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October 17, 2010: “World Religions: UN Sunday”

The great novelist who was raised by missionary parents in China, Pearl Buck once shared a story that she remembered: ‘I remember as a child hearing my impatient missionary father as he explained to an elderly Chinese gentleman, ‘Does it mean nothing to you that if you reject Christ you will burn in hell?’

        The Chinese gentleman smiled as he replied, 'If, as you say, my ancestors are all in hell at this moment, it would be unfilial of me not to be willing to suffer with them.'

        The religious and philosophical writer Alan Watts, who started out as an Anglican priest tells of the Archbishop of Dublin who was reported to have said of the Church: 'You may persecute us; we are quite used to that. You may argue with us and attack us; we know very well how to handle ourselves. But one thing we will not tolerate is that you should explain us.'

        Then Watts says something that I strongly believe: '...Humor is the transformation of anxiety into laughter: the same trembling, but with a different meaning. Holy humor is the discovery of the ultimate joke on oneself, and this is why Dante heard the song of the angels as the laughter of the universe.' Beware, I say, of any religion that takes itself too seriously!

        There are no societies without religion of some form or another; history shows us no culture without a religious dimension, so it can be safely said that religion is timeless and universal. That said, we must then ask if there is one religion that is more true or more enlightened than any other. Is there a religion with a monopoly on salvation? Or truth?  How may religions are there? How did they begin, evolve, and in some cases we ask why they seemed to have disappeared, like Zoroastrianism, even though the Parsis of Iraq and other Middle -Eastern countries are their descendants. Of course, in this country, especially in the White Anglo Saxon Protestant or Catholic Culture, the correct answer is supposed to be the uniqueness of Christianity, that there is no salvation outside of the church, says Catholicism, or the traditional Protestant belief that only through accepting Christ as our savior can we be saved. Remember these are over generalizations, and there are many exceptions of good Christians studying the world religions and gaining wisdom from them which then enhanced their Christianity.

        As the world seems to shrink because of the progress of instant communication, we are bumping into religions and/or religious systems which we either don't understand or we misunderstand them, quickly stereotyping the follower of Islam as a Fundamentalist Moslem terrorists. Like the fact during W.W.II. that we interred Americans of Asian ancestry, but not Americans of German ancestry. Why? Perhaps because the people of German origin looked just like the rest of us white anglo-saxons, the mixed blood and heritage of northern Europe.

        We celebrate United Nations Sunday today and I chose to talk about religions of the world rather than politics, though, I will argue they are interrelated if not the same thing these days! Perhaps WW II and all the horrors that surrounded it could have been avoided if the world have come together after the First World War, that supposed war to end all wars and signed the League of Nations that our President Woodrow Wilson encouraged, but our Congress turned down. I wonder if any of them ever thought of what that vote might have cost in human life and suffering?

        I read in the news on Friday that the President of Iran was on the Border of Israel talking to Hamas, encouraging the destruction of Israel, of wiping them off the face of the earth. and I wondered how a leader of a country in this civilized day and age could call for a nations destruction? And how much it sounded like Germany just before W.W.II.  It is still about religion, just a different enemy hating the Jews. And where is God in all this?

        So why study the religions of the world? Karen Armstrong, formally a Roman Catholic nun became more of a religious historian and now best selling author and teaches the history of religion in a rabbinical seminary. Her book, The History of God, presents a history of religion in a different way, but one which seemed to speak to me as a Unitarian Universalist religious searcher: '... my study of the history of religion,'  she writes, 'has revealed that human beings are spiritual animals. Indeed, there is a case for arguing that Homo sapiens is also Homo religious. Men and women started to worship gods as soon as they became recognizably human; they created religions at the same time as they created works of art. This was not simply because they wanted to propitiate powerful forces; these early faiths expressed the wonder and mystery that seem always to have been an essential component of the human experience of this beautiful yet terrifying world. Like art, religion has been an attempt to find meaning and value in life, despite the suffering that flesh is heir to. Like any other human activity, religion can be abused, but it seems to have been something that we have always done. It was not tacked on to a primordially secular nature by manipulative kings and priests but was natural to humanity.' She has now become one of the most popular spokespersons for popular world religion authorities and will be a keynote speaker at the General Assembly this year which I'm encouraging members to attend; it will be celebrating our 50th anniversary as a merged denomination. In her later book, The Battle for God, originally written in 2000, just before the attack on the Twin Towers, she writes in depth about modern Fundamentalism in Christianity, Judaism, and Christianity, and indeed, one could almost predict that the Islamic fundamentalists would make some kind of attack, and the emphasis here is fundamentalists, not Islamic.

        I hope to talk more about the world religions in the course of this year; and last year I led an adult religious education course on that subject. How many religions are there? Perhaps we could answer- 'as 

many stars in the sky.’ First, of course we must discuss what the word religion means.

        Unitarian minister, seminary professor, and finally Dean of Harvard Divinity School (1878-1900), Charles Everett (1829-1900), said: 'Religion is the feeling toward a spiritual Presence manifesting itself in Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, especially as illustrated in the life and teaching of Jesus and as expressed in every soul that is open to its influence.'

        Religions are NOT all the same. The Dalai Lama writes: 'Every major religion of the world has similar ideas of love, the same goal of benefitting humanity through spiritual practice, and the same effect of making their followers into better human beings.'

Some dictionary definitions- “Religion:

  • Relation of human beings to God or the gods or to whatever they consider sacred or, in some cases, merely supernatural.” Britannica Concise Encyclopedia (online, 2006)
  • Human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, or divine.” Encyclop’dia Britannica (online, 2006) Contemporary religious Sociologist, Peter Berger, “Religion is the human attitude towards a sacred order that includes within it all being, human or otherwise, i.e., belief in a cosmos, the meaning of which both includes and transcends man.” Contemporary religious Sociologist, Robert Bellah “…for limited purposes only, let me define religion as a set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence.” Sociologist, Emile Durkheim, “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”

Mark Twain, ‘Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes and wishes he was certain of.”

Napoleon Bonaparte, “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet.”

Inventor, Thomas Edison,”Religion is all bunk.”

        Though our sense of religious reality does differ from the ancient beliefs and superstitions of our ancestors, we still find the remnants as the Atheist who swears by a deity that is nonexistent, or indeed by those of us who still, 'knock on wood,' for luck, or utilize the numbers on our fortune cookie to play the lottery.

        I think we need to learn about the world's religions for many reasons, but certainly just to understand the world itself in both political and religious terms, especially with the ethnic violence in the world in today's news.

        Former Jesuit John Dominic Crossan, one of the liberal Christian academics who are trying to redefine the history and interpretation of Christianity, in a movement called the Jesus Seminar, says: 'I see religions as very much like languages. English and Russian are equally valid languages, equally valid to express whatever they want to express. I see--whether Christians like it or not, whether I as a Christian like it or not, or whether Muslims like it or not--that religions are equally valid ways of experiencing the Holy.

        But they're also equally particular, just like a language. The fact that I speak English and I know that Russian is just as good as English doesn't help me. English is me; Russian isn't. So Christianity is my particular mode of experiencing the Holy.

        Do people need saving? Do the world and the cosmos need salvation? Yes.' --From 'The Orthodox Unorthodoxy of John Dominic Crossan: An Interview' by James Halstead in 'Cross Currents: The Journal of the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life'

        Perhaps that salvation, however we want to interpret that word for ourselves, can actually be found by the enlightenment of our souls from a new religious insight or practice, a new way of understanding either the God we accept or the God we reject. We might also gain wisdom and a better self-understanding of what it is we do believe, and how our beliefs may continue to evolve. The studying of the world's religions can also be inspirational, spiritual, and yes even intellectual. We need to expand our horizons so that we may better understand the world and even ourselves.

         One of the great names in World Religion study was the late Mircea Eliade who became a Unitarian Universalist when he became enlightened: 'Continuous reading,' he writes, 'reveals above all the fundamental unity of religious phenomena and at the same time the inexhaustible newness of their expressions....

…For the historian of religions, every manifestation of the sacred is important: every rite, every myth, every belief or divine figure reflects the experience of the sacred and hence implies the notions of being, of meaning, of truth.’

        'Religion alive,' writes the well-known historian of religion Huston Smith in his book entitle The World's Religions, formerly titled The Religions of Man, 'confronts the individual with the most momentous option life can present. It calls the soul to the highest adventure it can undertake, a projected journey across the jungles, peaks, and deserts of the human spirit. The call is to confront reality, to master the self. Those who dare to hear and follow that secret call soon learn the dangers and difficulties of its lonely journey ' 'the sharp edge of a razor, hard to traverse/A difficult path is this, the poets declare . . . .'

        And the great historian Toynbee asked; and answered: 'Who are the greatest benefactors of the living generation of mankind?  Confucius and Laotze, the Buddha, the Prophets of Israel and Judah, Zoroaster, Jesus, Mohammed, and Socrates. The answer should not surprise, for authentic religion is the clearest opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human life.'

        In modern Western thought, Christians were the first writers to divide the world into "world religions" . Originally, there were only three -Christians, Jews and pagans (i.e., everybody else).

From Google information-World religions and estimated number of adherents:

Christianity: 2.1 billion

Islam: 1.5 billion

Secular/Non religious/Agnostic/Atheist: 1.1 billion

Hinduism: 900 million

Chinese traditional religion: 394 million

Buddhism: 376 million

primal-indigenous: 300 million

African Traditional & Diasporic: 100 million

Sikhism: 23 million

Juche: 19 million N Korea Self reliance “man is the master of everything and decides everything.”

Spiritism: 15 million

Judaism: 14 million

Baha’i: 7 million

Jainism: 4.2 million

Shinto: 4 million

Cao Dai: 4 million Vietnamese Theistic Syncretistic Religion 1926

Zoroastrianism: 2.6 million

Tenrikyo: 2 million Japanese Joyous Life founded by woman, Oyasama

Neo-Paganism: 1 million

Unitarian Universalism: 800 thousand (Which is strange when you think that our count is closer to 250,000! So where are the rest of them? We’ve got to go out and find them, and bring them in!)

Rastafarianism: 600 thousand

Scientology: 500 thousand

The Classical World Religions List (12) Baha’i/Buddhism/Christianity/Confucianism/Hinduism/Islam/ Jainism Judaism/Shinto/ Sikhism/ Taoism/Zoroastrianism

        And often one speaks of the 5 major religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism.

        Stephan Prothero, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter, lists these:  Islam/Christianity/Confucianism/Hinduism/Buddhism/Yoruba Religion/Judaism/Daoism/ and includes Atheism

Islam: the problem is pride / the solution is submission
Christianity: the problem is sin / the solution is salvation
Confucianism: the problem is chaos / the solution is social order
Buddhism: the problem is suffering / the solution is awakening
Judaism: the problem is exile / the solution is to return to God

        We study the religions of the world because it is part of our religious journey, our pilgrimage on the road to truth and meaning. We want to balance the ancient and the right now; we will leave no stone unturned in our quest for religious understanding of history, of the universe, of the vastness even of our selves.

        The religions of the world are but many different paths through life, perhaps even afterlife. So we search the scriptures of the world; we used to publish 'the World Bible,' which was just that exercise.  Readings from the major religions are found there, but now we realize that the so-called minor religions affect as many if not more of the major religions. Ancestor worship, animism, earth- centered Native American and ancient so-called pagan worship from around the globe continues to be a religion of millions. Perhaps each religion of the world is a cosmic puzzle piece, which we need to fit into the scheme of things, into being fully conscious of our religious connection, our interdependence with each other, and with the world.

        We all come out of a culture, a family, a religion, perhaps, though many people are now being raised with no religion at all, or even worse, with a prejudice against religion in general taught to them by their disillusioned parents. Though I believe that the world religions all have wisdom, they also have their orthodox side which attempts to limit the freedom of thought and religious exploration that we encourage. Orthodox religion in general is quite different from unorthodoxy in its many and sometimes playful approaches, yet some folks have their lives saved by orthodoxy and we must try to learn from them as well.

        The mysteries of birth, of living through age-appropriate milestones, of relationship, of finding comfort and strength and protection, and then finally of death is all part of religion, of world religions to cultural religions, to individual religions. How shall we face life? Who shall we love? How shall we love? What is important to us?How shall we believe, live, die? What happens to the essential us when our husk, the body, dies?  What does it all mean, anyway? How have people survived, perhaps even prospered in the past?  What is our religious history?

        Stephan Prothero writes: "I too hope for a world in which human beings can get along with their religious rivals. I am convinced, however, that we need to pursue this goal through new means. Rather than beginning with the sort of Godthink that lumps all religions together in one trash can or treasure chest, we must start with a clear-eyed understanding of the fundamental differences in both belief and practice between Islam and Christianity, Confucianism and Hinduism."

        Beyond the words, beyond intellectual limitations and defensiveness or denial, beyond love and hate and all misunderstanding, beyond physical and mental health, beyond difference in culture, sexual orientation, race, economics, gender, learning, physical or mental disability, is that transcendent, yet imminent Holy Spirit of life, love, and happiness called by many names.  Some day we all shall die and we shall have our lives summed up by someone else, perhaps at a memorial service, where folks will speak of who we most truly were, of how we lived the religion of our souls. May they speak well of us and describe us as a loving person who loved life and laughter, and helped make the world a little better than when we came.

Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist, who I like to describe as one of our patron saints, Ralph Waldo Emerson, defines religion very simply, but I think profoundly: “Religion is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble.” Let us do likewise


Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum (may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity with me greets the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. ‘Vaya con Dios’ is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is ‘Go with God,’ So I adapted it to say ‘Vaya Con Su Dios,’ ‘Go with your idea or interpretation of God.’

Peace, Love, Shalom, Salaam, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con su Dios

Opening Words

FIFTY AFFIRMATIONS From the Free Religious Association 1860s ‘Religion’

(1) Religion is the effort of man (humankind) to perfect himself (oneself).
(2) The root of religion is universal human nature.
(3) Historical religions are all one, in virtue of this one common root.
(4) Historical religions are all different, in virtue of their different historical origin and development.
(5) Every historical religion has thus two distinct elements, — one universal or spiritual, and the other special or historical.
(6) The universal element is the same in all historical religions; the special element is peculiar in each of them.
(7) The universal and the special elements are equally essential to the existence of an historical religion.
(8) The unity of all religions must be sought in their universal element.
(9) The peculiar character of each religion must be sought in its special element.
(35) Free Religion is emancipation from the outward law, and voluntary obedience to the inward law.
(39) The great law of Free Religion is the still, small voice of the private soul.
(40) The great peace of Free Religion is spiritual oneness with the infinite One.
(41) Free Religion is the natural outcome of every historical religion– the final unity, therefore, towards which all historical religions slowly tend.