Book Review: The World's Wisdom, by Philip Novak

Regardless of belief, every person is affected in some way by religion. It shapes our society and colors our political discussions. The World's Wisdom: Sacred Texts of the World's Religions, by Philip Novak, sheds light on many of the specific messages espoused by major faiths.   

The World's Wisdom has a simple, accessible layout, where each religion is given its own chapter. A concise introduction to the religion starts off each chapter, followed by a numbered outline of the religion's key scriptures. Chapters are rounded out with "grace notes" which include supporting material like religious hymns, poems, brief biographies and quotes.

The religions covered within this book are: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Primal Religions.

Each chapter is further divided into specific sections (before its final "grace notes"). For example, Christianity covers three sub-sections: The Life of Jesus, The Sayings of Jesus and The Life of the Early Church.

Novak's occasional notes explain or set-up some of the passages, but the religious texts largely speak for themselves. Anyone who wants to read more about specific passages can easily find numbered sources in the book's endnotes.

When reading The World's Wisdom, it's interesting to see how religions from different cultures have tried to answer many of the same questions. Particularly when it comes to how life began, what happens after we die, and what is the "right" way to live.

There are some beautiful, uplifting messages found throughout religion, such as The Isa Upanishad's "Who sees all beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear." (Hinduism) Of course, there are also darker passages about subjects like jealous gods, suffering and punishments.

While religions often touch on similar subjects, there are many fundamental differences from one faith to the next. Major religions like Hinduism and Buddhism are more interested in a journey for internal, spiritual knowledge. In contrast, Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) focus on an external God who rules over his followers.

As it says in the introduction for Primal Religions, anthropologists have estimated that, since the earliest humans, the world has seen nearly 100,000 different religions. These various belief systems have been a guiding force in our cultural and social development.

By exploring some of the major world religions' sacred text we can understand more about the beliefs which got us to this point in time and continue to shape our evolving societies.

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