This course is an introduction to the doctrines and spiritual practices of several of the world’s most interesting and influential religions. Following a brief discussion of various scholarly approaches to the subject, we focus on seven specific traditions: two are South Asian (Hinduism and Buddhism); two are East Asian (Confucianism and Taoism); two are Western (Judaism and Islam); and one is representative of a very ancient form of religion scholars refer to as Primal (namely, the tradition of the American Plains Indians).
Why is Christianity not included in this list? The answer is simple: most students who take a Religious Studies course in South Carolina are Christians or come from Christian backgrounds; the emphasis is therefore deliberately placed on non-Christian faiths so that something new can be learned. On the other hand, Christian doctrines and practices are kept close at hand for comparison, and through frequent cross-reference students will gain a deeper understanding of this religion as well. Those desiring a more explicit and detailed introduction to Christianity are encouraged to take the instructor’s Christian Theology course.
Professor Cutsinger’s approach to religion is philosophical and theological rather than psychological, sociological, or historical. Students will acquire a wealth of specific information about the world’s religious traditions and insights into their divisions and developments over time. But more importantly they will be encouraged to ponder some of the most fundamental questions of life: Who or what is God? How did the world get started? What does it mean to be human? When did things go wrong, and how can they be fixed? What is the meaning of time? Where do we go when we die?
Assuming that Christ was right when he said, “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20) and that the fruit of a true religion is sanctity or spiritual wholeness, the course will include an exploration of the lives and teachings of four twentieth-century figures regarded by their respective traditions as saints; in them one sees embodied the deepest meaning of religion.
What to Expect
Serious, conscientious students should come away from this course with the following:
- The ability to distinguish (a) ideas and practices that are shared by all the world’s revealed religions from (b) ideas and practices that are specific to Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam, and the primal religion of the American Plains Indians
- An appreciation for the logical and experiential substructure of religious teachings––teachings that might otherwise seem to be based, and are too often regarded as based, on nothing more than blind faith
- An understanding of what distinguishes religious truth from scientific fact, as well as insight into the many ways in which the “blossom” of religion stands atop the currently fashionable STEM subjects
- A more complete and detailed picture of human nature in all its many dimensions (intellectual, emotional, volitional, and physical), and a keener sense of the full range of human possibility, than is usually supplied by contemporary education
Texts and YouTube Videos
Two texts are required: James S. Cutsinger, Paths of Return: Introducing the World’s Religions, the instructor’s lectures for the course; and A Book of Saints, a reader of supplementary materials selected and edited by Professor Cutsinger.
Thorough study of these assigned texts is essential. This is an introductory course, which means that there are no prerequisites and that every effort has been made to explain the subject as simply and straightforwardly as possible. On the other hand, the teachings of the world’s religions are far from simplistic, and therefore pondering—not just skimming—these assigned materials is crucial for success.
For those visiting this site who may be interested in a free, on-line version of the course, Professor Cutsinger has added a series of YouTube presentations to complement Paths of Return. Like his classroom lectures, these presentations review and highlight important points in the written materials, including A Book of Saints, but they also elaborate on the assigned readings, adding important new insights, examples, and anecdotes, as well as helpful charts, maps, and diagrams.