In the Beginning. (On second thought, that’s a bit much to live up to.)

In embarking on this exercise to explore the world’s religious practices from behind a keyboard, we’ll have to start with some disclaimers.  “All stock recommendations and comments are the opinion of the writer. Investors should be cautious about any and all stock recommendations and should consider the source of any advice…” Wait, that’s not quite the one we need here, except for the “consider the source” part. Maybe “Side effects are uncommon but may include headache, nausea, vomiting, death, sleepiness, dizziness…” No, that’s not exactly right either. The real disclaimer is that I am NOT an expert and you have been warned to consider the source. I have a measly little B.A. in Religious Studies and that was earned about 3,065,975 years ago from a mediocre university.  But, what I lack in credentials is maybe made up for in enthusiasm. I read books about religion for fun. (Party on, Wayne!) Five years of teaching high schoolers forced me to read, read, read and digest information and then regurgitate it (ew, gross) in a way that was relevant to their lives and occasionally amusing. Except for the quizzes. Those sucked. You won’t have any quizzes. You’re welcome. So, to recap, I WILL make mistakes. Please comment, react and correct me. Let’s not make this a one-way street, aight?

One more comment on the disclaimer… it is entirely possible that you, dear reader, will become sleepy. Sorry about that. The good news is I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t die from reading this stuff unless you are simultaneously driving your car and reading, and then all bets are off. It’s between you and God. Or Buddha. Or G-d. Or Allah. Krishna, perhaps. You choose. That is our most important ground rule here — I’m not going to tell you who is right, or who is wrong. Believe what you believe, comment as you please, and be respectful. The point here is not to convince, convert, coerce or cajole. Disagree with me on facts and show me where I am incorrect. But, please do not tell me that the so-and-so’s are wrong about this-or-that because the Book of Pooh to which you ascribe says so. Here, we are simply taking a trip together and talking about how folks around the world experience the divine — their books, their beliefs, their customs, their holidays and their own internal divisions. We are not here to judge because ultimately we answer to a higher authority (Hebrew National hot dogs commercial, anyone? Here it is, in case you forgot about it.)

Hebrew National Hot Dogs, circa 1975

Necessary legal paperwork now out of the way, let’s begin…

In the beginning, man decided he was not alone. He depended on the Earth, the Sky, the Water, the Air for his life. He thanked the unknown forces of the Universe, he thanked Mother Earth, he turned to all four directions in praise. Primitive religions are a fascinating topic. Indeed, ancient faiths like Hinduism and Judaism still very much feature and maintain close connections to the Earth and our dependence on the elements for survival. But, the major faiths in practice today (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism) are the ones that are having great geo-political impact. Whether you favor Fake News, Fox News, CNN, NPR, BBC, or Twitter for your world perspective (and for the love of Pete, please don’t rely on Facebook for your news), you cannot avoid these religions. A grounding in where they came from can perhaps help us understand where we are all collectively going.

Where does one jump in to this, or make that leap of faith, so to speak? There are different approaches to classifying faiths. We can look at things from a monotheistic (one God/deity) vs polytheistic (many Gods/deities) perspective. Or we can try to compare and contrast Eastern vs Western religions. These breakdowns don’t really work so well. For example, it is tempting to label Hinduism as a polytheistic religion.  On the face of it, it certainly looks that way. But digging deeper we find an underlying philosophy of one-ness. So, yeah, that’s not really going to work.

Hey guys! Check this out! Is it the Many Faced God from Game of Thrones? No, it’s the Trimurti Shiva from the Elephanta caves in Bombay harbor. These faces represent the creative, protective and destructive/recreative powers of the Hindu god Shiva. That’s some heady stuff. (Get it? Three heads? Okay, okay.)

East/West comparisons also kind of fail because religion travels across all borders. We fly all over the place at the drop of a hat — for personal pleasure, for better opportunities, to satisfy wanderlust, to escape persecution, to escape war. Look around and you’ll find that there are plenty of Christians in the East (over 67 million in China) and a boatload of Buddhists in America (about 3-4 million; it’s a big boat). Islam has spread across the globe and is the fastest growing religion worldwide. According to Pew Research Center, it could very well eclipse the number of Christians worldwide by the middle of the 21st Century. Religion and man really know no borders. Rudyard Kipling seemed to be hinting at this when he wrote,

“Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat; But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

So how do we start to tackle all of this? We start with Abraham. In my ever so humble opinion, Father Abraham (🎵 …had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham! Enjoy the flashback to camp.) is one of the most important figures in human history. This guy changed it all. Approximately 55% of the current world’s population (give or take a percent; numbers ain’t my thang) sees Abraham as their spiritual father. That is one heck of a family tree. We’re going to begin with his story and see where he takes us. Next time, I’ll meet you in the desert.