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How do the major religions answer unanswerable questions? What can we gain from their answers? Why are we here? What is my purpose? Where do we go when we die? Will I be forgiven? Will we ever discover the source of the mystery? Each of these questions raises countless more.

God and Mankind: Comparative Religions by Professor Robert Oden is an ideal starting point for gaining some progress in considering these questions. And if you’ve been thinking about them for a while, as so many do, you will likely discover he has many fresh insights to offer you.

Professor Oden, who holds degrees in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and Theology, has taught at Harvard University and Dartmouth College over a long and exceptionally distinguished career as both teacher and college president.

His lectures approach religious belief and ritual as possible answers to these most difficult and enduring questions, which have occupied humanity from the beginning.

An Ideal Starting Point for Inquiry

The lectures underscore both the unity and the diversity of religious approaches to life in a sweeping conceptual grasp.

Professor Oden begins with a discussion of the nature and study of religion, distinguishing between religion as both a matter of faith and as an appropriate subject of intellectual and academic pursuit.

In addition to discussing the four traditional views of religion, Professor Oden proposes another: a system of communication.

This serves as a crucial conceptual framework for exploring the thoughts of Mircea Eliade, a historian of religion, philosopher, and professor at the University of Chicago, who proposed that the best way to understand religions is to examine their views of how the world came into being and how it operates on a daily basis.

How Do We Reconcile Suffering and a Benevolent Deity?

Professor Oden continues with an investigation of the problem of reconciling an all-powerful and benevolent deity with the suffering and evil that are part of human existence.

You will also look at the dynamics of religious communities in general and the impact of the Puritan religious tradition on America.

The introductory lecture lays out a framework for the study of religion, beginning with the “what” and “why” of the matter, and moving to how religions have been compared with history, science, psychology, and society.

You learn that for religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism that see the world as old, salvation comes by escaping from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. But Judaism and Christianity, however, see the world as relatively new, and the goal is to gain more chances at life, either collectively or individually.

Professor Oden addresses the centrality of myth in making sense of religious cosmologies, and he places special emphasis on the birth narratives of religious heroes, particularly the unusual circumstances surrounding their conception and birth.

Religious Heroes and Teachers in developing a framework for an extensive discussion of the ancient Sumerian myth, the Epic of Gilgamesh and its cosmological implications.

You explore the notion of the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, later expanded by the American anthropologist Victor Turner, that the rite of passage theme must be understood as central for religious cosmologies in general.

As with Gilgamesh, this lecture looks at the stories of Moses, Jesus, Krishna, and Gautama the Buddha, unearthing in each a key point that aptly reflects the cosmology of the religion in question.

Professor Oden goes into a systematic analysis of the “theodicy” problem, which is: How can an all-powerful and benevolent deity allow innocent people to suffer while often success and happiness seem to come to those who are evil? All world religions have attempted to deal with this dilemma—and five answers have been produced.

The discussion of theodicy continues by examining the most famous example in the Western religious tradition—the book of Job—and two of the main sources of Christian thinking on the topic, the Apostle Paul and the 16th-century Swiss theologian, John Calvin.

By way of comparison, Professor Oden also discusses the Hindu and Buddhist responses to the theodicy question, including the Hindu doctrines of karmic law and transmigration of souls, and the Buddhist teaching that life is suffering, with the only release an acceptance of the impermanence of the universe and everything in it.

Ritual, Sect, and Church

In examining ritual, Professor Oden places special emphasis on its nature, importance, and ramifications for the religious community, and then describes the dynamics of the development of two types of religious communities: sect and church.

Professor Oden moves from the comparative sociology of religion to what might be termed the religious nature of a particular society: the United States. Drawing on the work of the Harvard scholar Sacvan Bercovitch, the lecture addresses the American identity with reference to its Puritan origins.

Taking the theme of America and Americans being “God’s elect” and the parallels between America and ancient Israel, Professor Oden proposes an American civil religion whose themes include:

  • The “chosen” history of America
  • A strong notion of covenant, with America’s fate emblematic of the world’s
  • The idea that, in America, the ultimate sovereignty is not the people’s, but God’s.

In conclusion, Professor Oden discusses four aspects of today’s American identity that seem to have come directly from the Puritan tradition:

  • An anti-intellectual bias toward individualism rather than collective experience and theory
  • A bias against ritual
  • The strongest fundamentalist tradition in the advanced industrialized world
  • A uniquely American anxiety over vocational and occupational calling that is not found elsewhere in the world.

Visit God and Mankind: Comparative Religions (The Great Courses) to read more...

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