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Comparative Religious Thought I


Jeffrey Wattles, instructor


Audio recordings of some class sessions

    I'm experimenting with audio recording some of the classes.  An introductory session focusin on Gandhi's thoughts on religion is available here.  http://ksutube.kent.edu/playback.php?playthis=ydmb3k1n


Week 4, Monday, Sept. 21, 2009, the second class introducing Buddhism and focusing on the eightfold path.  http://ksutube.kent.edu/playback.php?playthis=42798qtq



Three types of reductionism

Reductionism has three types; the first two are philosophical, and the third is a common scientific strategy.  Ontological reductionism denies the being of higher levels of reality: “So-called spiritual reality is nothing but a psychological experience; psychological experience is nothing but a biological process; and a biological process is nothing but a set of biochemical events.”  Epistemological reductionism claims to explain a higher-level science wholly in terms of a lower-level science, for example, “Scientific theories using psychological terms can, in principle, be reduced to scientific theories using only biological terms; in the future scientists will be able to explain biological terms solely in terms of chemistry and physics.”  So-called “non-reductive materialism” accepts ontological reductionism but rejects epistemological reductionism.  Methodological reductionism says, “In order to have a coherent and rigorous science, we exclude any hypotheses about spirit.  For the purposes of this research program, we restrict our conclusions about spiritual experience to the language of neuroscience.”  Note that religionists and atheists can in good faith co-author reports of methodologically restricted research.  Nevertheless, methodological reductionism may be problematic, too, because it raises a crucial question in the philosophy of science.  Science, scientia in Latin, means knowledge, which implies knowledge of the region of reality that it addresses.  It would be absurd to claim to plumb the meaning of human action by the methods of chemistry.  Should not the method appropriate to a given region of reality be attuned to that region itself?  This observation does not imply that chemistry says nothing important about action, but it does imply that the meaningfulness of what chemistry tells us depends on a prior understanding of action itself.  Making a commitment to a scientific method on account of its quantitative precision or other epistemological advantages can hobble access to the region to be known.




Three stances regarding comparative religion: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism


Examples of types of exclusivism

  1. No spiritual experience or knowledge of God is genuine if the person does not satisfy the essential requirements of (our version of) our religion.

  2. All those who reject the revelations of our holy book will burn forever in hell (or spend eternity in solitary confinement, or be annihilated in eternal death).


Examples of types of inclusivism

  1. God the Son reveals God the Father.  Therefore, whoever gains spiritual realization of God (the Father) is a conscious or unconscious beneficiary of God the Son.

  2. “No man comes to the Father except by me [Jesus],” as meaning that any person who fulfills their highest heavenly progress in spiritual perfection will come to recognize the Son before attaining the Father.

  3. All the sages are saying the same thing (the core teachings that have always been the heart of our own tradition).

  4. Sooner or later, everyone will be saved (by being won over to satisfy the specific requirements of our religion, through reincarnation leading to increasing spiritual realization or through progress in the afterlife beyond this world).


Examples of types of pluralism

  1. There are basic requirements that God requires of people (requirements of faith in God and/or requirements of moral conduct).  All religions, or most religions, recognize these essentials.  All persons, in any religion, who meet these requirements have nothing to fear.  If there is an afterlife, they will have an opportunity to continue their spiritual growth and discovery there.



            The typical examples of exclusivism involve beliefs about requirements for every person in this life, and the requirements in question are clearly essential to what makes the exclusivist’s religion different from others.  There seems to be no sharp boundary between inclusivism and pluralism.  Arguably, most pluralists (Mohandas Gandhi, for example) are likely to believe at some level that their religion gives at least a slightly better concept of God, and that God is merciful regarding the deficit in understanding of those of other religions.  The issue is that if inclusivist beliefs are known by members of other religions, they may be regarded as offensively condescending or patronizing, especially if they pertain to mercy to extended in this life to members of other religions.  At the same time, countless people learn to tolerate such differences of belief in ways that do not form an obstacle to genuine cooperation.

             Note that these perspectives on other religions are defined in terms of beliefs, not attitudes toward, or interaction with, members of other religions.  Pluralists can be intolerant of exclusivists, and exclusivists can practice the golden rule and love of neighbor.

            Note that a pluralist can also be an evangelist for his or her own religion, on account of the advantages it is believed to have, even if those advantages are not regarded as necessary for survival to the next life.

            Note that Jesus’ word “No man comes to the Father except by me [Jesus]” (John 14.6)—has been interpreted not only in an exclusivist way but also in an inclusivist way as a statement about what a person will come to recognize in the afterlife if not before.




There are other paths, but the three just mentioned tend to be blended in various proportions by Hindus who specialize in different paths. Thus those pursuing religion or philosophy would also take care to perform their duties without anxiety over the personal benefits that should accrue to them if they perform their task well. Those pursuing the way of action or philosophy would show some recognition of Hindu divinities. And those pursuing the way of action and religion would agree that the ultimate reality is Brahman, beyond action, beyond divinity. These three paths emerge into prominence in different places in the Bhagavad-Gita, representing different aspects of tradition. In the Gita, a primarily devotional work, these aspects of tradition are unified through devotion to God.



The Hindu cosmology, or teaching about the universe, teaches that there are endless cycles of creation:

1.     An unmanifest state prior to creation.

2.   Creation, the emergence of finite things.

3.   Destruction, when all things return to the unmanifest One.


Upanishadic philosophy teaches that our ultimate goal is to relinquish our individuality and to merge in oneness with Supreme Reality (Brahman, the Infinite Spirit).  The devotional religion of the Gita promises eternal life for the individual: somehow, in the unmanifest phases of the cycles of creation, individuality is preserved.  The destructive side of the process may terrify the finite creature, but it is all a part of divine play or sport.


Friendship with God in the Rig-Veda (the earliest Hindu scripture)

Hymns from the Rig-Veda, tr. Jean Le Mée (NY: Alfred Knopf, 1975)


Spirit!  Confirmed in your friendship

We have no fear, O Lord of Might!

                                    Rig-Veda I.11



When Men of the Word, companions, worship,

In their hearts refining flashes of insight,

Then some become fully conscious of knowledge,

While others go away mouthing empty words.

                                    Rig-Veda I. 50


All the friends rejoice for their Glorious Friend

At the end of the journey, reaching fulfillment,

For he brings nourishment, and removes their guilt,

And he is prepared to act courageously.

                                    Rig-Veda, X.71


Bhagavad Gita, chapter 2, on the atman, the eternal spirit self

The key term, atman (“self”) is not used until v. 45 (and 55).  Thus, to translate by inserting a term like “soul” is an interpretation that obscures mystery that mounts with the repeated use of “that” and “the embodied.”   


Beginningless, endless 12; immortal 18-21


Reincarnates 13, 22, 27-28; until one moves beyond rebirth 51


Is in the full, true sense 16


Pervades the cosmos 17


Invulnerable to material assault 23 “Weapons do not cut it, fire does not burn it, waters do not wet it, wind does not wither it.”


Fixed, immovable 24


Unmanifest 25; rarely seen or heard 29


Rarely spoken 29


Inconceivable 25  no one really knows it 29


Immutable  25


Therefore do not grieve over “killing” but do your Duty with its earthly and/or heavenly reward 30-38


Gain the understanding and escape the bondage of action 39 beyond mere greedy ritualism 41-44, beyond the triad of natural qualities, and dualities and mundane rewards 45;  act without craving, possessiveness, or individuality 71


Which makes the Vedas super-fluous 46


Established in yoga, perform actions 48


Exchanging desires for contentment of the self within himself 55 or in the self by the self


From insight 55, awake in the night 69


In equanimity 56-57 and serenity 65, 70


Beyond the senses  56; controlling the senses 61


In death, find the peace of brahmanirvana.


The spirit within

            The teaching that the spirit of God lives within man is very widespread.  The various testimonies surely are in diverse contexts of meaning and may conceivably not refer to the same reality, but the array of overlapping proclamations is striking.  .  The Bhagavad-Gita sings of the atman, the eternal, spirit self (e.g., chapter 2.45, 55).  Buddhism speaks of the Buddha-nature within (e.g., the Great Parinirvana Sutra, chapter 3).  Judaism tells of “the spirit in man, the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts” (Proverbs 20.27)  Jesus speaks of “the kingdom of God within you” (Luke 17.21).  Islam teaches that God is “closer to you than your jugular vein” (Qur’an 50.16).  The Confucian philosopher Mencius writes, “A noble man steeps himself in the Way (tao) because he wishes to find it in himself.  When he finds it in himself, he will be at ease in it; when he is at ease in it, he can draw deeply upon it; when he can draw deeply upon it, he finds its source wherever he turns.” (IV B 14)  

For present purposes let’s deepen the look at the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.  Moses and Jeremiah spoke of a covenant that would be written in your hearts; Elijah experienced the word of God as “a still, small voice” (1 Kings 19.11)  “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” Jeremiah 31.33; cf. Hebrews 8:10, 10:16)  Psalm 40:8: I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart."  The prophet wrote, “I dwell in a high and holy place and with him who is of a contrite heart” (Isaiah 57.15).  “Where shall I flee from your presence?  If I ascend into heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Psalm 139.7-8). 

In the New Testament, Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost refers to the prophet Joel, who speaks of the spirit being “poured out upon all flesh.”  The presence of the spirit may not be able to do much good for those without faith, but the implication is that it’s there nevertheless.  So where is God?  Three answers are indicated: (1) in heaven; (2) everywhere; (3) in each one of us.  The residential self-focalization of Deity on Paradise would be different from the diffused omnipresence and different again from the kingdom of God within us.


Truth in Religion

             “Seek and you will find.  You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

Really?  Is there any truth in religion?  Different religions and some secular disciplines (e.g., Freudian psychoanalysis, education theorists) make the same claim.


I. Truth as factual correctness

Do the statements correspond with the facts?  The concept of truth associated with this approach is called "the correspondence theory of truth."


Questions of fact

Did the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna told in the Gita actually occur?

Which version of the Ten Commandments did Moses actually give the Israelites?

How accurate are the New Testament records of what Jesus said and did?

            Did an angel really tell Mohammad what to write?


Limits to the correspondence theory

Some factual claims can't be checked.

Sometimes language is used symbolically, not literally; the truth intended is not on the level of fact--e.g., "You must be reborn."  Or a story (mythos in Greek) is told which is not meant to be taken as a report.  

Is it raining or sunny?  Is there one door in this classroom or more than one?  Have a look. To some extent we can check whether our statements of fact correspond with reality, and the correspondence theory of truth thus has some obvious utility.  But we can't thus check our deepest conceptual framework for thinking.


II. Truth as coherence 

            Are the ideas of this text consistent with each other?  Is this statement or action consistent with the ideal beauty of truth and goodness that the speaker is supposed to represent?  How can an incoherent set of thoughts be true?


Limits of the coherence theory of truth

One's ideas can cohere nicely, yet be in error, if one's thinking is one-sided or built on a false premise.

Paradox (apparent inconsistency) is sometimes the most helpful way to express a profound realization. "The greatest is the one who serves everyone."


III. Truth as revelation—a gift of truth from a superhuman source?

Varieties of (alleged) revelation


An inner realization of supreme truth, beauty, and goodness

A vision

An inspired saying or speech

A person, a life

A book, in whole or in part


Questions about revelation


            Does the being to whom the revelation is attributed really exist?

            Did the revelatory event really occur?

            To what extent did the subject's physical condition and cultural background shape (the reception of) the gift?

            How fully did the recipient communicate it?

            Has the original record been altered?


Limits to truth as revelation



IV.  Truth as recognized through the Spirit of Truth

There is a theological idea that God’s Spirit of Truth illumines the mind so as to facilitate the perception of truth.  Whatever one thinks about that idea, there is an experience of intuiting truth.  Sometimes we hear or read something that immediately strikes us as having a ring of truth to it.  It comes as authoritative, uncommonly insightful, and resonates with the deepest within us.


Limitations to the idea of a spiritual intuition of truth


Intuitions differ; intuition becomes more reliable as the person develops spiritually.

Intuitions may be confused by dogma or passion.


V.  Truth as lived

             You can know the truth, and you can live the truth.  Many truths are only comprehended when they are lived.  Living the truth carries its own power and authority.


Limitations to the idea of truth as lived

            Living true to the best you know today enables one to know more tomorrow, which implies that today’s statements of truth are not final.  Since truth is living it cannot be fixed. 

           Persons live beautiful lives sometimes partly in spite of, as well as because of, what they believe.






          Buddhism offers a rational approach to confronting the things in life that can mar our happiness.

·       Problems with our parents or problems between our parents

·       Problems with siblings, friends, house-mates, a girl-friend or boy-friend

·       Social antagonism and injustice, e.g., racism or another source of hostility

·       Physical problems, menstruation, the pain of childbirth, aging

·       Educational requirements, classes, professors, or costs that are unwelcome

·       Career problems; a bad situation at work; financial problems

·       Losing in sports, or any failure that diminishes self-respect

·       The sorry state of the world’s problems

·       The sorry state of the country’s problems

·       Personal growth issues; facing personal problems is hard, and the front-burner issues are precisely the ones that take us beyond what we have already learned how to handle well

·       Uncertainty, disappointment, apparent defeat, the sheer difficulty of what needs to be done, the immensity of certain challenges, things we can’t explain


          In response to life’s problems (“suffering”), Buddhism cultivates self-understanding and self-mastery, including the ability to concentrate, and what might be called “the mind of perfect poise.”  The disciplines of Buddhism aim to facilitate insight—enlightenment—so that one can live that insight on a daily basis.


Contrasts between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

From Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, p. 126


Theravada Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism

Human beings are emancipated by self-effort, without supernatural aid.

Human aspirations are supported by divine powers and the grace they bestow.

Key Virtue: wisdom.

Key Virtue: compassion.

Attainment requires constant commitment, and is primarily for monks and nuns.

Religious practice is relevant to life in the world, and therefore to laypeople.

Ideal: the Arhat who remains in nirvana after death.

Ideal: the bodhisattva [devoted to see all beings saved before entering parinirvana].

Buddha a saint, supreme teacher, inspirer.

Buddha as savior.

Minimizes metaphysics [deep philosophy].

Elaborates metaphysics.

Minimizes ritual.

Emphasizes ritual.

Practice centers on meditation.

Includes petitionary prayer.






The Bible


            The essays that follow represent points of view of the authors.  You are of course free to disagree; but they are offered as representative of much current scholarship.  The essays are from the back of The New Oxford Annotated Bible (using the New Revised Standard Version).  I generally do not summarize or include text references for the illustrations used by the authors.

Essays in the New Oxford Annotated Bible

            The essays that are summarized of course represent points of view of the authors.  You are free to disagree; but they are offered as representative of much current scholarship, so it is worthwhile in a course like this to learn from them.


The Canons of the Bible (by Marc Z. Brettler with Pheme Perkins)

A canon is a collection of books officially recognized as what “a large segment of the community had already held to be central, holy, or authoritative” (456).

The canon of the Hebrew Bible developed in stages.  There was early agreement on the Torah or Penteteuch—the first five books, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.  They were regarded as central to Jewish identity by the Persian period (sixth to fourth centuries).  Even as the canon was forming in the first century CE, “there was a certain amount of flexibility or variability around the fringes” (456). 

            Books were accepted for “the community’s views on their centrality, authority, sacredness, and inspiration” (456). 

            The canon included “a wide variety of genres, ideologies, and theologies” 456).


Textual Criticism (Pheme Perkins with Michael D. Coogan)

            Different manuscripts have variant readings, and scholars attempt to establish the best text by considering what factors may plausibly explain why a scribe may have made a change from the text being copied (e.g., 461).  There is a preference for older rather than younger manuscripts, shorter rather than longer readings, and difficult or awkward rather than smoother readings (462).


The Hebrew Bible’s Interpretation of Itself (by Marc Z. Brettler)

            Interpretations of earlier texts (in a different book or in the same book) are made in order to (a) add wisdom (b) reconcile contradictions (c) make apparently false prophecies seem true (473-73).


Jewish Interpretation in the Premodern Era (by Marc Z. Brettler)

            Interpretation deals with “the ambiguity of certain words,” and often expresses “the desire to bring the text closer to Jewish life, and the fact that they now had to deal with these texts as canonical, that is, both authoritative and closed to further additions”; and interpretation was used “to give the static text greater elasticity” (478).  Within the Bible, “the interpretive addition is often inserted into the text itself without differentiating text and commentary, or in which scripture is rewritten (478).  Later interpretation sometimes responded to Christian or Muslim ideas. 

            In translation, interpretation is unavoidable, and sometimes translations take liberties with the text (479). 

            In commentaries (pesharim), the earlier text is interpreted as relevant to the present day.

            In creative historiography, things are rewritten to harmonize and to add.  When various versions of a story, such as the creation story, are “read canonically and the existence of sources forgotten, it becomes natural to interpret the stories in this fashion” (i.e., here, taking the second telling as filling in details in the first one).

            Rabbinic interpretations typically tend to regard the Bible as divine speech, saturated with meaning, which can be diversely unpacked.  The Bible thus “cannot be interpreted as a ‘normal’ text which might have a stable meaning; rather it has seventy  (an indeterminate but large, number of ) faces or meanings” (481).  Every letter is significant; so is the juxtaposition of adjacent units.

            Medieval commentators dealt with the problem that traditional commentaries tended to be “atomistic” (focused on a single, small point) and “filled with diverse opinions” (483).  Rashi achieved a coherent selection of commentaries.  His son-in-law, Rashbam, commented in ways that respond to Christian persecution of Jews, for example, during the Crusades.  The mystical interpretation was illustrated in a text called the Zohar, and philosophical interpretation was practiced by Maimonides, The Guide to the Perplexed

            “Most Jewish and Christian premodern interpretation shares a set of basic assumptions that make them fundamentally premodern.  These include the idea that the Bible is an authoritative canonical work, which is revealed divine speech, and, as such, must be interpreted in a special way.  Though set in history, it is in a special sense timeless, speaking to every generation and to every individual.  Although several medieval rabbis cast some small doubts on one aspect or another of these premises of interpretation, only in the seventeenth century would these shared assumptions begin to erode, and only then would we slowly move from premodern to modern biblical interpretation.” (484)



The Ten Commandments


 1.  You shall worship no other gods.

 2.  You shall not make a graven image, or any likeness of anything . . . .  You shall not  bow down to them or serve them.

 3.  You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.

 4.  Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.

 5.  Honor your father and your mother.

 6.  You shall not commit murder.

 7.  You shall not commit adultery.

 8.  You shall not steal.

 9.  You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

10.  You shall not covet.



Adding another view to the discussion of the interpretation of Job, chapter 1


View #1

1.  The first chapter of the Book of Job portrays God being challenged by Satan and agreeing to allow Job’s property to be destroyed, children to be killed, and health to be ravaged by disease in order to prove that he is right about Job’s religious steadfastness.

2.  All the books of the Bible portray a shared understanding of the goodness of God.

3.   We should interpret this passage in such a way as to defend what God is portrayed as doing to be a legitimate test of a person’s faith.


View #2

1.  The first chapter of the Book of Job portrays God being challenged by Satan and agreeing to allow Job’s property to be destroyed, children to be killed, and health to be ravaged by disease in order to prove that he is right about Job’s religious steadfastness.

2.  The concept of God is indefensible, and this kind of passage is an example of why that is so.

3.  We should interpret this passage as a record of what some people have found religiously helpful, but see the more clearly why we should reject the concept of God.


View #3

1.  The first chapter of the Book of Job portrays God being challenged by Satan and agreeing to allow Job’s property to be destroyed, children to be killed, and health to be ravaged by disease in order to prove that he is right about Job’s religious steadfastness.

2.  The Bible is a place in which one can seek and find the word of God, but also a document with many genres of writing and a variety of perspectives in tension.  The Book of Job is a piece of literature, not a report, and the portrayal of God in chapter one is not coherent with the goodness of God that we see in the best passages of scripture.

3.  The test of faith here is to discern, with the aid of the spirit and with the moral reason that is given to us by the Creator, which passages represent divine goodness and which do not.



Theodicy: Thoughts for your consideration

How can one affirm an eternally perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful Creator God in the face of the facts of pain, suffering, and evil?  Usually the discussion occurs as a debate, rather than as an inquiry toward greater understanding. 

 1.  “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”  Once you find God in personal, spiritual, religious experience, questions about suffering do not shake your faith.  You rather seek the meaning of suffering and the mission of adversity.

 2.  We cannot fathom why God permits the catastrophes we observe.  "God's ways are higher than your ways as the stars are higher than the earth."  The eternal wisdom and universal kindness of the divine acts is beyond our discernment.

 3.  Think of all the different reasons why things happen.  Natural processes follow their course, and accidents happen in our evolutionary world.  An earthquake should not be called an act of God.  We live in a realm of everlastingly dependable causal law.

 4.  Anxious craving causes suffering.  We should seek “the mind of perfect poise.”

 5.  If imperfect beings with free will are to be created, potential evil is inevitable.

 6.  Mortals need the contrast of potential evil to differentiate and recognize the good.

 7.  Some suffering results from our misuse of human freedom, violating—deliberately or not—principles of health, sanity, morality, or happiness.

 8.  Without suffering we cannot develop a noble character.

 9.  We must not imagine that this world is the best the Creator could do.  There is a heaven of eternal perfection where the will of God is done, as well as this evolving realm where human beings are invited into the adventure of becoming perfect.

10.  There is an evolving phase of Deity whose incompleteness partly explains the degree of disorder on our planet.

11.  The work of creation has been shared with subordinate beings who are neither infinite nor eternally perfect.

12.  A superhuman rebellion against God is responsible for some of the confusion, evil, sin, and suffering on our planet.

13.  It is misleading to think that God gives permission to wrongdoers.  A human lifetime is over surprisingly quickly, and judgment must be faced.

14.  Some suffering occurs because God chastises those he loves in order to prod them to turn from evil into the way of life.

15.  Not everything is good, but God—and those who cooperate with God—so labor that everything eventually does work together for good—and we have a responsible part to play in the process.

16.  God does not leave us alone.  "In all our afflictions he is afflicted with us."

17.  A Son of God has come forth to reveal the love of God, to experience this life with its full measure of suffering, and to comfort those who suffer.

18.  Should we think of the world as filled with suffering?  On balance, there is much for which to be thankful.

19.  Suffering may be exacerbated by one’s failure to exercise vigorous, positive attitudes.

20.  Once an episode of suffering is over—really over—we look back and find that the suffering was not truly substantial.  Though evil appears to exist for a time, it can only exist by being parasitical on realities that are good.  On the path from chaos to glory the sufferings of time are eclipsed by the joy of our eternal destiny.







The question.

            In the second chapter of Acts, we read a report of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost.  Under the sway of what he interpreted as his experiences of Jesus resurrected from the dead and of what he interpreted as the Spirit of Truth being poured out upon all flesh, Peter proclaimed Jesus as the risen savior and Lord. 

            The apostle Paul went on, under the sway of his extraordinary, powerful experience of Jesus as risen savior and Lord, to proclaim Jesus in a very similar concept, salvation through the love of God in Christ. 

            Christian proclamation and preaching, on the whole, has followed this pattern.  It has been centered on Jesus Christ as Lord and savior.

The New Testament was written from the perspective of this Christian conviction, and everything that Jesus ever said or did (as it was remembered more than forty years later) that confirmed this message was included.  The written Gospels were designed to promote belief in

            Jesus himself, however, as the majority of scholars agree, did not proclaim a message centered on himself.  Luke 4.43 tells us that Jesus purpose coming forth was to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God.  So what was Jesus’ message of the kingdom?  And what is the relation between Jesus’ good news (gospel)) of the kingdom of God and the gospel about Jesus proclaimed by Peter and Paul?  Regarding the second question, there are alternatives:


  1. The gospel of Jesus (what he mainly preached to the crowds) is really quite different from the later gospel about Jesus.
  2. There is overlap and much consistency that we can find if we look not just at the gospel of the kingdom but at all the teachings of Jesus (including things Jesus said privately to the apostles and even once at least, in Jerusalem, late in his career, to the crowds [John 8.12].  Nevertheless, the evidence leans toward the difference thesis.
  3. The “two gospels” are essentially the same.
  4. There are understandable differences between Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom and the gospel of Peter, Paul, and others, since, of course, Jesus preached and taught before he was resurrected and before people knew what kind of Messiah he was.


What was Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom of God?  The research of Adolph Harnack, German Protestant theologian, was that, if you peel back the later doctrines of the New Testament writers, Jesus’ original gospel was the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the infinite value of the individual soul.



The kingdom of God is at hand (a present reality)

      Mark 1.15.  “Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God and saying that the time [kairos] is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand.  Change your thinking [or repent] and believe in the gospel.”  (Unless otherwise noted, the translation is the NRSV; this one is mine.  The NRSV has “the kingdom of God is near”—presumably in order to harmonize with the future dimension of the kingdom, but that emphasis should not discount the truth of the present reality.)

      Matthew 5.3: “Happy [now] are the poor in spirit, for theirs is [now] the kingdom of heaven.”


The kingdom is the family of God

      Mark 3.31-35: “Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.  A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”  And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?’  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  Think of all Jesus’ family language in parables and elsewhere.


The kingdom of God is within

      Luke 21.20-21.  “Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’  For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.”  (Within translates entos which is some prefer to render as “among,” the meaning considered next.  In the Gospels, the only other use of entos is Mt. 25.26 about washing the inside of the cup.  Emphasis on the social dimension of the kingdom should not obscure the spiritual-experiential side.)

      Talk of the indwelling presence of God is, among other things, a way of emphasizing the reality of spiritual experience.  Think of the happiness (blessedness) of the beatitudes, the rejoicing, the experiences of prayer—not to mention the outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh on the day of Pentecost!


The kingdom of God is among you and something you can join

      Mark 12.34: “You are not far from the kingdom.”

      Luke 10.11.  If the seventy evangelists are rejected by a town they are to depart and tell the people that “the kingdom of God has come near.”


The kingdom of God is coming

      Matthew 6.9-10: “Our Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  It is obvious that the kingdom in its fullness of destiny has one or more future phases.  “Happy are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  (In other words, the good guys win—they are meek before God, not doormats who return nothing for evil—think of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple and the Mt 23 denunciation of hypocrisy.)

Faith and Belief

Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Faith and Belief (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979).  This book is an account of the ways in which faith is found in the traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.


Chapter 2, The English Word “Believe”

            Centuries ago, to believe meant to hold dear, love, trust, commit oneself to, obey, to align one’s life to follow through (105-115).

            The change to the impersonal meaning of “believe” implied a non-committal report of someone’s state of mind, regarding something which is uncertain, about which there may be doubt.  The notion of belief systems as frameworks emerged [cp “worldview”.]

            The identification of faith with belief in the modern sense worked for some persons for a while, since belief did function as a gateway to faith in a full sense.  However, identification became problematic as beliefs became stumbling blocks, e.g., in anti-intellectualism, which nourished neither faith nor intellect.  For Westerners in the influence of the Greeks, the intellect cannot be subordinated to anything but truth (“transcending reality and truth”).


The Quests for "the historical Jesus"

(This can mean (1) the real Jesus who lived 2000 years ago or it can mean (2) Jesus as historians can reconstruct him using only the methods that historians (and other scientists) use.)

        The following is a summary of chapter 2 in W. Barnes Tatum's book, In Quest of Jesus.


Period 1: Pre-Quest (before 1778).  Pre-criticism.  There was no distinction made between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history.  Thus, there was no problem about the relation between them and no quest for “the historical Jesus.”  An ancient book, the Diatesseron, skillfully wove the four Gospels together into a continuous narrative.  Calvin put parallels side by side, leaving an alternative between different views, e.g., of the interaction between Jesus and the lawyer in Mark 12.2834, Matthew 22.34-40, and Luke 10. 18.9-14.  Jesus did these similar things many times—or once?


Period 2: Old Quest (1778-1906).  Source criticism becomes prominent regarding the stands of texts from different sources that have been woven together in written tradition leading to the Bible.  This period tended to find discontinuity between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history.  The quest for the historical Jesus was regarded as methodologically possible and theologically necessary.  Samuel Reimarus wrote the 1778 book in which Jesus “shared with his disciples the intention of establishing in the immediate future an earthly kingdom with  himself as the kingly messiah.” (Tatum, p. 93).  Jesus was regarded as a Jew.  Disciples had stolen his body from the tomb.  Other researchers “seemed to pick and choose arbitrarily those details in the Gospel accounts that supported what they claimed to be establishing historically” (94).

            Liberal theologians (p. 95) sought a foundation in the personality and religion of Jesus.  They distinguished the religion about Jesus from the religion of Jesus—the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.  On their reading, the kingdom is to be realized on earth as people obey, loving God and neighbor.  The most influential studies of the life of Jesus written in this period are David Friedrich Strauss The Life of Jesus Critically Examined [1835-1836; Eng tr. 1846], and Ernest Renan, Life of Jesus (1863).


Period 3: No Quest (1906-1953).  Now form criticism becomes especially prominent regarding the oral sources of tradition that were eventually written down and found their way into the Bible.  This period saw discontinuity between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history.  The quest for “the historical Jesus” was regarded as methodologically impossible and theologically unnecessary by Albert Schweitzer (d. 1965) in The Quest of the Historical Jesus [1906, Eng tr. 1910].  Previous researchers “had modernized Jesus and made him over in the likeness of their own philosophical and theological ideas” (97).  What matters now is “Jesus as spiritually risen within men.”  Schweitzer emphasized in his own speculative portrayal of “the historical Jesus” a line from Matthew Mt:23: “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”  But that prediction was falsified, so Jesus had to rethink his conception of God’s plan and he decided to take on suffering—but that failed to usher in the supernatural kingdom, which became a problem for later believers, who glorified Jesus.

            Rudolph Bultmann represents this period, too.  He drew on Heidegger and other existentialist philosophers to “demythologize” the scientifically objectionable parts of the Bible while interpreting the deeps existential truths of the human condition that may so often be found in Bible stories.


Period 4: New Quest (1953-1985).  Now redaction criticism becomes especially prominent regarding the way that the editors of the NT Gospels made use of written and oral traditions.  These scholars posited continuity between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.  They saw the quest for the historical Jesus as methodologically possible and theologically necessary.  Ernst Käsemann (1953) wrote that we cannot reconstruct a detailed history, but we can honor reliable information about “certain characteristic traits in [J’] preaching stand out in relatively sharp relief, and . . . primitive Christianity united its own message with these” (101).  Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (1956; Eng. Tr. 1960): showed what Tatum describes as “only the slightest interest in the sequence of events in the ministry of Jesus and virtually no interest in the self-understanding of Jesus” (in other words, what did Jesus mean, e.g., by referring to himself as the “Son of Man” and other titles).  Bornkamm’s main focus was on Jesus’ message.  James M. Robinson was among researchers who emphasized (1) “kerygmatic” nature of the Gospels (in other words, their core proclamation of salvation).  These scholars (2) interpreted the NT Gospels “more in terms of “event” than as “sequence of facts.””  (3) These scholars thought that the burden of proof rested on those who claimed that material in the Gospels was “authentic” (102).


Period 5: Third Quest/Renewed Quest/Post Quest (since 1985).  The types of Biblical criticism that have been especially prominent in this period are narrative criticism and social-scientific criticism.  The focus is on the Jesus of history (as historians, using their accustomed methodological tools could reconstruct).  They regard the quest for the historical Jesus as methodologically possible and theologically neutral.  One key scholar in this period, E. P. Sanders, wrote Jesus and Judaism, in which he tried to present just history, without regard to any theological implications.  In March, 1985, Robert W. Funk and John Dominic Crossan, co-chair, founded the Jesus Seminar in Berkeley, California, convening a group of dozens of NT scholars who meet twice a year launching for four-day sessions, with face-to-face discussion of position papers.  They vote to determine the authenticity of individual sayings and specific deeds attributed to Jesus by dropping colored beads in a box.  They color-code the voting results, with only around 20 percent of Jesus’ reported words and deeds being judged historically probable (red/highly probable; pink/probable; gray/possible, or black/improbable).  John P. Meier expresses this approach as bracketing out faith commitments as they pursue their work as historians.  Jesus is regarded as continuous with Judaism of the time.

            The Jesus Seminar use these criteria to evaluate the likelihood that a given NT passage authentically represents what Jesus said or did.

·       Dissimilarity: if what is attributed to Jesus is dissimilar to the Jewish context, then it is more plausibly authentic, since otherwise it might have been inserted just from the cultural background.  (This criterion is less important now than in earlier years, since tends to separate Jesus from Judaism.)

·       Multiple attestation: Does this saying occur in more than one of the Gospels?

·       Embarrassment: If this saying or deed would be embarrassing to the writer or the community of Jesus’ followers, it is less likely that they would have included it.

·       Language and Environment (material must fit into the period)

·       Coherence with material established as authentic by other criteria.



Just War Theory (military jihad in the West)


According to the “just war theory” developed in the West (and of course each point is contested), a war has been held to be just if . . .


1.  It is legally declared by a public authority legitimately authorized to commit a people to war.


2.  It must be pursued for a morally just cause, such as self-defense.  A pre-emptive strike may be justifiable if there is “clear and present danger” (e.g., an imminent attack).   [What about going after Hitler in 1935?]


3.  Those who fight must have a rightful intention—for a just end, not mere revenge.


4.  It is done only as a last resort.


5.  There must be a reasonable chance of achieving the goal.


6.  The war must be aimed at a goal that is proportional to the injuries the war will probably inflict; it must not produce more harm than good.


7.  The war must not be fought with immoral means, e.g., by inflicting more deaths than are truly necessary or by methods designed intentionally to kill innocent civilians.



The question of the connection between Islam and violence


1.  “Islam” means submission to the will of God.  “Violence” carries a negative ethical connotation.  How can the will of God be unethical?  The Qur'an teaches, "God does not love the aggressors."  The prophet Muhammad spoke against suicide. 

            Question: Isn’t this observation the end of the matter?  Why or why not?


2.  Islam, like every other religion, regarded as a tradition with a long history, has moments in its heritage that are controversial and some that are widely repudiated.  In fairness, non-Muslims must not only remember comparable aspects of the history of other religions, but must also imagine or learn how these stories get reported and viewed from outside.  Many Westerners, for example, tend to think of the Spanish conquests in the Americas simply as conquests carried out by Spain, not as conquests carried out by Christianity, and they view the violence of these conquests as no longer an issue.  In fairness, non-Muslims do well to recall another kind of example: those who cherish the Bible pay almost no attention to the commandments attributed to God in the Book of Joshua to kill every man, woman, and child in village after village (chapter 11).  Or consider the way John's gospel uses the term "the Jews," sometimes in ways that seem to carry negative connotations, which some people today say played an historical role contributing to anti-Jewish sentiments in Europe.

            Question: Does this paragraph strike you as fair?  Does it call for some further balancing remark?  For example, some people hold that some historical traditions, such as Buddhism, have less violence in their history than other traditions.  If such a judgment about proportion is correct, would it affect our estimate of the fairness of the preceding paragraph?


3.  Consider the passages of the Qur’an that teach tolerance.  “There shall be no compulsion in religion” (2:256).  Repeatedly provision is made for the peoples to whom God has already sent a book—the Jews with their Torah, the Christians with the New Testament, and others.  The message is that God welcomes them if they live in accord with the teachings they have received.

            Question: How are unbelievers to be treated—and who is an unbeliever?  At times, Jews and Christians are regarded as believers, but those who encounter the revelations of the Prophet Mohammad and reject them are also sometimes called unbelievers.  A charitable interpretation of such a passage might go something like this: Someone may be a believer in reasonable standing in one religion, but one day he or she encounters a new and more advanced revelation.  This can be a great turning point, a parting of the ways, such that to reject the new and higher revelation has great consequences for his or her religious standing.


4.  Consider Sura 8, The Spoils.  Here we find passages disturbing to many readers: “God revealed His will to the angels, saying: ‘I shall be with you.  Give courage to the believers.  I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels.  Strike off their heads, strike off the very tips of their fingers!’” (8:12)  “It was not you, but God, who slew them” (8:17; cf. 8:59)  “Make war on them until idolatry shall cease and God’s religion shall reign supreme” (8:40).

            Sura 8 is commenting on the Battle of Badr, a pivotal turn of events in the early Muslim community in Medina in their struggles with their Meccan enemies.  According to the commentary in the widely respected translation by A. Yusuf Ali ([1934] 2nd edition, 1977), the main points emphasized are that this Sura gives rules for the proper conduct of warfare, and, in particular, that the victorious believers are not to indulge personal, material self-interest by grabbing for the spoils of battle.  Moreover, the particular armor worn by the Meccans protecting the chest and arms makes it understandable that the warriors were told where to strike (cf. 47:3).

            Question: Is knowing the historical context enough to satisfy our concern?  One issue is whether such words fit the just and righteous character of the God of goodness.  Another issue is how the Qur’an’s response to that event applies to later times.  It is often said that the Qur’an is superior to the Torah and the New Testament, because these prior books were given to illuminate the will of God for particular times and places, whereas the Qur’an is said to apply universally to all peoples at all times.  Some say that the task of interpreting the Qur’an today—after centuries of failed attempts by, e.g., Christianity and Islam to dominate each other—is to find resources for living together, for peaceful coexistence and cooperation.


5.  Some regard it as a scandal that the Qur’an promises reward in heaven to those who die in righteous defense of the true faith.  “Let those who would exchange the life of this world for the hereafter, fight for the cause of God; whoever fights for the cause of God, whether he dies or triumphs, on him We shall bestow a rich recompense” (4:74; 47:8).  But compare this passage with one from the Gospel According to Mark: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8.34-36)  Christianity has a tradition honoring martyrdom.  (Nor is it irrelevant to recall that medieval Pope Urban the II promised a “plenary indulgence”—forgiveness of all one’s [prior] sins—for those who would go on a crusade “out of pure devotion” to take Jerusalem from Muslim control.

            Question: What do you think about the possibility of life in heaven after death?  How does your to this question affect your attitude to this comparison?


6.  The threat of hell awaiting wrongdoers is not unfamiliar to readers of the New Testament, and as conventionally interpreted—as a firey place of eternal torture after death—the image does little to mollify human tendencies to revenge.  (Note that the term “hell” translates the word Gehenna; what Jesus was actually referring to was the dump outside Jerusalem where they burned garbage!)

            Question: What concept of alternatives in the afterlife is consistent with divine ideals of righteousness and goodness?  How can those who believe in heavenly rewards and punishments safeguard themselves from the tendency to be cruel toward wrongdoers on earth?


7.  If we find troublesome implications in the Qur’an, we should realize that they may well play no role in the daily life of the vast majority of Muslims.

            Question: Is there not a duty in every religion to select the best and most helpful passages and interpretations for the needs of the present age?  If so, how can one respond to conservative interpreters?  And how may they be expected to respond?  How shall we all live together progressively?


8.  One evangelical Christian response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist incidents in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania proposed the idea that the United States has made itself vulnerable by allowing corruption to proliferate, which has the effect of removing ourselves from divine protection.  

            Question: Is there a grain of truth here?  The Qur’an says, “The unbelievers have no protector” (47:10).  What proportion of genuine believers—in thought, word, and deed—are found in the religious institutions of America today?  Extremists challenge not only the legitimate freedoms of a constitutional democracy but also the false freedom, the “I’m-going-to-do-whatever-I-damn-well-please” attitude that pervades so much of our society today.


9.  Terry Waite, a Christian leader and negotiator, held hostage for six years in Lebanon, in a speech at Kent State, distinguished three kinds of people that engage in hostage-taking: (1) thugs; (2) people who have a legitimate grievance that can be worked out through negotiation; (3) religious fanatics.

            Question: why should we assume that these three types are mutually exclusive?  If there are legitimate grievances that can be worked out, would it not be wise to do so?




The equality and complementarity of men and women


1.  Islam proclaims the equality of women with men; their human nature, spiritual standing before God, and destiny are the same.

2.  Islam clearly proclaims the complementarity of men and women—their roles are different.  Equality can be consistent with complementarity.  But—for any culture—if equality is defined in ways that suppress complementarity or if complementarity is defined in ways that betray equality, then there are problems, and in any case it is a challenge to evolve reasonable practices, tolerances, and constructive ways of expressing intolerance when something intolerable rears its head.   

3.  Abuses by Muslims are not to be blamed on Islam, but on lack of individual development and on cultural backwardness.

4.  Four wives?  The Qur’an stipulates that each must be equally loved.  That was possible for Mohammed and his companions, but if that is impossible for men today, then the requirement of equal love amounts to a requirement of monogamy.  War made for a shortage of males at that time to keep the population going.

5.  What about verses in the Qur’an that may appear sexist from an outsider’s perspective?  What lines of possible response are there?

6.  The head covering for women is optional.  Cultural standards vary for appropriately modest dress for women; and these standards are chosen partly to help men avoid being tempted or distracted.




Additional resources on Sufism:

Franklin D. Lewis, Rumi: Past and Present, East and West (Oxford: Oneworld 2000).

The Essential Rumi, tr. Coleman Barks with John Moyne, A. J. Arberry, Reynold Nicholson  (Edison, New Jersey: Castle Books, 1997.