The best one-volume introduction to the Christian faith I’ve seen is What’s Christianity All About? by John Schwarz. There is also a condensed version of this book titled Living Faith(containing approximately 25% of the complete content). John has given me permission to reprint the entire text of Living Faith on this website. A chapter a day for ten days will be presented here as Meditations #926-#935. These meditations will be considerably longer than my usual post, but if you take the time to read them you will receive an excellent overview of the basics of Christianity. For more thorough study of the subjects in the ten chapters, purchase the larger book What’s Christianity All About? (Print and electronic versions available at Amazon.com).
CHAPTER EIGHT: OTHER RELIGIONS AND BELIEFS
Today there is a great movement of people to the West. Some come to start a new life, others to be reunited with relatives who came before, still others to study in colleges and universities. When they come, they bring religious beliefs that most Christians know very little about. In this chapter we will look at other world religions and belief systems and compare them with Christianity.
Hinduism: The Religion of India
Hinduism, which dates back to the second millennium before Christ, is the religion of India: 85 percent of all Indians are Hindus. The number of Hindus is estimated to be 810 million, making Hinduism the third largest religion in the world, after Christianity and Islam. Hinduism had no founding father and has no institutional form; though it has temples, it has no corporate or formal day of worship; and it believes there are thousands of gods. A dark side of Hinduism is the caste system of social stratification, which dates back to the 1500s B.C. There are four primary castes and thousands of subcastes, which are hereditary and for life: one cannot move from one caste to another. One who has no caste is an “outcaste.”
Hindus believe that the human soul, called atman, is linked with the universal soul, called Brahman. One’s state in life is determined by one’s karma, from a Sanskrit word meaning “actions.” Bad karma leads to the reincarnation of the soul into lower orders (animals, plants and insects); good karma into higher orders (and then, higher castes). The goal of Hindus is to secure the release of their atman from the endless repetition of births, deaths and rebirths and merge it with Brahman, like a drop of water falling into an ocean. A Western form of Hinduism is Hare Krishna— Hare means “lord” and Krishna is the avatar (“divine manifestation”) of Vishnu, one of the three principal deities in Hinduism. Hare Krishnas believe in karma and reincarnation, but they do not believe in a plurality or pantheon of gods or in the caste system.
Buddhism: The Middle Way
Buddhism is another non-theistic Eastern religion. It was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, who was born in 566 B.C. in what is now Nepal. According to Gautama, the cause of suffering is desiring and craving things that are worldly and temporal. The way to peace and serenity is the Middle Way of moderation between pleasure and denial, between indulgence and asceticism. Gautama became known as Buddha, a Sanskrit word meaning one who has attained “enlightenment.” He taught that there is something one can do to escape the misery and suffering of this life, rather than waiting for a future life. What can one do? Adopt wisdom, morality and meditation as the essence of life and follow the Noble Eightfold Path of right views, aspirations, behavior, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and contemplation. The Eightfold Path leads to nirvana— from a Sanskrit word meaning “to blow out” the flame of desire, the cause of suffering— and to the absorption of the finite self into the infinite, like a passing cloud that dissolves and disappears. A popular form of Buddhism in the West is Zen Buddhism. Zen adherents practice meditation according to strict rules in order to achieve enlightenment (called satori) more quickly than through traditional Buddhism, thus escaping the wheel of reincarnation. Today there are 360 million Buddhists, making Buddhism the fourth largest world religion.
Islam: Christianity’s Greatest Competitor
Islam means “submission” to the will of Allah, the Arabic name for God. Islam is a large (1.2 billion), worldwide, rapidly growing, well-financed, missionary faith. It is the dominant religion and way of life in some sixty countries of the world. We tend to think of Muslims as Arabs, but among the ten largest Islamic countries, only one (Egypt) is Arabic. Muslims worship in mosques (“place of prostration”), where the faithful— usually only men, at least in the main hall— gather together to pray as a group. The prayers are led by an imam (“he who stands before others”), a person with religious training, who delivers a sermon on Friday, Islam’s day of formal worship (chosen, perhaps, to distinguish Islam from Judaism and Christianity). Most mosques have a minaret to call the faithful to worship, a fountain for ceremonial washing and education rooms for teaching the Koran and Islamic law.
Islam is divided into two major groups, the Sunnis and the Shi’ites. The Sunnis, with 85 percent of Islam’s adherents, are the mainstream, but the Shi’ites— the more visible, vocal fundamentalists— are the more conspicuous. The Sunnis follow the Sunna (way or custom) of Muhammad and are led by caliphs (successors or representatives) from the Kuraish tribe, to which Muhammad belonged. The Shi’ites follow the line of Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. They believe that Ali’s descendants represent the true line of succession, which continues today in spiritual leaders like the ayatollahs (“sign of God”) in Iran and elsewhere.
An African-American expression of Islam is the Nation of Islam, which was founded in 1931 in Detroit. Its adherents are known as Black Muslims (in the beginning, the NOI was more interested in “blackness” than in religion). Malcolm X preached black pride and black power in the 1950s, and was assassinated in 1965. Today there are 2-3 million Black Muslims in the United States. Most belong to orthodox Islamic communities.
The Prophet Muhammad. The founder of Islam was Ubu’l-Kassim, who became known as Muhammad, the “Praised One.” He was born in A.D. 570 in Mecca, an ancient city in present-day Saudi Arabia. When Muhammad was forty years old (in 610), he claimed to have had a vision of the angel Gabriel while meditating in a cave on Mount Hira, north of Mecca. Gabriel told Muhammad that he was Allah’s messenger and promised to dictate to him the word of God. Muhammad did not consider himself to be divine but the one chosen by God to be his final prophet— the “seal of the prophets.” (There are twenty-five “prophets” in Islam, among whom are Jesus and John the Baptist.) Muhammad died in 632 at the age of 61. Following his death, Islam, aided by the sword, spread across North Africa and into Spain, challenging Christianity on its own soil.
The Koran. In Islamic theology, God did not reveal himself in the form of a person, Jesus, but in words, which are recorded in the Qur’an or Koran, a word meaning “recitation.” According to Islam, the recitations were revealed to Muhammad from 610 to 632 in Mecca and Medina, the two cities in which Muhammad lived. The recitations were given in manageable segments so they could be memorized. It is believed that Muhammad passed his “revelations” on to his secretar, Zayd, and they were later organized into a book by Uthman, the third caliph, around the year 650. The Koran has 114 suras or chapters, ordered by descending length rather than chronologically, which makes the Koranic story in places hard to follow. The Koran is slightly smaller than the New Testament.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the world’s three great monotheistic religions. All three look back to Abraham as their father, whom Islam believes was a Muslim because Muslims submit to the will of God and Abraham was the first person to do so. Also, Muslims believe that Ishmael, who was born fourteen years before Isaac, was the “promised son” and that it was he, not Isaac, whom God commanded Abraham to sacrifice on Mount Moriah. All three religions revere Jerusalem as a holy city, but for different reasons; in the case of Islam, because it was from Jerusalem that Muhammad made his famous “night journey” (in 620) to the seventh heaven, where Allah “resides.” (The golden Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was later built over the rock from which Muhammad allegedly ascended.) And all three religions are ‘People of the Book.’ Islam reveres the Torah, the book of Moses; the Psalms, the book of David; the Gospels, which it understands as biographies of Jesus, not good news, and in places has even rewritten (in the Koran, Jesus was born under a palm tree, not in a manger); and most important, the Koran. Muslims believe there is an exact copy of the Koran in Arabic in heaven.
Islam reveres Jesus and believes in his virgin birth and miracles and that before he died he was “assumed” into heaven, where he now resides with Allah. But Islam does not consider Jesus divine, because it would be unfitting for the sovereign God of the universe to become incarnate in a human being (in the Koran, Jesus is the Son of Mary, not the Son of God). Nor does Islam believe that Jesus was crucified, because Allah would not allow one of his prophets to die such a disgraceful, humiliating death (Islam believes that someone was crucified in Jesus’ place, either Judas or Simon of Cyrene). Because Muslims believe that Jesus did not die, he was not, of course, raised from the dead.
Islam teaches that men and women are fundamentally good, not fallen. The fall in the Garden was caused by Satan, who tempted Adam (not Eve), who repented and was forgiven by Allah. Because humans are not fallen, there is no need for a Savior. Muslims, though, have no present assurance of salvation: everything is on hold until the Day of Reckoning, when each person appears before Allah (not Jesus) to be judged by his or her deeds and works (salvation by works). Those judged faithful go to an oasis-like paradise of unbelievable sensual pleasure; sinners go to a hell of indescribable punishment.
The Five Pillars. There are five “pillars” that undergird Islamic religious life for observant Muslims. First, the profession that “there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.” (Allah is not the knowable, personal God of Christianity; he is never described as a God of love, as in 1 John 4:16, or referred to as Father; and Allah is clearly not Trinitarian.) Second, prayers to Allah five times a day: upon rising, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset and upon retiring. When Muslims pray, they usually prostrate themselves in a position of humility. In public prayers, the words of the prayers come from the first chapter of the Koran and follow established formulas. Third, almsgiving, the sharing of one’s wealth to support the sick and the needy. The amount varies, but the practice is 2.5 percent of a person’s income or wealth. Fourth, abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan, the month it is claimed that Gabriel first appeared to Muhammad. Fifth, a pilgrimage to the Great Mosque in Mecca once during a Muslim’s lifetime, if possible. Fundamentalist Muslims also believe in a sixth pillar, Jihad, meaning “spiritual struggle,” one aspect of which involves waging war against enemies of Islam. Muslims who die in combat become martyrs and are assured of a place in paradise.
Christian Sects and Cults
A strong challenge to Christianity over the last 175 years has been the emergence of religious sects and cults that parade under the banner of Christianity but deny the central truth claims of Christianity. The word cult is a descriptive term, though some find it offensive, preferring instead the term “alternative religious movements.” Historian Ruth Tucker, in her book Another Gospel, defines a cult as a religious group whose prophet/founder claims to have received a special revelation from God, set forth in the founder’s “inspired” writings, to proclaim a message not found in the Bible. Tucker says that most cults have authoritarian leadership structures, are legalistic in lifestyle, are exclusivistic in outlook, and have a persecution mentality.
Common Cult Beliefs. The following are common cult beliefs regarding the central truth claims of Christianity. First, cults deny the Bible’s authority, claiming it to be faulty and incomplete, which their founders have replaced with their own writings, such as Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon. Second, cults worship a god other than the biblical God, and each denies the Trinity (cults are unitarian rather than Trinitarian). Third, cults deny the divinity of Jesus, regarding him as human only, and none regard him as a savior. Fourth, cults do not believe in justification by faith; they believe instead in salvation by works, especially works on behalf of the cult, such as proselytization.
Popular Cults. Four well-known, cults were founded in the nineteenth century. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), more popularly known as Mormonism, was established in 1830 by Joseph Smith. The LDS has been called the most distinctive and successful religion ever born on American soil, with 11 million adherents worldwide. Mormonism believes in many gods; that the God who rules over our earth is a tangible being, not a spirit; and that “As man is, God once was; as God is, so man can become.” Jehovah’s Witnesses is the second-largest made-in-America religion, with 8 million adherents. It was founded in 1884 by Charles Taze Russell. Jehovah’s Witnesses prefer the name Jehovah to God and believe that Jesus was the archangel Michael who laid down his spirit nature and became a man. They do not vote, pledge allegiance to the flag, or sing the national anthem, nor do they celebrate Christian holidays or anyone’s birthday. Christian Science was founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879. It is a philosophical system that believes in the superiority of spirit over matter; that God is the divine mind or principle of the universe; and that Jesus is the “Way-Show-er” who revealed God as a spiritual principle. The Unity School of Christianity was founded by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore in 1889. Unity understands the Bible as an allegory and believes that God is a “principle” (of love); that Jesus was human only, not divine; and in reincarnation.
New Cults. One of the newer cults is the Unification Church, founded by Sun Myung Moon in 1954. Moon claims to be the one chosen by God to redeem humankind. Two non-Christian cults— those that make no pretense of being Christian— are the Church of Scientology and Eckankar. Both believe in reincarnation. The New Age Movement is not a cult but a worldwide phenomenon that believes the present age is coming to an end, to be replaced by a “new age,” the mythical Age of Aquarius. It believes in the inter-connectedness of humanity, nature (Mother Earth), and the divine, called monism (“one-ism”), and in the law of karma and reincarnation. New Agers engage in channeling and other techniques to connect with the cosmic force or consciousness of the universe.
Do All Roads Lead to God?
In today’s world of religious pluralism, Christians are in constant contact with people of different faiths. The question is often asked, “Do all religions lead to God?” The answer is that religions and beliefs such as those above may lead to “a” god, but not to the knowable, loving, triune God of Christianity. It has been said that the difference between Christianity and all other religions can be boiled down to the difference between doing and done. In all other religions, salvation comes through “doing” something. In Christianity, everything necessary for salvation has already been “done” by Jesus on the cross. As Christians, we believe in this ‘done-ness’ by Christ.