With all of the hobbies to pick from, I choose to spend my free time studying lies. Everything from why Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate holidays to why Hindus eschew cow. Of course, these are factually true, in that those practitioners do believe those things, but as a belief for Catholics, they are not. As Catholics, the differing views espoused by other denominations or faiths can be striking; they are misguided at best, outright falsehoods at worst.
When it is phrased in such a manner, religious studies can seem pointless. Where else in life do we choose to partake in learning untruths? Wouldn’t time be better spent understanding our own Catholic faith better? Heaven knows we have enough material to keep us occupied for well beyond our lifetime.
Despite their objectively incorrect theology, every religion has the potential to touch our lives. It may be in how a particular faith altered the history of our world, or how a traditional religious custom has become part of our town’s heritage. Religion can even sneak into our mainstream culture: many restaurants in the US restructure menus during Lent to offer more vegetarian and seafood options, while several Japanese cultural customs are remnants of Shinto purity beliefs. On some level, all of these scenarios hinge on understanding religion to comprehend their full meaning.
As fascinating as understanding other faiths may be, it should not be undertaken lightly. People convert or lose faith when they are challenged, intellectually or spiritually. Without a firm hold on your commitment to Catholicism, studying other faiths can be a sin by endangering your own relationship with the Church. *
With that warning covered, delving into the wide range of theologies available can have numerous benefits:
1. Understanding Catholicism better: Without a doubt, understanding other religions – particularly Abrahamic ones – can lead to a better understanding of our own faith. It is likely that most Catholics have doubted or abandoned their faith at one point or another, and their journey back led to a rejection of every other creed. Maybe you have a firm hold on why we support the filioque, but have you ever gone back to the more basic tenants of Christianity? Why the Christian God over, say polytheism? The Catechism has the following to say about how other religions can point back to ours:
CCC39: “In defending the ability of human reason to know God, the Church is expressing her confidence in the possibility of speaking about him to all men and with all men, and therefore of dialogue with other religions, with philosophy and science, as well as with unbelievers and atheists.”
The Church knows that our faith is a reasonable one. She is confident that our encounters with other religions will only serve to enhance our own faith, rather than poke holes in it.
2. Greater ease in evangelizing: A joint benefit of understanding Catholicism better based on our rejection of other theologies is that we are better equipped to explain those rejections to people of other faiths. One of the most difficult tasks in evangelizing is establishing some sort of common ground or language. Without it, any conversation will likely be meaningless, with each party talking over the head of the other. A thorough grounding allows you to speak their language, understand their vocabulary. Communicating the love of Christ shouldn’t be impeded by vocabulary barriers.
3. Fuller sense of our world: Right from our global conflicts to cultural quirks, religion is absolutely everywhere we look. Having a thorough understanding of it allows us to more fully partake in our community locally, politically, and globally. It even allows for us to have a sense of the Church and her position ecumenically.
Just this past year, my boyfriend and I had the pleasure of visiting New Glarus, Wisconsin for Oktoberfest. The town is nicknamed “little Switzerland” for its namesake, Glarus, Switzerland. During our trip, we kept running into small pictures St. Fridolin of Säckingen on the sides of buildings; he happens to be the patron saint of the Glarus in Switzerland. Good luck finding information on that though – it’s not easy to come by. It seems to have been a part of New Glarus’ heritage that is not as well known anymore.
4. Ability to defend general theism: Religion gets a bad rap in the press. Whether it stems from ignorance or malice (and it’s likely a healthy mix of both), reporters regularly mangle or skew opinions toward faith. This is no doubt an issue Catholics are all too familiar with. These articles shape the public’s opinion about not just our own faith, but the nature of theism in general. When theology is portrayed incorrectly and out of context, our increasingly atheistic and apathetic culture accepts the press’ version as truth. This leads to us looking, well, crazy.
Never has this been more plain to me then during an event a few weeks ago. Just at the beginning of the year, I wrote up a blog post chronicling my thoughts on a future Mormon temple opening that I have been eagerly awaiting. A few days later, the post was picked up by one of the leading LDS newspapers. As Mormons flocked to my site, one of the most common refrains I heard was a variation of “thank you for fairly portraying us”.
While we have the truth on our side, we should have no fear in correcting others’ views of all religions. At best, we can offer along with it an explanation of why it is false, or at least offer an explanation of why that view fits in the context of their theology. We are responsible for upholding the idea that religion (and not just Catholicism) is rational. And on the surface, many religions hold glimmers of truth and swathes of lucidness. We are responsible for perpetuating the idea that religion is based on sincere belief, not backwards half-truths and oppressive rules. This requires defense of religion as a whole.
Religious studies can offer a variety of other benefits and knowledge that span a wide range of specialized fields, including anthropology, philosophy, sociology, psychology, history, and of course, theology. Odds are, if you have an interest in some liberal arts field, you can find a religious concentration on it that is bound to make you a more engaged member of your community.
* It should be noted as well that this in no way entitles Catholics to participate in non-Catholic rites, including communion or as a sponsor for baptism and confirmation.
[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.ignitumtoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Picture-038-e1313148209919.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Allie Terrell is a 2010 convert to Catholicism after dabbling in a few different trains of religious thought. She graduated from Rose-Hulman in 2009 with a degree in computer science, and is now pursuing her doctorate in the hopes of teaching some day. When she can spare a few hours, Allie likes to visit religious sites and work on her photography. She blogs about her journeys at Here Is The Church.[/author_info] [/author]