Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

3.1: Making Sense of the Different Generic Ways

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Each of the six ways of being religious is a different, generic way of drawing near to ultimate realit)f'. Considered within a single religious tradition, they are different angles of approach to the same ultimate realit)f'. What the ways amount to concretely, however, is given only in terms of the system of symbols making up a particular religious tradition. By itself, each is an abstract sketch, a skeletal structure, apart from the flesh and blood of actual practice within a living tradition of religious life.

    The formulations offered herein are the product of a systematic effort to discover generic structures and differentiate them from what is specific to particular religious traditions and their systems of symbols. More specifically, these formulations are focused on generic structures in things people do in carrying on religious life rather than in what they believe. It is not that what they believe is unimportant, not at all. And what people believe about ultimate realityo will certainly influence and structure what they do. But what they believe is clearly connected with and a part of a specific system of symbols, which in turn is usually linked in a historical way with certain other specific systems of symbols, and is for that reason less likely to be something generic to human religiousness. So features have been systematically factored out of the formulations of each way of being religious that are specific to particular religious traditions and especially features deriving from specific convictions as to the nature of ultimate realityo. Such beliefs or convictions shall be called theologicalo convictions, whether they refer to ultimate realitj? in a theistic manner as God or Gods, or in a nontheistic manner as in the Buddhist concept of nirvarJa or the conceptions of the Dao in Confucianism and Daoism. At a later point we will discuss how specific theological convictions combine with any one way of being religious to produce quite different, distinctive expressions of that way of being religious in the different traditions. But in order to grasp the generic ways themselves, the categories employed need to be separated from theologicalo considerations. 1 To fail to keep these two things distinct is to commit a variety of what Alfred North Whitehead called "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness." 2

    In seeking to comprehend what follows, readers should take care to give more weight to the description given than to associations that the name of the way may already seem to have. Not just any religious ritual amounts to the way of sacred rite; nor is any instance of religious devotion the way of devotion, nor any intellectual study of scripture and tradition the way of reasoned inquiry, and so forth. Elements of ritual, devotion, and study, for instance, may be found in connection with each of the six ways. So also some concern with right behavior, apparent "supernatural" phenomena, and meditation can occur with any of the ways. The simple presence of one of these elements or concerns does not distinguish one of the ways from the others. Only when they become a major focus and preoccupation of religious life-that is, a primary way ofgetting in touch with ultimate realityo -do they constitute an instance ofa way of being religious. So also, readers should endeavor not to confuse with the descriptions offered here notions of religious ritual, shamanism, mysticism, and so forth, derived from theoretical discussions of them by other scholars. Such notions may helpfully complement what is said here or they may simply confuse matters. Try using this occasion to attempt to think about the nature of these phenomena afresh from the perspective of their being generic patterns of religious life.

    To readers relatively unacquainted with the diversity of religious phenomena, the general descriptions that follow may be difficult to understand without consideration of a variety of examples of each. One should not worry too much if the general sketches fail to make complete sense at this stage. A variety of examples of each way will be discussed in Chapters 4, 7, and 8. Descriptions in depth of examples from the traditions of Buddhism and Christianity may be found in Chapters 9 through 14.

    Finally, to readers relatively inexperienced in empathizing with different sorts of religious orientations, some of the general descriptions may be difficult to make sense of because of a natural tendency to sympathize with certain ways and not others. That toward which we are naturally sympathetic we tend to find more intelligible and obvious. But a practice toward which we are not naturally sympathetic we will tend to find less intelligible and not obvious at all. Being well acquainted with one way of being religious within a certain tradition will not suffice to acquaint a reader with other ways within that same tradition, let alone other ways within other traditions. It will, however, make much easier the process of understanding that same way in another tradition. So, as readers gradually come to an understanding of a way they hadn't known before in a specific tradition, they will find the process of empathizing with that way in different traditions that much easier. Empathetic understanding is not simply a matter of stepping into the moccasins of a religious tradition one wishes to understand (i.e., entering its system of symbols), for each way of being religious within that tradition has, so to speak, a different style of moccasins-or, to change the metaphor, a different way of putting on and wearing the moccasins of the tradition. Empathetic understanding of ways of being religious other than those with which one naturally sympathizes-whether in one's own tradition or in another-presents a different sort of challenge than empathizing with the same way of being religious in another tradition, Some ways may be more difficult for a given reader to understand than others and they may take more time. Understanding will come, however, with patience and effort. Readers should keep this in mind as they work at stretching their empathetic capacity.

    This page titled 3.1: Making Sense of the Different Generic Ways 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.