over all of the others.
For example, a passage in the Gospel of Mark in the Bible says: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” Similarly a verse from Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Scriptures says: “(O)f all the peoples of the earth the Lord your God chose you to be his treasured people.” And also chapter 5, verse 51 of the Koran says: “Anyone who takes (Jews and Christians) as an ally becomes one of them - God does not guide such wrongdoers.” As we have seen, some people in each of these religions have used their interpretations of these passages for their own radical ends.
But despite these problems, let us try to move toward a mindset of “respect” for the religions, values and beliefs of others, as long as they do not profess or condone violence or subjugation over others, as opposed to a “tolerance” for those beliefs. The former connotes that all people who worship sincerely in their communities are entitled to be respected. The latter basically implies that other people’s beliefs are really mistaken or even silly, but we who have the “true faith” will patronize and humor those people by allowing them to persist in their deluded conditions.
Actually, the seeds of these articles were planted when I heard Dr. John Huffman include in his sermon at St. Andrew’s Church in Newport Beach a reference to a book written by Charles Colson and Harold Fickett entitled “The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters.” So I decided that if this book had Dr. Huffman’s “seal of approval,” I would read it.
I did so, and thus discovered many things I did not know about my own protestant religion. This led to further reading adventures about other religions, which disclosed much additional interesting information. For example, Jews have between 4 and 7 “expressions” or denominations of their religion, depending upon how you count them. Moslems have a score or more, and Buddhists even a greater number. Hindus, Mormons, and other faith groups also have quite a few divisions as well.
But Christians take the cake. They have literally thousands of denominations or expressions around the world. In fact there are somewhere around 470 denominations in the United States alone. Generally, most Christians see this diversity as both good and bad. It is “good” in that it speaks to how many ways there are to approach God and to worship and follow Him, and it also allows for individual personality and cultural needs. It is “bad” in that it is can be confusing to others, and also because so many of the religious differences are over seemingly small issues. But to summarize, and to quote my own pastor, to talk about Christianity is to talk about differences.
So in the coming few weeks I invite you to join us in exploring the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist religions, as well as humanist and some other atheistic views of life. We will begin next week with an exploration of Judaism as well as Christianity, which I openly acknowledge as being my faith. And throughout these weeks to come, if you have a different good faith perspective about any of the religions we discuss, please feel free to share it with all of us on the Daily Pilot’s website.
James P. Gray is a judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe - the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net or at his blog at JudgeJimGray.JudgeJimGray.com.
“JUDAISM AND CHRISTIANITY” (56)
When I completed a draft of this column I forwarded it to several people for their comments, including a local rabbi friend of mine. I want to share his response with you. He said: “I would really like you to talk about the essence of what it is to be a Jew. In ‘Jew,’ J stands for Justice, e for education, and w for worship. Judaism is based on this life and its focus is helping his fellow man. Christianity’s focus is more on the self and of getting to Heaven. They are like two different sports: baseball and football. Jews often get upset when Christians see (Christianity) as the fulfillment of Judaism. Most Jews feel that the two religions emphasize different things. Like Jews have no concept of salvation or grace and emphasize obedience to Jewish law. There are many other differences too, like God has no body in Judaism and there is no concept of hell or the devil. I would like to discuss more about this with you in person.”
I am fully going to accept the rabbi’s invitation, and plan to meet with him for a discussion in about two weeks. I have also invited several classes at Vanguard University to join us. If you would like to meet with us as well, please contact me by e-mail message and I will give you the time and place.
Otherwise, I have learned that a Jew is not a race of people, because race is determined by genetics and cannot be changed. Instead it is defined as either a person whose mother was a Jew, or someone who has gone through the formal process of conversion to the religion of Judaism. But Jews do see themselves as a “family,” and trace their descent from the Israelites of the Bible, or from others who were exiled from Babylon in the 6th Century, BC.
There is no specific dogma or formal set of beliefs that a person must have to be a Jew. To the contrary, it is mostly a religion of “good acts,” where a person must earn God’s forgiveness and favor. Nevertheless, Jews have and treat as holy the teachings of the Torah, which is a divinely-inspired and hand-written parchment scroll that is so sacred that it is only kept in a synagogue, which is the Jewish house of worship.
To Orthodox Jews the Torah consists of only the first 5 books of the Old Testament. This is “the Law,” and it must be strictly followed in every respect. Conservative Jews generally believe that the laws and traditions must be interpreted based upon the times, except that most observe some form of dietary rules (kosher) and other traditional practices. Jews who are a part of the Reform / Liberal / Progressive Movements generally believe that people can choose which particular traditions to follow. And many non-orthodox Jews believe that the Torah consists of the first 5 books of the Old Testament, which is “the Law,” as well as the next 8 books, which constitute “the Prophets,” as well as the last books, which constitute “the Writings.”
To this many Jews add the oral teachings of the Torah, which is the Talmud and other collections of writings about Jewish law and traditions. The Talmud contains the arguments, debates, agreements and disagreements of literally tens of thousands of Jewish scholars, who, over thousands of years, have studied each and every aspect of the biblical text in an attempt to distill the wisdom contained therein. One of the best known of these scholars is a 12th Century scholar named Rambam, who wrote the “13 Principles of Faith.”
This widely accepted document basically teaches that there is only one God, who is unique, eternal and incorporeal, which is to say that He is not a physical being; that prayer is to be directed to God alone and no other; that the words of the prophets are true, and Moses is the greatest of the prophets; that the Torah was given to Moses directly by God; that God knows the deeds as well as thoughts of human beings, and will reward the good and punish the wicked; and that the Messiah will come.
Of course in many significant ways the religion of Christianity evolved from Judaism, since Jesus Christ was a Jew. But Christians believe that Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God was sent down to earth by God to die for the sins of mankind. By this act, Christians would be forgiven, and could obtain everlasting life by giving themselves to Jesus.
Like Jews, Christians believe in only one God, but they describe God as “Three persons in One.” Therefore God is the Father and Creator; God also is Jesus; and God is also the Holy Spirit, whose being is present as guide, comforter, wisdom and sustainer.
Jesus on the cross unconditionally reaches out to everyone in an attempt to reconcile each person to God as well as to one another. The central theme that makes reconciliation possible is forgiveness. And when forgiveness is put into practice, it is life changing, and even world changing. Why? Because it can break the cycle of violence. At the same time, the contrary life of unforgiveness is a curse.
The three major historic divisions of Christianity are Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, and those have many, many subdivisions. The beliefs and practices of Christians come from the Holy Bible, which is a divinely-inspired combination of the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament), and Christian writings (or New Testament).
But Jesus as revealed in the Bible is understood by most Christians as fully divine, and also fully human. His divinity means that He is understood to part of “the Godhead,” which means that God is fully present. His humanity means that He was an historical figure who felt pain and joy. His teachings are given power by His willing death and His resurrection, which is a clear sign of God’s doing something new in the world. In fact, Jesus is often called “The New Adam” as a way of emphasizing the new beginning He signaled.
Most Christians believe that even though theirs is not a religion of “good acts,” “being Christian” also means that their faith should make a difference in their private as well as public lives. Some denominations go so far as to have lists of “dos and don’ts.” Others avoid lists, except for the Ten Commandments, and instead say to use the reason and intellect that God gave them to “be a little Christ” or to “follow the example of Christ.” Therefore, most Christians believe that their experience of God’s love means they should reflect that love to others through forgiveness and acts of charity and mercy - both individually and for society. This explains the many hospitals, orphanages and educational institutions that Christians have established.
James P. Gray is a judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe - the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2009), and can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net or at his blog at JudgeJimGray.JudgeJimGray.com.