Similar Traditions

Posted on Posted in Academics, Theology

This is one in a series of papers that I wrote for either religion or philosophy classes.  These give a glimpse into some common debates and my perspectives on them at that time.

In his book “Religion in an Age of Science,” Ian Barbour begins by trying to map a structure for both science and religion.  In his opinion, religion relies on religious experiences, stories, and ritual as their data to find, much like in science, their own theories about the world and its existence.  This data becomes quite fascinating when one looks at exactly what makes up the stories that become religious theories.  In his writings, Barbour takes a look at how many religious stories have similar themes and gives us several examples of these themes acting on differing scales.

In his opening commentary, Barbour reminds us that religious traditions are something that are primarily transmitted through stories and their reenactment in rituals instead of through abstract concepts and doctrines.  A religion needs followers to survive, so by making beliefs more accessible to the common person, more people will be able to take part in it.  Interestingly, Barbour points out that many religious stories were initially the products of events and experiences that were later imaginatively interpreted.  When I read something like that point, it leaves me felling rather uncomfortable.  Given the common trait of humans to exaggerate on facts, one starts to question the validity of some scripture events.  There is a strong part of me that wants to know the exact truths of these events.  However, in the back of my mind there is also that stronger part of me that would probably choose to preserve the mystery so that my life could avoid the radical shift it would take if the truth were not what I wanted it to be.

Barbour lets me off the hook by choosing not to spend his time passing judgment on individual stories, but instead jumps into analyzing a couple of common main ideas in religious stories.  First, there are those stories that focus on the relationship of man to a “character of the cosmic order.”  These stories give us ways to map out our actions by providing exemplary patterns for us to follow.  Secondly, many religious stories focus on looking at the flaws of man such as sin and portraying how humans have a saving power that counterbalances the negative things that we do.  To an extent, documents like the Bible give us a sort of roadmap.  I find it interesting to look outside the scope of my own religion and realize that many of the world’s other religions have their own roadmaps too.  Unfortunately, my pride takes a hit because such revelations make me realize how of my own religion really isn’t as unique as I had though it was in respect to general guidelines for life.

Barbour next moves from a broad scope to a much smaller one by analyzing three central stories of Christianity.  He starts with the creation of the world and points out how the creation story gives humans shape to the world around us, allowing us to look at it in an orderly way.  God is seen as being free and having a purpose in his actions.  What I found interesting about this unique Christian story is that after I investigated further, I discovered that it wasn’t as unique as I had thought.  Like in the Bible, the Mayan people had their own stories of the water of the earth receding to reveal the land underneath.  The American Indians also had a similar story of rock appearing through the water-covered earth.  This is another instance where reading such similarities between other religions can further make one’s personal beliefs feel less unique.  It really makes me wonder how peoples located in such distant geographies picked up on such similar themes.

The second Christianity example that Barbour uses is The Covenant with Israel.  Moses’ exodus from Egypt is at the heart of Judaism but Christians also consider it very significant.  What is noted most interestingly is the fact that many details of the law given to the people at Mount Sinai came about centuries later.  Although the events originated in earlier historical events, what appears in the scriptures today is really an elaboration and interpretation of those events.  One has to wonder what the real truth is concerning what happened with The Covenant with Israel.  It is almost as thought later people came and painted over an old wall with a new coat of paint.  The wall is still there, but what was meant to be seen might have been distorted by what people at the time though was a great new paint job.

Barbour’s final example is at the very root of Christianity: The Life of Christ.  Christ is seen in the Christian church as a key figure, with everything from festivals such as Christmas and Easter and the taking of communion to commemorate his Last Supper.  When I was younger, I used to like to think that the idea of a messiah, delivering divine messages, was what separated the Christian religion from all others, giving us a unique identity.  Unfortunately, that was very naive thinking since the Muslim People focus on the teachings of Muhammad, who claimed to receive messages from God and built a religious empire from those claims.  I still believe in Jesus and his teachings, but realizing that there are other views out there makes me wonder how much more common the idea of a divine individual on earth really is in religion.  Just in the case of the Christians and Muslims, both religions have huge followings and in both instances their beliefs start at stories that, like for me, give basic structure to their respective lives.

Every once in a while, I read an article like Barbour’s that reminds me that at its most basic level, the Bible is really a collection of stories.  Such articles make me think about my own core beliefs.  My mind gets into little fits about what is fact or truth and how I should view religion.  Of course, I never really find an answer for myself.  However, that doesn’t discourage me from further debating with myself and in the future replaying those same arguments over in my mind.