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Religion and Spirituality
World religions can be classified as monotheistic, pantheistic or polytheistic. Atheism, belief in no God, is purely a modern phenomenon and a product of the Enlightenment.
Monotheism, the belief in one God, is a hallmark of the Judeo-Christian faith which began in the dawn of ancient history. Around 2000 B.C., God called a man named
Abram (whose name was later changed to "Abraham"), and he is remembered as the Father of the Judeo-Christian faith, and the Patriarch of the Israelites. From this point in
history, God began revealing Himself to the world through the nation of Israel, as a means to bless all peoples of the earth. The Old Testament records the journey of
the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the promised land in Canaan under the leadership of Moses. Through this prophet, God also revealed the beginnings of what is now the Bible.
The first five books of the Bible, called the "Torah" or Pentateuch, are traditionally attributed to Moses. The rest of the Old Testament relates the history of
God's relationship with His people Israel, as He revealed His character and laws to them while they continually struggled with idolatry and disobedience.
Under King David's rule, Israel was led into a deeper experience of worship. David, who was recorded in Scripture as a "man after God's own heart," penned a
multitude of psalms in praise of His Lord. During the period of the Divided Kingdom, after Solomon's reign, the Israelite people continued to worship the gods of the nations
around them. From that time to the moment of the Babylonian Exile, God sent numerous prophets to call the nations back to faith in Him. Upon the return of the
exiles and the rebuilding of the Temple, the Israelites anticipated that a Messiah would ascend governance in the Second Temple and restore them to prosperity
reminiscent of the days of King David's reign. What followed is known as the 400 Silent Years, the time between the events of the Old and New Testaments.
Meanwhile, Rome became a powerful entity whose religious life was an extension of Greek religions. The Romans were polytheists who believed in a multitude of gods under
one supreme God named Zeus. It was during this period when Rome ruled Palestine that Jesus Christ was born. The pages of the New Testament record the birth, life, death
and resurrection of Jesus, as well as the ministry of the early Church founded by His apostles. Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem, and his birth
itself fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy of the Messiah. Throughout His life and ministry on earth, He continued to fulfill prophecies about the Messiah
recorded thousands of years before His birth. He also showed Himself to be not only a prophet and teacher of the truth, but God in the flesh, or one person of the
Triune God (Christians hold to a Trinitarian view of God, that He is one God in three Persons: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). In his short three years of ministry,
Jesus preached the Word of God, healed the sick and disabled, and extended compassion and friendship to the outcasts of society, thereby inciting the jealousy of
the Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day. Although He was found innocent by both Pontius Pilate and Caesar of any crime, Jesus was handed over to the
Romans by His own people on the charge that He had declared Himself to be the King of the Jews. Jesus' crucifixion on a Roman cross was the most
excruciating form of punishment that a person could receive at the time. According to the Bible, however, Jesus' death served as a sacrifice to reconcile humanity to God.
Three days after his crucifixion, Jesus was resurrected from the dead, thereby demonstrating His deity as well as the sufficiency of His sacrifice as a means to provide
forgiveness for the sins of the world.
After Jesus' resurrection and ascension to heaven, his apostles began to share the good news of God's love and forgiveness of sins. Their sharing of this good news,
called the Gospel, resulted frequently in their persecution and deaths at the will of the Roman emperors. Only until shortly before the fall of the Roman Empire in the first century
did the widespread, legally sanctioned persecution of Christians by Rome come to an end. The emperor Constantine was the first ruler to convert to Christianity,
and he not only halted the persecution of Christians but made Christianity the official state religion of Rome in 325 A.D. The history of Christianity changed dramatically
with this edict, but simultaneously injected politicism into church polity. During Constantine's reign, the early Church focused on crystallizing Christian theology into
creedal statements and hymns, while Christians continued to share their faith. During the late 4th century, St. Augustine was instrumental in developing Christian
missions and theology.
At the same time that Judeo-Christianity developed, pantheism, the belief that all is God, prevailed in numerous cultures around the world. The belief that the universe itself was
divine was exemplified in Animism of African cultures, Egyptian religion under the Pharoahs and Buddhism and Taoism among Far Eastern nations. Buddhism was founded by a man
named Siddhartha Gautama, who began his life as a Hindu. The tenets of Buddhism include the Four Noble Truths, namely that life is suffering, suffering is a result of desire,
desire can be overcome, and there is a way to overcome desire, namely through the "Eightfold path." This path consists of right understanding, thinking, speech, conduct, livelihood,
effort, mindfulness and concentration. Taoism was founded by a man named Lao-Tse, who was a contemporary of Confucius. His philosphy of Tao, or "The Way", developed into a state
religion in 440 B.C., and along with Buddhism and Confucianism, became one of the most widely
accepted religions in China. The Tao was believed to be the origin of the
universe; moreover, man's goal was to become one with the Tao. Lao-Tse's writings included the Tao-te-Ching, which described Taoist philosophy on nature, peace and leadership.
Polytheism, the belief in many gods, was the religion of the ancient cultures of Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. Most of the ancient polytheistic religions were
intrinsically tied to the land in which the cultures lived. Gods were viewed as being in control of such natural activities as rainfall and reproduction.
In order to enjoy a good harvest, polytheistic peoples believed that man had to offer sacrifices to appease the gods and win their favor. Canaanite religions involved
sacrifices to the male god, Baal, and his female counterpart, Ashteroth. Baal was believed to
provide rain and bless the harvest, while Ashteroth controlled fertility.
The Greeks and Romans developed polytheism even further, and worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses (such as Apollo, Artemis, Poseidon and Aphrodite). A hierarchy of gods
proceeded from the supreme deity Zeus, and Greek and Roman mythology popularized the notion that these colorful gods and goddesses were often fickle, competitive and lustful.
Classical theorists date the beginning of the polytheistic religion, Hinduism, from around 2500 B.C. and earlier. Hindu beliefs were recorded in the Bhagavad Gita.
Hinduism is a polytheistic religion with a supreme Brahman god, which itself is a triad of gods: Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Hinduism developed over the centuries into two main
schools: Vaishnavaism, which views Vishnu as the ultimate deity; and Shivaism, which regards Shiva as the supreme god. The Four Aims of Hinduism make up the driving principles of
Hindu life: dharma (righteousness), artha (material prosperity), kama (sensual gratification) and "moksa" (freedom from "samsara" or the endless cycle of mankind.)