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In this fascinating and very useful book, Richard R. Losch provides short descriptions of the main beliefs and practices of the world's most influential religious traditions, including the ...
In this fascinating and very useful book, Richard R. Losch provides short descriptions of the main beliefs and practices of the world's most influential religious traditions, including the denominational branches of Christianity. The volume is not intended to be a scholary or in-depth work; rather, it focuses on what is essential for understanding each faith covered, and it dispels many of the myths and misconceptions concerning them.
The first part of the book is devoted to major world religions and several newer faiths. Chapters cover Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism and Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam, Mormonism, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witnesses, Neopaganism, Unitarian-Universalism, and the major benign cults. The second part of the book describes the many faces of Christianity, including the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed Churches, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists, the United Church of Christ, Holiness and Pentecostal movements, Adventists, and Christian Scientists. The traditions covered in each section are arranged chronologically, according to the time they were founded or developed into their current form.
Assuming little prior knowledge of the faiths he discusses, Losch does an excellent job of condensing and clearly presenting each religion. He explains many theological terms that might be unfamiliar to readers,and he provides pronunciation guides for foreign words and names. The book can be read straight through or used as a reference tool for looking up particular faiths.
The term "Hinduism" properly refers to the culture of the many ethnic and tribal groups living in the region south of the Indus River, and in the mountains northeast of India. Since similar beliefs and traditions generally pervade all of these groups, the syncretism of their religions is commonly referred to as Hinduism. It is most strongly represented in India and Nepal, although it is practiced worldwide, embracing one sixth of the world population. Hinduism not only values belief and intellectual understanding, but places at least an equal value on human relationships and the personal experience of divine truths. It can thus be considered both a religion and a philosophy. The origins of Hinduism are obscured in the mists of history, although there is evidence that it has roots in the teachings of the sage Vaasa in about 3000 BCE. Hinduism as it is known today arose about 1500 BCE from a synthesis of the sacrificial cults of the Aryan invaders of India and the religion of the highly civilized Harappa culture of the Indus Valley. It has also been influenced in later times by Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and several Asian religions including Chinese Taoism. Modern Hinduism owes much to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1834-86), who regenerated Hindu worship when it was in a serious decline after the British conquest of India.
The most apparent characteristics of Hinduism are a caste system and the acceptance of the Vedas (pronounced "VAY-duhs") as sacred scriptures. The modern Indian democratic government has abolished the caste system as a legal social structure, but it is still an integral part of Hindu spiritual thought. The Vedas contain the oldest known religious writings in any Indo-European language and are still accepted today by Hindus as the authoritative statement of the basic truths of Hinduism. Its root is the literature of the Aryans, fierce tribes from southern Russia who invaded the Indus Valley and settled in the Punjab about 1500 BCE. The Vedas, as a synthesis of the Aryan writings and the ideas and beliefs of the indigenous peoples of India, were compiled over a period of five centuries from about 1000-500 BCE. The "Vedic Sacrifice" involves the supplication of any of thirty-three gods through mantras (repetitive hymns). Through the centuries this has become a very complicated rite, and it is now regarded as the fundamental agency of creation. The climax of the Vedas is the Upanishads, mystical works that state the relationship between the ultimate deity Brahman and the human soul. They define the Karma, the consequences (sufferings or blessings) that result from one's actions. These consequences are not immediate, but affect one's life in a future incarnation. A particularly grievous sinner, for example, will be reincarnated as a Pariah, an "Untouchable." One's Karma can be improved through proper prayer and sacrifice and through the spiritual, psychological, and physical discipline of any of the various forms of Yoga, "joining," through which one becomes more closely united with the primary deity, Brahman.
Hinduism has no formal theology that defines God, but in general it can be considered a "henotheistic" religion (acknowledging many gods, but worshiping only one). Most Hindus believe in Brahman, the one all-pervasive deity that energizes the whole universe. Some see this deity as a personal being, others as an impersonal spiritual force. Still others believe in one all-powerful deity who manifests himself as many different gods (avatars). In the strictest sense, however, Hinduism is not polytheistic (worshiping many gods). There is a trio of avatars consisting of Lord Brahma, the creator (not to be confused with Brahman, the all-pervading spirit); Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva, the destroyer. (This is in no way parallel to the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity.) Each of these avatars also manifests himself as other avatars. Brahma is rarely worshiped. Shiva and Vishnu and his avatars (incarnations) Rama and Krishna are the most commonly worshiped gods, along with their wives, Durga (or Shakti,) Saraswati, and Laxmi respectively. The three wives are often worshiped collectively as the Divine Mother. All these deities are worshiped as one. This worship is referred to as puja, and is focused on an image made of gold, silver, bronze, or clay, depending upon one's financial position. Many Hindus also worship images of deities in the form of elephants, monkeys, and other animals. It should be made clear that they do not worship the animals, but the avatars who manifest themselves in the shapes of these animals. The basic philosophy is that since God pervades everything in creation, worship of anything is worship of him. This is a difficult concept for non-Hindus to grasp. Hindus, although they have many representations of gods and spirits, are not idol worshipers. To the Hindu these representations are simply the means of focusing one's prayers and meditations, much as Christians use symbols such as crucifixes and images of saints. Only those who are ignorant of the fundamental teachings of their faith slip into paganism by believing that the images themselves have power.
There are many divisions in Hinduism, but the three major sects are Saivism (worshipers of Shiva, mainly in the south of India), Vaishnavism (worshipers of Vishnu, in the north), and Shaktism (worshipers of Shakti, in the region around Calcutta). Reincarnation is a basic Hindu belief. (Reincarnation is theologically unacceptable to Christianity, although some who profess to be Christians believe in it.) Hindus believe that the soul experiences life in many successive physical bodies, and that through these "lives" it learns more and more of the lessons that lead to perfect understanding. When perfect spiritual purity is reached the soul attains mukti — it then is no longer subject to being pulled back into incarnation in a physical body. The ultimate goal is the achievement of Nirvana, the emancipation from ignorance and the extinction of all attachments. It is an ideal condition of rest, harmony, stability, and joy, in perfect communion with Brahman.
Hinduism has no commandments, and thus no formal religious law, although the principles set forth in the Vedas have the authority of law. The cow is sacred to all Hindus. The strictest observers will not take any life, even for food, and this position is supported in the sacred writings. Many, however, particularly in the north of India, do eat meat. About a quarter of all Hindus are strict vegetarians. Many non-Hindus are misled about vegetarianism. For example, it is not true that Hindus will not use the products of the cow — they rely heavily on dairy products. Hindus view the cow, the provider of milk and all its products, as the most giving of all creatures. To the Hindu, all living creatures are sacred, and the cow, because it is the gentle source of so much sustenance, is the symbol of life (much as Western cultures view the eagle as the symbol of power). Hindus also honor the cow's docility and apparent peacefulness.
Most Hindu women and many men wear the pottu, a dot on the forehead, symbolic of a third eye. This represents the spiritual insight that all Hindus seek to awaken through yoga. Traditionally women wear a black dot before marriage and a red one afterward, although that tradition is fading. Today many use a color to complement their sari, the silk wrapping used as a gown. There are many subtle variations of the dot to communicate one's sect and religious or social status.
According to tradition, mankind is directly descended from Brahma in four emanations, forming the castes. The Brahmans (priests and rulers) descended from his head; the Shatryans (warriors) from his breast; the Vaissyas (farmers and merchants) from his thighs; and the Sudras (mechanics and laborers) from his feet. Another caste, the Pariahs ("Untouchables"), were simply created by him, and are not his direct descendants. They are permitted to do only the most menial services, and until recently could be put to death for allowing their shadow to fall on anyone of a high caste. This social structure is rigid. A person, when he is reincarnated, is assigned to a caste by Shiva. Any mobility between castes is seen as an attempt to undermine the will of the god. It is a sin to give any help or comfort to a Pariah, because he is in that caste as a punishment for his acts in a previous life. The Brahmans are those who achieved the highest Karma in previous lives.
Hinduism did not have a significant direct influence on Christianity, but it strongly influenced two faiths that grew from it, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. The latter strongly influenced early Christian thinking, particularly with regard to the dualism between good and evil that plays such a major role in the Christian concept of the apocalypse. (This dualistic idea is rare in Hindu thinking.) In modern times, variations of yoga have become very popular among Christians as means of teaching mental, physical, and spiritual discipline.
Excerpted from The Many Faces of Faith by Richard R. Losch Copyright © 2002 by Richard R. Losch. Excerpted by permission.
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|I.||The Many Faces of Belief|
|Taoism and Confucianism||18|
|The Major Benign Cults||61|
|II.||The Many Faces of Christianity|
|A Brief History of the Christian Church||69|
|The Eastern Orthodox||76|
|The Roman Catholics||83|
|The Reformed Churches||118|
|The United Church of Christ||170|
|The Holiness and Pentecostal Movements||176|
|The Christian Scientists||187|
Posted November 10, 2003
My son has recently married a lovely lady whose religion is a different branch of Christianity from ours. I decided to do a bit of research before trying to answer some questions they had about differences and similarities among Christian Churches. Rev. Losch's essays are written for the layman. They are well-written and clear. He is interested in his subject and is able to pique the reader's interest as well. I have a much clearer understanding of church history, now, as well as the comparative beliefs of the various Christian churches. I haven't even gotten to most of the 'World Religions' essays, yet. I expect to find them just as helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.