So, Is Everything Religious?
Though everything is certainly not religious, nonetheless, everything is capable of having religious significance. You might think some things are just a matter of "survival" when in actually how one survives easily becomes a matter involving value judgements and ethical issues. Long before the agricultural revolution, human beings were not only surviving, they were thriving and basking in the spirituality, which they saw in everything. Though it might be possible to think that the early hunter-gatherers had no need for religion as long as they ate, they in fact placed a deep religious significance on the their mode of survival and the game they hunted. It is in the surplus of survival that religion functions to provide meaning to existence. You might think that brushing your teeth is simply a matter of hygiene and for health purposes, but in actuality the whole structure is imbedded in clean/unclean codes which were first formulated as religious categories to demarcate the sacred from the profane. Though much that we do in contemporary secularized culture may seem to be simply profane, there are still noticeable touchstones of the Sacred that owe their origins to the archaic religious roots of the past, including all kinds of survival strategies and hygienic techniques.
Key Concepts and Terms for the Study of Religion
Phenomenology and the Study of Religion
To approach religion phenomenologically is to literally observe a religion as it manifests itself. It is to exercise caution in interpretation and patience in description. As phenomenologists we try to observe each unique appearance as a category unto itself rather than trying to stuff it neatly into already pre-determined categories. It is only after letting the religious phenomena come to full expression that we can begin to understand them in their own ground.
Spirituality/Religion/Culture as categories bound in reciprocity...Is it live or is it Memorex?
To examine this category it perhaps beneficial to picture yourself in a coffee house, overhearing the conversations of some of the patrons. It is a conversation that could easily be heard anywhere in California: She looks into his eyes, perhaps suddenly picturing him as the potential father of her children, "Are you religious?" she asks. "No," he answers, "but I am very spiritual." Now what that actually means could take a variety of spins. For example, he could mean that he does not go to church but he is very disciplined in his pursuit of martial arts. Or, perhaps he is a nature lover, a writer of haiku, or very into music. What is at stake in the popular distinction between spirituality and religion, especially where "New Age" ideas are concerned, is a distinction between some level of experience on one hand and organized institutions of tradition on the other. Spirituality would then be measured by intensity of experience, the highest degree of which would presumably be direct and unmediated experience of the Absolute. One term for such an experience is mysticism. Or, we could use the terminology of Rudolf Otto, who speaks of such seminal experiences as numinous. My point is that it is indeed possible to isolate an experiential moment that could theoretically be distinguished as "spiritual" as opposed to "religious" especially if one has become accustomed to think of religion as organized religion. The distinction might also be made as the difference between private and public religion, but for now let us pursue spirituality as a distinct phase or moment apart from systems of tradition which we recognize as religious. This distinction then becomes the makings for a fine theory of religion.
The theory proposes that spiritual experience is prior to and the foundation upon which all religious traditions build their edifices. In a way this becomes equivalent to the old chicken and egg query of which came first. This theory, much in the fashion of William James, would pose the religious genius as the conduit of a primary spiritual experience that must be safeguarded by the subsequent community who accesses the original spirituality as a sort of second-hand hand-me-down. Thus we have a Moses, a Buddha, a Plato, a Jesus, a Muhammad; all spiritual geniuses who founded or became foundational to the communities, organizations, traditions, and institutions which maintain their memory and bask in the afterglow of their experience. It is a beautiful theory as far as theories go. The one problem is that no spiritual experience takes place in a vacuum. As far as the evidence shows, every spiritual experience takes place in the context of a pre-existent religious tradition. As Joachim Wach observed, every religion is a syncretism. Thus Moses experiences his revelation in the context of the patriarchal tradition of "Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." "I am the God of your fathers," saith the Lord. Thus Jesus experiences and manifests his revelation in the context of Judaism and Hellenistic Greco-Roman culture. Likewise, the transcendent breakthrough of the Buddha takes place squarely in the yogic and metaphysical traditions of ancient India. Is it live or is it Memorex? In other words, is it spontaneous and pure, or does it reflect a new twist on an already pre-existing re-assimilation of traditional categories?
Definitions of religion are often highly debatable and there are many Theories of Religion (various attempts to explain, define, or otherwise account for religion/s). Most people tend to think of "religion" in the terms in which they are familiar. So, when students in the west talk about religion they are often tempted to describe all religion in terms of "belief systems" which simply super-imposes an aspect of the Abrahamic religions upon all others. Buddhism, Taoism, and many indigenous religions are not aptly characterized as being centrally about "belief" for in many traditions it is not so much about what one thinks as what one does that matters. A very important way to approach religion is to describe rather than define. Here it is important to recognize the Three symbolizations of the Sacred. All traditions have some concept of The Sacred, which is a "transcendent referent," the central point of reference in a religious tradition, i.e., Nirvana, God, Heaven, the Tao...etc. The three Symbolizations of the Sacred are Myth, Ritual, and Symbol...
Myth: Sacred Communication, living/paradigmatic reality exemplified by sacred stories and writings such as scriptures.
Ritual: Sacred behavior in which time and space and purity codes often play centralizing roles of orientation, exemplified by such acts as prayer, meditation, yoga, sacrifice, baptism, etc...
Symbol: Sacred places, persons, or objects, exemplified by places like Mecca, people like Buddha, and objects like crosses.
Ways in Which Sacred Texts are Read:
1. As literature--How does the story go? (narrative/hermeneutic/semiotic)
2. Theologically or Metaphysically--What does it tell me about Ultimate Reality? (a systematic reading that prioritizes categories and hierarchies of meaning)
3. Historically/Scientifically--What really happened? (utilizes the tools and methodologies of historical and scientific context analysis)
4. Existentially--What does it say to me? (unpacks the text as immediately relevant)
The Three Traditional Disciplines: Cosmology, Anthropology, and Metaphysics
Cosmology: "the World," study of the cosmos of which the quintessential cosmological discipline would currently be astro-physics
Anthropology: "human reality," study of humanity in a variety of contexts, i.e., sociologically, psychologically, physiologically, as a producer of artifacts, etc.
Metaphysics: the study of Absolute Reality, the Ultimate Ground of Being, for which Theology and Philosophy are the chief academic disciplines...
The Great Scheme: the division and integration between Descriptive and Normative Disciplines
Descriptive Disciplines: ask the question "What is it?" Includes all hard sciences such as astro-physics, and the social sciences such as sociology and history.
Normative Disciplines: ask the question, "Why?" and deals with categories like "ought." Includes such disciplines as Theology and Philosophy and such questions as ethics and aesthetics raise.
Soteriology: includes an analysis of the human condition and a system of salvation
Secularization: the transfer of power from sacred to mundane sources of authority
Pluralism: the co-existence of a multiple variety of world-views, religious traditions, or meaning paradigms within a culture which may be met with the response of exclusivism, inclusivism, or complementarity
The Perennial Philosophy: the idea that there is a universal religion running through the variety of world traditions, "everywhere and at all times…"
Syncretism: the juxtaposition and merging of two traditions into one, like tributaries to a river
Theodicy: The problem of God and evil, or "when bad things happen to good people"
Ritual Interiorization: The transformation of an overtly exterior ritual performance into a mental or spiritual reality
The Cult of the Dead/Ancestors: Tenacious and pervasive archaic/pre-historic religious dynamic that recognizes a continuity and even community of existence beyond death
Shamanism: Tenacious and pervasive archaic/pre-historic religious dynamic that centers around the Shaman, a spiritual adept characterized by the ability to travel via trance into the other world; emphasizes techniques of ecstasy Hermeneutics: systems of interpretation
Epistemology: the study of knowledge; how we know what we do