flowers in forestThomas Guthrie described the difference between the Bible and theology using floral imagery.  He compared the formal organization of catechisms and confessions to the organized rows of flowers you would find in a botanical garden and the Bible to a walk through the woods where one can spot the various plants here or there in a haphazard fashion.[1]  (Linked full on bottom of page.Alister McGrath elaborated on the comparison, arguing the arrangement of flowers by species in the botanical garden helps one study each species more easily.  The garden (theology) is not an end in itself, however, but a tool to help one better clarify similarities and differences between species and more easily recognize and enjoy flowers encountered in the wild (the Bible).[2]

botanical gardenAfter two weeks of readings. lectures, and discussions in the World Religions and World Religions Discourse summer institute funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, I would propose a new way forward in the study of world religions using a modified application of Guthrie’s analogy.  A problem with most textbooks is that they present the religious traditions primarily in a botanical garden format.  This helps the student study “the Hindu” or “the Buddhist,” but it creates the impression that the rows of separated, differentiated species (“Hinduism” or “Buddhism”) are the “real world” (Hindus or Buddhists) and not simply a tool for better encountering the real world.  In the real world, life is messy and disjointed.  It isn’t a garden but a forest, sometimes overgrown and wild.  Often the chapters attempt to show the “wild side” of the religions, but students get lost in the weeds of too many historical facts or confused how a described but detached practice or movement actually connects to the lived tradition.

But what if we gathered up these lost students out of the forest, took them to a botanical garden for a fairly quick tour to gain some working reference points, then took them back to the forest for a guided tour of the same flowers in their natural habitat?  Would that give them a better understanding of the forest (the actual lived religions)?  What if, after the forest exploration we then introduced the students to a second type of artificial encounter with the flora, not the striated rows of different species in the botanical garden but variegated groupings carefully selected and arranged?  bouquetWould these bouquets (topical discussions) give the students yet a greater appreciation of the beauty and diversity of the flora encountered in the forest when left on their own?

A course following this threefold concept (with intro and conclusion) would do the following:

  • Lost in the Woods: Introduction to the study of religions.
  • Touring the Garden: The first part of the study would introduce students to some basic worldview concepts and practices of each religion, so that they have a basic concept of what a Hindu “is” in relation to a Buddhist.
  • Exploring the Forest: The middle part of the study would provide a historical discussion from the ancient past to the present, giving students a taste of how religions develop and change over time. What is the impact of cultural changes, historical events, political policies, or interaction with other religious traditions?
  • Picking Bouquets: The final section of the study would then help students consider some similarities and differences among the religions by talking about selected topics, such as missionary encounters, government responses, violence, or mysticism. The method would delve into selected events, writings, or lives across traditions.
  • At Home in the Wild: Closing reflections from a Christian perspective.

I would love to hear feedback on such a rearrangement of the subject.  While no format is perfect, I think such an arrangement would help students gain a greater appreciation for the variety of faiths and practices.  Is there something I am missing, need to remove, or rearrange?  Or am I missing the forest for all of the trees?

[1]Thomas Guthrie, Gems of Illustration from the Sermons and Other Writings of Thomas Guthrie (New York: Funk & Wagnall, 1882), 42, accessed July 25, 2017,

[2]McGrath, Studies in Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 249.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

2 thoughts on “Revising the World Religions Course

  1. As a high school student, I also studied world religions from a ‘botanical garden’ format. I agree that it’s unsatisfactory, but does it not also lessen the confusion that students unfamiliar with any of the religions may have?


    1. I agree that it lessens confusion. That’s why I suggest a first section that introduces concepts/terms . . . the “garden tour” . . . before the historical discussion. This was something I discovered after reading *Meta-Religion* by James Laine. He does a good job discussing the historical development but a student wouldn’t understand the terms that suddenly pop up.

      The concern I have is that current texts don’t help students understand WHY such diversity exists in Buddhism, for instance, or the Christian and Jain influence on Gandhi’s non-violent revolt.


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