Revising the World Religions Course

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.

Christian living

Reflections on courage: Observations from Benedict’s resignation

Courageous.  I have read and heard this term numerous times on television and in print during the past week to describe the decision of Benedict XVI to resign as pope of the Roman Catholic Church at the end of February.  Perhaps they are viewing the decision from the perspective of the world’s definition of power.  If you think power is something to be grasped rather than to become the servant of all, then perhaps the term “courageous” is justified.  The Bishop of Rome is one of the most influential people in the world and some cannot comprehend how Benedict could give up that kind of power.

Benedict said in the past that he would abdicate the See of Peter if his physical and/or mental capabilities no longer enabled him to perform the duties of that position.  Faithful to his word, he has elected to step down as his health appears to be waning.  “Courageous” to relinquish such power and responsibility?  Benedict is said to be the “Vicar of Christ.”  So if Jesus defined messiahship (i.e., Christhood) in terms of a suffering servant when the world around him insisted it should be a conquering king, then courageous is the wrong adjective.  Faithful, honorable . . . certainly.  Even visionary, as Benedict actions set a precedent (or renews one?) to place the good of the Church above personal gain.

But courageous?  John Paul II, Benedict’s immediate predecessor, comes immediately to mind as more deserving of such a moniker.  Many who use the term “courage” of Benedict clearly have John Paul in mind.  They think John Paul was selfish or lacked vision when he continued in his papal duties even as his health declined in his final years.  But John Paul emphasized the sanctity and dignity of human life throughout his reign.  All human life, he emphasized, is created in the image of God and has equal worth to God as well as to those who bear the name of Jesus.  This worth extends to the unborn babe within the womb, to the mentally ill or disabled, and even to the physically disabled and the dying.  John Paul rejected abortion and euthanasia.  More importantly, he lived what he preached, demonstrating to the end the dignity of life.  Breaking with tradition, he lived out his final days in public so that we all might hear his message.  That is courageous!  Living what you preach.  Allowing us to see the frailty of life and the dignity by which he lived his final days, rather than receding into the shadows of private life as if the elderly have no worth.  I have noted this previously:

Many have observed the last pope to resign was Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415, almost six hundred years ago.  The prior century had been a turbulent time for the church.  Most of the fourteenth century found the Bishops of Rome residing in the south of France, until an angry mob surrounded a cardinal conclave and insisted an Italian pope be elected who would reside in Rome.  The cardinals complied, but almost immediately afterward declared a second man pope, claiming the first was illegitimately selected under duress.  For the next forty years, two men claimed the title pope.  A council in 1409, intending to resolve the issue, declared the two men deposed and elected yet a third man pope.  As neither “deposed” man recognized the council or its actions, this only exacerbated the issue.  Finally, a second council declared the popes who had reigned from Rome to be the legitimate popes.  All others were “anti-popes,” so Gregory XII was the legitimate leader of the Church.  At this recognition, Gregory chose to step down in order to put the entire embarrassing period to rest by allowing the cardinals to select a new pope, one unstained by the struggles of prior decades.

A church leader putting the unity of the Church–his denomination–ahead of his own vision for its future.  A man willing to give up personal power in order to empower others.  Here is an act of courage!  After decades of schism and political maneuvering, would that Baptists had ears to hear and eyes to see.