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1: General Introduction

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    How should we make sense of differences and similarities among religious phenomena? What weight should be given to differences? And what weight should be given to similarities? How to do justice to both is relevant to the student who wishes to learn about and relate intelligently to the religious behavior and expressions of her fellow human beings. The question is relevant to the Lutheran couple who must decide how to relate to the Muslim family that just moved in next door. Although they may not realize it, it is no less relevant to deciding how they should relate to the Pentecostal faith of the gentleman their daughter is dating. It is relevant as well to the young man who desires to find which, if any, of the religious options he faces has worth in relation to the others.

    The accounts religious traditions give of themselves for the benefit of outsiders usually do not tell you enough. Usually not enough is said to satisfy the need to understand, and often the desire to seek a new convert or distrust of outsiders gets in the way. Even less satisfactory are the slanted accounts traditions often give of their relation to other traditions. A source of relatively neutral information is needed, and so resort is made to the academic accounts of historians and anthropologists who specialize in providing a more or less objective account. 1 However, simple historical or anthropological descriptions of particular phenomena and particular traditions posed alongside one another are not enough. Comprehension demands the employment of cross-cultural categories that are not biased on behalf of the perspective of a particular tradition-for example, categories such as prayer, worship, faith, sacred story, ritual, sacrificial offering, doctrine, scripture, theological explanation, meditation, or possession trance. It is difficult to imagine how historical and anthropological descriptions can be developed at all without some resort to cross-cultural categories. The academic study of religion has recognized this for quite some time. A great number of categories have been, and continue to be, variously employed. A number of efforts have been made to bring conceptual clarity and order to them, not least the 1987 publication of The Encyclopedia ofReligion, edited by Mircea Eliade. Nevertheless, obscurity and disorder remain.

    How should we make sense of the differences and similarities among religious phenomena? First, what are we to make of the apparent similarities-at times deep structural parallels-between religious phenomena that have no apparent historical connection? Does that mean that they really amount to the same thing but just in different dress, as it were? For example, is mysticism the same thing in all traditions? Or is shamanism a distinct religion unto itself? Second, what are we to make of the apparent dissimilarities-at times clear contradictions-between the doctrines of one religious tradition and those of another? Does that mean they have nothing of significance in common? For example, must a Muslim deny all validity and worth to Hindus because they do not acknowledge the authority of the Qur'an and appear to engage in idolatrous practices? In relation to these two questions, a third question must be addressed: How might these first two questions-about the significance of similarities on the one hand and differences on the other-be sorted out and answered on grounds that do not beg theological and metaphysical questions? Or, how can they be answered without privileging the beliefs of one tradition over another? Any attempt to answer these three questions, especially this last one, raises difficult and controversial issues. Yet that is what this book's exposition of the framework of six generic ways of being religious seeks to do.

    To make these abstract questions more concrete, consider the following two situations:

    A young Baptist businessman who identifies himself with Evangelical Protestant Christianity (as represented, say, by Billy Graham rather than Jerry Fallwell), for whom the essence of Christianity is to have a "personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ," travels to Sri Lanka. There he has an exposure to Buddhism and an opportunity to learn something about it. He finds that Buddhists who are serious about religion take up a monastic life, sever all ties with thisworldly activities, and devote their entire lives to a rigorous discipline of ascetic practice and meditation for the sake of attaining nirvatJa He thinks, "This is the difference between Christianity and Buddhism: a personal relationship of faith in Jesus Christ involving a surrender to the saving grace of God in Christ, versus a largely solitary pursuit of what appears to be an otherworldly mystical bliss." But is this so? Is this all that Buddhism is and all that Christianity is?

    A middle-aged English widow attracted to the writings of the great Western Christian mystics (e.g., John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart), upon reading selections from some of the great Hindu and Sufi mystics from a theosophical publisher, comes to believe that mysticism may be found at the heart of all religions. Impressed by similarities in the writings of these various mystics, she concludes that mysticism is substantially the same thing in all of its many expressions. Indeed, she concludes it is the only. authentic and true religion, and that all else is mere external, dispensable trappings. But is this so? Are all forms of religion best understood and assessed by their approximation to the mystical quest? And is mysticism really the same thing beneath its many expressions in different traditions?

    Indeed, the situation of these imagined persons is not unlike that of the six blind men in the ancient East Indian parable, who, upon encountering an elephant for the first time, each concluded something very different about what an elephant must be. One, feeling the trunk, concluded the elephant must be like a large snake. The second, feeling the tail, concluded, to the contrary, it was very like a duster. The third, coming up against the side of the elephant, said it must be a kind of curved wall. The fourth felt one of the elephant's legs and concluded it was a species of tree. The fifth caught hold of the elephant's ear and said, "No, it is more like a winnowing basket." And the last, grasping the elephant's tusk, said, "You're all wrong! It is more like a plow."

    What is the elephant of human religiousness anyway? Is there a way of comprehending unity in all of the diversity, a unity that recognizes and appreciates significant differences as well? Indeed, what is any one religious tradition? How is it possible to see and comprehend it in the round and not just from one angle only?

    Let's consider the parable of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant again, but this time in a different form more analogous to the problem at hand.

    Once upon a time there was an elephant and six partially blind elephant handlers, each of whom knew a certain elephant well, very well, or so each thought. But each knew the elephant in a different way and, because of the peculiar nature of his blindness, a lack of peripheral vision, each knew nothing at all of the other ways of knowing the elephant.

    The first was the tenth in a long line of ceremonial elephant handlers who, on ceremonial occasions, were placed in charge of this, the King's elephant. He "knew" exactly how this particular elephant should be handled: what words to say, what gestures to use, how appropriately to approach the elephant to get it to do the most impressive things-all in the same way his predecessors had done in the past. Above all, he knew what was right, appropriate, and timely: his handling of the elephant was always and invariably graceful, orderly, and elegant. He "knew" the elephant, or so he was convinced.

    The second was a practical, down-to-earth, no-nonsense sort of fellow. He believed that you really didn't know the elephant unless you worked with the elephant as he had in getting practical things accomplished-heavy loads lifted and moved about, jungles cleared, new roads built. From long experience with the elephant in carrying out such tasks, he was confident he "knew" that elephant, or so he was convinced.

    The third was a deeply sensitive and passionate person. He believed that you really didn't know an elephant unless you had somehow formed an intimate personal friendship with the elephant as he had, a friendship that shared the joys and sorrows, the accomplishments and frustrations, of daily elephant existence. Moreover, he was convinced that it was a two-way relationship: not only did he know the elephant personally, but from the way the elephant responded sympathetically to his own emotional highs and lows, he was sure that the elephant knew him in the same way too. He "knew" the elephant, or so he was convinced.

    The fourth was something of an eccentric. Like those Native American medicine men of the plains who knew how to make contact with the spirit of the bison or the spirit of the antelope to ensure a successful hunt, this man was able, by entering into a trance, to commune so closely with the spirit of that elephant that he was able to bring about an uncanny, cooperative rapport between himself and the elephant. It seemed the elephant would do anything he desired it to without his having to speak aloud or make overt gestures at all. He "knew" the elephant, or so he was convinced.

    The fifth was a quiet, contemplative person who believed that you really couldn't get in touch with the elephant unless you let go of all other preoccupations and became very, very quiet, very still, completely receptive to whatever the elephant revealed of its elephant self, as he had been able to do. Above all, the handler was aware. Nothing escaped his notice: the sounds of the elephant's voice, the elephant's digestion, every movement of the elephant; its smells, its moods, its subtle yet meaningful gestures; its eyes; the rhythm of its swaying, its breathing, and the twitching of its tail-subtle revelations that others miss entirely. He "knew" the elephant, or so he was convinced.

    The sixth and final man was a very learned person who knew more about this breed of elephant and this specific elephant than most of us can imagine. He had studied all about elephant physiology, elephant metabolism, elephant ethology, elephant psychology, everything ever written about the care and feeding and breeding of elephants, and in particular, the history and genealogy of the particular family of elephants from which this elephant had issued. He knew all there was to know about elephants in general and about this elephant in particular. And it wasn't just abstract, ivory-tower, book knowledge either, for he was so effective at applying this knowledge to the practical care of elephants that the King had wisely appointed him as chief caretaker of all his elephants. He "knew" the elephant, or so he was convinced.

    Now, did each of the six men know the elephant? Of course! Indeed, each knew the elephant as well as the elephant could be known-from each man's peculiar angle of approach and in his own way. From the perspective of that way in that place in that time, the elephant could not be known better. But lacking peripheral vision, each knew nothing of what the others knew. And so, each tended to dismiss the others' claim to know the elephant that he knew: "You don't know my 'way' and so you can't possibly know the elephant-at least not as well as I do." Furthermore, each dismissed the idea that he might have something to learn from what the others knew from their different perspectives. Though each supposed he knew the elephant in the round, in fact he did not. What each lacked was an awareness of the limits of his own quite genuine acquaintance. Or, to put the same thing differently, what each man lacked was a sense of the transcendence of the elephant beyond his own limited acquaintance, hence his need (in order to know the elephant in the round) to explore empathetically the other men's knowledge of the elephant. What initially seemed to contradict each man's knowledge and understanding would thereby turn out to complement his own limited perspective.

    This parable illustrates how we stand in regard to any religion we think we know well, and how we stand in regard to religion in general. That is to say, each religion is a different elephant, as it were, and there are at least six different ways of being acquainted with it. Or, to put it more precisely, the ultimate reality recognized in a given religion is a different elephant, and a person who idc:ntifies with one way of being religious as the primary way to approach that ultimate reality is one of the partially blinded elephant handlers. Given our own firsthand acquaintance with a tradition, we may know fairly well one, two, or maybe (if we've really been involved) three of these ways, but few of us know more. And then, as we begin to extrapolate our limited sense of what a religion is about to unfamiliar traditions, we tend to expect to find the same sort of thing. When we do find the same sort of thing, some of us are inclined to conclude that it must therefore be the same thing, despite the differences. Or, when it turns out that we don't find the same sort of thing, our natural tendency is to conclude that here is something completely different. Of course, this is often true of religions completely different from those with which we have some acquaintance but about which we would like to learn. To rely on certain persons to explain what their tradition is all about is to run the risk that we will receive an account reflective of maybe only one, or perhaps two or three of the ways, in which that tradition is put into practice, but unlikely all of them.

    A religion is not at all the sort of thing that lends itself to being fully known from a single perspective. One of the great pioneers in the comparative study of religion toward the end of the nineteenth century; Friedrich Max Muller, regularly asserted that "He who knows only one religion knows none." Although it is somewhat of an exaggeration, it has a certain truth, for the person who has only known and considered her own religious tradition from the perspective of her own practice of it, knows relatively little of it. Just like the six peripherally blinded men, each of us may know a great deal about a given religion-even, in a certain limited way, about religion in general. But how many of us have realized that there may be as many as five other ways of encountering and being acquainted with the fundamental realities that lie at the heart of the religion we think we know, five other ways of getting in touch with it that differ from the way with which we are most familiar? To paraphrase Muller, when you know only one way of being religious in a single tradition, you know none. You don't know that way's specific difference from the others. At best, you know how other ways appear to it. But you know nothing of the limitations and bias of the perspective it embodies. Specifically, you know nothing of the extent to which the appearance of other ways to your perspective are distorted caricatures of what it is really like from within to pursue those ways. And you know nothing of the extent to which the fundamental realities that lie at the heart ofyour tradition disclose quite different and equally rich facets of those other ways.

    The rest of the chapter will present reasons for believing that there are six different generic ways of being religious that, at least in principle, may be realized within a given religious tradition, broadly considered. If indeed these generic possibilities exist, we should be able to find examples of them among the many historical expressions of any major religious tradition. For the most part, this is what we do find. Of course, such examples will be identified for each of the major religions of the world and some outside of those traditions. Some will be described in depth, but most will only be briefly mentioned. That is deliberate, for instead of presenting an in-depth study of the major religions, what this book is proposing is a kind of program for research and comparative study that both students and professional scholars can pursue.

    So, what are the six ways? It may help to consider briefly a widely remarked feature of Hinduism (in popular accounts in the West) that indicates a direct recognition, by some adherents within a major religious tradition, of several of the ways. 2

    The religious tradition of Hinduism is an amalgamation of a multitude of diverse forms of religious life-more so, it appears, than any other major religion. It does not have a single founder (if it can be said to have any historically identifiable founders), and its huge body of sacred scriptures seem to have come from widely divergent sources, for they express an incredible diversity of theological concepts and images. Nevertheless, this diversity is from time to time sorted out by persons who presume to represent the tradition at large (though no one really does represent the whole, especially not in a way that could be said to articulate a consensus among all Hindus). Specifically, it has been said that in Hinduism there are four different yogas or margas (sometimes more than four)four different sorts of path toward at-onement with what is taken to be the ultimate reality (whether conceived theistically as God-for example, Kr~rJaor Sivaor as the Godhead beyond personalized conceptions of God, called Brahman). Different people with different temperaments, these Hindus say, have different religious needs: each person needs a way of being religious suitable to her or his personality and situation in life. 3

    First is karma yoga, the way to "God"4 (that is, to what Hinduism variously takes to be the ultimate reality) through selfless performance of duty (including a manifold array of ritual duties, depending on one's caste, one's status in the family and in the local community, and one's stage in life) and righteous action. The point is to carry out one's allotted role in life as a divinely assigned destiny, doing all with the sense that one's role is divinely given and is, as it were, "God" acting through me, so that my actions originate not in me but in the nonpersonally given divine order of the cosmos known as dharma. Second is bhakti yoga, the way to "God" through adoration and devotional surrender. Here the point is to have one's affections become ablaze with the fire of love for "God" alone, displacing all other affections, in response to his (or her) compassionate grace. Third is dhyana yoga-; the way to "God" through psychosomatic disciplines (spiritual and ascetic disciplines) designed to shift one's conscious awareness beyond the egocentered, mundane sphere, to what is said to be the infinite, divine subject within. Finally, there is jnana yoga, the way to "God" through rational inquiry, argument, and intellectual comprehension, oriented toward the attainment of life-transforming insight into the ultimate basis of all things. The point here is for one's own mind to gain the perspective and wisdom of "Absolute Mind," not for the sake of some egoistic motive but in order to break free of ego-centered understanding altogether.

    Ways of Being Hindu

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    Each of these four kinds of paths is widely recognized and respected within the Hindu tradition as a well-established, reliable means to the ultimate goal of union with "God." The four are acknowledged in no less an authoritative scripture than the Bhagavad Gitd', which many have called the "New Testament" of popular Hinduism. It must be said, however, that in the Gita-the different yogas are not given equal rank, and dhyana yoga, while mentioned, is not clearly distinguished as a path separate from the others. Interpretations of the Gttii differ widely. Nevertheless, it is clear that a variety of expressions for each of the yogas exist. What makes up each path in concrete practice and the relative ranking of any one in relation to the others varies considerably from one Hindu subtradition to another.

    Many Hindu spokespersons have tried to generalize this idea of "many paths to one ultimate goal" as a model for thinking about the relations between religions. However, these attempts have been quite misleading. Such a model is better understood as an expression of a specific religious faith (in this case a theological conviction about religions), for the evidence in support of it is seriously deficient. But as a basic means of comprehending relations among different ways of organizing and carrying on religious life within a single religious tradition broadly conceived, the idea of "many paths to an ultimate goal" is very promising. In fact, the four yogas sketched above correspond directly to four of the six ways of being religious. Karma yoga corresponds (primarily) to what we shall call the way of right action; bhaktiyoga corresponds to the way ofdevotion; dhyana yoga to the way of mystical quest; and jiiiina yoga to the way of reasoned inquiry.

    In addition to this set of four are the way of sacred rite and the way of shamanic mediation. The way of sacred rite is the way to whatever is taken to be God through participation in divinely authorized rituals, rituals that promise to restore meaningful order and vitality to life by ushering one anew into the sacramental presence of the original divine patterns (archetypes) of meaningful life. The way of shamanic mediation is the way to whatever is taken to be God through tapping supernaturaf> resources of imagination and power, by such means as divine possession (trance), ecstatic vision, oracular utterance, and spirit journeying. Hindu accounts do not identify these two as distinct yogas. However, it does not take much field investigation in India to find a plenitude of these two ways of being religious in evidence among Hindus. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that practices that could be differentiated as exhibiting the way of sacred rite are combined, according to traditional Hindu reckoning, with karma yoga. That is to say, Hindus do not distinguish practices that could be grouped under the way of right action from those that could be grouped under the way of sacred rite as separate paths to "God." Hindus treat them as a single path. 6

    This points to an important fact: the concepts used in a given religious tradition to describe and comprehend the practices they follow will not necessarily coincide directly with the neat distinctions drawn by the framework of ways of being religious. The latter, it is important to remember, is a product of abstraction from the comparative study of actual religious phenomena. The language and vocabulary of that framework will of necessity be somewhat different-the language of the framework being generic, more abstract, and ideally neutral (i.e., nonjudgmental). (More will be said about this in the next chapter.) On the contrary, the language for describing and talking about different ways within a tradition, though it will be more specific, more concrete, and more familiar to persons who are acquainted with the tradition, will often have been shaped by'polemical controversy. To the extent this is so, that language will be quite judgmental and not at all neutral. It may help to be aware of this in adjusting to the unfamiliarity of the terms describing the different ways of being religious.

    The six ways of being religious can be put in a visual diagram, shown here.

    Ways of Being Religious

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    It may help to think of participants in each of the ways within any one tradition as standing in relation to the fundamental mystery-the ultimate reality--of which their tradition speaks as the six partially blind elephant handlers stood in relation to the elephant that each was convinced he knew so well.

    Being equipped with a good sense of the basic variety of ways people happen to be religious puts us in a much better position to make sense of any religious phenomenon we happen to come upon but above all to sort out what religions do and do not have in common. To fail to have a sense for this variety is to be in the situation of the six elephant handlers and to be liable to all sorts of confusions. One frequent confusion is supposing that a particular religion or even all religions are typified by a single way when, with a little investigation, other ways can be found. This is like supposing that the understanding of merely one of the six elephant handlers will suffice for the whole-whether for the one elephant or for all possible elephants. Recall the conclusion.of the English widow who decided that mysticism was the common authentic core of all religions. She failed to ;ealize the bias resulting from considering the full range of human religiousness solely from the perspective of one way of being religious.

    Another frequent confusion is supposing that the differences between two religious traditions can be reduced to the differences between exemple expressions of each tradition that happen to be instances of two different ways of being religious, both of which can be found in each tradition by looking further. This is like supposing that the difference between two elephants, A and B, is the difference between the understanding of one of the six elephant handlers of elephant A and the understanding of another of the six elephant handlers of elephant B. Recall the Baptist businessman who concluded that the difference between Christianity and Buddhism was the difference between his version of Baptist Evangelical Christianity and Sri Lankan Buddhist monasticism. He failed to realize that the way of devotion with which he identified is also found in Buddhism, though it is evident elsewhere than in Sri Lanka (specifically in East Asia and East Asian immigrant communities). And he failed to realize that the way of mystical quest that seems so prominent in Sri Lankan Buddhism is found as well in Christianity, though it is for the most part limited to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox contexts.

    To the contrary, being equipped with an understanding of the six ways of being religious and having some awareness of the range of different ways of being religious that occur within different religious traditions, one will avoid these confusions. More generally, one will be in a much better position to appreciate the many sorts of commonalities and differences that may exist among religious phenomena. A readiness to discover commonality in ways of being religious despite differences in religious belief, and a simultaneous readiness to explore the significance of these differences in view of recognized commonality in ways of being religious, open up possibilities of constructive dialogue between religious traditions. People from different faiths can thereby explore what each other's religious life is like, what they do and do not have in common, without fear of compromising the distinctiveness of their own faith and without worry over violating the faith of the other person. No less true, people of the same faith but of different ways of being religious can discover what they have in common once they have been freed from the misconception that difference in ways of being religious must mean nonidentity of religious faith. The framework of ways of being religious thus promotes within the same religious tradition constructive dialogue between subtraditions exemplifying the different ways.

    Thus presented in a nutshell is the framework of ways of being religious. Much remains to be explained and explored: what is involved in each of the six ways, how they relate to each other, how different religious traditions relate to them in terms of emphasis, stratification, combination, and exclusion, and how to go about using the framework to make sense of particular religious phenomena and religious traditions. In the process, the framework and the description of each of the ways will be progressively elaborated and refined in a kind of spiraling development.

    The characterizations of the six ways given thus far are very rudimentary and are far from adequate. For most readers, a firm grasp ofeach ofthe six waysfirm enough to be able to apply the categories consistently and with understanding-will be slow in coming. On the one hand, one should not assume that one has understood too quickly, for conventional associations of the names of the six ways and of the terms used in brief definitions, such as those given above, can very easily mislead. On the other hand, as will be repeatedly mentioned later on, a firm understanding of the framework should not be allowed to blind one to the respects in which a given religious phenomenon fails to fit clearly into any one of the six ways. Mastery of the framework will require deliberate care and patient attention to nuance and detail.

    Chapter 2 introduces the fundamental assumptions and orientation governing the framework of ways of being religious and the conception of religion on which it relies. In it the generic idea of a way of being religious is explained. Chapter 3 elaborates each of the six ways of being religious and begins to explore some of the relations among them. Chapter 4 is devoted to a description of examples of each of the ways from all of the major religious traditions, examples demonstrating single ways and examples combining more than one. The chapter describes how different traditions and subtraditions have historically emphasized, prioritized, combined, and/or excluded different ways. Chapter 5 introduces the idea of qualitative variation of practice within each way and a commonsense basis for recognizing generic virtue and vice in the practice of each way. Chapter 6 concludes Part I with a discussion of the advantages and liabilities of the framework. Parts II and III of the book, encompassing Chapters 7 through 15, are devoted to showing how the framework makes possible an insightful comparison of religious traditions by applying it in depth to the comparison of Buddhism and Christianity. At the end of the book there is a glossary of the key terms used, with page references to their fullest explanation; when they are introduced in the text, the terms will be highlighted in boldface type.


    This page titled 1: General Introduction is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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