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Overview of "The Problem"

Overview of "The Problem"

Author: Ted Fairchild

Identify the types of questions regarding human existence that religions seek to answer, and how they do so.

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Hello. Welcome back. The religions of the world address life's big questions. Because these questions are often very broad and general, they are also approached from other angles. The discipline of philosophy in particular, with its concern for these questions, has traditionally been aligned with religion and theology.

In the seventh century of the common era, Saint John of Damascus is quoted and credited with saying, philosophy is the handmaiden of theology. This is the idea that faith and reason are not incompatible, but they support each other. When religion is strong and vibrant in a culture, often philosophy lends itself to the tasks at hand. This quote from Saint John of Damascus was at a time when ontology-- the study and the science of being-- was one of the dominant preoccupations and concerns.

Ontology itself, because of what it is, has the power to reach every corner of existence. We could say that all serious questions about life and death, substance and essence, cause and effect, passive and active forces, et cetera, all of these things reach into the life of every religion and most religious topics in one way or another and into the lives of individuals.

Let's look at some common questions and concerns and how a few of the religions might be inclined to address them, and also how philosophy might serve as support.

Life is suffering. This is the first Noble Truth of the Buddha. And as Buddhism unfolded, it developed a spiritual, philosophical, and really a psychological doctrine for coming to terms with this fundamental aspect and truth of human life. Buddhism teaches that suffering is caused by cravings and attachments that are guided by our desires and fears, which are a result of our ignorance of the way out of suffering.

Buddhism teaches the practitioner how to train his or her mind to see cravings and desires and everything that takes the form of will and thought and habit, to see them when they arise, to accept them and simply let them go without grasping and clinging, without grabbing onto the security that our ignorance tells us they might provide. The Eightfold Path is a guide for the practitioner to learn self compassion, compassion for all beings, moral integrity and intention, and day-to-day consciousness about how one communicates with the world.

Looking at these issues from a philosophical perspective, the discipline of applied ethics and cognitive behavioral therapy could be seen as direct support for the Buddhist. A great book that integrates Western psychology and Eastern religion of Buddhism is called "Going On Being" by Mark Epstein. I'd suggest to take a look at it if you have a moment.

What about the question of evil? Buddhism considers evil to be related to this process of perpetual illusion that guides the unenlightened mind. If evil exists, if evil has a cause, it can be boiled down to suffering and the way suffering is approached and understood and misunderstood. The Western religions, on the other hand-- working with philosophy, too-- have a whole academic theological discipline related to it. It's called Theodicy.

Theodicy has to do with trying to reconcile the apparent reality of evil in the world with faith and belief in an all-powerful, all-beneficent creator. How can evil exist if the almighty is good? Why would God let this happen? Certainly the monotheistic traditions have stories of the fall of man-- for instance in Christianity, where man sinned and disobeyed God and was cast out of the garden, out of paradise. There's a story in the Hebrew Bible about how evil came to be in the form of Satan. It began with Lucifer, who disobeyed God's orders and desired autonomy from God. Fatally unaware of his own pride, he was cast out of heaven and thrown down to Earth to suffer with his cohorts.

So notions of good and bad, ethical and moral conduct, it's not only a religiously guided issue. It's also issues that are the ground of civil life-- applied ethics, for example, bioethics, where an issue like euthanasia might come up, which looks at the issues surrounding the moral justification for mercy killing. Someone might argue that this practice is itself an evil act. Philosophy and religion certainly could come together or very much apart on issues like this. So justice and mercy, law and order, civil society, penal codes of justice, the realm where belief and action meet, intention and manifestation.

Considering questions about death and the afterlife, many religions have elaborate belief structures and practices to help deal with these challenges-- various conceptions of heaven and hell, for example. And with this and the other religious philosophical questions that we've looked at so far, the traditions include doctrinal codes that assist the believer in moving along in the right direction.

Following the doctrine and tradition, the practical life of the adherent is meant to serve as a way of piecing together responses and solutions to these existential, ontological, spiritual concerns and conundrums. In the Eastern religions-- like Hinduism and Buddhism, for example-- there is a return to the wheel of suffering, there's nirvana, there's the realm of [INAUDIBLE]. All of these are additional doctrinal responses to the questions.

Now we can review. We started with a quote from Saint John of Damascus, who said that philosophy is the handmaiden of religion. This is the idea that life's big questions are addressed from many different angles, and that philosophy and religion are often very compatible. We looked at the idea of suffering in Buddhism. We looked at good and evil. We looked at ethical and moral codes of conduct. We used an example from bioethics and euthanasia. And the hope is that answers to the questions can be pieced together through the practical life of a believer or a practitioner. And we concluded that there are doctrinal responses if not answers to these questions which are built into the traditions, naturally with philosophy's helping hand.