5: Variations in Quality of Practice of the Ways
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This chapter departs somewhat from the orientation of the preceding chapters. It takes up the theme of variation in quality of practice of the different ways of being religious. "Quality of practice" refers to the merit or worth of a given expression of religious practice, how deserving it is of respect or disrespect, considered in terms of the traditional pursuit of that way of being religious in which it occurs. Although variation in quality of practice has been alluded to before, virtually all discussion of the ways of being religious up to this point has been generally neutral and judgments of worth or merit have been deliberately suspended.
The suspension of evaluative judgment characteristic of a phenomenological approach to the study of religion is for a certain, well-defined purpose: to enable a truly empathetic understanding of religious phenomena undistorted by evaluative preconceptions. As will be explained further below, that approach is not meant to rule out evaluative judgment. It is rather meant to enable more discriminating judgment, judgment that does fuller justice to the phenomena and to the persons involved in them by excluding judgment based on presuppositions alien to the phenomena. The purpose of this chapter is to indicate how the transition from empathetic understanding to a more discriminating judgment can be made (in certain limited respects) and how it is aided by the framework of ways of being religious.
In effect, as the author of this text, I am asking readers to develop their own powers of discriminating judgment, to make up their own minds about given instances of different kinds of religious practice on the basis ofan empathetic acquaintance ofthemfrom within. One may or may not fully agree with some of the characterizations, but I offer them on the basis of generic criteria that I believe are recognizable by insiders and can be shown to be so--that is to say, I offer them on the basis of what I have earlier called religious common sense. When it comes to these matters, we are not just left with separate traditions of faith and individual value systems. These are commonsense criteria that are out there between us, as it were, that are not simply a function of specific faith commitments. Accordingly, insofar as readers may be inclined to disagree with some of the judgments I tentatively offer, I invite them to determine whether their judgment is as empathetically discriminating as I have sought to have mine be and as grounded in a mutually recognizable, religious common sense. I claim no finality to my own judgments in this respect, and each of them is open to criticism, correction, and revision. The point is to come to conclusions for what we can establish to be good reasons independently of personal preference and specific theologicalo assumptions.
Beginning with a discussion of widespread undiscriminating judgments of a stereotypical nature, I introduce the concept of evaluative judgments made from within a tradition of variations in quality or merit of religious practice. I shall distinguish between criteria of judgments that are specific to a tradition (being uniquely specified by its authoritative sources) and criteria of a generic commonsense nature that in principle can be shared by persons of other traditions. I then offer a justification of the shift from description to evaluation that this involves. Following this I give a characterization of virtues or excellences of practice and vices or degenerations of practice for each generic way of being religious.