Recommended articles in the Encyclopedia ofReligion, edited by Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987) include: Phenomenology ofReligion; Religion; Religion, Study of, Problem ofEvil; Suffering; Scripture; and Symbolism.
Two good general discussions of generic features of religious life are William Calloley Tremmel, Religion: What Is It?, 2nd ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984), and Roger Schmidt, Exploring Religion, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1988). A good, brief overview of the different academic approaches to the study of religion is found in Frederick ]. Streng, Understanding Religious Life, 3rd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1985), Part 3. Much more thorough coverage is found in E. ]. Sharpe,
Comparative Religion: A History (London: Duckworth, 1975). An excellent anthology of representative examples of different orientations in phenomenology of religion can be found in Sumner B. Twiss and Walter H. Conser, Jr., eds., Experience ofthe Sacred: Readings in the Phenomenology of Religion (Hanover, NH: Brown University Press/University Press of New England, 1992).
Readers interested in reflecting on the problem of meaning are encouraged to read Clifford Geertz's classic essay, "Religion as a Cultural System," in his The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973). It is also discussed in the books by Tremmel and Schmidt above. Geertz's essay on the task of empathy is also very good: "'From the Native's Point of View': On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding," in his Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983). For further clarification on the nature of phenomenological understanding and the possibility of neutrality, see Dale Cannon, "Having Faith, Being Neutral, and Doing
Justice: Toward a Paradigm of Responsibility in the Comparative Study of Religion," Method and Theory in the Study ofReligion 5:2 (1993), 155-176.
- For a fuller critique of this motion of objectivity see Dale W. Cannon, "The 'Primitive'/ 'Civilized' Opposition and the Modern Notion of Objectivity: A Linkage," PRF/TEXT: An Interdisciplinaryjournal ofRhetoric 2 (Spring-Fall, 1981), pp. 151-171.
See the article "Phenomenology of Religion" in the Encyclopedia ofReligion, ed. Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987); and The Experience ofthe Sacred: Readings in the Phenomenology ofReligion, ed. Sumner B. Twiss and William H. Conser, Jr. (Hanover, NH: Brown University Press/University Press of New England, 1992). The approach taken here falls into the second of the three schools of phenomenology of religion discussed by Twiss and Conser: essentialist, historico-typological, and existential-hermeneutical. It has important affinities with the third, however, especially in its assumption that all human experience is mediated by language and symbolic systems.
See W. Brede Kristensen, The Meaning ofReligion: Lectures in the Phenomenology of Religion, trans. John B. Carman (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1960); and Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1958; first published 1949). It should be said that Eliade (at least in his later work) refrained from identifying his own work as phenomenology of religion in favor of "history of religions."
For more on the process involved in empathy, see note 26 below.
The need for neutrality and empathy to enable us to learn and develop our thinking through conversation with persons with whom we disagree is brought out well by Donald Shriver in the following words: "Mind changing has about it a quality of moral discipline and moral humility. It is hard for all parties to any human conflict, because in conflict in- tellectual positions tend to harden, unless one brings to the conflict a steady, stubborn humility that expects to learn from people of different persuasions from one's own." Donald W. Shriver, Jr., "From Island to Continent: Is There Room in American Politics for Both Fundamentalists and Their Enemies?" Tbe Fundamentalist Phenomenon, ed. Norman ]. Cohen (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), p. 207.
A fuller justification and elaboration of the specific sense of neutrality here alluded to is found in my essay "Having Faith, Being Neutral, and Doing Justice: toward a Paradigm of Responsibility in the Comparative Study of Religion," Method and Theory in the Study ofReligion 5:2 0993), 155-176.
I am here following the Pin-Yin system of transliteration, rather than the Wade-Giles system.
See Frederick]. Steng, Understanding Religious Life, 3rd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1985), pp. 2-3. There Streng defines religion as "a means to ultimate transformation."
Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Herb Tea, © 1975.
Beware of assuming that the phrasing of these generic features of religion can be straightforwardly translated into the language of specific traditions. Some traditions would object. For example, certain philosophical expressions of Mahayana Buddhism contend that what is conventionally taken to be the "meaning" of something (as in the phrase "the meaning of life") in the ultimate perspective makes no sense and does not exist. They say very similar things about the notion of "reality" as if "ultimate reality" referred to some spe- cial cosmic "being" or "thing" lying beyond appearances. I do not wish to dispute these contentions. Nor do I wish to concede simply that Buddhists of this persuasion have no notion of ultimate reality, that Buddhism isn't concerned with drawing near to and coming into right relationship with ultimate reality as they conceive of it, or that they do not seek an ultimate ground for meaning and purpose in life. Rather, I wish first of all to place Mahayana Buddhist rhetoric alongside the theological and philosophical rhetoric of other religious traditions and attempt to make some generalizations about them all in a kind of neutral, generic metalanguage. Mahayana Buddhist rhetoric is hardly ever what it appears to be on the surface. It is designed to usher a person into an intuitive grasp of what Mahayana Buddhists take to be the ultimate and true perspective onto things. Articulating what is evident to that perspective in ordinary, mundane language (no matter how careful- ly nuanced philosophically) is notoriously difficult, and perhaps finally impossible. In that perspective, for example, it is said that things have no self-being, no autonomous being whatsoever; that all things are characterized by "emptiness," which as far as I am able to understand it is not the absence of meaning but a meaningfulness that transcends every conventional and statable sense of meaningfulness. My point in laboring this example is that, properly qualified, these Mahayana Buddhists have a conception of ultimate realit)f' no less than do persons in other religious traditions, but it is not to be identified with some conventional notion of reality, let alone what some other traditions take "ultimate reality" to be. The same holds true for what they have to say about "meaning" and "meaningfulness."
- Clifford Geertz, Islam Observed (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p. 97.
- RobertS. Paul, Tbe Atonement and the Sacraments (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1961), pp. 17-32.
- For an overview of the problem of definition and some of the varieties, see Ronald R. Cavanagh, "The Term Religion" and "Religion as a Field of Study" in Introduction to the Study ofReligion, ed. T. William Hall (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), pp. 4-29. See also Winston L. King, "Religion," Encyclopedia ofReligion,Vol. 12, ed. Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987), pp. 282-293. For a fuller and more carefully nuanced critical dis- cussion, see Robert D. Baird, Category Formation and the History ofReligions (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), especially pp. 1-27.
- See Clifford Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," in his The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), pp. 100-108.
- See note 9 above.
- Here and elsewhere in what follows, words and phrases that are italicized and fol- lowed by a small circle are meant, like "ultimate realit]f'," to be variables standing in for concepts specific to religious traditions.
- Hans Kung, Global Responsibility: In Search ofa New World Ethic, trans. John Bowden (New York: Crossroad, 1991), pp. 60, 53f. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
- Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," op. cit., p. 122.
- Ibid., pp. 91-94.
- Quoted by Clifford Geertz ibid., p. 87, my emphasis. The original is in George Santayana, Reason in Religion, The Life of Reason, Vol. 3 (New York: Dover Publications, 1982/1905), pp. 5--6.
- Charles Davis, Temptations ofReligion (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), pp. 22, 29.
- There is a major controversy going on in certain academic circles as to whether "true" mystical experience transcends all symbolic mediation and conditioning or not. One of the best overviews of the controversy is Bernard McGinn, "Theoretical Foundations: The Modern Study of Mysticism," an appendix to his The Foundations ofMysticism, Vol. 1 of The Presence ofGod: A History ofChristian Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1991), pp. 265-343. See es- pecially pp. 314-326. I take the position that all mystical experience insofar as it is religious is in some sense necessarily so mediated or conditioned. Among the most important argu- ments to the contrary of the position I take here are found in Robert K. Forman, ed., The Problem ofPure Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
In this matter I follow Clifford Geertz's reasoning ("Religion as a Cultural System," op. cit., p. 98): "For what else do we mean by saying that a particular mood of awe is reli- gious and not secular, except that it springs from entertaining a conception of all-pervad- ing vitality like mana and not from a visit to the Grand Canyon? Or that a particular case of asceticism is an example of a religious motivation, except that it is directed toward the achievement of an unconditioned end like nirvana and not a conditioned one like weight- reduction? . . . A man can indeed be said to be 'religious' about golf, but not merely if he pursues it with passion and plays it on Sundays: he must also see it as symbolic of some transcendent truths. And the pubescent boy gazing soulfully into the eyes of the pubescent girl in a William Steig cartoon and murmuring, 'There is something about you, Ethel, which gives me a sort of religious feeling,' is, like most adolescents, confused." In any case, it is because religious experience is symbolically mediated that empathetic investi- gation is called for in religious studies. Symbolic mediation constitutes the difference in points of view that calls for empathy to be comprehended.
- In this I follow the hermeneutical reflections of Paul Ricoeur. For a summary discus- sion of Ricoeur's views on this subject, see David E. Klemm, The Hermeneutical Theory of Paul Ricoeur: A Constructive Analysis (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press; distribut- ed by Associated University Presses of East Brunswick, NJ, 1983), pp. 62-66.
- Hans Kung, Global Responsibility, op. cit., p. 125. Kung here draws upon the ideas of historian of science Thomas Kuhn in developing this distinction from the "abiding sub- stance" and the "changing paradigms" to illuminate the history of Christianity.
- This distinction between attendingfrom and attending to and between subsidiaryand focal is developed by the philosopher Michael Polanyi in a number of his writings. See especially Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Garden City, NY: Anchor Doubleday, 1966), pp. 9-25.
- Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," op. cit., p. 98.
- Anyone who wishes to enter a tradition empathetically in order to understand it needs to be aware of the crucial role of the threshold effect. Because a tradition's system of symbols is what determines the overall perspective shared by the insiders of a given tradi- tion, it is precisely what an outsider who may wish to empathize with them must also tem- porarily in an act of imagination come to dwell in and subsidiarily attend from. We too must begin to experience in our imagination the threshold effect if we are to become acquainted with the insiders' perspective and the things to which they testify. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's apt phrase, we must "willingly suspend our disbelief' and imaginatively project ourselves into that other world as ifwe were insiders. (The phrase, "willingly suspend one's disbelief' is from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ch. XIV, reproduced in Romantic Poetry and Prose, edited by Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling [New York: Oxford University Press, 1973], p. 645.) The task of empathy here is not a matter of putting ourselves into the other persons' skins, achieving some inner correspondence of spirit with them, or swimming in the stream of their experience; rather is it a matter of "figur[ing] out what the devil they think they are up to" as they involve themselves with these symbolic forms. (See Clifford Geertz, "From the Native's Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding," in his Local Knowledge: Essays in Intetpretive Anthropology [New York: Basic Books, 1974], pp. 55-70.) Phenomenological empathy is a matter of learning the symbolic forms within their specific native context well enough to "try them on for size"-as an actor might find his way into a new character role-with the goal of fmding a fit well enough to make coherent sense and merit the recognition of accredited insiders. It is very much like learning a foreign language. Recall that foreign words for whom the foreign language is an unknown tongue are sounds and shapes only; one's attention is focused on the surface, and one is only aware of patterned sounds or visual shapes. But as one comes to understand them a bit more, the words intimate more and more meaning; they become translucent as it were. Then as one advances to fluency, the words become completely transparent, so much so that one may be entirely unaware in a focal sense of the sounds and shapes, which have come to figure whol- ly subsidiarily in one's understanding. The same holds true in learning the "language" of a system of religious symbols.
- Hans Kung, Global Responsibility, op. cit., p. 46.
- Members of the specific religious tradition in which these practices are found may have reasons specific to their tradition to respect certain traditional practices regardless of the quality with which they are carried out. But these reasons would not in that respect constitute commonsense considerations.