Thursday, March 20, 2008

Moved to new website

I moved this blog to a new website. It is
The new website is still under construction.

Why Christians should study other religions (Part I)

Most Christians would benefit from taking the time to learn about different religions. This does not mean that they need to become experts in other faiths nor that they should make it their greatest priority. God has given each of his children different passions, talents, and spiritual gifts, which enable them to further his kingdom within their own spheres of influence. Nevertheless, all Christians would benefit from studying other faiths. Here are three reasons: (This list is by no means exhaustive. I will include 3 more in Part II of this post)

1. Helps us love others: Christ commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is especially difficult to do with those who are different from us. We have a tendency to feel threatened by those we do not understand. We either fear them or look down on them. This often leads us to dehumanize those of other faiths and make a strong distinction between “us” and “them.” As you study other faiths and gain a better understanding of their beliefs and practices you will be less likely to feel threatened by them and thus, more likely to love them as those who have also been created in the image of God.

2. Helps us understand God’s world better: Religious beliefs have shaped human history and continue to do so to this day. This is evident in that three of the most influential individuals in world history have been three religous figures: Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Muhammad. If we believe that world history has a purpose, that is, that it is unfolding according to God’s plan to a determined end, then we should place value in understanding the world we live in. Studying the major world religions that have shaped the world will surely deepen our understanding of the world that God is working in.

3. Helps us evaluate our own commitment to Christ: As you study people of other faiths, you will be challenged to look at yourself and evaluate your own commitment to Christ. The high level of devotion that many people of other faiths demonstrate should inspire us to pursue Christ with even far greater fervor. Although we might disagree with their theology and many of their practices, we can still learn from other people of faith, be it their discipline, simplicity, devotion, etc.

To be continued…

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Learning from a naked ascetic

One of the assignments in my Hinduism seminar was to research the Jain religious tradition. There are about 4.5 million Jains in the world of which 98% live in India. Jainism dates back at least to the sixth century BC. Using a broad definition, Jains are those who follow the 24 Conquerors and their teachings of the Three Jewels (right faith, right knowledge, and right action).

As in Hinduism and Buddhism, Jains believe in reincarnation and karma. However, their view of karma is slightly different. They believe that karma is actually a physical substance that attaches to one's jiva ("soul") because of false belief, attachment to the world, and acts of violence. This karma enslaves one into samsara, that is, the cycle of death and rebirth. The only way to be set free from this endless cycle is by becoming an ascetic: practising ahimsa (non-violence) and austerities. These austerities create heat (tapas) which burn off one's karma and also prevent future karma from sticking to one's soul.

There are two major sects within Jainism: the Shvetambaras (white-clad) and the Digambaras (sky-clad). These two groups have a variety of differences, but one of the major ones is that Shvetambari monks wear white robes, while the Digambari monks are "sky-clad" and live completely in the nude. As a symbol of their complete detachment from the world, including their sexuality, they wander the countryside in the nude relying on the laity for their food and shelter.

For a Digambari monk the greatest thing he can do with his life is to give up all attachments to the world and devote himself to ahimsa, meditation, and fasting. Then, after a lifetime of austerities, he enters death free of passions as he slowly restricts his intake of food leading to his death.

Can we learn something from these highly-committed 'sky-clad' monks? I believe we can.

After seeing the extent to which Jain monks go in an attempt to achieve liberation from samsara, I am compelled to ask myself a few questions:

"What is the greatest thing I can do with my life?"

"What am I living for?"

"If I know what I am living for, does my lifestyle actually reflect what I am claiming?"

"How would my life be different if I was fully committed to what I claim is the most important thing in my life?"

Studying the life of these highly-committed Jain monks has forced me to look in the mirror and evaluate my life. As a Christian, I know I am not committed to Christ as much as I should. I do not love God nor people as I should. I am self-centered and often live as if the world revolved around me. I have much to work on. However, I also know that God has forgiven me through Christ and that he will continue to work in me not allowing me to stay the way I am. I have the hope that God is not finished with me yet.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

An Islamic Reformation?

According to Islam, the goal of life is to submit and obey God. For the Muslim, this means obedience to God's revelation in the Qur'an. However, because many daily concerns are not addressed in the Qur'an, how does a Muslim know what God requires? To answer these types of questions Muslims turn to the example of Muhammad, as recorded in the hadith. Hadiths are reports of the actions, sayings, and teachings of the prophet. These hadiths are grouped into various collections, some more authoritative than others. Therefore, although theologically the Qur'an is more important to a Muslim, the hadiths are more influential in their day to day life.

The reliability of the hadiths have for the most part been unquestioned within Islam, that is, until now.

In a recent BBC story it is reported that the Turkish Department of Religious Affairs has commissioned theologians at the Ankara University to study the hadiths and provide a revised edition of the collection. The Turkish government and the leading theologians in Turkey believe that many of the hadiths are not authentic and that they obscure the true teachings of Islam. They argue that many of the hadiths have taken on "cultural baggage" that is passed off as true Islam. According to the Turkish government, these inauthentic hadiths often have negative influence on Muslim societies.

It is difficult to say exactly how much this will affect the Muslim world; however, it is certain that if this new revised edition of the hadiths begins to be used around the world, Islam will begin to look much differently. Also, as with the Protestant Reformation, we could see a division within the Muslim world between those who accept the new collection of hadiths and those who will hold on to the old. Only time will tell.

Here is the link to the BBC story:

Monday, February 18, 2008

What is a cult?

The term "cult" is widely used in our culture today. The problem is that not everybody means the same thing when they use the word. In popular culture, the term cult brings up the image of a small religous group with a charismatic leader that "brainwashes" his followers into living an aberrant lifestyle, often involving weird sexual practices and resorting to physical violence. Usually people think of the Peoples' Temple, the Branch Davidians, and Heaven's Gate.

In addition to this popular definition you also have theological and sociological definitions of a "cult." In some religious circles, the term "cult" is used of groups that have unorthodox theology. For example, in the Evangelical Christian tradition, the organization of the Jehovah's Witnesses is understood as a cult since it claims to have sole access to God and because it claims to follow the Bible, yet denies orthodox Christian beliefs.

Sociologists and scholars of new religious movements tend to reject the term "cult" altogether because of its pejorative connotations. Instead, they use the term "New Religious Movements." However, the term still may be useful in the cult-sect-church paradigm. In this framework, a "cult" is a minority religious group which is in high tension with society at large. A "sect" is a group which experiences less tension and is usually an offshoot of a "church." A "church" then is a religious group which is fully accepted by society. Under this definition, for example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was a "cult" in the nineteenth century but today is more of a "church" in American society.

Do you think using the term "cult" is still useful? If so, how would you define it?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Religious images and icons.

I am currently taking a seminar on Hinduism and one of the issues we were discussing was the use of aniconic and iconic images within Hinduism. As would be expected, not all Hindus understand these images in the same way. For some, they are mere symbols that point to the gods, while for others they are "temples" where the gods reside during religious rituals. In any case, the images are meant to help the devotees focus on the gods and receive blessings as they bring their offerings.

This brings me to my question: Do you use religous images or icons in your religious devotion? If so, how do you use them and what do they mean to you? (Post pictures if you have them)