It is important to realize that the framework of ways of being religious is not by itself a source of information about actual religions or religious phenomena. It is designed to be a tool for guiding research and investigation. Primary attention, therefore, needs to be given to the actual phenomena to be investigated, and use of the the tool should be determined by the degree to which it helps empathy and understanding move forward. Chapter 6 will return to this topic and so too will Parts II and III, which will illustrate use of the framework in depth by means of a comparative study of Buddhism and Christianity. At this stage, however, a few practical considerations in the use of the framework ought to be placed firmly in mind.
Readers should beware of taking any of the capsule descriptions of ways of being religious that have been offered as an adequate description of any actual religious phenomenon. In reality, a way of being religious does not stand by itself; it is always embodied within a specific religious tradition. The descriptions given above are only sketches of skeletal generic structures, not accounts of any actual, flesh-and-blood religious practice. They must be applied, and applied in a way that does justice both to the phenomenon in all its context-embedded concreteness and to the perspectives of the participants. 7
The process of application should always be tentative and exploratory. One should first look to see what indications of any of the ways might be present. One should not expect that in any one religious tradition all ways or any given way must be present. Initial indications of the presence of a certain way of being religious may well turn out to be apparent only, or involved in some kind of combination of ways, with a different way predominant than the one that first was suspected.
It helps to keep in mind that any secondary account one may read about a tradition is always selective to some extent and will probably never represent the full range of phenomena within that tradition. Also, the account may be colored (and therefore somewhat distorted) by the tendency of the interpreter to be sympathetic or antipathetic to one way of being religious over other ways, leading him unintentionally to neglect or overlook aspects that are significant to the practices he is representing.
As one begins exploration, it is more likely that one will first encounter a few particular phenomena of a tradition or a single one, rather than the full range of phenomena to be found within that tradition. The question will then be, of which of the six ways of being religious is this phenomenon illustrative? Sometimes one will have to search hard to learn about the context and setting of a particular phenomenon in order to make a firm identification. One should take care to focus on actual phenomena as embodied and lived, and not just on abstract elements such as certain beliefs or symbols. In other words, into what larger pattern of carrying on religious life within the tradition does it fit? How do participants relate to it and what do they do with it? In what circumstances-physical, temporal, social-do they do these things? What sort of people are involved with it? What is their place within the society in which they are located? What are their reasons, motivations, and attitudes (the ones they would tell if you asked)? What sort of problem (if any) motivates their involvement at this time? What other religious practices are they involved in that go along with this particular practice? What do they say about, and what are their attitudes toward, other practices (exemplifying other ways of being religious) within the same tradition? It may be that more than one way of being religious is involved in the phenomenon under consideration, or it may become clear that only one is involved. Alternatively, it may be that the participant or participants are successively involved in more than one way of being religious, first in this phenomenon and then in another. Often much latent, background information needs to be learned before one can determine with confidence that this or that way of being religious is present and operative.
As has been mentioned already, one should take care not to confuse just any religious ritual with the way of sacred rite, or any instance of religious devotion with the way of devotion, or any study of scripture and tradition with the way of reasoned inquiry, and so forth. There are many minor religious phenomena that do not fall clearly into any one of the ways, especially when abstracted from a larger pattern of religious life. It is only when they become a primary way of drawing near to ultimate realityo that they constitute an instance of a way of being religious.
The general idea of generic ways of being religious, the description of each way, and the differentiation of each way from the others presented in this book are all products of a very human enterprise of making sense of similarities and differences among religious phenomena. As one reads about the ways, it is tempting simply to take them as necessary and universal structures of the reality of human religiousness, as more real than the particular phenomena they are designed to help one understand. It may well be that they do point to some such underlying structures. But they are not themselves those structures. In other words, it is very easy to lose sight of their nature as tentative human constructions, imperfect and partial attempts to grasp what appears to be a skeletal structure beneath the living flesh of religion.
Do the six ways exhaust all ways of being religious? The framework of the six ways certainly was not constructed with the intent of presenting an exhaustive account. The framework is intended primarily to sort out ways as they may be found in existing traditions. As for nontraditional occurrences, most tend to fall into one or a combination of two or more of the six generic ways delineated in this book. Nothing seems to indicate that further generic ways are likely to emerge from the study of traditional or nontraditional religious practice.