Final Essay for Comparative Religion Masters
The Comparative Religion Masters course distilled a complex topic in a coherent and well-designed format with super adjunctive reading recommendations and website options. One of the critical elements I gained through exploring the material of the course is not only an appreciation of the shared elements of faiths, but also their unique differences. As I read through the opening lesson's discussion of the philosophical interpretations of the nature of God, I could not help but also ask what is the nature of the differences between these faiths and how do these differences ultimately shape how we find our religion. As a psychologist, I am deeply embedded in questions associated with how individuals come to make their choices, as well as issues of cultural difference. Recently, I finished reading Chet Raymo's When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy and he emphasizes the role of parents and our primary cultures determining our religious affiliation—in his own bias (he is largely against religion as something that is counter-intuitive to the revelations of our contemporary sciences, but that is for another discussion all together!) he holds that such determination cannot truly reflect the development of an authentic religious self, which must be engaged with and consciously chosen. I would hazard a guess that many faiths would take issue with the notion that one should "choose" their faith, as many hold that God "chooses" you. Nevertheless, as I read through the lesson material, I wondered at the process unique to our contemporary time and increasing global culture of how we come to choose our faiths. What are the subtle differences that draw our focus? I asked myself, having grown up an Episcopalian and traversing through many religious paths before settling on religious naturalism and shamanism, what invites me in to these paths? When I consider the elements of Catholicism that I feel drawn to—what stops me from considering myself a Catholic? I found it amusing that the author of our material found a website that allows you to input answers to find which faith resonates most closely with you! This of course added to my own questioning of how has our access to the Internet changed how we relate to religion and are we really the first generation who has choice and thus can embody a new kind of fervor in our faith? I know that these are more questions than specific facts learned, but this is how I engage with material and likely is a reflection of my own background in the sciences. I find more is gained when I retain an openness to being deepened by questions than by answers.
There were specific elements of the course that I thoroughly enjoyed, such as the ongoing use of recommended reading at the end of each lesson, thus allowing me to deepen my knowledge of a topic that struck me. I thoroughly enjoyed discourse 19's discussion of religious archetypes and found this a superb way of exploring the shared elements of religious roles in an organized fashion. This also appeals to my psychological background in the possibility of how might individuals, not attaining a more professional role in a religion, engage with these roles on a personal level either through embodying them or through relating to others in these roles. I also found discourse 11's exploration of the fundamental questions religion seeks to answer (afterlife, painful experiences, suffering, etc.) to be well organized and providing some areas for fascinating further examination. I loved the definition of sacrament: "It has at its core the belief that taking into the body something that is divinely charged will unify the microcosm and the macrocosm" (Discourse 12). I found this to be a profound statement that explores an underlying philosophical position of what is above, so it is below. As such it highlights the notion of union with the Divine and speaks to our hopes of bringing this energy and the associated conceptions of the afterlife or the personality of the Divine into everyday human existence. It does also suggest that human also hold a fundamental conception of themselves as somehow lacking and their surrounding world as that which is filled with suffering. Indeed, the sacrament appears to be the solution to the issue of suffering and may provide a fascinating psychological benefit to allow individuals to experience a sense of resiliency and power through their capacity to engage in this specific behavior (likewise underlying ritual/ceremonial behavior whereby individuals provide an offering to a deity in the hopes of securing a different outcome in their physical, every-day life). I absolutely loved the flow chart in the concluding chapter about the interconnective development of religion, although I would disagree with the notion that a Goddess tradition underlay all others—more on this in a moment.
I think what I least liked was the two discourses on hermeticism, alchemy, and secret societies. I would not consider these religions per se as systems of magic or perhaps philosophy as they lack real theological clarity and other elements that define religion. I think a chapter on philosophical influences would have been enough to explore hermeticism. I would have liked to have seen greater exploration of the philosophical elements of religion that are introduced in discourse one and how religions seek to answer these philosophical positions. I do think Neopaganism and its religious children (Wicca, Druidism, etc.) should have been more widely visible in the entirety of the lesson alongside older faiths.
My main point of contention with the course is the author's supposition that a Goddess faith underlay all other traditions in the last discourse. There is substantial archeological dispute about this view largely asserted first by Robert Graves in The White Goddess and later by Marja Gimbutas and a handful of feminist scholars—none of whom other than Gimbutas are in fact archaeologists. All of which has been argued against by mainstream archaeology, including women within this field. I would direct the author to Lotte Motz's The Faces of the Goddess, which provides counter arguments to the underlying beliefs that God was initially a woman. It's worth the read to ensure that one's assertions are accurately and not presented as "fact". What would be a more historical accuracy would be to discuss the Goddess traditions within the contemporary context, where they have a powerful life of their own as explored by Starhawk, Z Budapest, and Carol Christ for example. Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed the course.
Rev. Katherine MacDowell
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