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2.1: Fusing Empathy and Objectivity

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    This book assumes the context of the modern academic study of religions. Generally, this contemporary enterprise aims to promote the objective study of religious phenomena in the round, that is, study that attempts to take into account and do justice to all relevant perspectives on the phenomena in question, those of insiders as well as outsiders. To take into account perspectives other than one's own, especially insiders' perspectives, empathy is required. Thus, the study of religious phenomena in the round requires a fusion of objectivity and empathy.

    A great deal depends on what is understood by objectivity. It is well worth noting that the word has more than one meaning. One meaning pertains to a preoccupation with a method ofdistancing--of separating the subjectivity of the investigator from influencing conclusions reached about the object of investigation, ·of submitting all relations with and representations of the object to a rigorous discipline of impersonalization, explicitness, and strict intellectual control. To be objective in this sense, one's knowledge and understanding of the object must be developed wholly from a single external perspective that has had all that can be done to it to make it (the perspective) objective. Such a perspective is detached, uninvolved, and impersonal toward what is being studied and requires that the results of one's study be presented in a way that could (ideally) be achieved or agreed to by any other, similarly objective scholar. This first meaning of objectivity is widely supposed to be the ideal of modern physical science and consequently the preferred ideal for all other academic disciplines. Nevertheless, it is a gross misconception of the practice of modern physical science and is disastrous when applied to such subject matters as religious phenomena.1 Given this meaning of objectivity, objectivity and empathy are incompatible. Unfortunately, a good many studies of religion are carried out in the conviction that there is no other legitimate notion of objectivity.

    Another meaning (a more commonsense meaning) of objectivity pertains to a preoccupation with drawing near to the object of investigation in its transcendence beyond any oneperspective. Where is that? Precisely at the place where multiple perspectives upon it intersect, where all perspectives relevant to grasping and understanding the object in the round come together. Reaching that point is no easy matter, and one can never take for granted that one has achieved it. But it is possible to approach. The process involves no simple, linear application of a single method. Rather, it involves shifts in viewpoint that are only learned about as one strives progressively to draw near to the object, not away from it, and near to it in a manner appropriate to what it is thereby determined to be. Objective nearness to the object is measured by the extent to which one's developing understanding elicits recognition (recognition that one has indeed drawn near to the object, if not fully grasped it) from those who dwell within the intersecting perspectives upon the object and know them well. Significantly, so far as these intersecting perspectives involve discriminations of quality and worth, the pursuit of objectivity in this second sense itself will involve progressively more discerning value judgments-the judgment, for example, whether a ritual is being performed well or poorly, or whether a religious healer is genuinely interested in a patient's well-being or is a charlatan. Objectivity in this second sense, then, is fundamentally a matter of doing justice to the object itself (the object as it exists between our several perspectives onto it, or at the point where our several perspectives intersect). It is this latter sense of objectivity that the modern academic study of religion is about and what this book is about. So, contrary to the charge that objectivity is impossible in the study of religion, when understood in the second sense just described it is a meaningful goal toward which we can make significant progress.

    The modern academic study of religion with which this book identifies itself incorporates, on the one hand, the approaches of the many modern disciplines of study that bear upon religious phenomena. These approaches are for the most part perspectives of outsiders: for example, those of history, sociology, cultural anthropology, psychology, philosophy, literary interpretation, and art history and criticism. On the other hand, the modern academic study of religion also incorporates a complementary approach that takes seriously and gives a certain priority to the perspective(s) of religious insiders. This approach centrally involves a disciplined empathy, seeking to make accessible to the outsider what is understood and experienced by persons on the inside and thereby to bring about an empathetic understanding that aims to be (for the moment, in an act of imaginative suspension of disbelieD neutral and nonjudgmental, set apart from our own reactions and judgments. This is an approach that seeks to understand a religious phenomenon as much as possible on its own terms, independently of the alien ones we might bring to it-that is, in the terms of those on the inside, or at least in terms roughly convertible with insiders' terms by means of which the phenomenon may be justly compared with phenomena in other traditions. It is an approach that seeks to avoid as much as possible any theological or metaphysical prejudgments that are likely to distort or fail to grasp what is to be found and appreciated on its own terms. This approach of disciplined empathy is sometimes called the phenomenologyofreligion.

    Not all who characterize their work as phenomenology of religion follow the approach just sketched. 2 Sometimes phenomenology of religion is identified with the enterprise of developing a catalogue of recurrent, universal patterns of religious phenomena that become evident through comparative study (as in the work of W. Brede Kristensen or Mircea Eliade3). The problem with this sort of approach is that the meaning of these patterns (or, rather, the account developed by the person coming up with them) often owes little to the concrete context of their alleged occurrence in particular traditions (despite expressed intentions to the contrary) and is therefore likely to be unknown and unrecognizable to insiders. Although there is a good deal to be learned from such "phenomenologies of religion," their approach relies on uncritical metaphysical and theological assumptions and is at times insufficiently responsible to the phenomena that are to be understood.

    The overall approach taken in this book to the study of religion is broadly phenomenological in the sense first described above-or, more precisely, empathetically objective in a manner that highlights both similarities and differences. It seeks to do justice to the experience and understanding of participants within a specific cultural and historical context and to counter the presumption that the comparativist must necessarily know and understand the meaning of religious phenomena better than knowledgeable and reflective participants.

    This is not to say that empathy is the last word in understanding religion, but it certainly is one of the first and is a fundamental condition apart from which any serious study of religion fails to merit respect. At the very least, religion is a certain orientation toward or view of the world: one among others, and one not necessarily shared by the person who wishes to learn about and understand this view. Accordingly, understanding it requires the effort of imaginatively stepping into the other person's perspective and considering how things look from "over there," as ifone were an insider, though one is not one in fact. It requires basically the same sort of imaginative stretching that is involved in an actor's learning the part of a character different from himself and bringing that part credibly to life in a drama on stage.4 What do I mean by a "credible" portrayal? What is success in empathetic understanding? Principally, it is a matter of having (temporarily, in an act of imagination) entered the perspective of the other person sufficiently well to be able to represent it credibly to others, especially and above all in a way that is recognizable and credible to those persons who themselves occupy that perspective. The point of the book, however, is not just empathy but comparative exploration and study, and for that a common or neutral framework is needed. A century of comparative empathetic study of religion has turned up sufficiently similar structures between historically unrelated traditions to warrant the identification of a wide range of generic features of religious life, and in large measure this book is an attempt to summarize and consolidate these findings in a way that makes them usable by students in their own studies. As does phenomenology of religion generally, the framework proposed by this book draws on these findings in establishing a kind of temporary neutral zone for empathetic understanding and comparative exploration. It does this by employing a generic vocabulary and taxonomy as free as possible of theological commitments and by relying on generally reliable accounts (widely respected and the least contested) of participants' experiences and understandings.

    Is it possible to be truly neutral in this regard? Is it possible to forge a language that does not favor some religious orientations and offend others? We cannot fully answer all aspects of these questions here. But we must at least be honest and forthright in addressing them. It is important to recognize, first of all, that there are different degrees and types of neutrality. Not all are relevant to the tasks of empathetic understanding and a nonjudgmental comparison of religious phenomena. Moreover, to pursue these tasks is, in certain fundamental respects, not to be neutral; it is to be opposed to presuppositions and points of view that would block or deny them. Nor is it to forsake evaluative judgments altogether, which may not even be possible, let alone desirable. To pursue the tasks of empathetic understanding and nonjudgmental comparison is to adopt temporarily a posture of neutrality for the sake of understanding from within the different points of view involved, in a manner that is undistorted (or as undistorted as possible) by one's own point of view. It is to attempt to have our understanding do justice to them, so that whatever consequent evaluative judgments we reach will be more likely to do justice to them as well. This, of course, assumes that we are not simply occupants of a single point of view but that we are able, in favorable circumstances, to enter momentarily into points of view other than our own and find opportunity genuinely to explore them in some depth without serious threat to our own well-being, our moral integrity, or our mental grasp of the world. It assumes, as well, that we can be self-critical to a greater or lesser extent about our understanding and articulation of other people's experiences and points of view and that we can make progress in revising our judgments in the interest of doing more justice to those experiences and points of view. 5

    There have been many sorts of categories employed in the comparative study of religion in the attempt to comprehend similarities and remark differences among phenomena of different traditions. From the perspective of the phenomenology of religion not all are equally legitimate or justified. Sometimes certain categories bring with them presuppositions that reflect a specific philosophical or theological orientation and a certain ulterior interest in having the data construed in a certain way, so that a predetermined conclusion results. This occurs when an insider in one religious tradition attempts to comprehend, and reach a judgment about the validity of, a phenomenon in another religious tradition simply in the terms his own tradition provides. It also occurs when a person from a secular perspective unsympathetic to religion attempts to do the same. These are obvious cases. Yet it can sometimes also occur when a person genuinely attempts to be unbiased and empathetic toward the tradition she seeks to understand, for it is terribly easy to be unconscious of the bias that given categories carry.

    As the author of this text, I have tried to become conscious of and to eliminate such bias from the categories I employ. The language of the descriptions and formulations I offer may nevertheless, despite my best intention, fall short of the neutrality, empathy, and objectivity at which I am aiming. It may at times reflect a more Christian, or a more modern Western bias than I realize. To the extent that that is so in away that does injustice to the phenomena I am seeking to represent, then those descriptions and formulations should be criticized and accordingly revised. None of them are final; all are revisable. The reader is hereby advised to make use of them with care, being prepared to modify or reformulate them as needed.

    This page titled 2.1: Fusing Empathy and Objectivity 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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