A friend of mine had criticized one of the main texts we're using, saying, "she [the author] makes some cringingly simplistic statements, and her bias against traditional Christianity was so apparent (to me, anyway) that I didn't fully trust her appraisal of other religions I know less well. I wish I knew of a better comparative religion text to recommend."
Early in class, the prof spoke praisingly of the author (whom he has become friends with). I'm only about ten pages into the text, though, so I didn't have an opinion of my own to make me hesitant.
[Sidebar before I start complaining in earnest: I will give the prof credit for recommending to us that we get to know people from other faith traditions -- and other countries, other ethnicities -- and sit down and have a drink with that person, that you'll learn more from that than you will from a class. Though it came across a little uncomfortably tokenizing, with an implication of "tell me about your faith tradition" without an understanding that everyone's experience of a given faith tradition is going to be unique and often very different from someone else's ... though he did sort of touch on this at other moments ... and he's traveled to lots of places around the world getting to know different Buddhist practitioners, so I think he really is aware of the diversity that exists within a given faith tradition.]
Later, he told a story of saying to his parents, "Isn't it interesting that two out of your three kids became Buddhists" (his parents were Methodists, possibly ministers), and his sister turned to him and said, "You're not a Buddhist." He said he was -- he meditates some, the Buddhist philosophy is very important in his life. She insisted that he didn't actually practice it (she gets up every morning and chants, has an altar, etc.), sure he goes all over the world and writes books, but "it's a hobby for you." (As the class went on, I returned to this as an articulation of my problem with him -- that he's not a practitioner of religion but rather an outsider ... though admittedly my problem may simply be that he's an outsider talking about my faith tradition.)
A friend of his suggested he take the Belief-O-Matic quiz to settle the question. So he read us his results, mentioning an important belief of his (concern for social justice, the environment, church that doesn't have lots of talking) that explained why he had scored high for that faith tradition (until he finally got to a kind of Buddhism, which I think was #8).
Later in the class, he talked about how we're going to focus on elements common across many religions, but that he's not trying to say that all/most religions are at heart the same. For example, he said, suffering is a central theme of Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity, but if you actually dig down, the way that suffering is central to their faith traditions are very different. Buddhism: everyone suffers, this is the first Noble Truth, doesn't matter how much material wealth or anything you have you're still as susceptible to suffering as anyone else. Judaism: a people who have faced threats of extermination over and over again (the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Nazis), so suffering is understood in community. Christianity: Jesus on the cross is a central image, but that's an individual suffering, albeit suffering to atone for the sins of the whole world.
I couldn't point out to anything he said during class that was factually wrong [maybe "untrue" is more the word I want?], and I tried to remind myself that of course in an introductory overview you have to oversimplify and you can't necessarily be constantly caveating (e.g., "Substitutionary atonement is the traditional understanding of Jesus' death on the cross, but there are many different ways to understand Jesus' salvific work, and many progressive churches in particular reject the idea of substitutionary atonement") but much of what he said still really rankled.
Plus, of course, "suffering" is not something I would posit as a central theme of Judaism or Christianity (or Buddhism).
The next evening, I told my friend Cate that if I were asked to list major themes of Judaism I would say: enslavement, exile, liberation, being a people set apart, having a covenant with God, a legalistic understanding but along with that a tradition of arguing with God ("see the fine print here... oh you didn't specify that... what if there are only ten righteous people in the city? etc."), holidays of "They tried to kill us but they didn't succeed; let's eat!"
I then went to say, "If I were asked to list major themes of Christianity... actually I'm not sure what I would say. Maybe because it is my tradition and so I'm very aware of how much disagreement there is?"
Cate said she was never particularly observant even when she went to church with her family, but that her main takeaway from church was: "Jesus loves you, so go and love everyone else." She later said that she would also list "hope" as a major theme of Christianity.
Seven(!) years ago I took the the Belief-O-Matic quiz.
I took it again today and ugh, my beliefs do not fit into your options... I can pick an approximate, but your statement has resonances I don't intend and elides certain things that are important to me. Yes, multiple choice quizzes are inherently problematic. And this does help the prof's commentary on his results feel less offensive. "Concern for the enivironment" would not be the key phrase I would pull out were I asked to talk about Neo-paganism, for example, but given the questions and answers in this quiz I can see how someone like him could score high for Neo-paganism in large part because he has strong concern for the environment.
The top score on the list below represents the faith that Belief-O-Matic, in its less than infinite wisdom, thinks most closely matches your beliefs. However, even a score of 100% does not mean that your views are all shared by this faith, or vice versa.
Belief-O-Matic then lists another 26 faiths in order of how much they have in common with your professed beliefs. The higher a faith appears on this list, the more closely it aligns with your thinking.
In 2002, my top 10 were:
1. Reform Judaism (100%)My 2009 results:
2. Liberal Quakers (87%)
3. Orthodox Judaism (83%)
4. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (82%)
5. Unitarian Universalism (82%)
6. Sikhism (79%)
7. Bahá'í Faith (78%)
8. Islam (76%)
9. Neo-Pagan (69%)
10. Mahayana Buddhism (68%)