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6.2: Liabilities of Using the Framework (How Not to Apply It)

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    The framework of ways of being religious is one of many possible conceptual frameworks for sorting out religious phenomena. It is not meant to be the only or even the primary framework for use in understanding religious phenomena. Some frameworks are better than others, depending to some extent on the purposes they are employed to serve. No one framework is suitable for all purposes, and some clearly do more justice to the phenomena than others. So, in addition to advantages or assets, the framework of ways of being religious has certain disadvantages or liabilities if used uncritically or by itself without supplementation.

    These liabilities group themselves under four headings: (1) taking the abstract categories of the framework to be more real than the concrete phenomena they are used to describe; (2) presuming, with the help of the framework, to occupy a better position to understand a religious phenomenon than does a participant-insider; (3) losing sight of what doesn't fit into the categories of the framework; and (4) theologizing with the framework. These liabilities are not unique to the framework, however; they are common to any phenomenological study of religion making use of generic categories. Responsible use of the framework requires that these liabilities be kept in check.

    First, it is easy to lose sight of the derivative nature of alleged generic features of religious life and take those descriptions to be more real than the particular phenomena from which they have been derived and which they purport to represent and explain. This is especially a problem for those who have no firsthand knowledge of the phenomena in question and who have to rely on the accounts of others-accounts that, however well intentioned, are invariably filtered and skewed by the language, culture, interest, and biases of the reporter.

    For example, it is easy to suppose upon hearing a phenomenologist say that all religious traditions recognize something called "the sacred" that all of them must be referring unambiguously to the same thing (or same kind of thing). However, when examined more closely, it becomes clear that these traditions (especially traditions other than those articulated in European languages) do not use this precise category, "the sacred." Instead, they employ terms and phrases in very different languages-for example, Mana in Polynesian, Wakan in Native American Sioux, Kodesh in Hebrew, Dao in Chinese-each of which has quite different connotations of meaning and different things to which it is used to refer. The respective usages of these terms and phrases are far from parallel, though many similarities can be found. Now it may possibly be that they do ultimately refer (some if not all) to the same thing, but then again they may not. How are we to tell? It so happens that the traditional philosophical problem of universals is at stake in this question: Are there indeed discoverable universal kinds or types of things built into the nature of reality that our words more or less approximate (the realist answer), or are such kinds and types merely human and cultural constructs (the nominalist answer)? Does the phenomenological category of "the sacred" represent something really there, underlying the many different names with their different connotations? Or is it merely a derivative abstract summary of Mana, Wakan, Kodesh, Dao, and so forth, that nevertheless trades to some extent on the distinctive, preexisting connotations and etymological roots of "sacra" in European languages and Latin in particular? If this philosophical uncertainty is true for the category of "the sacred," it must hold true also for the categories of "sacred rite," "right action," "devotion," "shamanic mediation," "mystical quest," and "reasoned inquiry." It must also hold for the specific descriptions given for each. Do these descriptions really refer to underlying universal religious options built into the human condition or are they merely derived, abstract summaries of the patterns we just happen to find in the varieties of religious life we find in the world?

    There is no simple answer to this problem. The phenomenologist's temptation is to be the realist here. His temptation is to take the generic category that he has forged so carefully to be more real than the phenomena that he supposes to be its manifestations and to overlook aspects of those phenomena that don't fit the category. The nominalist position is usually championed by the historian, particularly the specialist historian, and occasionally the anthropologist. Her temptation is to take the phenomena to be more real than any generic category and to question whether they really have anything in common beyond what has demonstrable historical connection. For her, concrete context is the locus of meaning: what a given symbol or practice means depends entirely on the specific function and usage it has in the lives of the particular parties involved. There is no easy resolution of the disagreement between these viewpoints. There is an inherent presumptiveness in each orientation that should be counteracted.

    Leaving aside the historian's responsibility here, a responsibility rests upon the phenomenologist and anyone making use of his categories to avoid taking generic categories (and, specifically, his differentiation and formulation of them) to be more real than the phenomena they purport to describe and explain. The phenomenologist has in the first place derived his formulations of them from careful comparative observation of the phenomena (or taken them over from someone who has done so). In that regard they are never absolutely final or definitive; they are in principle always revisable. Are they useful (in their current form) for making sense of the phenomena? Do they indeed adequately capture and comprehend the alleged underlying reality? Confirmation that they do depends entirely upon how well they fit the phenomena when the phenomena are left free to call them into question-that is, when they are free to show that the formulations don't quite fit, that they need further revision, and that another formulation would do better. That is why responsible employment of generic categories demands an awareness and appreciation of the particular phenomena to which they are to be applied that are independent of the categories, so that the question of "fit" is always posed and reflected upon. It demands as well, of course, an awareness that the categories are always revisable.

    It would therefore be a great mistake to take the formulations proposed for any of the ways of being religious, or even the distinctions made between them, as final or definitive. They are subject to revision and further qualification, and that should always be the case. Accordingly, they should be handled lightly and flexibly and never as an a priori straitjacket into which religious phenomena must necessarily fit. What justification they have lies in their ability to structure comparative study and dialogue so as to help us more effectively enter into, and empathetically comprehend, the religious meaning of actual phenomena. So far as they do so, they will have their justification. To the extent they fall short of that goal, they should either be revised or set aside.

    The second liability is related to the first. It is easy, terribly easy, when one is pursuing comparative phenomenological research, to presume that one is in a better position to know and comprehend the meaning of a particular religious phenomenon (i.e., to know and comprehend the proper category in which the phenomenon should be classified) than is the reflective and competent insider. In one respect, the comparative scholar surely is in a better position to know and understand the similarities and differences between this phenomenon and phenomena in other traditions and to be able to articulate and explain its meaning in a cross-cultural way. But whatever superiority that amounts to is a matter of degree-a degree of difference that is always able to be reduced and possibly overcome insofar as the insider becomes acquainted with other traditions and how his own stands in relation to them.

    More important, however, is the fact that the comparative scholar remains necessarily reliant upon his own and other persons' firsthand empathetic acquaintance with, and account of, the phenomena in their own historical-cultural context, the best test for the success of which is a confirmation by knowledgeable and reflective insiders that an empathizer has gotten it right. In that sense, the knowledgeable and reflective insider's understanding remains in a certain fundamental sense primary and authoritative. The point is that, although we may occasionally be in a better position to comprehend the meaning of a religious phenomenon in a tradition to which we do not belong than some insiders may be, we should never presume that we occupy that position. Our supposition that we have interpreted the phenomenon well remains contingent in certain respects (if not all respects) upon the confirmation of insiders. There are of course all sorts of ways in which this confirmation can go awry: the insider may mistake or misunderstand the phenomenological account; the insider may not be interested at all in helping outsiders come to understand the tradition with empathetic objectivity; the insider may be committed to presenting a certain preconceived image of her tradition, or have some other agenda that competes with the phenomenologist's interest. In principle, however, confirmation by knowledgeable, reflective insiders who are open-minded and free of ulterior agendas remains requisite to determine whether justice has been done.

    Third, in relying on the framework of ways of being religious, it is easy to lose sight of things that do not fit, of whatever the framework leaves out of consideration. It does not include everything about human religiousness. Consequently, it is important to be aware of the kinds of things that fall outside the net of the framework or that are liable to slip through it unnoticed.

    The framework does not suffice for full studies of any tradition or even any subtradition-not even for basic introductory studies-primarily because it deliberately chooses to focus upon generic features of religious practice at the expense of focusing upon features specific to the tradition (or subtradition) deriving from its core system of symbols (including scriptures, stories, and theologicaf' beliefs), but also because it does not pay direct attention to the particulars of history and culture and individuality. Insiders (at least when they are seriously religious) are primarily concerned with features specific to a tradition and to thinking within a context and frame of reference constituted by that core system of symbols. So, if we are concerned empathetically to get fully in touch with the insider's perspective, familiarity with that core system of symbols and how it is interpreted in practice is absolutely requisite. The framework of ways of being religious offers little direct help here. Moreover, a historian specializing in a religious tradition is interested primarily in understanding the features of that tradition within their full historical, cultural, and geographic contexts as they develop over time. Generally she isn't much interested in cross-tradition comparisons (particularly those involving nonhistorical relationships) and is usually suspicious of generic, cross-tradition categories. (I would hope that she might find the framework of some help to her work, nevertheless.) That is as it should be, for her task is to ensure that justice is done to the tradition so far as possible in the full specificity of its particulars. So, if one is concerned to understand a tradition or any part of it as it evolves and changes over time, one needs to pay attention to the best historical scholarship on the tradition. The framework of ways of being religious will be of limited use here as well.

    However, the inverse is not true. A critical and responsible use of the framework needs the sensitivity to nuances and particulars that the perspective of the insider and the perspective of the specialist historian bring to the study of religious phenomena. It is precisely a familiarity with what these perspectives put one in touch with that can keep the user of the framework from doing injustice to the phenomena to which he would apply it and enable him progressively to improve it. In other words, the framework is not designed to be used independently of these perspectives but in close association with them.

    It is well to ask at this point, Are there more ways of being religious than the six here identified and explained? As I have said many times before, I make no claims about the definitive status of the framework as a whole or to any of its parts. It is not intended to be exhaustive. However, virtually all means of approach to ultimate realityo in the various traditions fall readily into one of these categories or into some fusion of two or more of them. If more than these six are to be recognized, it is likely they will come about through further differentiation of the existing categories. The important thing to keep in mind here is that the categories are meant to be modified and refined as the religious phenomena under investigation call for and justify that modification and refinement.

    The framework by itself is not likely to be of much help in carrying out comparative studies of the substantive, theologicalo features of two or more traditions-say, of their scriptures, their central stories, or their convictions of the nature of ultimate realityo. It will of course help in factoring out apparent but insubstantial differences, namely, in ways of being religious, and it will help to identify some of the underlying rationales of differing theologicalo perspectives within a given tradition. But it will directly contribute little in the way of helping understand the theologicalo ideas and theologicalo viewpoints involved. 21

    Finally, there is a good deal about any religious tradition and most any religious phenomenon that tends to fall outside strictly empathetic and historical studies, aspects that are the subject of sociological studies, political studies, economic studies, art studies, literary-critical studies, psychological studies, comparative philosophical studies, and cultural anthropological studies, among others. These too have their place and importance and for the most part will not be picked up by limiting oneself to studying religion simply in terms of the framework of ways of being religious.22 However, the framework would have valuable insights to contribute to them and they to persons using the framework. For example, religious people are not just religious, of course, but are always simultaneously caught up in a tangle of social, economic, familial, and interpersonal relationships with others. Why different people become engaged in the particular religious practice at a given time and place, with the specific persons, and with the specific motivations they do is due to a host of factors, many of them factors of power, which one can get at and understand only if one approaches them with some psychological, sociological, and probably anthropological sophistication. The framework of ways of being religious may be of help here, but used by itself will not go far. So also, what influence or role that religious involvement has in people's lives outside of their specifically religious practices requires the same sorts of study. Here the framework will be of even less help. In short, the social embeddedness of religious life is something that requires far more than the framework of ways of being religious to comprehend.

    A fourth liability to counteract in using the framework is the temptation to use it directly as a basis from which to theologizeo-that is, for drawing theologicalo conclusions independent of the canonical (e.g., scriptural) warrants of a tradition. For example, some may wish to argue on the basis of the framework alone that each of the six ways within a tradition (say, Christianity) has equal merit, dignity, and authenticity, and that all Christians should so acknowledge them. Strictly speaking, that would be inappropriate theologizingo, for merit, dignity, and authenticity within a specific tradition must be argued out on the basis of the existing authoritative warrants of that tradition-for example, on the basis of scripture-which may or may not justify such a conclusion. The framework may be of help to insiders of a tradition in finding new interpretations of old familiar texts or new options of warranted religious practice that would otherwise be overlooked. It provides what for many will be a wider yet not alien perspective, offering new angles to consider and occasion for rethinking old assumptions. What it does bring to light is the matter of religious common sense. This includes a grasp of the different sorts of things involved in each of the generic ways of being religious, the conditions that make for excellence in each, and the liabilities in each for degeneration. Just as commonsense considerations play a significant role in virtually every tradition (usually successfully, but by no means always), so also considerations brought to light by the framework could rightly have a role to play in insider discussion, argumentation, and modification of current practice-but not on their own in independence of the existing authoritative warrants of the tradition.

    In short, the framework is limited. It is not designed to provide a complete understanding of religion or religious phenomena. It is not intended to be used by itself. And it carries with it no authority for making evaluative judgments beyond a kind of religious common sense. There are many things that fall outside its scope and there are a host of nuances and details that can slip unnoticed through its categories. For certain purposes it can be of considerable help. But its limits must be respected and its use, to be responsible, must be grounded in terms of an acquaintance with the traditions to which it is applied.

    This page titled 6.2: Liabilities of Using the Framework (How Not to Apply It) 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.

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