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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 denominational branches of...
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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 denominational branches of Christianity. The volume is not intended to be an in-depth study; 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 major benign cults. The second part of the book describes the many faces of Christianity: the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed churches, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists, the United Church of Christ, the Holiness and Pentecostal movements, Adventists, the "Christians," 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.
Readable and informative, The Many Faces of Faith provides an ideal starting point for objective inquiry into the richness of human spirituality worldwide.
The term "Hinduism" properly refers to the culture of the many ethnicand tribal groups living in the region south of the Indus River, and inthe mountains northeast of India. Since similar beliefs and traditionsgenerally pervade all of these groups, the syncretism of their religionsis commonly referred to as Hinduism. It is most strongly representedin India and Nepal, although it is practiced worldwide, embracing onesixth of the world population. Hinduism not only values belief and intellectualunderstanding, but places at least an equal value on humanrelationships and the personal experience of divine truths. It can thusbe considered both a religion and a philosophy. The origins of Hinduismare obscured in the mists of history, although there is evidence thatit has roots in the teachings of the sage Vaasa in about 3000 BCE. Hinduismas it is known today arose about 1500 BCE from a synthesis ofthe sacrificial cults of the Aryan invaders of India and the religion ofthe highly civilized Harappa culture of the Indus Valley. It has alsobeen influenced in later times by Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity,Islam, and several Asian religions including Chinese Taoism. ModernHinduism owes much to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1834-86),who regenerated Hindu worship when it was in a serious decline afterthe British conquest of India.
The most apparent characteristics of Hinduism are a caste systemand the acceptance of the Vedas (pronounced "VAY-duhs") as sacredscriptures. The modern Indian democratic government has abolishedthe caste systemas a legal social structure, but it is still an integral part ofHindu spiritual thought. The Vedas contain the oldest known religiouswritings in any Indo-European language and are still accepted today byHindus as the authoritative statement of the basic truths of Hinduism.Its root is the literature of the Aryans, fierce tribes from southern Russiawho 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 beliefsof the indigenous peoples of India, were compiled over a period of fivecenturies from about 1000-500 BCE. The "Vedic Sacrifice" involves thesupplication of any of thirty-three gods through mantras (repetitivehymns). Through the centuries this has become a very complicated rite,and it is now regarded as the fundamental agency of creation. The climaxof the Vedas is the Upanishads, mystical works that state the relationshipbetween the ultimate deity Brahman and the human soul. Theydefine the Karma, the consequences (sufferings or blessings) that resultfrom one's actions. These consequences are not immediate, but affectone's life in a future incarnation. A particularly grievous sinner, for example,will be reincarnated as a Pariah, an "Untouchable." One's Karmacan be improved through proper prayer and sacrifice and through thespiritual, psychological, and physical discipline of any of the variousforms of Yoga, "joining," through which one becomes more closelyunited with the primary deity, Brahman.
Hinduism has no formal theology that defines God, but in general itcan be considered a "henotheistic" religion (acknowledging many gods,but worshiping only one). Most Hindus believe in Brahman, the one all-pervasivedeity that energizes the whole universe. Some see this deity asa personal being, others as an impersonal spiritual force. Still others believein one all-powerful deity who manifests himself as many differentgods (avatars). In the strictest sense, however, Hinduism is not polytheistic(worshiping many gods). There is a trio of avatars consisting ofLord Brahma, the creator (not to be confused with Brahman, the all-pervadingspirit); Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva, the destroyer. (Thisis in no way parallel to the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity.) Each ofthese avatars also manifests himself as other avatars. Brahma is rarelyworshiped. Shiva and Vishnu and his avatars (incarnations) Rama andKrishna are the most commonly worshiped gods, along with theirwives, Durga (or Shakti,) Saraswati, and Laxmi respectively. The threewives are often worshiped collectively as the Divine Mother. All thesedeities are worshiped as one. This worship is referred to as puja, and isfocused on an image made of gold, silver, bronze, or clay, dependingupon one's financial position. Many Hindus also worship images of deitiesin the form of elephants, monkeys, and other animals. It should bemade clear that they do not worship the animals, but the avatars whomanifest themselves in the shapes of these animals. The basic philosophyis that since God pervades everything in creation, worship of anythingis worship of him. This is a difficult concept for non-Hindus tograsp. Hindus, although they have many representations of gods andspirits, are not idol worshipers. To the Hindu these representations aresimply the means of focusing one's prayers and meditations, much asChristians use symbols such as crucifixes and images of saints. Onlythose who are ignorant of the fundamental teachings of their faith slipinto paganism by believing that the images themselves have power.
There are many divisions in Hinduism, but the three major sectsare Saivism (worshipers of Shiva, mainly in the south of India),Vaishnavism (worshipers of Vishnu, in the north), and Shaktism (worshipersof Shakti, in the region around Calcutta). Reincarnation is a basicHindu 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 physicalbodies, and that through these "lives" it learns more and more ofthe lessons that lead to perfect understanding. When perfect spiritualpurity is reached the soul attains mukti — it then is no longer subject tobeing pulled back into incarnation in a physical body. The ultimategoal is the achievement of Nirvana, the emancipation from ignoranceand 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 religiouslaw, although the principles set forth in the Vedas have the authority oflaw. The cow is sacred to all Hindus. The strictest observers will nottake any life, even for food, and this position is supported in the sacredwritings. Many, however, particularly in the north of India, do eatmeat. About a quarter of all Hindus are strict vegetarians. Many non-Hindusare misled about vegetarianism. For example, it is not true thatHindus will not use the products of the cow — they rely heavily ondairy products. Hindus view the cow, the provider of milk and all itsproducts, as the most giving of all creatures. To the Hindu, all livingcreatures are sacred, and the cow, because it is the gentle source of somuch sustenance, is the symbol of life (much as Western cultures viewthe eagle as the symbol of power). Hindus also honor the cow's docilityand apparent peacefulness.
Most Hindu women and many men wear the pottu, a dot on theforehead, symbolic of a third eye. This represents the spiritual insightthat all Hindus seek to awaken through yoga. Traditionally womenwear a black dot before marriage and a red one afterward, althoughthat tradition is fading. Today many use a color to complement theirsari, the silk wrapping used as a gown. There are many subtle variationsof the dot to communicate one's sect and religious or social status.
According to tradition, mankind is directly descended fromBrahma in four emanations, forming the castes. The Brahmans (priestsand rulers) descended from his head; the Shatryans (warriors) from hisbreast; the Vaissyas (farmers and merchants) from his thighs; and theSudras (mechanics and laborers) from his feet. Another caste, the Pariahs("Untouchables"), were simply created by him, and are not his directdescendants. They are permitted to do only the most menial services,and until recently could be put to death for allowing theirshadow 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. Anymobility between castes is seen as an attempt to undermine the will ofthe god. It is a sin to give any help or comfort to a Pariah, because he isin that caste as a punishment for his acts in a previous life. The Brahmansare 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, Buddhismand Zoroastrianism. The latter strongly influenced early Christianthinking, particularly with regard to the dualism between good andevil 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 asmeans of teaching mental, physical, and spiritual discipline.
Excerpted from THE MANY FACES OF FAITH by Richard R. Losch. Copyright © 2001 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|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|