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Chinese Religion, Xinzhong Yao and Yanxia Zhao
Christianity as a World Religion, Sebastian Kim and Kirsteen Kim
An Introduction to Religion and Literature, Mark Knight
An Introduction to Religious and Spiritual Experience, Marianne Rankin
An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, James Cox
Religious Diversity in the UK, Paul Weller
Sacred Scriptures of the World Religions, Joan Price
The Study of Religion, George D. Chryssides and Ron Geaves
Understanding Religion and Science, Michael Horace Barnes
This modest volume is dedicated to my former and
current students who have taught me more
than I could ever teach them.
It is dedicated in particular to my students at Eckerd College who
endured a course with much of this material as its content.
They were patient and kind.
1 The Spiritual Quest
2 Indigenous Wisdom Traditions
3 Classical Expressions of Culture-Based Religions
4 Current Expressions of Nature/Culture Religion
5 Spiritual Pathways Within Hinduism
6 Spiritual Pathways Within Buddhism
7 Spiritual Pathways Within Confucianism and Taoism
8 Spiritual Pathways Within Judaism
9 Spiritual Pathways Within Christianity
10 Spiritual Pathways Within Islam
11 Finding a Spiritual Pathway
The motivation for writing this book has been with me for many years. I have had a
deep interest in religion, especially in Christianity, since I was introduced to its basic
beliefs and values during my high school years. It was then that I plunged into a
religious quest with some innocence and discovered that my simple faith had a
profound influence on my life. For the most part, my faith orientation helped me to
find a way through those early years in a very constructive manner. There was some
naiveté about the Bible and its history and a trace of judgment about other religious
traditions that were not like mine. But overall, my faith gave coherence and integrity
to my life and instilled a sense of well-being, the positive values of respect and
compassion for others, and a concern for social justice in our society and world. I had
found a spiritual pathway.
Across the years, as I studied religious thought and behavior in some depth, and as
I had the opportunity to travel to various parts of the world where faith families other
than Christianity were in the majority and visibly active and observable, I began to
wonder if nearly all religious faith, regardless of specific beliefs and practices, might
have the potential to be a positive influence in human experience. I also observed (and
experienced) some practices, both within my own Christian faith and in the religious
life of other traditions, that had a negative influence on me and the people within these
other religious communities. It struck me that religious faith can be enormously
powerful in human experience, lead to health, human flourishing, and social
responsibility, but also it can lead to an orientation of fear, zealotry, and intolerance. In
short, I discovered that religion can be both life-giving and life-denying. It can be a
positive force for good and a negative force for that which is harmful for human life.
The larger question came into my thoughts and continues with me regardless of my
personal faith: Is religion an asset or a liability as the human race seeks to move
forward to a more fulfilling, just, and peaceful existence? It is a question that will not
go away, even though my life and career have been devoted to advancing a mature
approach to religious belief and practice.
My reflections led naturally to an exploration of what beliefs and practices within
a faith community tended to be positive and create a life-giving and socially
responsible environment, and those beliefs and practices that tended to create an
environment that had a negative impact on people and was sectarian in spirit. As I
observed religious behavior in my own faith family and the religious life of other
traditions, I began to make lists of life-giving beliefs and practices and life-denying
beliefs and practices. I was given the opportunity in my professional life to teach
courses in world religions, and I began to suggest to students that there were both
healthy and unhealthy religious ideas and practices. The students engaged in these
conversations with energy and insight, and I remain grateful for their honesty. In other
conversations with devout practitioners and scholars in religious studies, I began to try
out my hunches. In time, patterns emerged and were continually refined. What has
become clear across the years of teaching and direct exposure and participation is that
when people truly understand the core beliefs and practices of traditions other than
their own, they are inclined to be at least tolerant. As they understand more (better),
they begin to appreciate the core beliefs and practices of religions of the world and see
how these beliefs and practices can lead to personal and social transformation.
Three other major trends in the religious life of the human family began to
intersect with my ruminations about healthy and unhealthy religious beliefs and
practices. One of those trends was the general increase in the interest in and practice
of spirituality, a movement now several decades old and continuing, but has really
been with us from the beginning of human reflection. Spirituality has been variously
defined, and I tend to follow the more generic definition that it has less to do with
belonging to an organized religion and more to do with the transformation of the
person and society, although belonging to a religious community may be the primary
way that spirituality is nurtured and sustained. Spirituality is a lived experience that is
both internal (“I am being transformed”) and external (“I will live in a responsible
way”). In general, it has to do with our experience of the divine, and the
transformation of our consciousness and our lives as the outcome of that experience. It
engages our heart or our center and how it is that we purify our heart and live a life of
Although it may be a bit difficult to prove, it appears that during these past three
decades or more, the world has become more religious and many of those engaged in
religious renewal are in the midst of a quest for a deeper and more profound
spirituality. There are diverse reasons for this tremendous energy and resurgence of
religious life, but certainly one of them is that the foundations of our way of
understanding the world and our place in it are changing. Most of humanity has been
impacted by rapid changes in our world, and we are finding it incredibly difficult to
accommodate these enormous changes. Change can be difficult, and people in the
midst of change tend to be afraid and threatened. Under stress, they seek in their
religious commitments and spiritual quests somewhere safe, a link with the past that
provides some security. They want a place to stand in the midst of rapid change, a
divinely sanctioned context to call home, an anchor in what feels like a powerful
I have been personally affected by the way that religion in general and spirituality
in particular have emerged as a concern for all kinds of people, and I have noticed that
religion is front-page news. I was influenced in part by the thought that reached its
zenith in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s which argued that we are living in a postChristian or post-religious era, a time when we heard the phrase “God is dead” by
which we meant that the concept of God was no longer germane to our understanding
of the world and the unfolding of our lives. So now, I am adjusting to a new reality,
and it invites me and all of us to pause and reflect.
In addition to the increased interest in the spiritual life, there has also been a strong
tendency toward fundamentalism, and in some ways, the two movements have
overlapped and been interwoven. Fundamentalism is a word honored by some who
maintain a more conservative view of their religious heritage, but the term is used
more commonly to describe a narrow belief system that tends to be intolerant of
religious beliefs that differ from one’s own; it is sectarian in spirit. It is a word often
used to describe a particular form of Christianity, but the term is now used to describe
the more radical, even militant side of all religious traditions. In some cases, the new
and emerging spirituality has taken the form of intolerant sectarianism. Many of those
in a more moderate centrist position have anxiety about the larger place these
movements have in our common life, and have been especially conscious of the
increase of the militant Islamic faith. But the resurgence of fundamentalism is not
limited to Islam; it was present in the persecution of Christians and Muslims by
Hindus in India in the late 1990s and the early part of this decade, and one author has
made the case for the way that a form of Christian fundamentalism has shaped
American policy in the Bush administration. What occurred on September 11, 2001
reshaped the world and made us all keenly aware of the role and place of “radical”
religion in the world.
My experience, observations, and study of religious life coupled with the rise of
spirituality and fundamentalism have led me to the conviction that religious beliefs
and practices and their expression in spirituality are shaping contemporary life in
quite profound ways. In fact, as understanding of other religions increases, I have
become persuaded that people become more tolerant and respectful of other religious
traditions. Intolerant fundamentalism tends to fade away (though not always), and
spirituality as common ground becomes a resource for justice, peace, and
reconciliation. The subject of Exploring the Spirituality of the World Religions: The
Quest for Personal, Spiritual, and Social Transformation is timely and germane. The
starting point is that the world is religious, and in some cases more religious than it has
ever been, and that religious beliefs and practices shape the values and behavior of not
only individuals, but also large groups of people in associations (al Qaeda) and nation
states (the United States). Perhaps religion is the missing dimension of peace-seeking.
The book opens with an analysis of our context and what sort of spirituality is
especially appropriate for our time and place in history. There will be a description of
several characteristics of our time with an emphasis on the rapidity and profundity of
change and its impact on the religious and spiritual pathways that are emerging.
Following the description of the context will be an introduction to the nature of the
spiritual quest and an attempt to provide a common universe of discourse. There will
be a discussion of the meaning of religion and spirituality and the many ways that
human beings seek to find and sustain a spiritual center.
The next sections begin the discussion of several of the major religious traditions
of the human family. These religious traditions are separated into three categories for
clarity and convenience, although such classification runs the risk of
oversimplification and even distortion. The risk will be worth it if the discussion does
provide more clarity and a deeper understanding. The three groups are: spiritual
pathways rooted in nature and culture; spiritual pathways rooted in transcendent
monism; and spiritual pathways rooted in the Abrahamic monotheistic religions of
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The core beliefs and practices of each of these
religious traditions will be described briefly, and an effort will be made to distill the
soul or spirit of the religion. Then the religious traditions will be examined with
regard to their life-giving or life-denying characteristics. Finally there will be an
assessment of the potential of the spiritual pathways of these traditions to lead honest
seekers to understand and respect other religious traditions.
The final section of the book will address the way that contemporary pilgrims
might pursue a healthy and life-giving spirituality. We will affirm the positive qualities
of the many spiritual pathways of the great religions of the world.
There will be study questions, a glossary, and brief bibliography at the close of
each chapter.
I am grateful to many for their assistance in preparing the manuscript. I am
especially grateful to Vickie Drebing for her editing and formatting.
Part I
The Content and Approach to the Study of
This section addresses the ever-changing character of our world and places the
resurgence of religious energy and the growing interest in spirituality within this frame
of reference. Given the mixed character of this revival of religion world-wide,
categories of assessment are introduced. There are suggested ways of finding common
language and categories for this high-octane religious fervor in the hope that bridges
might be built between conflicting religious groups.
The world is becoming smaller and smaller. Nations are far more
interdependent than before. Our generation has reached the threshold of a
new era of human history: the birth of a global family. Whether we like it or
not, all the members of our vast and varied human family have to learn to
live together somehow. We need to develop a great sense of universal
responsibility, on both the individual and collective level.1
The Spiritual Quest
Chapter Outline
Living east of Eden
Finding a spiritual pathway
An approach to spirituality
Living east of Eden
In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden,2 we read about several generations of two families,
and how each generation copes with the changing circumstances and complex
challenges of the farmland of California’s Salinas Valley. As one generation ages, they
look back on how life used to be, a time that seemed easier, safer, and more secure. As
a new generation comes along, they see the new order as the way the world is, but
soon they too find themselves struggling to manage new and unfamiliar trends in the
world around them. There is conflict, confusion, misunderstanding, and Cain and Abel
cannot find their way through the mist. Each generation finds it difficult to live east of
Eden and looks back to simpler times when life seemed to be more like it was in the
Garden. The tectonic plates have shifted and are shifting, and the continents are in
different places.
I think of my spiritual pathway in an analogous way, having come to faith in the
Eisenhower era, and now finding my way at the end the first decade of the twenty-first
century. There are moments when I think my home continent has shifted and moved
east of Eden. This observation is certainly true in regard to my faith journey; I know
that my innocence has gone as I have eaten from the tree of knowledge, passed
through the world of the critical historical study of scripture, the give and take of
rigorous theological debate, and immersed myself in the thoughts and patterns of the
various religions of the world. Simplistic faith is no longer an option, although simple
faith remains an ideal. My mentors now seem altogether human, frail, with faults, and
less than omniscient. Along the way, I lost my heroes and heroines, but gained some
friends who share my human limitations. Even my faith community became
problematic. I discovered that it had pockets of vested interest, even dishonesty, was
led by people who were occasionally short-sighted and lacked vision, and who were
not only slow to make decisions, but also didn’t always make the right ones. They
didn’t even appreciate my criticisms. In short, it was a human community, this church
that was my home. It, too, faced the seismic changes, lived on a fault line, and felt the
shift of its ground moving east of its comfort zone.
To live east of Eden is to live in a postmodern moment,3 a time when so much of
the culture and technology of our political and intellectual landscape is fading away.
The geography has changed on this new continent. The modern zeitgeist has been
deconstructed and very little fills its place as we struggle to erect new beams and
buttresses, peer through new lenses, and attempt to create new paradigms. For more
than a century and perhaps as many as three centuries, we have lived and been
educated in modernity, and the modern is a hard act to follow. Now we face what is to
follow, a new era for which there is no compelling and descriptive name. We speak
about pre-this and post-that and even define our time via negativa (what we are not).
Philosophers speak of postfoundationalism, the trend to call into question the search
since Descartes for a method that would provide indubitable truth claims to serve as
the foundation for human knowledge and action. Postmodernism, rooted in the arts
and humanities, has come to represent a movement that celebrates the loss of
unambiguous meaning. All truth claims are tainted by historical, cultural, and personal
perspectives. Now one wonders if postmodernism has run its course and perhaps even
run aground with its pluralistic relativism and epistemological reductionism. There is
the alternative point of view that truth comes in many forms, and that the assertion that
there can be no absolute claims to truth that do not need deconstruction is overstated.
What remains is an open market for ideas with few or none carrying the labels of
absolute or ultimate.4
Such a time presents a challenge to those seeking a spiritual pathway and center
because so many of the options available are linked to a modern world-view, and even
more to a pre-modern worldview. As the modern worldview collapses, we feel our
spiritual center threatened, nailed as it is to the framework of pre-modernity and
modernity and convictions about absolute and ultimate truth.
To live east of Eden is to live in a global age, one in which all distances have
shrunk and connections between peoples from every corner of the world are direct.5
The dramatic shifts in our economic structures, the new map of geopolitics, and the
omnipresence of information technology underline the global character of our
existence. The expanding economies of China and India, the conflicts in Iraq and the
Middle East, the draught and disease in Africa, and our direct communication with
those in other parts of the world through cyberspace have direct implications for us.
Who, in my grandparents’ generation, would have guessed that our financial wellbeing and way of life would be so tied to the economies of Asia and the oil of the
Middle East? Who would have predicted one of the world’s dominant ideologies
would crumble and nearly disappear with the demise of the USSR, and that the United
States would ascend to the highest rung of global influence and be the one true
superpower in the world (although threatened in this status)? Who would have guessed
that the way we teach, learn, gather information, and communicate around the world
would be so inextricably tied to digital processes? The global character of our world
forces us to review our faith commitments and our spiritual pathways as we interact
with others, the stranger, whose points of view and faith positions are quite different
from our own and held with equal sincerity.
It follows that to live east of Eden is to live in a pluralistic, multicultural world,
one that requires us to learn how to live with those whose culture, language, customs,
beliefs, and values are very different from our own. And these strangers are our
neighbors6 and, in a very real way, all of the world’s peoples …
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