STUDY OF RELIGION: Basic Categories
The Ubiquity of Religion
Humans are identified and classified from a variety of different standpoints. Homo Faber: humans as "tool-makers", the beings par excellence who envision tools to make other tools, thus displaying a penchant for abstraction, imagination, and means-to-an-end purposes and goals. This is an attribute that harks back to the dawn of the progenitors and proto-forms of the species itself.
Homo Sapiens: "Humans the wise". Ever wonder why we are called that? (Answer: Because we named ourselves.) As the thinking animal, humans are at the same time economic, political, social, psychological entities. But that is not the whole story. Humans also need to be recognized as symbolic and religious beings, as homo religiosus, homo symbolicus, and homo orientus. Indeed, humans orient themselves, as do many animals. However we not only orient ourselves geographically in terms of physical space but psychologically, temporally (indeed time and history are crucial to our self-understandings), and spiritually. As far back as we can reconstruct humanity we discover traits and activities that demonstrate concerted efforts to orient lives and activities in relationship to the sacred. From burial sites to cave paintings archaic humanity displays religious significations that are hard-pressed to be accounted for without the recognition of a deeply rooted propensity for religion in the essential nature of humanity.
The oldest discernible strata of admittedly opaque "documents" (artifacts, cave paintings, bones, tools, etc.) reveal a humanity that had early discovered the sacredness of the life force, spirit, and the continuity of human existence in the cult of the ancestors. The "dead" continued to live beyond the pale veil of this world. At this level of culture, Shamans are the archaic spiritual adepts capable of spanning the distance between this world and the "other." The pervasiveness and tenacity of the cult of the dead/ancestors is still evident on a grand scale today, though camouflaged and obscured by secular facades as they may be. Certainly celebrations of the Day of the Dead (as in dia de los muertos in Mexico, for example) retain a continuity with "Old World" and "New World" customs that do not escape notable comparison with the veneration of the saints, Halloween, and even masquerade balls at Mardi Gras. Among the vestiges of archaic survival of the cult of the dead/ancestors are contemporary art forms such as drama and jazz. According to Aristotle, drama (both comedy and tragedy) originated as a secularization of Dionysian and Orphic rituals in which the participants donned masks (personae) at the mouths of caves. They then would summon the spirits of the ancestors to possess them as they ritually re-enacted traditions associated with them. Jazz is a cultural derivative of a similar pattern in which spirits were invoked through music, rhythm, and dances that culminated in a peak of possession and inspirational spontaneity. Has it ever occurred to you that Soap Operas may be among the most religious programming on Television? Think about it. They are usually about bringing deep-dark, hidden secrets to light. There is no one so evil in a Soap Opera that they may not serve as an instrument of the truth coming to light, and there is no one so good that they cannot be caught up in the shadows. Ethics, morality, loyalty, betrayal, relationships, love, hate, treachery, and truth all function as leftovers from overtly religious dynamics in Soap Operas on a daily basis.
My point is that much of our cultural heritage, as exhibited in art and literature, has its roots in mythic storytelling, ritual behavior, and symbolic representations centered in archaic pursuits of The Sacred. Indeed, much that we consider to be "secular" culture is 1.) derivative of ancient religious paradigms...if it deals with the heroic, quests of any kind, overcoming obstacles (i.e., psychological, emotional, or even physical labyrinths), tries to make meaning out of anything, deals with the role of the sexes or sexuality, then it has been preceded and indeed owes a tremendous debt to categories that were created in ancient mythological and metaphysical "religious" paradigms...and, 2.) Even in its seemingly most anti-religious, anti-meaning phase (such as, say, Jean-Paul Sartre's _Nausea_) is still replete with religious significance. There is a saying that may apply here: "In the History of Religions there are only documents and interpreters," which means that from the standpoint of the discipline that considers human beings as _homo religiosus_, everything has and can be viewed from the perspective of its religious significance. Even to say that something is not religiously significant has religious significance...
Just because something is repressive, oppressive, and/or archaic, or, even crassly commercial, does not mean it has no religious significance. There are many overlapping dynamics that generate across one another, result in ambivalence, and can even be in conflict with other aspects of the same tradition. Perhaps someone would make distinctions between the aesthetics of the "meaningful" as opposed to pure "nihilism". Perhaps there is a great chain of being between the truly meaningful and the void-laden and infertile womb of nihilism, but it is still tough to talk about or sort out without some language that eventually dips into the "religiously significant" from a variety of paradigms and interpretations...
Religion as Literature or Literature as Religion?What is in a mystery? One of the reasons why I like detective literature as an access to religion is because its religious undertones are not immediately obvious. This is my task as your instructor: to teach you how to go beyond the stereotypical categorizations to unveil the roots, sub-stratas, and vestiges of religion that are camouflaged within the structures of secular culture and literature. It is quite easy to recognize some literature as religious. The Bible, the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Qu'ran, and the writings of Flannery O'Connor, Graham Greene, Shirley McClaine, or even Starhawk are overtly religious. These texts clearly are evidence of religion as literature. However, my contention is that human beings are innately religious and therefore even the most secular of pursuits will unfold religious significance. In other words, I argue for literature as religion, even the most seemingly secular. All literature is religious or can yield a religious interpretation. How do I support that proposition? Answer: from a variety of perspectives.