Summaries of the main religions of the world and a starting point to learn more about other faith traditions.
The Eucharist is the central act of the Catholic faith. The daily celebration of Eucharist is called the mass. At mass the Catholic community, led by its priest or bishop, gathers to hear God's word proclaimed, and to make present Jesus' sacrificial death through the offering of bread and wine. In the consecration of bread and wine into Christ's body and blood, Christ is really and mysteriously made present. Through the Eucharist, Catholics give God thanks and are empowered to live out their faith.
Catholics come into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through Scripture, the Church and in a particular way through the seven sacraments, which are sacred rites of initiation (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist), healing (anointing of the sick, reconciliation), or vocation (marriage, orders).
Catholics find the source of their beliefs in God's revelation, witnessed to in Sacred Scripture (the Bible) and in the church's living tradition and worship. Tradition is shaped by creeds, council documents, the liturgy as a living expression of faith, the teachings of the pope and bishops and the practice of the faithful throughout the centuries. Jesus selected Peter and the Apostles to lead the early Christian community. Their successors became known as bishops, who, along with priests and deacons, guide and build up the people of God through preaching, celebrating sacraments and working for unity. These ordained ministers are assisted in this work by the laity. The pope, who is Bishop of Rome, exercises the ministry of unity for the worldwide Church.
Catholics choose a specific way of life to help them to follow Jesus: marriage, single life, religious life, or ordained ministry. One of the most important ways Catholics imitate Jesus is by taking care of those in need: people who are poor, sick, marginalized, or oppressed. They also work to change unjust social structures. To do this, Catholics have established institutions such as schools, hospitals, social service agencies and relief organizations worldwide.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is revered by Catholics as the mother of God. She is venerated - not worshipped - as an example of faith, purity, and courage. Catholics also honor as saints those men and women whose lives are heroic examples of Christian virtue. Catholics believe in the communion of all the faithful, both living and dead.
The Catholic Church is a global communion of 23 autonomous ritual churches numbering over one billion persons ("catholic" means universal). Nationally the number is 62 million.
The Orthodox Christian Churches believe themselves to be inheritors of the Church established by Jesus Christ and the Apostles, and identify themselves as the indigenous Christian Communities of the Middle East the Balkans, Northeast Africa, and Russia. As such, they believe in One God, who is worshiped in Trinity: Orthodox Christians mystically and liturgically experience a God who loves humankind and is manifest in the lives of the Thokos" (i.e. Mother of God) and Saints throughout the centuries. Surrounded by this saintly "cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 122:1), followers of this ancient faith also endeavor to somehow embody "the love of God the Father" for all people and creation.
For the first one thousand years, all Christians - East and West - shared this common biblical faith and experience. However, in the year 1054 C.E. Christianity split into basically two communities: The Roman (and later Anglo-Catholic and Protestant) Churches in the West; and, the Orthodox Churches in the East. Some of the most fundamental differences between these communities have had to do with divergent world views and cultures. Historically, the Orthodox East has tended to emphasize mystical experience as opposed to structure and practicality. The East also has traditionally functioned in a way that gives power to the group (Synod) which seeks truth in consensus among its members and ideally, amongst all believers. Also distinctive is Orthodoxy's anthropology. It's a vision grounded in the reality of Christ the God-Human, a vision of Human nature that is essentially good and ultimately destined to become Godlike by grace (II Peter 1:4)
Eastern Christians emphasize the creation-changing reality that God's Spirit is "everywhere present and filling all things," in part, by being both sense-oriented and ritual oriented. Orthodox Christian Church buildings are full of richly-colored icons, or sacred, stylized and painted images. Fragrant clouds of incense and the spiritual sounds of sacred chant combine with this iconography to lift worshippers up and out of the familiar and ordinary into what is unknown and extraordinary. This is why ritual is so important to the Orthodox: because it can communicate realities that are far beyond thoughts and words. Through sacred arts and ceremonies, through vegetarian fasting and ascetic struggles, through the preaching of God's Word and celebration of the Divine Mysteries (Sacraments), Eastern Christians experience and grow into the fullness of God's Presence. There is in this tradition a radical continuity of experience between the heroic ancestors and struggling modern Orthodox believers. Somehow, they continue to breathe the very spiritual and cultural air of the ancient Christian world.
The world community of Orthodox Churches (numbering 125,000,000) has been an active participant in the ecumenical movement since its beginnings. Their leaders have for decades demonstrated a deep commitment to dialogues of truth and love, valuing respect, honesty, and cooperation among the followers of all religions. Embracing the ethos of their chief shepherd, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the Orthodox seek to grow in understanding of different others as a first step toward fulfilling Christ's own prayer, "That they may all be one." (John 17:21).
There are more than 4 million Orthodox Christians in the United States.
Anglicans trace their roots back to the early Church and their separate identity to the post-Reformation expansion of the Church of England and other Episcopal or Anglican Churches. Historically, there were two main stages of development of the Communion. From the 17th century, Anglicanism was established alongside colonization in the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. The second stage began in the 18th century when missionaries worked to establish Anglican Churches in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Anglican Churches uphold and proclaim the Catholic and Apostolic faith, based on the creeds and scripture, interpreted in the light of Christian tradition, scholarship and reason. Following the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Churches are committed to the proclamation of the Good News of the Gospel to the whole of creation.
By baptism with water, in the name of God- Father, Son and Holy Spirit - a person is made one with Christ and received into the Church.
Central to worship for Anglicans is the celebration of the Holy Eucharist (also called the Holy Communion, Lord's Supper, the Mass). In this offering of prayer and praise are recalled the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ, through the proclamation of the Word and celebration of the Sacrament.
Worship is at the very heart of Anglicanism. Its styles vary from the simple to the elaborate, from Evangelical to Catholic, from charismatic to traditional or even a combination of these various traditions. The Book of Common Prayer, in its various revisions throughout the Communion, gives expression to the comprehensiveness found within the Church whose principles reflect, since the time of England's Elizabeth I, its relation to other Christians.
Other sacraments include Confirmation, Holy Orders, Reconciliation, Marriage, and Anointing of the Sick.
There are 2.5 million baptized members of the Episcopal Church in the United States.
There are more than 800 million Protestants around the world, with major Protestant bodies being Methodist, Lutheran, Calvinist (Presbyterian and Reformed) and the Anabaptist tradition (Baptist, Mennonite and others), as well as the Evangelical and Pentecostal movements (Church of God in Christ, Assemblies of God and others). In the United States, over 125 million people identify themselves as members of denominations within Protestant Christianity.
Protestants are those Christians whose denominations trace their roots to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century CE. The churches of the Reformation made significant changes in the traditional Christian worship, emphasizing the central place of the sermon, participation of the laity in liturgy, and singing of congregational hymns. Unlike Roman Catholicism's seven sacraments, Protestants generally recognize only two: Baptism and Holy Communion or Eucharist. Key Protestant beliefs emphasize the authority of scripture, the sovereignty of God, the essential element of personal faith or salvation, and the freedom of individual conscience.
The Bible is central to the practice of the Protestant faith and life. The writings of early church fathers, especially Augustine and reformers Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldreich Zwingli and the later Protestant theologians such as John and Charles Wesley are an important part of Protestant thought and practice. In the American Protestant experience, important early leaders include Jonathan Edwards, Roger Williams, Richard Allen, and Lon Cary.
The Historic Black Churches (The Freedom Churches)
The Historic Black or "Freedom" Churches - African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Baptist and Christian Methodist Episcopal- were formed in the latter part of the eighteenth century in the United States.
Because segregated worship was endorsed by many Christian denominations in the North and the South, African Americans broke away from existing churches and created their own institutions. These churches were a constant source of leadership and support in the fight against slavery and for equal rights. Some of the leading figures of the abolitionist movement were preachers from the Freedom Churches, including Nat Turner, Hiram Revels, Sojpourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas.
Today, as with other protestant traditions, the Historic Black Churches express an openness to all people who seek God. The freedom Churches have consistently had members of other races. The same commitment to freedom which propelled the movement to free itself guarantees the inclusion of all who wish to join.
The word "evangelical" comes from the Greek word evangelion which means good news or gospel. The good news is the God has sent His son Jesus Christ to rescue a dislocated world from its sinful condition. By death on the cross, Jesus has paid the penalty for sin and set us free to serve God. by His resurrection, Jesus Christ has overcome the power of death and established for us a new life. Christ will return at the end of history to put away evil forever and establish the new heavens and the new earth. Those who believe and live out this message are "born again." Evangelicalism is a movement within the church that gives primacy to this message. Evangelicals call upon people to be converted to Jesus, to live by His teachings and to tell the good news to others.
Judaism is the world view, the way of life, and the religious practice of the Jewish people, living in covenant with God and in response to Torah, the laws and ethics which guide the pattern of Jewish life. Jews today interpret their three thousand year old heritage in a wide variety of ways and identify themselves along a spectrum of practice and belief, from liberal Reform to Orthodox Jews. As a way of life, Judaism also includes the social and cultural history of a widespread and diverse community of people, some of whom do not think of themselves as "religious".
Islam in Arabic literally means "submitting" or "submission". One who submits or surrenders his or her will to God is called Muslim. While the whole of God's creation is described as being inherently Muslim, human beings must choose whether to follow or reject God's will, as revealed in the Qur'an. What we now call the Islamic tradition was born in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century. Today, there are more than one billion Muslims, living all over the world.
American Indian Religions
American Indian religions are a way of life - practiced to maintain proper balance and an integral relationship to the Universe, to the Earth, to infinity, not detached by virtue of intellect or reason. The Sacred Life-Ways of American Indian people are as diverse as their representative tribes / Nations, based on individual and family stories, languages, heredity, and environment. These ways of life are kept through songs, rituals, dance, symbols and stories.
Past misconceptions have led to a limited understanding of the true nature of American Indian Sacred Ways. For example, names such as Gitche Manitou (Anishinabe), Taiowa (Hopi), Wakan Tanka (Lakota), Sakoiatisan (Iroquois), describe a mysterious force that dwells outside our understanding. A basic concept is that all things are interconnected, related and are part of the Great Mysterious Force.
There can be no generalizations made about American Indians' ways of worship. One can observe how these ways are practiced and preserved through common prayer forms and attitudes as well as ceremonial story-telling, songs, dance and food sharing.
American Indian religious traditions are also in process of adaptation. While many maintain their core symbols and expressions (the circle and four directions symbols are a part of many American Indian cultures) others have developed into new religious movements (the Native American Church, the Iroquois Longhouse Religion). Thus, American Indians' traditions are constantly changing. For example, perhaps half of contemporary American Indians also identify themselves, at least nominally, as Christians and many as Traditional and Christian.
There are over 2,475,000 American Indians nationwide, according to the 2000 Census.
A Note About the Use of "American Indian"
American Indian is a political term defining each of the Native Nations as political entities with dependent sovereignty, Nations within a Nation. It is most appropriate to use individual tribal names when possible and otherwise to choose a term considered most reasonably acceptable to the diverse tribal communities.
Religious persecution has been a reality for American Indians, resulting in the loss of language and traditional practices. Although the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 removed some restrictions on traditional practices, more legal guarantees are needed for the respect and protection for American Indian sacred sites, burial remains and ritual objects. Many American Indians are cautious toward interested outsiders due to centuries of persecution and repression.
Buddhist monks chant during a Buddhist-Christian prayer service at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (2005). A multi-hued tradition of life, thought, and practice that has developed from the teaching and practice that has developed from the teaching and practice of Siddhartha Gautama (6th century BCE) who came to be called the Buddha, "the awakened one." The three major streams of the tradition -- Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana -- share the conviction that one can gain liberation from the suffering inherent in the life through mental attentiveness, moral cultivation, and compassionate service. Today, large Buddhist communities can be found in South and Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and East Asia, with smaller but growing communities in North America and Europe.
"Hindu" was originally a word given by the Greeks, then the Persians, to the land and peoples beyond the Indus or "Sindhu" River. The term "Hinduism" came into common use only in the 19th century to describe a pattern of life and practice. The Hindu tradition is more an ethos than a set of beliefs. It includes three major streams of Hindu devotion -- Vaishnava, Shaiva, and Shakta -- and a number of distinctive philosophical traditions. Despite the great sectarian diversity, there are Hindu assumptions about life that do have common, although not universal, currency: the universe is permeated with the Divine, a reality often described as Brahman; the Divine can be known in many names and forms; this reality is deeply and fully present within the human soul; the soul's journey to full self-realization is not accomplished in a single lifetime, but takes many lifetime's; one's course through life is shaped by one's deeds.