Seminary Program

This is where we post the essays from many of our Universal Life Church Seminary students. When students finish a ULC course, they write a comprehensive essay about their experiences with the course, what they learned, didn't learn, were inspired by, etc. Here are their essays.

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Comparative Religion Course

ULC Seminary Course Writer: Revd. Kythera Ann
Almost every country has its own special kinds of religion, whether new or traditional, as well as its own varieties of some of the well known religions. It is not surprising that people often ask how this variety of religions is to be regarded. What are the similarities, the differences and the relationships between them? For many people, the standpoint of their own traditional religion or personal faith will provide a starting point for thinking about these questions. Sometimes, therefore, the many religions are seen as alternatives or even rivals. Sometimes they are seen, rather, as additional options for the individual, and sometimes they are seen as variations of a single religion which is common to all humankind. Depending on the standpoint, it is quite common for people to regard religions other than their own as partial but more or less inadequate revelations or teachings. The real thing, the final truth, is then regarded as the teaching taught by one's own religion. This is often the position taken by religions which teach the unity of all religions, such as the Baha'i or the Unification Church. This understanding may be satisfactory for those who have reasons for holding one of the specific faiths mentioned, and there are quite a few other examples. The three major religions, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, all regard themselves, according to most interpretations, as offering the clearest, the most complete, or the final teaching which humankind requires. It will be better for the moment, therefore, to ask in what ways religions can be compared or classified within  the comparative study of religions. The comparative study of religions, as developed in modern times, has worked in different ways.  Let us think about some of these ways briefly here. There are three important questions to be asked.
The first question is: Is there an outline structure which religions share, or mostly share? To put it another way, what is the "shape" of religion? What are the basic features of any  religion, and how do they fit together? These are questions about the general meaning/structure  of religion. This question is really the starting point for other questions. For example, if we can agree that one important aspect of religion is what people do, then we can go on to ask about what they do in more detail, and to make comparisons. But what are the other aspects of religion? Is there a stable picture which we can hold in our minds in this respect?
The second question is: Can the various parts of different religions be compared with each other? For example, is prayer in one religion like prayer in another religion? Do people have the same kinds of feelings when they go to various religious buildings? What sorts of people have a special role to play in religion: monks and nuns, priests, shamans, prophets? Are these the same, or similar, in various religions? The comparison of particular parts, or elements, which seem to recur in more than one religion is called typology. To be even more clear, we may call it the typology of elements. Though it seems very attractive to see similarities in this way, we must remember that the elements compared in this case are only parts of religions which in themselves consist of many elements and are therefore altogether more complex. This leads into the third question.
The third question is: Are there different kinds of religions? To put it another way, what happens when we compare whole religions with each other? Can we conclude that some religions are of one particular kind, and that others are of another kind? This may be called the general typology of religions. It may also be helpful to think of it as a holistic typology, that is, a typology of religions as systems complete in themselves.
 Instead, it will be better to illustrate here in a little more detail what is meant by these questions in comparative religion. 
First then, let us consider more fully the question of the meaning of  /structure  of religion. While religions may vary in their  goals and in the way in which they conceive of and present the meaning of their activities, there is nevertheless a basic structure which can be found in every religion. This

is patterned according to four basic aspects, or dimensions, namely:
1.   the conceptual aspect (what people think, believe, or have in mind)
2.   the behavioural aspect (what people do)
3.   the social aspect (the way people are grouped with each other, or relate to others)
4.   the subjective aspect (what people feel)
These four aspects may be significant for other areas of life, such as sport, politics or business. However they are all aspects which are present in some way in every religion. If one of them is overlooked, something important will be lacking in our understanding of a religion.
From time to time people have thought that the most important thing about religion is to be found above all in just one of these aspects. For example, some older dictionaries define religion as "belief in supernatural beings", thus emphasising the conceptual aspect. Leading thinkers about religion have often assumed that its basic characteristic is the relationship between humankind and God. Clearly, this reflects the ideas of one family of religions, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However, this characteristic is not typical of Jainism or Buddhism. It has often been said, for example of Hinduism or Judaism, that they are "a way of life", a statement which emphasizes the behavioural or social aspect of religion. But most religions would claim in some sense to be "a way of life". And this does not mean that the conceptual aspect of religion is unimportant. Indeed there are most important conceptions such as Torah (in Judaism) or karma (in Hinduism) without which the way of life of the people would be very different. In other discussions about religion, we hear about the importance of what people feel or experience subjectively. These may be feelings of devotion, joy, ecstasy, mystical awareness, or inward peace. But in all these cases, the careful student of religion will notice that there is also a conceptual compliment to the subjective aspect, and also in some sense a social and a behavioural aspect. To conclude, all four aspects are important in the meaning of /structure of religion.
This course was informative and inclusive in its description of religion. All created beings are interconnected seeking a deeper understanding of self in relation to God, the world and each other. In conclusion it must be said that the comparative study of religion is a rich field for study and reflection. We should not jump too hastily to conclusions! While learning about particular religions , we should also begin to think about the ways in which they are similar to each other, and the ways in which they are distinctive. They  are to be viewed as  as a gift to enrich humanity.

Ann, Kythera, Comparative Religion- Course Reader, (ULC Seminary)
Bouquet, AC, Sacred Books of the World, (Pelican Books, Reprinted 1967)
Burke, T. Patrick, the Major Religions,(Cambridge MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996)
Hinnell's, John Reid, A New Dictionary of Religion,(TCambridge MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997)
Markham, Ian S, editor, ( TCambridge MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996)
Stanford, Peter, Religion,(Quercusbooks, 2009)
Young, William A, The World's Religions. Worldview and Contemporary Issues,( Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc,1995)

Revd. Canon Cameron Martin. Phd (hc)


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