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This book explains religions; therefore, it is suited for inquirers who are religious, anti-religious, or nonreligious. But it is also right for the undecided, agnostic explorer — whose intellectual curiosity has brought him to raise deeper questions about his place in the world. What questions? What do the religions say about the possibility of an afterlife? If there is an afterlife, will a person live on in a spiritual form or some other different bodily nature?

Religion can hold our interest in the manner that history or a study of cultures does. But it is also practical, since it offers the promise of bringing shape to our lives and laying out a path for living. Some of the ideas in religion are great and unblemished, even if people do not always live by them.

You don't have to embrace all the religions, any one specifically, or any combination of them in order to be curious about them. Even without participating in a religion, there are inherently interesting metaphysical and moral tenets for each of them. So, you don't need to be a Hindu at the end of your life to find the notion of spiritual liberation attractive. Then, too, you don't need to go to the extremes the Jains do in their asceticism or go as far in practicing ahimsa (or noninjury) toward all living things in order to respect their moral commitment. Likewise, you don't need to subscribe to each and every tenet of Lutheranism in order to understand — even feel — Martin Luther's furious objections to the corrupt practices of the church in the early sixteenth century.

Aside from the historical and intellectual curiosity that religion can arouse in us, who wouldn't find interest in the mystical explorations of the Carmelite nun St. Teresa of Avila, longing to make a personal contact with a god? And what of the peyotism of Native Americans who, after taking the hallucinogenic, found that it aided and abetted their own spiritual experience of nature? The aphoristic wisdom of Confucius, with his pith and counsels of humility and filial piety, rounds out our ethical understanding.

Finally, there are special passages revealing the uncanny moral insight of Christ. Perhaps the most revealing is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke, 10:25–37). The context of the parable is a man asking Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him, “What is written in the Law?” The man replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus acknowledged his correct answer and said, “Do this and you will live.” The man wanted further clarification: “and who is my neighbor teacher?' At this point Jesus related the story of a man robbed, beaten, and left for dead. A priest passed him by without tending to him. A Levite ignored him, too. But a Samaritan saw him and took pity. He bandaged his wounds, took him to an inn, and paid the innkeeper to look after him, promising to reimburse him for any extra expense. Jesus asked, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The man said, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus instructed him, “Go and do likewise.”

What makes the parable especially brilliant on a moral level is that it broadens the moral requirement. It expresses a positive command: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” In short, it is not enough to simply not do others harm, as the priest and Levite did. It is in the nature of love to do more, to better the condition of our neighbors.

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  2. World Religions
  3. Introduction
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