We must raise the uncomfortable question: if there is a God,
how are we to learn anything about Him? Or them? The question
of other religions must be faced squarely by the Christian.
Entire books have been written on the topic of individual religions, comparative religions, and the study of religion in general. In a single chapter in a book of Christian theology, the most we can hope to accomplish is to give a fair overview of the area, discuss its application to Christian theology, and recommend further avenues of study for those wanting more.
Christians are often loathe to look at other religions. Believing that they are mistaken contributes to this distaste for them. Also, perhaps, is the latent fear, as odd as it may sound, of "what if they're right?" Well, if they are, a Christian has nothing to fear since all non-Christian religions have in common the concept that if you're a "good" person, then you will be rewarded in the next life.
It is here that Christianity and the world's other religions part ways. The primary distinction between Christianity and the others is very simply stated in Paul's words to the Ephesians:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
Christianity is unique among the world's religions in insisting that salvation is the work of God alone, apart from human effort, will or goodness. Christianity teaches that human beings are unworthy and incapable of achieving salvation, apart from God's grace and mercy.
Amidism (also known as Pure Land Buddhism) admittedly does come close to the Christian idea, however. Followers of Amidism worship Amitabha Buddha. They believe that his merits can be transferred to a believer simply by believing in him, hearing or saying his name, or desiring to be born in the western paradise. It originated in India, moved to China by the 4th century AD and by the 9th century went to Japan. In the 20th century Amidism has more adherents in Japan than any other Buddhist sect. The nature of Buddhism, however, obviously distinguishes this movement from Christianity, however.
Definition of Religion
Religion is a field of study in its own right. The question becomes, how to define it? Webster's Unabridged has the following:
Religion is the personal commitment to and serving of God or a god with worshipful devotion, conduct in accord with divine commands esp. as found in acccepted sacred writings or declared by authroitative teachers, a way of life recognized as incombent on true believers, and typically the relating of oneself to an organized body of believers;... the body of institutionalized expressions of sacred beliefs, observances, and social practices found within a given cultural context.
Characteristics Of Religion
Keeping in mind the dangers of general characterizations, what are the distinctive features of religion? Several concepts may be isolated that, even though not necessary or sufficient conditions if taken separately, may jointly be considered "symptomatic" of religions.
Religious belief or experience is usually expressed in terms of
the holy or the sacred. The holy is usually conceived of residing
outside of, or beyond the everyday concerns and affairs of people.
It is portrayed as the ultimate reality and of more value than
anything else in life. The holy is usually understood as a personal
god, multiple gods and spirits, a diffuse power or powers, or
even as some sort of an impersonal order.
Religions frequently claim to have their origin in revelations, that is, in distinctive experiences of the holy interjecting itself into human affairs. Such revelations may take the form of visions (Moses in the desert, the Hebrew prophets), inner voices (Muhammad outside Mecca; spirit guides in New Age religions), or events (Israel's Exodus from Egypt; the divine wind which destroyed the invading Mongol fleet off Japan; the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ). Revelations may be similar to ordinary religious experience, but they are distinguished from them because they wind up forming the basis of the entire religion.
Religion is not just an academic thing. It requires a reaction on the part of people, and a level of commitment. The response to the holy usually takes the form of participation in the customs and rituals of a religious community on the basis of some sort of a commitment of faith. Faith is not simply intellectual ascent, or an agreement to abide by certain bylaws; rather, the person's entire life is now consumed by the religion: that is, it becomes part of his or her world view, and everything he or she experiences is filtered through the belief system. And the belief system now colors how he or she behaves.
As religions develop, they generate systems of belief that impact both practice and ideology. These systems serve to both orient the members of the religious tradition to the world around them, and to make the world around them comprehensible. In primitive religions, practice and belief usually find expression in myth or ritual law. In those religions which develop an extensive literate class, theology - the systimatization of belief and practice - often comes to supplant myth as the vehicle for refining and elaborating belief. The importance attached to right belief or orthodoxy has varied from religion to religion and from period to period. It has loomed especially large in the monothesistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Polytheistic religions, on the other hand, seem less concerned with systematization and seem undisturbed by inconsistencies in the mythologies that they believe.
Rituals and Worship
Religions almost invariably involve some sort of ritual and worship.
These may take the form of sacrifice or sacrament, rites of passage
(from childhood to adulthood, into the priesthood, into marriage,
or into death), or invocations offered to the divine, whether
they be singular or many. The most important acts of worship are
usually those performed by the entire community or a significant
portion of it, although in many traditions private devotional
forms such as prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage are also practiced.
A distinction is often made between religion and magic in this
context. In magic, attempts are made to manipulate divine forces
through human acts. In truly religious acts such as prayer and
sacrifice, the prevailing attitude is one of awe, worship, and
Participation in communal rituals marks a person as a member of that community. That in many religions the disfavor of the community is expressed by barring a person from the important rituals is not surprising because these rituals are believed to nsure the proper standing of both the individual and the community in relation to the holy.
Another aspect of religion is some sort of ethical code which
has an effect both on the individual as well as the society. For
instance, in India the caste system is an integral part of traditional
Hinduism. Marduk in ancient Babylon was believed to be the author
of Babylonian law, thus giving these laws the weight and prestige
of holiness. The prophets of Israel were social critics who claimed
that righteous acts rather than ritual were the true expression
In fact, one can show that as religions develop, they usually put ever more stress on ethical behavior to the exclusion of ritual. The survival of Judaism after the destruction of the temple - the site of all ritual in Judaism - can be understood only this way.
Most religions have a social aspect that leads their adherents
to form an organized community of some sort. In earlier times
the religious community could scarcely be distinguished from the
community at large; all citizens of a particular village or country
professed the same faith, and the ruler served as both a political
and a religious leader. Ultimately, however, in many parts of
the world religious and civil societies have become distinct.
In the United States, for example, a plurality of religious communities
coexist more or less peacefully within a single political entity.
Another common feature of religious organizations is a priesthood of some sort charged with teaching and transmitting the faith and performing the acts of worship.
Forms Of Religious Experience
The complex phenomenon described above constitutes what may be called the religious experience of humankind. In different religions and in different individuals, one or more of the characteristics mentioned may predominate, whereas others may be weak or almost nonexistent. This difference explains why religion is best treated as a polymorphous concept and why it is better to see religions as linked by variable family likenesses than by some constant but elusive essence.
Even though many varieties of religious experience exist, they
seem to occur in two basic forms. In the first, the sense of the
holy is connected to an awareness of human finitude, sinfulness,
and meaninglessness. In the second, the sense of the holy is conjoined
with the human experience of transcendence, of going beyond to
a fuller, deeper, or richer existence outside of self.
Although one approach or another may dominate, both belong to the full range of religious experience.
Validity of Religious Experience
The question about the validity of religious experience must also be raised. Do religious people or worshiping communities actually encounter a holy reality that is outside of themselves? Schleiermacher believed that the capacity for religious experience is universal in human beings. He therefore claimed that this capacity was another bit of evidence for the existence of God. Few scholars today would agree with Schleiermacher. Not only might they deny having the kinds of experiences he described; they might also suggest quite different interpretations for them. Many traditional revelations, which seemed to be miracles in a prescientific age, might now be judged as natural events or coincidences. Inner voices and private visions might be explained psychologically as subconscious mental processes or even schizophrenia. Freud explained the belief in God as a projection of the human mind; Karl Marx saw religious belief as the product of socioeconomic forces. Each of these naturalistic explanations of religious belief has drawn attention to some element that enters into the religious phenomenon, but it may be questioned whether such theories account exhaustively for the near universality of religion among human beings. In fact, the capacity and desire for religious belief, the similarity of basic concepts of good and bad in all cultures, does tend to suggest that there is an underlying basis for belief in the holy.
Mysticism in general refers to a direct and immediate experience
of the sacred, or the knowledge derived from such an experience.
In Christianity this experience usually takes the form of a vision,
or a sense of union with God; however, there are also nontheistic
forms of mysticism, for instance, in Buddhism. Mysticism is usually
accompanied by meditation, prayer, and ascetic discipline. It
may also be accompanied by unusual claims of ecstasy, levitation,
visions, the power to read minds, to heal, and to perform other
unusual acts. Mysticism occurs in most, if not all, the religions
of the world, although its importance within each varies greatly.
The criteria and conditions for mystical experience vary depending
on the tradition, but three attributes are found almost universally.
First, the experience is immediate and overwhelming, divorced
from the common experience of reality. Second, the experience
or the knowledge imparted by it is felt to be self-authenticating,
without need of further evidence or justification. Finally, it
is said to be inexpressable or incapable of being understood outside
the experience itself.
Many mystics have written of their experiences, and these writings are the best source we have for our knowledge of mysticism. Poetic language is frequently the vehicle of expression. Fire, an interior journey, the dark night of the soul, a knowing that is an unknowing - such are the images or descriptions used for communicating the mystical experience. In Christianity, mysticism is usually understood as the result of God's choice in relating to certain individuals, not because the individual sought the experience. Other religions, in contrast, allow for the human achievement of mystical states through certain methods of contemplation, fasting, and breathing. Only those whose lives are marked by penance and emotional purification achieve mystical states, however - even in much Christian thought - and the experience itself always transcends the human efforts or methods of achieving it.
Modern philosophers and psychologists have studied the occurrence of mysticism, but have yet to fully explain it in psychological terms.
Any typology that attempts an ordering of religions is the product of a particular tradition in which others are seen relatively to its own centrality. For instance, starting from the perspective of the Christian experience of the holy as both transcendent and immanent makes possible the construction of a series in which the various traditions are related more or less closely to Christianity insofar as they emphasize one or the other. That is, Christian tradition strongly asserts the transcendence of God as an essential element in its Judaic heritage, but it just as strongly insists upon the immanence of God in the incarnation and in God's concern and care for individuals. Roughly speaking, Judaism and Islam fall on the transcendent side of the series, whereas Hinduism and Buddhism fall more on the immanent. A detailed analysis along these lines, taking into account the variety of traditions within Christianity, reveals illuminating similarities, as for example between Calvinism and Islam and among the various mystical traditions. Thus the construction of a typology, despite the limitations of any given perspective, draws attention to both the unity and diversity of religions.
The Study of Religion
The study of religion may be broken down into at least seven major subdivisions: philosophical, literary, anthropological, sociological, psychological, phenomenological., and theological.
The analysis of, and reflections on, a wide spectrum of experiences, situations, and issues recognized as "religious", as well as a traditional concern with a reality beyond appearance, is the concern of the philosophical study of religion. Characteristic approaches and attitudes of adherents of particular religions, sympathizers, and critics of the above concerns are also included in this method of study.
The literary/historical approach deals with doctrinal, devotional, and ritual texts that stem from a religious community and also secular documents, such as vital statistics, through which the historian attempts to reconstruct the religious life of a community. Historians may combine both types of documents together to create a sense of the role religion plays in the life of a nation.
The year 1922 is sometimes taken as marking the beginning of modern
anthropology, with its complex studies of existing cultures and
their religions. In that year Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown
published studies based on in-depth field work. Their approach
to the analysis of religion became a school of thought, from which
a steady flow of detailed studies of religion in a cultural context
continues to this day. Perhaps the most significant figure in
this anthropological approach was Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard,
whose influential works continue to serve as points of departure
for analysts of religion.
Meanwhile, Claude Levi-Strauss has developed a complex theory of the way in which religious symbol and myth are transformed in their articulation by a culture, and how that transformation is affected by the place that society conceives of itself in relation to other cultures and the universe as a whole.
The study of religion from the standpoint of the social sciences is concerned with the relationship of religion to the structure and processes of human society and the way in which religion reflects and affects stratification systems in society. The social aspect of religion also involve varieties of individual religious experiencce and the conditions under which various beliefs occur. William Robertson Smith, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber were the leading figures in creating a sociological tradition in the analysis of religion.
In the psychology of religion, the two most important figures
remain William James and Sigmund Freud. James' Varieties of
Religious Experience (published in 1902) established a set
of topics and approaches to those topics that set the overall
tone for much later work in the field. While James dealt primarily
with conscious expressions of religious experience, Freud and
the psychoanalytic tradition growing from him attempted to fit
the various forms of religious experience into the framework of
a general theory of the unconscious. Jung in particular has been
influential among interpreters of religion, in part, no doubt,
simply because he has the best-developed alternative to Freud's
One problem usually associated with the psychological approach to religion is the difficulty of moving from the individual's experience to the structure and experience of the religious community.
What is the phenomenological study of religion? To put it broadly,
it may be described as the descriptive analysis of religion phenomena.
An important name in the phenomenological study of religion is
Edmund Husserl, a German philosopher. Essentially, the pheonomenological
study of religion aims at describing and analyzing the contents
of consciousness without making any assumptions about how those
contents might correspond with reality apart from such consciousness.
Husserl's hope was that such study could lead to the discovery
of universal concepts.
So how does this work? Phenomenologists of religion analyze the various manifestations of religion in an attempt to discover the similarities and differences in the forms of religious expression. When scholars find similar forms of expression, they seek to identify the common human needs or experiences that might give rise to those forms.
W. Brede Kristensen, a leading figure in phenomenology of religion, contrasts the phenomenological approach and the approach of comparative religions. He argues that the phenomenological approach concerns itself with those things that are common to different religions, such as prayer, sacrifice, and priesthood, so as to uncover the similarities and differences and thus to elucidate the human needs from which they spring. In contrast, the approach of traditional comparative religion is to compare one religion with another in order to evaluate them as either "higher" or "lower." The phenomenologist of religion describes religious phenomena without making value judgments about truth or authenticity. He will, for example, study different concpets of God without making a judgment about the accuracy of the concepts or about the actual existence of God. The phenomenologist of religion is concerned with phenomena and their meaning rather than with truth and existence.
The theological approach is to look at the other religions in
the light of Christianity, to compare and contrast them, to see
where they are true and where they are false. The basis of this
determination of veracity being their similarity or contrast to
Christian teaching. This is an approach rarely taken today. Instead,
the phenomenological dominates.
At one level, the phenomenological is an acceptable approach - as long as one is merely cataloguing and examining the subject purely on human terms. It is like taking languages and examining and cataloging them and disecting them and finding what they all have in common and how they differ. This is standard linguistics. And in linguistics it would be both foolish and irrational to speak in terms of "higher" languages or "lower" languages or to argue that this language is true and that is false, or that this one is better and that one is worse.
However, as Christians, we do not see religion as being equivalent to language: simply how humans "express" their religious selves. Rather than seeing God as unreachable and ultimately unknowable, Christians view him the same as they view the sun or any other phenomenon of nature: objectively real, knowable, and something of which statements may be made. And since God is objectively real, not merely a subjective human expression of inner longings and angst, what we say or think about him can be either true or false, just as statements about the nature of the sun may be either true or false.
It is a difficult concept for pheonomenoligists, and frankly, most educated moderns to accept, since the "accepted" concept of religion is to categorize it the same way as we categorize languages; in fact, religion is viewed as a sort of language - the experession of the inexpressible, the empty longings, the profound hopes, the dreams and desires of mortal and finite to touch the immortal and infinite. Religion is, in such modern thoughts, entirely emotive and an expression of inner, psychological motives and states - having nothing to do with an objective existence. It is real, only as it is expressed; it is real in the sense that feelings and emotional states exist, and so how, in such thinking, can the expressions of a Roman Catholic be any more or less real or valid than the expressions of a Buddhist? Both expressions are equally real, and equally meaningful to those who participate. Who are we or any one else to judge the validity of such expression?
A wise thought, if, and only if, God is unreachable and, frankly, not as real, or not real in the same way that a cheese sandwhich is real. However, if God is real, then validity becomes a serious issue, since it is obvious that in the same way an object cannot be both an apple and an orange, so God cannot be several things at once. If reality is an attribute of God, then both true and false statements may be made about him, and both true and false beliefs may be held about him. The false concepts and false statements are not equal to those that are true, no matter how sincere may be those who hold them. Likewise, the simple fact that specific rituals or beliefs are meaningful to the participants does not make them valid. The individual who is halucinating as a consequence of injesting some narcotic is having what to him or her is a meaningful experience - but it is one that has a tenuous grip on objective reality.
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