Attempts to define religion What are the inner dimensions of religion?


C H A P T E R 1


“By calling myself spiritual but not religious,

I can still acknowledge my belief that there may

be higher powers of a divine nature without

necessarily accepting just one belief system of an

organized religious institution.” Ivy DeWitt1

1.1 Explain what is meant by spirituality

1.2 Identify three perspectives used to explain the existence of religion

1.3 Differentiate between monotheistic, polytheistic, and nontheistic

1.4 Explain the significance of rituals, symbols, and myths in religions

1.5 Contrast absolutist with liberal interpretations of a religious tradition

1.6 Discuss the major positions that have emerged in the dialogue between science and religion since the nineteenth century

1.7 Describe how women are challenging the patriarchal nature of many institutionalized religions

1.8 Identify the factors that contribute to the negative aspects of organized religions

1.9 Summarize the different “lenses” used by scholars to study religion

Before sunrise, members of a Muslim family rise in Malaysia, perform their purifying ablutions, spread their prayer rugs facing Mecca, and begin their pros- trations and prayers to Allah. In a French cathedral, worshipers line up for their turn to have a priest place a wafer on their tongue, murmuring, “This is the body of Christ, given for you.” In a South Indian village, a group of women reverently anoint a cylindrical stone with milk and fragrant sandalwood paste and place

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around it offerings of flowers. The monks of a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery sit cross-legged and upright in utter silence, which is broken occasionally by the noise of the kyosaku bat falling on their shoulders. On a mountain in Mexico, men, women, and children who have been dancing without food or water for days greet an eagle flying overhead with a burst of whistling from the small wooden flutes they wear around their necks. In Jerusalem, Jews tuck scraps of paper containing their personal prayers between the stones of the ancient Western Wall, which once supported their sacred Temple, while above that wall only Muslims are allowed to enter the Dome of the Rock to pray.

These and countless other moments in the lives of people around the world are threads of the tapestry we call religion. The word is probably derived from the Latin, meaning “to tie back,” “to tie again.” All of religion shares the goal of tying people back to something behind the surface of life—a greater reality, which lies beyond, or invisibly infuses, the world that we can perceive with our five senses.

Attempts to connect with or comprehend this greater reality have taken many forms. Many of them are organized institutions, such as Buddhism or Christianity. These institutions are complexes of such elements as leaders, beliefs, rituals, symbols, myths, scriptures, ethics, spiritual practices, cultural components, historical traditions, and management structures. Moreover, they are not fixed and distinct categories, as simple labels such as “Buddhism” and “Christianity” suggest. Each of these labels is an abstraction that is used in the attempt to bring some kind of order to the study of religious patterns that are in fact complex, diverse, ever-changing, and overlapping.

Attempts to define religion What are the inner dimensions of religion?

The labels “Buddhism,” “Hinduism,” “Daoism,” “Zoroastrianism,” and “Confucianism” did not exist until the nineteenth century, though the many patterns to which they refer had existed for thousands of years. Professor Willard G. Oxtoby (1933–2003), founding director of the Centre for Religious Studies at the University of Toronto, observed that when Western Christian scholars began studying other religions, they applied assumptions based on the Christian model

Jewish women praying at the Western Wall. Many scraps of paper with personal prayers are tucked into the cracks between the ancient stones.

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to other paths, looking for specific creedal statements of belief (a rarity in indigenous lifeways), a dichotomy between what is secular and what is sacred (not helpful in looking at the teachings of Confucius and his fol- lowers), and the idea that a person belongs to only one religion at a time (which does not apply in Japan, where people freely follow various religious traditions).

Not all religious behavior occurs within institution- al confines. The inner dimensions of religion—such as experiences, beliefs, and values—can be referred to as spirituality. This is part of what is called religion, but it may occur in personal, noninstitutional ways, without the ritual and social dimensions of organized religions. Indeed there are growing numbers of people in the world today who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (see box, p. 4). Personal spirituality without reference to a particular religious tradition permeates much contemporary artistic creation. Without theology, without historical references, such direct experiences are difficult to express, whether in words, images, or music. Contemporary artist Lisa Bradley says of her luminous paintings:

In them you can see movement and stillness at the same time, things coming in and out of focus. The light seems to be from behind. There is a sense of something like a permeable membrane, of things coming from one dimension to another. But even that doesn’t describe it well. How do you describe truth in words?2

Religions can be dynamic in their effects, bringing deep changes in individuals and societies, for good or ill. As Professor Christopher Queen, world religions scholar from Harvard University, observes:

The interpersonal and political realms may be transformed by powerful religious forces. Devotion linking human and divine beings, belief in holy people or sacred space, and ethical teachings that shape behaviors and attitudes may combine to transform individual identities and the social order itself.3

Frederick Streng (1933–1993), an influential scholar of comparative religion, suggested in his book Understanding Religious Life that the central definition of religion is that it is a “means to ultimate transformation.” A complete definition of religion would include its relational aspect (“tying back”), its transformational potential, and also its political dimensions.

Current attempts to define religions may thus refer more to processes than to fixed independent entities. Professor of Religious Studies Thomas A. Tweed, for instance, proposes this definition in his book Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion:

Religions are confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and suprahuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries—terrestrial, corporeal, and cosmic. …This theory is, above all, about movement and relation, and it is an attempt to correct theories [of religion] that have presupposed stasis and minimized interdependence.4

Religion is such a complex and elusive topic that some contemporary schol- ars of religion are seriously questioning whether “religion” or “religions” can be studied at all, or whether the concept of religion itself is useful. They have deter- mined that no matter where and at what point they try to define the concept, other parts will get away. Nonetheless, this difficult-to-grasp subject is central to many people’s lives and has assumed great political significance in today’s world,

Lisa Bradley, Passing Shadow, 2002.

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An Interview with Ivy DeWitt

Ivy DeWitt is a recent college graduate who majored in both economics and religious studies. Raised in a traditional Baptist Church, she found that as she learned more about different religions, and asked questions

about issues such as women’s roles within religions, she no longer felt comfortable identifying herself as a member of one specific religious group. Now, like about eighteen percent of Americans, she describes herself as “spiritual but not religious,”5 exploring her beliefs in an individualistic way rather than through set teachings and practices of a single religious organization. Ivy explains:

Being spiritual but not religious allows for a more individualized experience and expression of religion. Spirituality feels like an entirely personal experience in many ways to me, and being spiritual but not religious allows me to question and explore a variety of religious identities without feeling as though I’m constrained by a single religious institution. By calling myself spiritual but not religious, I can still acknowledge my belief that there may be higher powers of a divine nature without necessarily accepting just one belief system of an organized religious institution.

Ivy acknowledges the important role that religious organizations play in building a strong community, but found that her personal exploration of spirituality was more important to her:

I think of “religion” as having more to do with communities and institutions. Growing up as a Baptist Protestant Christian, I felt that the most important part of the religious experience was having strong ties to your group. I also believe another important aspect of religion is doctrines. While I acknowledge that people can have a variety of opinions within a single religion, and that views can also vary throughout branches of a religion, doctrines help to unify people under a central belief system, which can also be very important in holding a community together. In contrast, I think of spirituality as a more individualized experience, something that isn’t defined by the specific teachings or practices of a particular religion. While many people associate spirituality with a greater sense of feeling or emotion than anything that comes about through being part of an organized religion, I don’t necessarily agree. Religion and spirituality can overlap to create a wide sense of emotional experiences, but I like to associate spirituality with individual discovery. To me, spirituality is not just about emotional experience, but also about finding what your values are, and aligning them either with a religious identity or a personalized belief system.

Ivy first began to question whether her own evolving beliefs were compatible with what she was taught in school and church during high school:

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