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2.5: A Way of Being Religious Generically Considered

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    It is appropriate now to sum up what a generic way of being religious is.

    As far as this book is concerned, a way of being religious is one characteristic manner and pattern among others of drawing near to and coming into right or appropriate relationship with ultimate realityo. Differently put, it is one way among others of going about entering into a religion's other worldo in the light of which the mundane world is believed to be put in proper perspective and of participating in its central mysterieso.

    A way of being religious is a generic type: it does not itself fully characterize any actual religious phenomenon or practice. In this respect it is like the generic category "mammal." If you go to the zoo to see a mammal, you will never find one as such. Of course you will see many mammals, but not apart from being differentiated according to a certain species and geographic location. So also, you will never find an example of the way of sacred rite as such. Rather, you will only find particular expressions of Christianity's sacred rituals, Hinduism's sacred rituals, and so forth (each differentiated to some extent by geography, culture, and historical circumstance)-yet which, generically considered, will have certain features in common.

    A way of being religious is thus an abstraction, an abstract category, derived from certain recurrent patterns that show up in the comparative study of religious traditions. A way does not correspond to what makes a religion the specific religion it happens to be (though indirectly a particular religion might favor and place primary emphasis on one way of being religious more than others). Hence the differences between the six ways are not to be confused with differences between specific religions or differences between different conceptions of ultimate realit]f'. Instead, each way appears to correspond to certain universal, generic possibilities for carrying on religious life in any religious tradition (unless circumstances discourage or prevent the way's emergence within that tradition).

    The ways are not mutually exclusive. More or less pure examples of each way unmixed with characteristic features of other ways can often be found (though not in just any religious tradition). At times sectarian expressions of a tradition will exemplify what appears to be an exclusive emphasis on a single way, in such a manner that other ways are rejected as inferior, inauthentic, or even heretical. Contrariwise, what might be called a catholic expression of a tradition is one that encompasses or generously tolerates, within the boundaries of acceptability, manifestations of most all of them. Not infrequently, individuals within a single tradition may pursue more than one way of being religious within that tradition. And sometimes religious practices will incorporate features of more than one way so that the features of one way shade imperceptibly into the features of another, so much so that the two ways in such instances are virtually indistinguishable. It may help to remember that clarity of distinction between the categories is a product of abstraction from comparative study, which is always to some extent selective and artificial. In the actual expressions of particular religious traditions, the relevant ways of being religious will not often be found to be so distinct.

    Considered unto themselves, the ways may be distinguished in terms of five factors. First, they each employ a characteristic mode of approach to the ultimate realityo: sacred rites, right action, fervent devotion, shamanic mediation, ascetic and meditative disciplines, and rational dialectical inquiry. However, though one way thus concentrates on ritual, another on deeds, and a third on reasoning, the pursuit of any way may involve each of these elements. Where they differ is in the peculiar way in which they place emphasis upon this element as the central or primary way of drawing near the ultimate reality and coming into right relationship to it. Second, each way addresses itself more directly than the others to a certain aspect of the problem of meaning: namely, characteristic problematic situations in life that in one way or another seem to distance or alienate one from ultimate reality, which is taken to be the ground and source of life's meaning and purpose. Differently put, each way most directly addresses certain existential needs or motivations, which result in their attracting some people and not others. Third, each gives rise to a characteristic hermeneutic (or type of hermeneutic), a certain way of taking up and interpreting the symbol system (especially the stories and scriptures) that constitutes the core of a particular religion. As a result, each tends to highlight and emphasize certain characteristic features more than others of the ultimate realityo to which those symbols purport to give access. Fourth, something not mentioned before, each way gives rise to certain characteristic social structures supporting its distinctive approach to ultimate realityo. This will be discussed more fully in what follows, but to anticipate a little, the way of sacred rite gives rise to the social roles of priest and acolyte; right action to the roles of moral teacher, moral reformer, and moral exemplar; devotion to the roles of pastor, charismatic preacher, and devotee; shamanic mediation to the roles of shaman, prophet-oracle, wonder worker, and visionary; mystical quest to the roles of mystic, spiritual master, spiritual hermit, and monk; and reasoned inquiry to the roles of sage, theologian, philosopher, and student. So also, characteristic social institutions are generated: the way of sacred rite gives rise to temples, sacramental churches, and related sacerdotal institutions; right action to legal and judicial institutions, alternative communities, and movements of moral and social reform; devotion to intimate and informal communal gatherings that provide emotional support and fellowship for its members; shamanic mediation to shamanic guilds and informal charismatic gatherings; mystical quest to monastic-like institutions, and reasoned inquiry to seminaries and academies. Fifth, each way appears to have certain characteristic virtues and vices associated with it. More specifically, each way has a certain liability to degenerate in characteristic ways. It is these characteristic vices that representatives of other ways of being religious are usually quickest to point out and occasionally use as stereotypical caricatures in criticism of those ways. Thus the way of sacred rite can degenerate, for example, into empty formalism and the way of right action into legalism; the way of devotion can degenerate into sentimentalism and the way of shamanic mediation into black magic or charlatanism; the way of mystical quest can degenerate into quietism and the way of reasoned inquiry into pedantry. There is no necessity that any of the ways degenerates in these respects, for within each there is the possibility for renewal and for characteristic noble and virtuous expressions. The potential for virtue and for vice in each way will be explored at length in Chapter 5.

    This page titled 2.5: A Way of Being Religious Generically Considered 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.