When does the Jewish Sabbath begin? Who are Vishnu and Shiva? What are Buddhism's Four Noble Truths? What are the Five Pillars of Islam? These questions are more than an academic exercise. Religious belief has been innate to humans everywhere and in every age, from the time of the Neanderthals to the 21st century. It's also one of the strongest motivators of human behavior and has a profound impact on all aspects of our culture—our spiritual beliefs, our rituals, our politics, and the very foundations of our democracy.
Unfortunately, the majority of Americans fail basic tests about religion, including their own faith, according to polls conducted by Gallup and the Pew Research Forum. This is troublesome, because religious literacy is about so much more than naming deities or knowing the stories of ancient history. A basic understanding of religion is crucial for today's educated citizen for several reasons:
- For many of us, religion is important for examining and understanding ourselves.
- Religion and the interactions between different faiths play a critical role in many of today's current events.
- The world is increasingly diverse and interconnected, and most of us have close friends, relatives, and neighbors of different faiths.
For many of us, religion is a powerful cultural identifier and impacts our everyday expression of ourselves. Religious literacy—the knowledge of basic teachings, symbols, practices, founders, institutions, and values of the world's religious traditions—can shed new light on the world around us and knock down the boundaries between us, making us better neighbors and better citizens.
Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know is your chance to experience the breadth and depth of the world's religions from all angles—historical, theological, and cultural. Over the course of 24 engaging lectures, award-winning Professor Mark Berkson of Hamline University takes you on a tour of our world and its religious cultures. From India to East Asia to the Middle East to the United States, your journey will introduce you to the beliefs, symbols, and practices of other traditions, and it will provide you with new insights into your own.
Whereas many courses are a survey of the world's major religions, this course goes a step further to ground you in the cultures surrounding both larger and smaller traditions, giving you a new understanding of how religion informs our everyday lives, from art and music to laws and civic engagement. Furthermore, by studying these cultures and traditions, you'll find new ways to attain greater self-understanding. The examined life is uniquely human, and studying other traditions will offer you new approaches to questions such as, Where do we come from? What is God? What happens when we die?
Experience the Breadth and Depth of the World's Religions
Many stories in the news today, whether set in the Middle East or your own home town, have a religious dimension. This course will provide the context for current events by examining the breadth of the world's religions. You'll start by asking some basic questions: What is religion? And why does it matter? Then you'll tour the world, exploring each religion systematically and comparatively.
You'll learn about such fascinating topics as
- the Hindu pantheon of deities, including Vishnu and his avatars;
- Siddhartha Gautama's journey to spiritual enlightenment;
- the Five Pillars of Islam;
- the ideal society according to Confucius;
- the basic distinctions between different denominations of Christianity;
- the variety of Jewish holidays; and
- smaller, but influential, religious traditions, including Jainism, Sikhism, and the Baha'i faith.
By studying the breadth of religion, you'll come to discover certain features that are common to many religions—concepts of divinity, scripture, rituals, and explanations of good and evil. You'll learn that not every religion shares every characteristic, but you'll be intrigued to discover the sometimes surprising commonalities that exist among these traditions.
You'll enjoy learning about very real differences among religions—and how these differences are connected to the larger cultural landscape. For instance, you'll explore the fascinating interplay between the Confucian focus on cooperation and capitalism's focus on competition. You'll also learn about the ancient roots of various faiths (such as the Vedic account of the world's creation and the origins of the Hindu social hierarchy) and new developments in certain traditions (such as hybrid religious identities like Zen-Christians and Buddhist-Jews).
Finally, your journey will explore religion in the world today. You'll examine the relationship between religion and law in the United States, specifically the establishment and free exercise clauses in the Constitution. And since religion is a moving target, always in flux, Professor Berkson takes time to consider current demographic trends, such as the tendency for Americans to identify as "spiritual" but not "religious," along with the rise of non-denominational Christians. The course concludes by considering the relationship between religion and violence—and how religion can be both the cause and the cure.
The Ideal Cultural Guide
Professor Berkson approaches each religion from an "imaginative insider's perspective." What does the world look like from the perspective of someone within each tradition? What does this person value and care about? What are the everyday scriptures, rituals, traditions, and holidays like?
Through this voyage, Professor Berkson is the ideal cultural guide. He has traveled widely, lived in China, and has participated in the rituals of many religious traditions. He says up front that he wants the course to be a catalyst for further study, and his firsthand experience takes you deeply inside each religion so you can experience it like one of its members. You'll learn, for instance, what to expect if you visit a Buddhist temple or are invited into the home of a Muslim.
Additionally, he quotes liberally from the world's sacred texts, offering you a true flavor of what each religion has to offer. You'll appreciate the beautiful poetry of the Muslim call to prayer or the chant of the Hare Krishnas. His approach is one of humility, one that values "beginner's mind,"which allows you to experience each religion with openness and provides you with an appreciative look at other traditions and a fresh look at your own.
When you complete your journey, you'll have received a wonderful gift: a new appreciation for the world you live in. Religion is a vibrant, living part of your world today, and with this course, you'll take the first steps toward greater cultural understanding—and greater self-understanding.