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Life … ?
Death … ?
Suffering … ?
Redemption … ?
The origin of being … ?
Each of these complex issues raises many, many questions.
How do the major religious systems address those questions? And what do their answers tell us?
An Ideal Starting Point for Inquiry
These eight lectures by Dr. Robert Oden are an ideal starting point for pursuing those 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.
Dr. Oden, who holds both a doctorate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and a master's degree in Theology (two of the latter, in fact), has taught at Harvard University and Dartmouth College over a long and exceptionally distinguished career as both teacher and college president.
He was the recipient of the very first Dartmouth College Distinguished Teaching Award, determined by vote of the senior class from among the entire faculty.
His lectures approach religious belief and ritual as a group of answers to these most difficult and enduring questions, which have occupied mankind from the beginning.
A Sweeping Conceptual Grasp
The lectures underscore both the unity and the diversity of religious approaches to life in a sweeping conceptual grasp.
Dr. 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 inquiry.
In addition to discussing the four traditional views of religion, Professor Oden also proposes a view of religion as a system of communication.
This serves as a crucial conceptual framework for exploring the thoughts of Mircea Eliade, 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.
Lecture 1. This introductory lecture lays out a framework for the study of religion, beginning with the "what" and "why" of the matter and moving onto the real topic, which is "how" religions have been studied in the past.
Dr. Oden then analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the four basic approaches to the study of religion:
religion and history
religion as amateur or immature science
religion and the unconscious (psychological explanations)
religion and society.
Lecture 2. You continue your comparative study of religions by examining their cosmologies.
In general, the lecture follows the arguments of Eliade, who said that cosmologies are best understood as operating through a dynamic series of binary oppositions, the most universal of which are those between gods/heaven/life and humanity/Earth/death.
You learn that for religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism that see the world as old, salvation comes in escaping from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth.
Religions such as Judaism and Christianity, however, see the world as relatively new, and the goal is to gain more chances at life, either collectively or individually.
Lecture 3. You address the centrality of myth in making sense of religious cosmologies.
In this context, Dr. Oden places special emphasis on the birth narratives of religious heroes, particularly the unusual circumstances surrounding the conception and birth of these heroes.
You examine the birth narratives of Moses, Jesus, Sargon the Great, and Gautama the Buddha in developing a framework for an extensive discussion of the ancient Sumerian myth the Epic of Gilgamesh—the discovery of which is relatively recent—and its cosmological implications.
Lecture 4. This lecture explores the notion of the Belgian/Dutch anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, later developed by the American anthropologist Victor Turner, that the rite de passage (rite-of-passage) scheme 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.
Lecture 5. This lecture contains a systematic analysis of the so-called "theodicy" problem:
How can an all-powerful and benevolent deity allow innocent people to suffer while success and happiness often seem to come to those who are evil?
You learn how all world religions have attempted to deal with this dilemma—and the five answers that have been produced—before moving on to a structural analysis of the most famous contemplation of theodicy in the Western religious tradition, the Book of Job.
Lecture 6. You continue the discussion of the theodicy problem by examining two of the main sources of Christian thinking on the topic, the Apostle Paul and the 16th-century Swiss theologian, John Calvin. You discuss the effects of the Paul-Calvin predestination doctrine on Western Christianity.
By way of comparison, Dr. Oden also discuss 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 all life is suffering, with the only release an acceptance of the impermanence of the universe and everything in it.
Lecture 7. Here you move away from the theodicy discussion and address the issue of the dynamics of religious communities.
Dr. Oden places special emphasis on the examination of ritual—including its nature, importance, and ramifications for the religious community—and then describes the dynamics of the development of two main types of religious communities: sect and church.
The lecture uses the example of the Protestant Reformation and compares this flux with the relative stability of monastic orders. It then examines both Buddhist monastic traditions and the Hindu approach of integrating the urge for spiritual purity within the stages of a single individual's existence.
Lecture 8. In this concluding lecture, Dr. Oden moves from the comparative sociology of religion to what might be termed the religious nature of a particular society, namely, the United States.
Drawing on the work of the contemporary Harvard scholar Sacvan Bercovitch, the lecture addresses the American identity with reference to its Puritan origins.
The lecture includes an examination of the repeated emphasis on America and Americans as "God's elect" and the constant parallels between America and ancient Israel, creating, in effect, an American civil religion whose basic 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.
The course concludes by discussing four aspects of contemporary American identity that seem to be derived directly from the Puritan tradition:
an anti-intellectual favoring of individualism and experience over the collective and theory
a bias against ritual
the strongest fundamentalist tradition in the advanced industrialized world
a distinctly American anxiety over vocational and occupational calling not found elsewhere in the world.