Tuesday, 19 June 2018
What Is Religion?
An Integral Approach, Part 1"The future of religion is extinction." - anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace
After over 50 years of religious non-extinction, Wallace’s forecast is beginning to look like the end-times predictions of the Apocalypse. Wallace was undoubtedly thinking of religion in terms of what he was familiar with, namely the supernaturalistic belief systems found in nearly all traditional cultures. Today, a more sophisticated definition of ‘religion’ would probably warn him away from any such forecast.
What has been extinguished is the domination of cultures by pre-modern faith systems associated with the familiar names Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Modern science and philosophy have given rise to a strong secular movement in all the world’s advanced societies, along with a backlash against it in the form of ‘culture wars,’ while violent sectarian wars continue to repeat history. Clearly religion is not going down for the count anytime soon—actually, I would argue, not ever, for religion properly understood is the human response to our ultimate concerns, and those are inseparable from human life itself.
Religious Studies in the West
Religious studies is a young academic discipline, first added to the curricula of European universities in the late 19th century. As the academic study of world religions progressed into the late 20th century, it became increasingly clear that the original names western scholars had used for distinguishing religions from one another - Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Shinto, Buddhism, etc., were no longer adequate for understanding the rich complexity of religious expressions in the various cultures of the world. Hinduism, for example, is no longer thought to be a single religion but rather a family of religious types that differ from one another in certain important ways; e.g. polytheism and monotheism faith systems, among others, co-exist in the sprawling Hindu religious landscape. The same is true of Christianity, Buddhism, and all the other major traditions. Clearly a different way of thinking about religious phenomena was called for. This series is an inquiry into whether there is a ‘best way’ to think about the world’s religions or whether we must settle for a variety of approaches that cannot be reconciled with one another.
In the first two centuries of religious studies, we can distinguish traditional, modern, and postmodern approaches to investigations of religious systems. Traditionalists reflect a bias in favor of their own religious perspective, and so they look for features of their own religion - Christianity, for example - that might be present in other traditions. (The term 'religion' itself is a Western creation referring originally (c. 1200 CE) to the binding of Christian monks to God through a set of solemn vows.) ‘Religion = Christianity’ is the traditional attitude. Similar sectarian biases are found in the other major traditions. Modernist scholars take an objective point of view with the aim of making the study of religion scientific. While vastly increasing our knowledge of the world’s religions, the scientific approach too often tends to reduce religion to psychological, historical, cultural, or even physical factors (neuroscience). ‘Religion is a psychological illusion’ is one such view. Less visible but gaining in influence over the last few decades is a postmodern reaction to the narrowness and intolerance of traditionalist and modernist interpretations of the world's religions. A postmodern perspective is grounded in an empathic and sensitive response to the lives of others despite their profound differences from one's own. As Professor Frederick Streng writes:
In a quite different kind of response to religious pluralism, a person recognizes that other human beings are as moral, devout, intelligent and religiously sensitive as oneself. Despite different religious views, other people are equally able to find happiness and peace and to perceive profound meaning in life. ….. Why not participate in the joys and freedom witnessed to by a different religious option?
Religion and Postmodernism
Postmodern scholars of religion, dissatisfied with traditional and modernist definitions, have searched for a more inclusive, value-neutral approach. In his course Cultural Literacy for Religion, Prof. Mark Berkson considers three different types of definitions used today by scholars of religion. First, a substantive definition identifies a single feature as the essence of religion and uses that to distinguish religious phenomena from non-religious. One such substantive definition is: religion is belief in supernatural beings and ritual practices aimed at connecting people with those beings. Another type of definition is functional. This approach sees religions as social systems providing answers and meanings to communities of people who are bound together by a common set of beliefs and practices.
All such definitions seem too narrow to postmodernist scholars. Berkson prefers what he calls a "family resemblance" type of definition in which a list or cluster of characteristics commonly associated with religion are used to compare the various traditions. Prof. Ninian Smart's widely cited "Seven Dimensions of Religion" is an example of this type:
The Seven Dimensions of Religion
Ritual: Forms and orders of ceremonies (private and/or public)
Narrative and Mythic: stories (often regarded as revealed) that work on several levels. Sometimes narratives fit together into a fairly complete and systematic interpretation of the universe and human's place in it.
Experiential and emotional: private, individual experiences of dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion, liberation, ecstasy, inner peace, bliss
Social and Institutional: belief system and attitudes shared and practiced by a group; rules for identifying community membership and participation
Ethical and legal: rules about human behavior (often regarded as revealed from a supernatural realm)
Doctrinal and philosophical: systematic formulation of religious teachings in an intellectually coherent form
Material: ordinary objects or places that symbolize or manifest the sacred or supernatural.
The Smart/Berkson approach looks promising. Rather than defining religion in terms of a single, narrow common feature or function, we are invited to consult a checklist of characteristics that the best known traditions exhibit and say that any phenomenon that has those characteristics is a religion. The checklist approach includes substantive and functional aspects, and its flexibility prevents it from being either too narrow or too broad. However, there is a problem if the claim is made that all seven dimensions are necessary conditions for some activity to be called religious. Zen Buddhism, for example, has no system of “religious teachings in an intellectually coherent form.” A solitary yogin meditating in a cave may have no use for ritual, doctrine, organization, or symbolic objects. Confucianism does not offer much in the way of narrative or myth. And yet these are all commonly recognized as religions.
It appears that some important religions will have some but not all of the characteristics in the list. How many are required? Which of the seven are the most important? What if the list is inaccurate? - another system posits twelve defining characteristics. The ‘family resemblance’ approach has a lot of appeal but is ultimately unsatisfying. It lacks the simplicity and elegance we would like to have for a proper theory of religion. My philosophical instinct is to look for a higher level definition that will unify the various lists by subsuming them under a single, concise conception of the fundamental nature of religious life.
Sometimes in cases like this it helps to reformulate the question. Taking a hint from functionalism, let us ask, What is religion for? Religion is not something that happens to people; it is something they do. It's a purposeful activity. Is there a common purpose that religious people share, while the specific forms of their pursuit of that purpose may be many and varied? Many years ago I stumbled upon an answer to this question that has served me well ever since. It was proposed by a widely admired professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, Dr. Frederick J. Streng. In his book Understanding Religious Life, Streng offered the following definition:
“Religion is a means toward ultimate transformation.”
This definition emerged from an attempt to understand religion primarily 'from within,' from the standpoint of the individual believer, disciple, or devotee, rather than from the third-person perspective of social science. This was the approach taken by a group of scholars, led by Dr. Streng, who came to some prominence in the late 1970's and 80's with a series of books under the general title, The Religious Life of Man. The theoretical explication and application of their definition I will refer to as Ultimate Transformation Theory (UTT).
The UTT scholars discovered three universal characteristics among people living what they consider to be religious lives:
1. Religion is a way of life organized around a person’s ultimate concerns.
2. All religions challenge individuals to transform their lives toward a resolution of those concerns.
3. Every religion offers specific means for achieving an ultimate transformation.
These elements are captured in their definition "Religion is a means toward ultimate transformation." Now definitions in philosophy, science, and all other fields are meant to do work for us, not merely to languish passively between the covers of dictionaries. Let's see how “Religion is a means toward ultimate transformation” has been put to work to help consolidate our understanding of the bewildering variety of religious expressions in the world. That will put us in a position to inquire as to whether the project requires updating in light of new facts and insights.
My central thesis is that, following UT theory, whatever surface differences may be discerned among the world’s religious traditions, the single deep, essential, common element in each is a program giving individuals the means of transforming their lives toward resolving their ultimate concerns. In the absence of this core feature, no way of life can be called religious. Given that assumption, along with the claim that a postmodern perspective is the fairest, least biased approach available, our task now is to see how our definition might provide the best available orientation for investigating the phenomenon of religious life.
Ways of Being Religious
In their researches, the UTT scholars discovered eight significant "Ways of Being Religious": four traditional-transcendental and four contemporary-secular. In their book of collected writings, Ways of Being Religious, the eight types are displayed in a chart (Figure 1 below) showing how each one interprets four basic elements of any religious process: 1) the Problem; 2) the Answer; 3) the Means as Appropriated Individually, and 4) the Means as Appropriated Socially. The underlying premise of the system is that religion is a response to one or more perceived fundamental problems confronting humans, such as ignorance or fear of death. An individual's response to the problem would include an idea of what the answer might be, that is, the nature of the personal transformation that would solve the problem, and the means or methods to be undertaken in order to achieve an ultimate transformation.
As I have noted, this approach to understanding religion is quite different from the rejectionist and reductionist tendencies found in traditional and modern systems. UT theorists take a postmodern perspective called religious pluralism, in which the many varieties of religious life are regarded as "equally active in the world," with none enjoying a privileged position as superior in some way to any other. This view is reflected in the horizontal arrangement of the eight "ways of being religious" on the charts in Figures 1, 2, and 3 below. They appear there as options open for anyone's appropriation or appreciation, depending on their underlying worldview or perhaps on their personality.
UT theory offers a refreshing break from the sectarian and reductionistic definitions of the past. It appeals to progressive thinkers who are sensitive to the challenges posed by our postmodern, multicultural, globally connected world. They are disturbed by the culture wars (and sometimes real wars) fought among religions and between religious believers and secularists. These philosophers - postmodern pluralists - are opposed to the absolutism and exclusivity of traditional faiths, but also to the equally absolutist tendencies of modernists who dismiss all religions in favour of a science-based materialism. Pluralists embrace a relativistic epistemology in which all so-called ‘truth’ is seen as historical, contextual, and contingent. Privileging any point of view above others is frowned upon. Perspectives are innumerable. Let a thousand worldviews flourish. Mutual understanding, tolerance, and cooperation are what we need in these dangerous times, not culture wars.
By delivering the simplicity and elegance of a proper theoretical definition, the UTT definition avoids the messiness of the checklist approach. Possessing a good working definition, however, is only a beginning. The task of corralling the vast array of religious expressions that flourish in today’s world is by no means easy. The UT scholars have pointed us in a new and promising direction, but, not surprisingly for pioneers, they produced less than perfect results in the full elaboration of their theory. Despite its postmodern appeal, the UT theory of religious types has some important weaknesses. The two most significant are first, a failure to distinguish between states and structures of religious consciousness and, second, to miss the developmental spectrum of stages implicit in their list of “Eight Ways of Being Religious.”
To the first of these, it is not clear that the first religious type charted in Figure 2 is really a way of living a religious life. Notice the striking difference between "Personal Experience of the Holy" and the other seven types. Each of those seven can easily be understood as a genuine way of life, that is, a program of religious activities that can be enacted over and over - every day even - throughout a person's life.* By contrast, "Personal Experience of the Holy" refers to dramatic, unpredictable, short-lived, unrepeatable, and rare eruptions of spiritual energy or emotion that cannot be harnessed into an ongoing spiritual practice in the same way as daily prayer or meditation.
Such experiences are states of consciousness, not stable structures or repeatable practices. It is true, as UT theory stresses, that an experience of the Divine mysterium tremendum often results in a dramatic change in a person’s life going forward: from sensuous indulgence to moderation; from selfishness to generous service, etc., but the means employed in daily living after the transforming experience are independent of the experience itself which, after a time, becomes a distant memory. The new life of the ’born again’ person becomes a way of being religious that is distinct from having a vision of Krishna or receiving a revelation from Allah, even though the new way of life obviously originated with the Divine Encounter. For example, the vision experienced by St. Paul led him to become “apostle to the gentiles” and the founder of the Christian Church. Those activities are properly classified in the UTT scheme as “Creation of Community Through Myth and Ritual.” After his revelation experience, Mohammed founded Islam which promotes “Daily Living That Expresses Cosmic Law.”
If these examples are typical, then it appears the lives that are changed by one or more “Personal Experiences of the Holy” usually morph into the “Community Through Myth and Ritual” type or the “Daily Conformity with Cosmic Law,” or perhaps even “Spiritual Freedom Through Discipline,” whichever is the default social expression of religiosity in the given culture. Those three and the rest of the types identified in UTT, (with the possible exception of “Creation of the Full Life Through Sensuous Experiences,”)* can be called structures (or stages, as we will see), because, unlike state experiences, they are relatively permanent or stable, often over a lifetime. For example, a person born into a religious community of the myth and ritual type, e.g. Roman Catholicism, might remain in that faith for his or her entire life.
The second problem is that religious pluralism suffers from the absence of any recognition of religious or spiritual development in humans. Religious development? The notion is not as strange as it may first appear. We are all familiar with the observable development of children through stages - from infancy to early childhood to adolescence to adulthood, but not until recently have researchers thought to expand inquiry into development across cultural boundaries.
* Sensuous experiences are also states of consciousness, not structures, but they are repeatable, so I have treated the eighth type in the UTT scheme below as a stage/ structure (see “Creating the Full Life Through Sensuous Experiences,” Stage 1 in Figure 4 below.)
Figure 1 (detailed more legibly in Figures 2 and 3)
In the last hundred years or so, the application of social-scientific methods to the study of human development have greatly expanded our understanding of how and in what ways humans grow and mature over a lifetime. Studies of biological and cognitive development, for example, have been with us for a long time, but in the last 50 years many more "multiple intelligences" or lines of consciousness development have been discovered and thoroughly researched: aesthetic, emotional, moral, interpersonal, and many others. In his book Integral Psychology, philosopher Ken Wilber researched and correlated over 100 developmental models.
What does ‘development’ mean in our context? In Part 2 of this series, I will explore this question and then discuss how religious development theory requires us to make an important shift in our understanding of religion in general.
[Figures 2 and 3 are adapted from the chart (Figure 1 above) in F. Streng, et al,, Ways of Being Religious: a New Approach to Religion (1985).]