A challenge from a reader who knows that I've taught for eight years a University of Texas course on major world religions: "Could you explain in a column how you do that in one term at a state university?" Hmm-how about explaining the Torah while standing on one foot? But here goes.
First, we start with what's basic-How is the universe/the earth/life/human life here?-and then work through four questions: TC or ID? G or F? B or Q? C or L?
Q1: TC or ID? Everything came about through time plus chance, to use Francis Schaeffer's term, or everything came about through intelligent design of some kind (old earth creationist, young earth creationist, "guided evolution," Hindu/ Buddhist concepts, etc.). Fewer than 10 percent of people worldwide are atheists, according to adherents.com. Others see intelligence of some kind behind the universe and everything in it. (Of course, the majority could be wrong.)
Q2: F or G? Is the intelligent design a product of an impersonal Force of some kind, as Hindus/Buddhists (20 percent of the world's population) believe, or is it the creation of a God with personality and the ability to communicate? Adherents.com estimates that 54 percent of the world's people adhere (many very loosely or quirkily) to one or the other of two popular understandings, Christianity or Islam.
(This means that close to 4.9 billion human beings-3/4 of the world's population-are connected in some way to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. The remaining non-atheists among the world's people tend to be loosely deistic, polytheistic, or animistic.)
Q3: For the 54 percent, B or Q? Maybe 2.1 billion people adhere in some way (often loosely) to the Bible, and 1.3 billion to Islam. It's vital in today's war-torn world to know the radically different conceptions of God and Allah that the two religions proffer. For example, Islam does have Christ as one of 25 messengers from God, but that's very different from considering Him the fulcrum of history.
(My course also includes Judaism, even though the worldwide Jewish population is only about 15 million, merely a drop in the religious ocean-but an enormously influential drop in the United States, where Jews comprise 13 percent of the U.S. Senate and 22 percent of the Supreme Court, not to mention Spielberg and Seinfeld.)
Q4: C or L, theologically conservative or theologically liberal? The simplest way to hash this out: Do you think that the Scripture to which you are connected tells you the story by which you are to live your life, or does it give you some general principles from long ago that, given changed conditions, are probably no longer valid?
We look at Catholic/ Protestant/Orthodox divisions in Christianity and Sunni/Shia/Sufi divides in Islam, but note that the C or L question cuts across and within groups. In Islam, for example, 85 percent of Muslims are Sunnis, but that doesn't tell you much about how they live. It's more important to find out whether they are Hanafi (the most liberal Sunni school of thought), Hanbali (the most conservative), or one of the two schools in between.
The key divide within broadly defined Christianity is whether the biblical accounts are historically accurate or mythical. The apostle Paul told Corinthian believers that "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and . . . we are of all people most to be pitied." Positions on issues also depend on how we read the Bible: On abortion, for example, we need to know whether God desires the protection of all innocent human life, or whether in a modern society abortion is acceptable.
I explain that the conservative/liberal divide cuts across denominations: In Protestantism, for example, names like Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Congregational largely refer to methods of church organization, but the organization charts are less important than beliefs. In understanding religions it's the thought, not the visible surface, that truly counts.
TC or ID? G or F? B or Q? C or L? I tell students to keep these basic divisions in mind as we spend only three weeks on each major religion, barely scratching the surface. They still won't know much as they walk the aisles of our religious supermarket and see hundreds of different brands, but at least they'll know the basic food groups.