Over the past twenty years, I have taught an introductory World Religions survey course.

Obviously, it’s difficult to say too much about these diverse traditions in such a limited time, but I usually find myself stressing one theme in particular. As you look at the different faiths, they have many divisions and competing schools of thought, and the issues that cause these splits and schisms look quite similar across faiths.

Oddly, one much studied parallel is between  Roman Catholic Christianity and Shi’ite Islam. Both are highly clerical and hierarchical, with intense devotion to holy figures and saints, and especially to a very powerful female figure. (Before anyone gets offended by that parallel, do check out some of the scholarly literature).

A list of common stress points that affect all great faiths would include the following broad categories:

-the approved means of accessing the divine;

-whether the accepted vehicles of religious authority are seen as closed and final, or open and flexible;

-the charisma of spiritual authority, as held by particular individuals;

-the relationship between the religious and secular worlds, and their respective hierarchies.

I don’t claim this as a General Theory of Schism, but for discussion, I offer the following list of critical questions. Feel free to add or subtract as you look at them:

1. How much should human reason play a part in religious matters, and how far must absolute faith be the guide? Is it possible to criticize the scriptures or basic beliefs of a religion?

2. Is mysticism necessary and desirable, or to be condemned? Do mystical speculations lead to deeper insights into absolute truth, or to dangerous ideas and practices?

3. Can the faithful use images and intermediaries as means of access to the divine?

4. How much should the religion rely on formal rituals?

5, Should there be a distinct clergy, and if so how much power should they have? Are the laity cut off from access to the deepest parts of the religious system? Do ordinary individuals have any right to exercise their own judgment and discretion in interpreting religious matters?

6. Should members of the religion be active in secular worldly politics? Does this right or duty extend to overthrowing unjust regimes or social systems?

7. Should the society be ruled by members of that religion in a theocratic system? How far should believers go in enforcing moral standards over the whole society? Should such powers rest with lay or clerical authorities?

8. How far should religion take account of the social distinctions prevailing in secular society?

9. Who or what is the ultimate source of authority in the particular religious system?

10. If the religion is based on a particular revelation or set of scriptures, how far can these be added to or even superseded by new “revelations” or insights? Or is the original system taken to be closed and final?

11. Does the original form of the religion in question fail to take account of some major social or ethnic group, a particular age-segment or gender?


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  • boinkie

    now if you’d only post your lectures on Youtube/iTunes U…sigh