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The Problem With Studying Religion


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I never know where the ideas will lead me but this time I felt a need to organize what I found more than usual.

 

I think it is difficult to talk about the evolution of religion or whether religion is good or bad unless we are more specific about what we are observing. We need also to remind ourselves religion is an abstract notion with many parts worthy of study but the experience of faith is not a subject of study and should not swept into that bin of religion.

 

Harvey Whitehouse, while discussing recipes for ratatouille offered four 'recipes' for types or functions of religions. I have added a fifth.

 

Sacred Party

Therapy

Personal quest

School

Activists

 

Whitehouse, who thinks at a paygrade or two above me, was hoping to to provide discrete targets for scientific study of religion.

 

Thomas A. Idinopulos, Professor of Religion at Miami University of Ohio, following Wilfred Cantwell Smith, says that such a functional analysis of religion, will not yield any information that can describe the religioous person or experience. A functional analysis of religion cannot probe into the questions of meaning, of aim or purpose, of self-identity that are so important to the faithful. An empirical study of religion should gather reports from the faithful about their experiences and would not reify them, make them objects for analysis and then regard the analysis as having more value than the experiences reported.

 

(I think the Anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann has done the research that Idinopulos is looking for. For her book, When God Talks Back, she lived with the evangelicals whose personal relationships with God she was observing. Of course I mention a book I haven't read.)

 

Idinopulos says that people of faith do not recognize what they do as part of a religion until it is pointed out to them. At that moment then they move from participant to observers. If we are talking about 'religion' we are not talking about a lived life of faith; we are talking about some abstraction.

 

No scholar has made us more aware of the inadequacies of the word [religion] than Wilfred Cantwell Smith. He urges us to abandon it altogether in favor of another word, faith, which he contends more accurately expresses the meaning of religion. Smith defines faith as ". . . . a inner religious experience or involvement of a particular person; the impingement on him of the transcendent, putative or real."

 

... Smith seems to regard human beings as having a propensity for faith, so that one speaks of their faith as "innate." In his analysis, faith and transcendence are more accurate descriptions of the lives of religious human beings than conventional uses of the word, religion. The reason for this has to do with the distinction between participant and observer.

...

If both faith and transcendence lie beyond the observer's knowledge, what is possible within the limit of observation? The answer, it seems, begins with the frank admission that the academic study of religion is about religion, a historical object, not about the living faith of countless human beings.

 

WHAT IS RELIGION? by Thomas A. Idinopulos

The study of religion is not the same thing as the practice of faith, and therein lies the problem.

 

Just thinking

 

Dutch

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We need also to remind ourselves religion is an abstract notion with many parts worthy of study but the experience of faith is not a subject of study and should not [be] swept into that bin of religion.

- emphasis mine.

 

I couldn't agree with you more.

 

NORM

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“If we are talking about 'religion' we are not talking about a lived life of faith; we are talking about some abstraction.”

 

This seems like a helpful distinction – I think we sometimes misuse the word religion to mean faith; and I’ve often seen the word faith used to mean orthodoxy, rather than praxis. The difference is between internal reality, and external form.

 

To me, religion is an institution, which can be an object of analysis and historical study; faith is subjective experience, devotion, transcendence. I’ve known so many people who exemplify Jesus' humility, understanding and generosity in their lives, yet have nothing to do with religion as such. I've also known people like that who regularly attend a church, sing in choirs, serve on committees, etc.

 

What was the fifth category you added – activism?

Edited by rivanna
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In Sam Keen's Five Stages of Religion a mystical or primal religious experience is central or foundational. That's where it all begins and should end. Each step away from the experience represents a loss. The function of church should be to return us to that sense of wonder and awe, fear and dread. (Loyal Rue argues that these peak experiences are of secondary importance but have a bonding effect.)

 

Stage 1:

An individual person goes off by himself and has a primary, transformative experience of the sacred. These are people like Moses, the Buddha, Confucius, Jesus (and I would add, Mohammed, Rumi, Socrates, Heraklitus, and many others). Their experiences are symbolized by metaphors like Moses’ burning bush, or the ecstatic poetry of William Blake. Thus indicating that for whatever reason, these people have begun to see ordinary reality as something extraordinary.

Lone individual transforming primal experience of the sacred or holy, here and now becomes luminous seeing ordinary realtity as extraordinary a way of seeing that reveals the sacred object that carries that sacred

 

Stage 2

Disciples are so inspired by this primary figure that they begin to mythologize them. The individual becomes a legend, a superhuman being, born of a virgin or under auspicious star signs, or whatever, with miraculous powers and insight.

 

Stage 3

The holy individual’s revelations and subsequent mythologies are turned into a theology—a systematic examination of the implications of the original experiences.

 

Stage 4

Creation of a religious institution, a church or whatever, to preserve, continue, and communicate the theology.

 

Stage 5

The religious institution ends up competing with secular institutions, and thus sets its sights on notions of Empire and domination.

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What sense of fear and dread do you think the church should return us to?

Sam Keen believes the function of the church is to people to the primary experience which includes both awe and wonder and fear and dread. Think of it as the shadow side, the dark night of the soul, facing our mortality. He thinks the our highest experiences are limited by our lowest lows.

 

Dutch

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(I think the Anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann has done the research that Idinopulos is looking for. For her book, When God Talks Back, she lived with the evangelicals whose personal relationships with God she was observing. Of course I mention a book I haven't read.)

 

You (and others) might be interested in an Op-ed in today's NYTimes written by Luhrmann. The topic is understanding evangelicals in a political context.

 

http://campaignstops...ot-as-i-say/?hp

 

George

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Interesting link, George. Thanks for sharing.

 

I think, in many cases, evangelicals' hearts are in the right place. They do good service in communities, poor countries, urban areas, etc - it's just bothersome that it often has a quid pro quo feel to it. If volunteering at a soup kitchen, or visiting the sick in the hospital is part of your spiritual journey and brings you, personally, closer to God, then fantastic. If you're doing it to convert people, to rack up soldiers in God's army, then to me, that's a problem. Intent matters a great deal.

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If you're doing it to convert people, to rack up soldiers in God's army, then to me, that's a problem. Intent matters a great deal.

 

Yes, and I suspect this is too often the motive.

 

George

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Returning to the original point ...

 

IMO, Religion is man-made, complete with rules and expectations, community punishments, and rituals.

 

Faith is spiritual, between a person and their Higher Power, whatever form that may take, and how that spirituality is demonstrated in the real world.

 

Religion can be more passive, where faith can be more active.

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I read the original post again and something struck me as humorous -

Idinopulos says that people of faith do not recognize what they do as part of a religion until it is pointed out to them.
- makes religion sound like quantum mechanics, as soon as the event is observed the outcome is affected. But maybe that's only funny to me because I've been watching too many shows about physics on the Science channel. :D

 

Returning to the original point ...

 

IMO, Religion is man-made, complete with rules and expectations, community punishments, and rituals.

 

Faith is spiritual, between a person and their Higher Power, whatever form that may take, and how that spirituality is demonstrated in the real world.

 

Religion can be more passive, where faith can be more active.

 

Raven, you took the thoughts right out of my head.

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