Senior Seminar, Comprehensive Exam Questions

Religious Studies

  • Contrast conceptions of God in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
  • What are the differences between the status and interpretation of scriptural writings in the traditions of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism?
  • Discuss the "mystery religions" in the ancient world, and what influence they had on the interpretation of Jesus that Paul formulated in his letters.
  • Explain the place of the Koran in Islam.
  • What is involved in a historical-critical analysis of scripture, especially as it relates to the Jewish and Christian Bibles?
  • Explain the central role of the covenant in Judaism.
  • What are some of the issues and who are some of the persons associated with the grace / free will dispute as it developed in the history of Christianity.
  • Compare and contrast Agape with Eros and Philia.
  • How would you go about giving the central characteristics of any religion? What makes something a "religion?"
  • Compare and contrast the approaches of Strauss, Schweitzer, and Bultmann to the Gospels and the life of Jesus.
  • What is, in your judgment, the proper relationship between philosophy and theology in establishing the boundaries of "faith" and reason?
  • Islam claims to be more purely monotheistic than either Judaism or Christianity. On what grounds does it make this claim?
  • What impact did the Enlightenment and its continuing influence have on religion and the study of religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?
  • Explain the place of ritual in religion as ritualizing relates to human rites of passage and to annual liturgical calendars.
  • Discuss Nietzsche's critique of Christianity. Compare his figures or Dionysus or Zarathustra with the figure of Christ.
  • Why are myths so typically important to religions? What sets these stories apart from other types of stories? Compare and contrast the tragic and the Biblical (Adamic myths) or the cosmic (cyclical) renewal and gnostic myths.
  • Explain the role and impact of Paul in early Christianity.
  • What are Augustine's ideas concerning church and state, and how do these ideas effect such institutions in the present age?
  • What are the differences between a scriptural and an oral tradition?
  • Can one believe in God without believing in metaphysics? Why or why not?
  • Explain Luther's doctrine of "sola fides." What led him to this doctrine, and how did this impact his attitude toward the Catholic Church?
  • Explain Paul Tillich's notion of the ground of being, and how Christ functions as a symbol for the ground of being.
  • Citing the works of contemporary feminist theologians such as Mary Daly, Rosemary Rudford, and Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, illustrate recent attempts to describe God in feminine terms.
  • Define "gnosticism," and discuss how it challenged the interpretation of Jesus in the early Christian movement. What position did orthodox Christianity take in response to the gnostic challenge?
  • Discuss the concept of "Messiah" in Judaism, and why the Christian claim of Jesus as Messiah was a "stumbling block to the Jews."
  • What was the Arian controversy about, and how was it conceptually resolved in the creed formulated at Nicea?
  • In world religions, are there any contexts in which one can be deeply religious and an atheist at the same time? Explain.
  • In Forgotten Truth, Huston Smith writes about "the primordial tradition" as the point on which all religions agree. Discuss this tradition and evaluate Smith's claims about it from your own point of view.
  • Discuss the notion of North American Pan-Indianism, particularly as a response to the interaction of indigenous cultures and the dominant culture. Be sure to note at least two major examples of Pan-Indianism in the last century. Describe two of these movements in some detail. In your estimation, who would more likely to be more open to these movements, the Lakota or the Zuni? Explain why.
  • In God is Red, Vine Deloria is critical of much of the literature published in recent years on Native Americans. Succinctly summarize his objections to at least three different books. On the basis of this summary, state in general terms Deloria's problem with this literature. Tell why you agree or disagree with Deloria's criticism of this literature. Finally, discuss whether you think his criticism is helpful or harmful to the Native American cause.
  • Discuss whether you think that Native American artifacts and remains should be preserved in the Smithsonian and other museums as a witness to future Americans of the life of the indigenous peoples of this continent, or whether all such items should be returned to Native Americans to be disposed of in the traditional manner.
  • Describe in detail Vine Deloria's comparison in God is Red between the reaction of the dominant culture to the Civil Rights movement of the sixties and the Native American political movement of the seventies. He offers an imaginative scenario that highlights these differences. Please recount at least four incidents in this scenario. Explain why you think this scenario is effective or offensive.
  • Visions play an important role in many religious traditions. Visions may arise spontaneously in the visionary, or may be produced by various techniques, such as fasting, self-mutilation, sleep-deprivation, or the ingestion of hallucinogenic substances. Discuss the place of visions in at least two distinct religious traditions, such as the Zuni and the Lakota or Buddhism and Christianity. Are visions genuine encounters with a spiritual dimension of existence or merely hallucinations? Is there a qualitative difference between a vision that comes spontaneously or one that is induced by one of the techniques described above? Are visions generated by psychedelic substances less genuine as spiritual experiences than other kinds of visions?
  • Using examples drawn from at least two traditions, explain the significance of the symbolism of the circle, the center, and the sacred directions in indigenous cultures.
  • Is there a core mystical experience common to all religions or does the character of mysticism vary from tradition to tradition?
  • What is the relation of the apophatic and the cataphatic ways in mysticism? Which do you think is the ultimate approach? Be sure to refer to the writings of various mystical writers as you answer this question.
  • A classic Hindu saying is, "The Real is one, though the sages name it differently." Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not? Please use specific illustrations from at least two religious traditions to bolster your argument.
  • Describe in detail the similarities and differences between the four major varieties of Hindu yoga.
  • Jesus was a Jew. In recent decades, Jewish and Christian scholars have been attempting to recover Jesus as a Jew. Recount at least four recent scholarly attempts at portraying the Jewishness of Jesus.
  • Nondualism is a central notion in many religions. Explain this concept, giving examples from a number of religious traditions. Choose a specific theme of religions and show how nondualistic and dualistic religions differ on this point.
  • Discuss John Hick's attempt to solve the problem of religious pluralism. Discuss both the theological and the philosophical elements of his approach.
  • Is there only one true religion? Are all religions one? Are any religions true? Does it make sense to use the word true with respect to religions?
  • Discuss the significance of sacrifice in religion. Describe at least two different kinds of sacrifice from two religious traditions. Is sacrifice essential to religion?
  • Offer a definition of religion and defend it against two other standard definitions of religion.
  • Discuss in detail the difference between the Indian conception of reincarnation and the traditional African conception of blood reincarnation.
  • Discuss in detail, using examples, the difference between the hunting religion of the Wind River Shoshoni and the agricultural religion of the Zuni. Taking a more general perspective, indicate what these two different indigenous cultures share in common as expressions of indigenous North American religion.
  • Explain the Hindu concept of deity.
  • How is Islam related to Judaism?
  • Differentiate the Sunnis, Shiites, Sufis, and Wahhabis.
  • How does archaeological evidence substantiate or discredit the biblical record?
  • Wellhausen says that the Mosaic history is the starting point for the history of Judaism, not the history of Ancient Israel. Explain.
  • Describe the process and problems of Hellenism among the Jewish people at the time of Alexander the Great, Antiochus IV, and Jesus of Nazareth.
  • List the criteria for the third quest of the historical Jesus. (Make sure to explain the relationship between the synoptic Gospels and the development of separate sources in composing the answer).
  • Discuss Paul's theology.
  • Discuss what the church said about Jesus Christ at Nicea and Chalcedon .
  • For Barth the Word of God is the basis of the church's speaking. Explain.
  • Differentiate the Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist concept of the sacraments, emphasizing baptism and the Lord's Supper.
  • What were the main points of conflict for the Protestant reformers in their confrontations with Roman Catholicism and with each other?
  • How does globalization impact the future of religious identity?
  • Why did some intellectuals in medieval Islam question the necessity for Muslims to study philosophy at all? How do you explain the following statement: Islamic philosophy is essentially prophetic philosophy?
  • How did the Sharia (Islamic law) evolve (sources, sections, and schools), and what role does it play in Muslim societies today?
  • Is the Christian belief in God's revelation through Jesus an insurmountable obstacle to the development of a Christian and at the same time pluralistic theology of religions?
  • Would an "outsider" or an "insider" approach be more beneficial when studying a religion?
  • Discuss the benefits of a particular method of studying religions: as a reference, one might consider the psychological approach, the sociological approach, the historical approach, the material culture approach, or the textual criticism approach.

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