About This Blog

Thursday, October 29, 2015

"Introducing World Religions" (Charles E. Farhadian)

TITLE: Introducing World Religions: A Christian Engagement
AUTHOR: Charles E. Farhadian
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015, (624 pages).

What is religion? What is the purpose of religion? Can we truly understand religion or study religion without being a religious adherents of the various faiths? While we may not fully comprehend the spectrum of understanding and experience of each religion, we do have a way to learn to appreciate the various religions for who they are by establishing some standards of learning and understanding. This introductory text gives us the tools to do exactly that without having to commit ourselves to any one faith. At the same time, we must be aware of where we stand, otherwise we can be easily swayed by all kinds of influences to the point that we lose our own bearings. That is why the author of this text has declared his own position and faith. At the same time, he honours the faith traditions of the various religions being studied by faithfully using the legitimate tools of learning from previous teachers, philosophers, academics, theologians, practitioners, and others. We live in a religious world and  religions form a core context in society, regardless of individual beliefs. In other words, whether we are secular, atheist, religious, or agnostic, religions are here to stay. The difference lies in the extent of influence in whatever society we are in.

Using a "phenomenological approach" to study religion, religions are studied from a first-person point of view in which experience, knowledge, tradition, and various religious consciousness are considered carefully. According to the author:
"We all live in contexts. We are contextual beings. No matter where we live, what we believe, or how we practice our faith, our contexts profoundly impact our formation as people. Yet it is far too easy to overlook the importance of our contexts."
He summarizes Winston King's eight characteristics of religion as follows, that religions are marked by:
  1. Traditionalism
  2. Myths and symbols
  3. Ideas of Salvation
  4. Sacred Objects and Places
  5. Sacred Actions
  6. Sacred Writings
  7. Sacred Community
  8. Sacred Experience
These frame a very comprehensive perspective of understanding a large topic like religion. Charles Farhadian is Professor of World Religions and Christian Mission at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. He is not new to the publishing world, having been an editor of "Introducing World Christianity," and "Christian Worship Worldwide" and coeditor of "The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion." This speaks of his credentials when writing on a book of this nature. In studying religion, he considers the various contexts: Cultural; Environmental; Historical; Psychological; and Social contexts. These are necessary in order to grow deeper in understanding each religion. He is also mindful of the different theories of religion:
  • Psychological: Understanding human behaviour as a basis for understanding religions (Sigmund Freud)
  • Sociological: Understanding how society shapes religion (Émile Durkheim)
  • Economic: Understanding how the theory of "economics, societies, and revolutionary change" shape the religions (Karl Marx)
  • Philosophical: As opposed to the Marxist theory, there is German idealism that sees religion being able to capture the fullest ideal (Friederich Hegel, Immanuel Kant)
  • Anthropological: Understanding religion via human developments and interactions (Clifford Geertz)
  • Non-Rational Core and Non-Reductivistic: Religion is by itself and not a byproduct of other theories (Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade)
  • Indigenous: Where people grow up with

Writing to a "broadly Christian audience" and those who have a keen interest in studying other religions, Farhadian first describes various religions as-is, using conventional theories accepted and used by academics, before placing his own faith perspectives in a separate box called "Christian Reflections." His instruction to Christians is that, even when Christians believe that Christianity is the Truth, there is no need to reject other religions as totally untrue as there are always the need to "distinguish between truth, indicating insights and common wisdom carried by cultures throughout the world." This is important because Christianity is practiced all over the world from people of different cultures. In understanding other religions, we also help one another understand Christians from other cultures. Yet, the challenges remain.
  1. The challenge of Smorgasbord self-constructed religions that seemingly allows more religions to be created according to one's preferences
  2. The challenge of making sense of pluralistic religions, "the spiritual matrix" 
  3. The challenge of different views of reality
  4. The challenge of what the end-point is: Emptiness or Fullness? God?
  5. The challenge of History vs Myth
Each chapter comprises four major sections. Section One is the "Contemporary Snapshot" which begins with a short story or incident that shows not only a point of entry but a perspective of relevance today. For Hinduism, key characters like Mahatma Gandhi, common-folk dressing, and snippets from the Bhagavad Gita are used. For Buddhism, an article from the 2004 San Francisco Chronicle that describes the interactions between German Lutherans and Buddhist monks is used. Others include Jainism's $6 million temple; Sikhism's presence in modern day America; Taoism and Confucianism's influence in the modern practice of Taichi; the prayers of Muslims; etc. 

Section Two covers the "Origins and Concepts" that delve into the early years of the religion, followed by the various sub-cultures and different faith perspectives within the same religious umbrella. Sikhism's birthplace is in Rama, Northern India. Taoism and Confucianism has a rich historical heritage. Judaism shares many cultural and linguistic similarities with other Semitic groups like the Arabs. There is a large number of Muslims in China. There is also a fascinating chapter on the mixed religions. This includes the Judeo-Christian orientations such as Mormonism; Seventh-Day Adventists; Jehovah Witnesses; Christian Science. The Hindu-Buddhist orientations include the theosophical society; Transcendental Meditation.

Section Three is "Worship and Practice" which describes the common features of how the individual religions are practiced. Some like Islam, Christianity, Judaism and known more for their focus on the Holy religious texts. Others are more visible in their public display of meditation, prayer postures, and philosophies. The places of worship constitute a core part of the religious practice. With that, I appreciate the pictures and diagrams included with the book that illuminate the beauty of each religion.

Section Four is "Modern Movements" that describe the trajectory of each religion. All of them are influenced by the modern symbols of progress. The Buddhists are building more universities and meditation centers. Hinduism is progressing beyond the former conditions of British colonialism, becoming more accepted among mainstream society and not merely a reaction against colonialism. Judaism is becoming more splintered between conservatives, reformed, Kabbalah, Messianic, etc. Of interest is the part on Christianity where Farhadian describes the many recognizable faces of Christianity: Megachurches, Evangelicalism, African Christianity, and the growing Asian face of Christianity.

So What?

Well organized and descriptive, I think Farhadian has done a really good job in crystallizing the concepts and ideas of each religion. The representation is fair and he puts his disclaimers clearly in boxes for the benefits of the reader. Many references are clearly laid out, complete with resources for the eager student. He manages to cover only about nine major core religions which made me wonder about the other less noticed religions. What about the native Indians? What about the growing secularist movements that are behaving within the eight characteristics of religion? I have heard of the atheist church being formed or the secularist movements. Surely, as time goes by, they too would become a "religion" by virtue of the definitions given by Winston King.

As an introductory text, this book is of exceptional quality. Readers gain a better appreciation of religions lesser known to the Western world. Take Jainism for example. How many people actually know that they are the "most rigorously vegetarian of the world religions?" Those of us in the West often lumped Eastern religions too ignorantly in one basket. This book helps us understand that each of these religions are very different and to treat them all the same would be inappropriate. There is a respectful tone throughout the book that I deeply appreciate. People are different and we need to respect them for their difference. Each religion is unique and is deeply convicted about their core beliefs. Understanding them would mean we develop maturity to know that we do not have to give up our own beliefs just to appreciate another. This is crucial for the healthy development of a society that is increasingly pluralistic, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural. The more we know of one another's faith and practices, the more we are able to be sensitive to one another. The situation is especially important given the rising numbers of inter-marriages among people of different faith persuasions. Read this book not only as a student but as a keen participant in building bridges toward the commonly verbalized ideal: "World peace."

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

No comments:

Post a Comment