Introduction to Western Religions
Gregory L. Jackson, Ph.D.
Western religion is one of the most significant topics we can study today, because the next twenty years will mark a world struggle between the Judeo-Christian culture on one hand and Moslem-Eastern culture on the other. Today the world is polarized. The forces of democracy are wealthy but failing in population growth. People are full of doubt about whether Western values are good for the rest of the world. In contrast, Asia and the Moslem world are weak in economic power (apart from oil) and overwhelming in population growth. Moreover, they are certain that Western values are corrupt, that their values are good. Some are willing to die for their cause.
People vary greatly in their religious beliefs, but almost everyone has some set of transcendent values. Some call this a net. We have almost the same set of facts to observe, but we carry them in a net called religion. My friend in Canada, once a sailor with the US Navy, saw the 9-11 disaster with entirely different eyes than most Americans. He is living in Montreal, Canada, profoundly influenced by attitudes there.
Definitions are very important in religious discussions. There is a reason we divide world religions into a Western and an Eastern course. The basis or foundation for the religions of the West are quite different from the religions of the East. Definitions help explain this difference.
Historic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all based upon historical figures who really lived. Not only that, the facts about these people matter greatly. The historical truths are not incidental to the religions of the West: they are part of the religions of the West. The figures of the Old Testament are the teachers and leaders of Israel. Jesus and the Apostles are the foundation of the Christian faith. Apart from “There is only one God Allah and Mohammed is His prophet” there is no Islamic religion. However, Eastern religion is not so concerned with historical fact.
Monotheistic religions – the three Western religions we study in this course are monotheistic. They emphasize that God is one in essence. That is quite a contrast with Hinduism in India, where 300 million gods are acknowledged, or in Buddhism, where the religion is centered on self-discipline and not on a divinity.
People of the Book – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all emphasize their scriptures as essential and normative. Normative means that the scripture determines both faith and practice of the religion. The scriptures of all three religions are clearly defined.
Common history – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have shared the same land. They have fought over Jerusalem and still have their own quarters in the holy city. They have shared Europe and fought over Europe. The developments from the start of Islam to the First Crusade are just as germane today as they were during the Reformation of the 16th century.
The Law – all three religions emphasize the Law as God’s will for the conduct of His people. Interpretations of the Law vary but all three religions are easily defined in terms of how the faithful should conduct themselves.
What can we learn from these religions?
First of all, we need to know what they consider important and how they distinguish their beliefs from the doctrines of the other world religions. If we cannot understand another religion through the eyes of the faithful, then we are only looking at it as a curiosity. We do not have to give up our beliefs to understand another’s, but we should be sympathetic and try to put ourselves in another’s position.
Secondly, we can see how much these distinctions matter today. In many businesses and educational institutions, the world religions are thrust together through the global nature of commerce and academic life. Since religious values are so important to many people, mutual understanding can great enhance harmony and communication.
1. Will knowledge about these three religions affect your working life or your relationships outside of work?
2. What do you see developing in the next decade, in view of the current religious conflicts?
3. What do you think is most different about each of the three Western religions? You may express this in terms of being unique, exotic, inspiring, or unappealing. (Optional)
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