Religious Literacy Basics

by: Rev. Ed Schneider, M.P.Th.

three-men-talkingOne of the hard lessons I had to learn early in my pastoral service is the vast majority of adult members of a local church are woefully inadequate when it involves the basic understanding of their own faith…much less other expressions of competing religious “truths.”  In addition to this uncomfortable opinion of mine, there is another, more important experiential assessment I also carry.   It is my impression that one of the primary reasons why so many congregational members are ill prepared to express their own Christian foundations is because of the more than 400,000 local Christian churches in the United States, far too many “clergy” are not much better prepared to competently discuss competing world views themselves.  It’s a big problem that is not going away until or unless we intentionally address it.

A well educated Christian is a powerful tool in God’s arsenal of expressing our shared Christian faith and our passionate response to that faith experience.  Here are just a few basic points of reference concerning other well established religious beliefs.  Enjoy the information.

First, let’s define what the word “literacy” actually means and also how it applies to Christian/biblical understanding.

Literacy is defined as the ability to make and communicate meaning. A literate person can derive and convey meaning, and use his knowledge to achieve a desired purpose or goal that requires the use of language skills, be they spoken or written. People who are literate use what they know from their own personal pool of linguistic experiences of listening, speaking, reading, and writing to guide, direct and understand meaning. In general, literacy brings to each person a varied set of experiences based on his socio-cultural backgrounds that influence his interpretation of any source of communication.

Biblical literacy falls under the exact same directive. Taking the first sentence of the previous paragraph, we can rewrite it to say: Biblical literacy is defined as the ability to competently understand and then effectively communicate divinely inspired thought, guidance, and directive from the sacred texts and stories displayed within biblical scripture. Religious literacy is simply that understanding expanded to other religious contexts and philosophies.

So in an attempt to slightly relieve the general inadequacy of religious understanding  I will offer just a few accepted Christian truths as well as other world religions and their concepts of revealed “truth.”  Even though the following definitions will be rather short, they should hopefully direct an accurate understanding given the limitations of space. I hope these definitions will prompt both further discussion and understanding.

Doctrine: an agreed-upon standard of teaching, and the beliefs behind that teaching.

Theology: the in-depth study of revealed characteristics, expressions, and experiences of God.

Predestination: Generally, it is the belief that de-emphasizes humanity’s Free Will in the process of knowing and accepting God’s call on each individual’s life while emphasizing the ultimate authority of The Creator to “choose” who will be “called.”

Grace:  a perfectly free and universally radical expression of Divine-love that is completely undeserved or unearned by the person receiving it.

Atheist/Agnostic:  an Atheist is a person who generally denies the practical existence of any and all gods. Atheism is about “belief,” or to be more specific, what a person doesn’t believe.   Agnosticism, on the other hand, is about knowledge, or rather….what you don’t know. An atheist generally can be described as having a DIS-belief in any form or function of a deity(s).   An agnostic doesn’t know or hasn’t received a definitive sense that a deity actually exists or not.  Even though most people assume that affirming God, in some form, is a requirement for any religion, that is not true.  Buddhists and Taoists, among others, typically do not worship any divine entity.

Fundamentalist:  Fundamentalists are significantly to the right of center within Protestant religious thinking and should not be confused with Evangelicals. Fundamentalists affirm the Bible’s complete inerrancy on all subjects, including history and science. As a rule, Fundamentalists generally reject most modern views of scriptural investigation. The public entrance of the Fundamentalist Movement began when they took their name from a twelve volume publication written between 1910 and 1915, that was entitled “The Fundamentals,” which attacked liberal Protestantism as a “totally different religion” from real Christianity.

Evangelicalism:  Evangelicalism is to be distinguished from being “evangelistic.” Practicing evangelism promotes bringing the Good News of God’s gift of Jesus to those who do not know Him and what He represents. All Christian sects believe and perform this function at some level of commitment and competency. Evangelicalism is different from Fundamentalism because it has a broad-based constituency from left, right, and moderate Christian religious expressions. Instead of believing the Bible inerrant in all things, including history and science (fundamentalism), they believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and inerrant in all aspects of faith and spiritual truth. Evangelicals emphasize evangelism and the reconnecting to God (salvation) that happens through faith alone in the atoning death of Jesus Christ.

Messiah:   According to Jewish traditional thinking and teaching, this person will arrive at the “last days.” The promised messiah will also restore the Jewish people to the Promised Land, rebuild the Temple, and by the force of his very presence initiate a world and also the world-to-come with peace and justice. Christians believe that this promised messiah was in fact Jesus. Jesus’ title, Christ, is derived from the Greek word, “christos.” The English version is translated as “Messiah.”

10 Commandments:   Also known as The Decalogue. In general, they are the religious and moral laws said to be given to all of the Hebrew tribes and then shortly thereafter Moses received these 10 Commandments by God on Mt. Sinai. Moses then brought two stone tablets down from the mountain to the People of God. There are two versions within the Bible. (Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21)

The Tanakh:   To the Jewish people there is no Old Testament. There is just one Book. The term “Tanakh” is more like a title than an actual name. When a Christian holds “the Bible,” they are holding not one book but many gathered together. The same can be said for the Tanakh or the “Hebrew Bible” consisting of 24 books that are then subdivided into three major sections: The Law (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), the Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Micah, Jonah, etc.) and the Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Lamentations, Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Chronicles, 1&2 Samuel, etc.). This is the Bible that Jesus himself would have read.

Calvinism: Also known as Reformed theology, it is based on the teaching of a Swiss theologian named John Calvin (1509-1564). This Protestant-based theology was established in America through the Puritans and later spread throughout the nation by the Congregational and Presbyterian churches. Calvinism is firmly founded upon two principals: the total sovereignty of God and the total depravity of humanity. Calvinism carries the doctrinal belief in “double-predestination,” meaning God has predetermined who is going to heaven and hell.

Arminianism: The teaching of Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). The fundamental principal of this theology is the complete rejection of predestination. This teaching affirms the foundational freedom of “Human Free Will” in the process of salvation. Arminianism ultimately testifies that God graciously enables every sinner to repent and believe but does not interfere with humanity’s free will in the process itself. The person that is separated from God through sin has the power to either cooperate with God’s call or resist the Divine’s grace. Because of this belief, those who hold this belief also believe that no one is left out of the salvation process except by their own unwillingness to awaken to its calling.

Four Noble Truths:The core teaching of Buddhism. They are:

1. Suffering exists;

2. The origin of suffering is caused by clinging to things that are of no importance and temporary;

3. Suffering can be reversed which creates a state of liberation; and

4. The Path of Cessation of Suffering is accomplished through the “Eightfold Path” which is divided into three groups, Wisdom, Morality, and Concentration.

Five Pillars of Islam: These are the foundational practices of Islam.

1. There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God;

2. Prayer must be offered five times each day in the direction of the city of Mecca;

3. Fasting daily from sunrise to sunset for one month (called Ramadan) each year;

4. Giving to the poor through an imposed tax;

5. Once in a person’s life time each Muslim, if they are physically and financially able, are to travel to Mecca on a Holy Pilgrimage.

Allah: the term for God in both Arabic and Islam. In the Holy Book of Islam, The Quran, Allah is described as compassionate, merciful, and gracious. Allah is called the creator, sustainer, ruler, judge, and redeemer of the universe.

Jihad: In the classical/traditional view of the vast majority of Muslims, the word Jihad means; “to struggle” or “make an effort.” There are two basic views within the Islamic world of this understanding.

1. The majority view it as a “spiritual struggle” of each believer against their own lower or lesser natural self.

2. The minority view is a “physical struggle” against the enemies of Islam.  More on radical Islam click here. 

The irony of current-day events is that historically Muslims regard Jews and Christians, even though they are in some ways foundationally different in their understanding and expression of God, as “people of the book,” meaning the Bible, and thereby not enemies of Islam.

The Quran: The Holy Book of Islam. It is also known as the Final Revelation of Allah. Like the Bible is to most professing Christians, The Quran is the ultimate authority for Muslims in law, religion, and ethics. It is believed by Muslims to be miraculously revealed by Allah, through the Angel Gabriel, to Muhammad. It was then recited by Muhammad, who was unable to read or write, to his companions, who memorized what he had relayed to them via the Angel Gabriel, then written down by scribes, and at a later date put into a compiled version for other readers to follow. The first divine revelation came to Muhammad in the year 610 and the “official version” was canonized in Arabic decades after Muhammad’s death in the year 632.

The Book of Mormon: A religious movement founded by Joseph Smith in the state of New York in the 1820’s. According to Smith, an angel revealed to him the location of “gold tablets” that were buried several centuries (somewhere in the fifth century) before modern-day New York State even existed. Smith is said to have found the two “gold tablets” then was able to translate their “Reformed Egyptian” writing into English through something he called “two seer stones.” The Book of Mormon was originally published in 1830. In the book, which Mormons view as sacred scripture, Jesus is said to have visited the New World (what is now America) after his resurrection but before his ascension so that he could found his “true church” among the indigenous Native Americans.  More on the Mormon Church click here.

Secular Humanism: This refers to the view that human beings can get along without the need of any God — thank you very much! It is human-based, human-driven, and human-sustained in all that is does or attempts to do.



2 thoughts on “Religious Literacy Basics

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