Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

6.1: Advantages of Using the Framework

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

    As a framework for the comparative study of religion, the hypothesis of six generic ways of being religious offers several practical advantages, especially to the beginning student in the comparative study of religions. Some advantages of using the framework may be obvious and some have already been pointed out. It may help to have them summarized in a single place. First, some advantages of personal relevance will be identified; second, some advantages relevant to the health and well-being of religious traditions will be mentioned; and, finally, six advantages relating to acquiring better understandings of religions and religious phenomena will be discussed.

    First, what personal advantages does it hold? The framework is an aid to the process of self-knowledge and personal fulfillment. It helps a person locate herself and her own subtradition on the landscape of traditional religions and religious practices. Should she be personally searching for a tradition to call her own, the framework can help her locate a subtradition that is more likely to satisfy her specific religious needs than are others. That is to say, it helps one understand why certain subtraditions of a given religion are likely to be personally more satisfying, whereas others (for the present at least) likely will not, and why some people perhaps even one's close friends and relatives-will be drawn to subtraditions (i.e., ways of being religious) other than those one will personally be drawn to. It shows how there can be considerable religious differences between members of a single religious tradition while each nevertheless remains loyal to the central convictions, stories, and symbols that define the larger tradition. Moreover, it offers a basis for recognizing a range of nontraditional religious practices, para-religious practices, and surrogate religious practices-for it is possible to find a variety of examples of each way, or something very much akin to each way, in contemporary culture in which no system of symbols identifiable with conventional religion is operative. Thus, it provides a rationale for many of the religious differences that occur between persons, helping to minimize misunderstanding, reduce tension, and build mutual respect between them. In addition, it enriches one's sense of a tradition-one's own as well as any other tradition. It poses the possibility that there are other authentic expressions of a tradition and more ways of interpreting the central stories of the tradition than one may have previously encountered or may have imagined, whether already in existence or yet to be developed.

    Second, the framework provides a commonsense basis for differentiating healthy from degenerate expressions of a tradition. In addition, it provides a basis for assessing the potential for renewal of that tradition beyond what may be its present degenerate forms. As initially proposed in Chapter 2 and developed further in Chapter 5, an understanding of the framework of ways of being religious indicates the existence of religious common sense-something directly relevant to maintaining the health and well-being of a religious tradition. What the framework does is to highlight and call attention to matters that are--or that should in principle be-recognizable by insiders from within any tradition. For example, under certain conditions and within certain limits set by the authoritative norms of the tradition, it is common sense that there should be expressions of both the way of sacred rite and the way of right action, respectively motivated by different sorts of existential needs, as well as expressions of the other ways. And it is common sense that certain sorts of expression of each of these ways are degenerate, whereas others are worthy of great respect. Recognition that the framework articulates part, at least, of what makes for religious common sense would go a long way to help persons who differ religiously to make religious sense in common as well as be more sensitive to the potential for both degeneration and excellence in their own (and each other's) traditions.

    Third, turning to somewhat more objective considerations-namely, those respects in which the framework leads to improved and more just understandings of religions and religious phenomena in general-six advantages bear mentioning.

    1. The framework helps avoid false or reductive generalizations by helping one understand that religion is not simply one thing but is many things-not just one generic thing but several different generic things. Particularly at the introductory level, students need to have their oversimplifying preconceptions broken down-for example, their tendency to assume that any expression of a religious tradition to which they have been exposed (whether as insider or outsider) is representative of the whole tradition or is somehow a normative standard in relation to which other expressions are deviations. An introduction to the framework of the six generic ways-but more so an exposure to authentic, representative examples of each of the six ways-effectively counteracts this tendency, nipping it in the bud. Specifically, the framework keeps one from supposing an entire religion is simply the one or two ways of being religious discovered on becoming acquainted with one of its subtraditions, however major that subtradition happens to be or however close to the origin of the religion that subtradition is able to trace itself back. It prompts one to look for other ways than those yet found and does not assume that a way need be inauthentic to a religion just because it was not separately identifiable in the earliest years of the religion. So also, it counteracts the supposition that all religions can be reduced at their core to a single way, whether it be taken to be mysticism, as the theosophists would have it, sacred rite, as certain cultural anthropologists would have it, or right action, as certain liberal Protestant theologians would have it. Indeed, by fostering appreciation for the complexity of religious traditions and the different priorities and motivations that members of a tradition have in virtue of their identification with one or another way of being religious, it brings to light how such reductionist views may themselves be motivated by their authors' identification with (or antipathy toward) a single way of being religious.
    2. The framework helps one understand better the examples of any one way of being religious. It is directly intended to facilitate empathetic understanding of religious practices different from those with which one happens to be familiar. The difficulty of empathetically understanding a different way of being religious from one with which one is already familiar in the same tradition may be greater than that of coming to understand an example of the same way in a completely different tradition. For example, a student familiar with Theravada Buddhist monasticism will likely find it more difficult to empathetically understand jodo-shin-shu Buddhism (a form of Japanese devotional Buddhism) than to empathetically make sense of Cistercian Christian monasticism, even when he has had little prior acquaintance with Christianity. A solid grasp of the framework of ways of being religious thus goes a long way to prepare the student in advance for understanding the variety of religious expressions of any tradition she is likely to encounter. One specific way it does this is by prompting the student who seeks to understand a puzzling religious phenomenon (e.g., a religious rite, a theological explanation, or an account of a mystical experience) to investigate what is the ongoing way of carrying on religious life to which it belongs. Thus, an intellectual expression of a tradition encountered as a literary text (whether theological or philosophical) is often best understood by placing it in the living context of an ongoing pursuit of the way of reasoned inquiry within that tradition, in juxtaposition to other ways of being religious in the same tradition. Otherwise puzzling aspects of the intellectual expressions of a tradition may become comprehensible and clear when so considered. For example, the early medieval Christian philosopher-theologian Anselm's famous ontological proof of the existence of God, when viewed in this manner, discloses itself to be a Platonic, intellectual "ascent out of the cave" to a direct, mystical encounter with God (uniting, as is typical of so much of Christian Platonism, the ways of reasoned inquiry and mystical quest)_! In a similar way, the framework prompts the study of mysticism to focus not on "mystical experiences" or "mystical literature" in the abstract but instead on the ongoing practice of people who are pursuing the way of mystical quest in particular traditions. Thus, the Islamic mystic Djalal-od-Din Rumi:'s copious writings, in which are found accounts of his own mystical experiences, are best understood within the context of the ongoing practice of Mawlawi Sufism, of which all agree he is its greatest master and reformer.2
    3. The framework sorts out different sorts of religious differences, instead of treating them only as historical-cultural variations upon single, unique traditions. It distinguishes differences due to generic ways of being religious from differences due to the specific content of religious traditions (deriving from its central stories and beliefs, its core symbol system) and, for each way within a single tradition, from variations in practice of that way. Failure to keep these differences distinct results in all sorts of confusion and misunderstanding-from identifying Buddhism simply with the monastic pursuit of nirvar;,a to setting up a romantic opposition between personal religion (individual, spontaneous, experiential) and institutional religion (social, formal, legalistic). Similarly, failure to keep these differences distinct has resulted in a blindness to the emergence in contemporary Western culture (perhaps as well as in other cultures and previous cultural epochs) of ways of being religious outside of systems conventionally regarded as religions. The framework allows for-indeed, it prompts-recognition of generic or universal options of human religiousness built into the human condition while nevertheless granting due recognition to the historical and cultural conditionedness of the religious phenomena in which those features are manifest. Thereby it opens up a range of additional causal factors relevant to historical explanation that otherwise remain obscure. For example, many of the historical disagreements between Christian traditions become much more intelligible when viewed in its light. Specifically, the Protestant Reformation at its heart is revealed to involve a shift of central emphasis from the way of sacred rite to the way of devotion. This latter emphasis comes to be even more clearly expressed in subsequent Pietist movements. Similar applications of the framework can be readily made in explaining the origin and rise of different Buddhist traditions in Eastern Asia. Yet despite its employment of generic categories, establishing profound similarities between different religious traditions, the framework does not prejudice appreciation of differences as insignificant; it leaves the question of their significance completely open.
    4. The framework suggests fruitful comparative studies in depth. Specifically, it suggests that in-depth similarities between traditions will be found when examples of the same way (or even the same or roughly the same combinations of ways) of being religious are compared. It is not just that the same things are likely to be done in similar circumstances in each case, but that the same sorts of problems are being faced (referred to earlier as existential motivations) with the same general strategy (the same generic way of being religious, the same generic way for coming into right relationship with ultimate realityo) for solving or dealing with them. So close will these "solutions" be at times that the store of practical wisdom (often largely oral) built up over time in one tradition will have profound resonances with that of others that have little or no historical relationship to it. So much so that members of each may have much of personally relevant value to learn from and share with the others-insofar as they are able to get together in some kind of nonhostile, open, and empathetic dialogue. This author has himself witnessed such an encounter between a female representative of the Roman Catholic Charismatic movement, deeply involved in the ministry of "inner healing prayer," and a female practitioner of "healing shamanism," initiated in a North African and at least one Native American shamanic tradition. A similar sort of thing is seen in the several encounters and dialogues that have taken place between Christian and Buddhist monastics;3 participants and observers alike have often remarked at how much participants in these dialogues discover they have in common and how much they have to learn from each other. In each of these separate cases, while many profound similarities have surfaced, like the proverbial iceberg, many more promise to come to light as empathetic research is pursued further. Some obvious comparisons suggested by the framework include a joint study of Evangelical Protestantism and jodo-shin-shu Buddhism as subtraditions of Christianity and of Buddhism exemplifying the way of devotion,4 and a joint study of Martin Luther (founder of the Protestant Reformation and of Lutheran Protestantism in particular) and Shinran Shonin (founder of ]odo-shin-shu), both of whom underwent a profound conversion experience early in their careers and came to stress in their teaching the primacy of "grace" and "faith" over "works" to attain "salvation."5 A more general and inclusive study might be of the role of priest in different traditions exemplifying the way of sacred rite, or of the roles of shaman, moral prophet, devotional pastor, and so forth. A specific promising joint study would be that of classical rabbinic Judaism with its stress upon the way of right action (performance of the divine commandments in all areas of life, many of them of a ritual nature) and the way of reasoned inquiry (through traditional study of the Torah and Talmud) and classical Confucianism with its stress upon the way of right action (realizing true humanity through the maintenance of right social relationships and proprieties) and the way of reasoned inquiry (through traditional study of the Chinese Classics and the ideal of the scholar-sage). Still another fruitful study would be a comparison of subtraditions of different religions that are known for their inclusive attitude toward several if not all of the ways of being religious-for example, Roman Catholic Christianity and T'ien-t'ai Chinese Buddhism (Tendai in Japan).
    5. The framework helps one recognize and appreciate genuine differences between religions and avoid false or misleading contrasts. Specifically, it can help students avoid attributing differences between expressions of one tradition and expressions of another to differences between the two traditions when those differences happen to be largely due to differences between two ways of being religious, both of which can be found in each tradition. For example, Christianity and Buddhism are not very fruitfully contrasted by juxtaposing North American Evangelical Protestant Christianity with Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhist Monasticism--especially not when much more interesting comparisons and contrasts can be found between Protestant Evangelicalism and the various forms of Pure Land Buddhism on the one hand (such as the ]ado-shin-shu tradition mentioned above) and between Theravada Monasticism and Roman Catholic Cistercian Monasticism on the other. It may be obvious at this stage, but the framework of the six ways of being religious implies that the best and most effective way to explore what the differences between two religious traditions in living practice amount to is to explore how pursuit of the same ways of being religious differs in each tradition and what priority, if any, is assigned to certain ways in relation to others. An attempt to draw contrasts between Buddhism and Islam on the basis, say, of an abstract juxtaposition of ideas, doctrines, and/or scriptures, without attending to how differently those ideas, doctrines, and scriptures are taken up and interpreted in the lived practice of different ways of being religious pursued in each tradition--especially given (most of) Islam's priority of right action and (most of) Buddhism's priority of mystical quest-is likely to result in misleading oversimplifications that correspond to no reality at all. The advantage of the framework of the six ways, as said before, is that it establishes a basis for recognizing similarities without prejudicing in the least the significance of differences. By its means generic differences between ways of being religious can be factored out, as it were, so that differences between traditions can be most fully appreciated.
    6. The framework opens up several promising lines of inquiry. Some promising lines of inquiry have been indicated already. Beyond these relatively straightforward comparative studies, several other possibilities suggest themselves under several headings.

      The Study of Nontraditional Ways of Being Religious Chapter 4 made reference to ways of being religious outside conventional religious traditions (i.e., outside what conventionally in our culture we regard as religion or religious). There have been a number of studies6 of these sorts of phenomena, from Robert Bellah's work on civil religion7 and various scholars' analyses of Marxism and Maoism as religions8 to Michael Novak's study of the religion of sport in America.9 The framework of ways of being religious not only confirms and provides a kind of further rationale of such findings, but also points to still other cultural practices that might fruitfully be explored as ways of being religious. Thus, some practices in psychotherapy seem clearly to verge on being religious in ways suggestive of the way of devotion;10 some practices involving jazz and rock music seem to involve the way of shamanic mediation;11 some people aggressively pursuing certain philosophies of how businesses should be run seem to exemplify the way of right action; and some persons within the scientific community clearly pursue their work in ways that seem definitely to involve the way of reasoned inquiry. Manyperhaps most--of these persons would not identify themselves as religious in any conventional sense in doing what they do, yet the framework promises considerable insight into aspects of their practice, sufficient it would seem to identify them at least as parareligious practices, if not outrightly religious altogether.

      Philosophy of Religion and Religious Philosophy The framework of ways of being religious assumes a much broader and more complex notion of religion (as practice) than has been used in philosophy of religion as traditionally pursued. So one line of inquiry would be, What difference would the framework make for the philosophy of religion; what new and different questions would it be asking as a result? Less attention should be focused on belief than on practice-specifically, practice of the different ways-and on the presuppositions involved in these different practices.12 Another line of inquiry would involve explorations based on the idea that theological" and philosophical inquiry as practice can become itself a way of drawing near to and coming into right relationship to ultimate reality-that is, can be itself a way of being religious (the way of reasoned inquiry). 13 Clearly, as one looks over the history of Western philosophy and theological reflection, some philosophers stand out not only as significant thinkers but also as religious in the passionate way they went about their inquiries. Their inquiries were for them part of (if not entirely) a path of salvation: Plato and Plotinus certainly, but also Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Spinoza, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Wittgenstein.14 To clarify how, in what respects, and under what circumstances philosophy comes in such thinkers to be religious, to be transformative in the sense of the way of reasoned inquiry, would be most worthwhile. In connection with this, a third line of inquiry might look at the place of theological-philosophical study (and jurisprudential study), particularly in the traditions ofJudaism, Christianity, and Islam as practice and not merely in terms of its products as an expression of the way of reasoned inquiry. A fourth would be to investigate the role of commonsense, nonprofessional, philosophical reflection as a reforming and moderating agent within religious traditions, whatever way of being religious may happen to be involved, in helping to counteract their inherent tendencies to degeneration.

      Religious Ethics and the Ethics of Religion In Chapter 5 the concept of generic variations in quality of practice within each way was introduced-that is, characteristic potentials for degeneration and for excellence that recur from one tradition to the next that appear to be recognized within each tradition. The extent to which this is indeed the case is a considerable field of promising research. It suggests that there is a mutually recognizable, cross-tradition basis (common at least to those traditions that pursue the same ways of being religious) for evaluation and assessment of religious practice of generic ways of being religious, at least along certain parameters. This would be in large part religious common sense. How complete or adequate this basis would be for practical purposes is a question that further research and interfaith dialogue should be able to answer. In effect, it would be a basis for an internally relevant, yet cross-tradition critique of religion, and a challenge to excellence in practice as well. 15 Another line of inquiry would be to investigate to what extent and under what circumstances the ethical teachings of a religious tradition come to function as the focus of the way of right action pursued in that tradition-that is, as a principal means of drawing near to and coming into right relationship with ultimate realityo-and when they do not.

      Psychology of Religion and Religious Formation In Chapter 3, the different ways were correlated with a variety of personality traits. There are many promising lines of inquiry in psychological research that these correlations suggest that seem to develop further the notion of a religious common sense. 16 To what extent are people with certain personality traits more likely to identify with and pursue the way of being religious that appears to correlate with those traits?17 In this regard it would be worthwhile to compare taxonomies of personality types that have been developed in some traditions (e.g., Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist, Islamic [in Sufism]) for the purpose of directing persons to practices geared to their particular needs, and to see to what extent they correlate with the six ways. To what extent are people whose personality does not correlate with a given way likely to experience alienation and be motivated to noninvolvement or leave it for another? Within any one way, what helps a person attain psychological balance and maturity and avoid the degenerations to which that way is subject?18 To what extent does involvement in other ways (e.g., its polar opposite) contribute to this end? Do the results of these inquiries vary significantly from tradition to tradition, or are they pretty much the same?

      A quite distinct line of inquiry would be to study what sorts of formation process are used for each way of being religious in different traditions.19 In other words, in what ways are persons prepared for full-fledged participation in a given way of being religious within a tradition? What practical "know-how" and sensibility is expected of them to function well? To what extent are there similarities in this regard as one moves from one tradition to the next? To what extent is this practical "know-how" and sensibility transferable from one subtradition to another within a single religious tradition? To what extent is it transferable between religious traditions without compromise to either tradition?

      Interfaith Dialogue To what extent would an understanding of the framework contribute to and facilitate dialogue between religious traditions? Anything that facilitates empathetic understanding in this connection would seem to be of direct help in sorting through misunderstandings, finding points of commonality, and pinning down actual (and not merely apparent) differences. What the framework suggests, however, is bringing together people pursuing the same way of being religious within the different traditions, rather than trying to get, say, a Roman Catholic sacramentalist to dialogue with a Muslim Sufi mystic. Too often, it seems to me, dialogue has foundered, or come close to foundering, because attention has not been given to avoiding crossing generic ways, and thus avoiding an unnecessary clash of religious sensibilities. By bringing together representatives of the same way of being religious, there is much more likelihood that commonalities will be found and appreciated, providing a much more amicable basis for determining and appreciating each other's differences.20

      lntrafaith Dialogue For dialogue between representatives of subtraditions within a single religious tradition (assuming they can come together openly, empathetically, and seriously committed to discovering an authentic unity among them), the framework of ways of being religious offers a natural basis for ecumenism in which many, though not all, differences might be understood, appreciated,·and perhaps even recognized as a needed part of the whole without compromising theological integrity. In this context (though probably not in the context of interfaith dialogue), each way may be seen as a different path to the same goal of atonement with ultimate reality. Moreover, the framework points to ways that persons from separate subtraditions pursuing (or interested in pursuing) the same way of being religious might have much to learn from each other.

    This page titled 6.1: Advantages of Using the Framework 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.