Methods for the Study 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.
Yet another reason why I like to consider the detective genre in light of religion is because of the tremendous paradigm shift it reflects. One of the major shifts in Western consciousness took place during the period known as the "Enlightenment." This period became one of the major watersheds in delineating the ways in which "religion" would be studied, dissected, discussed, and explained. Texts would be analyzed in light of the newly found documents produced by archeology, comparative linguistics, and speculative theory. Eventually, sociological, anthropological, and psychological theories of religion would abound, abundantly dipping into political and economic theories as well. In fact, one way to think of textual interpretation henceforth is to think of it as detective work. And, indeed, Biblical texts have been fine-tooth combed under the magnifying glasses of both lower and higher criticism. The current "Quest for the Historical Jesus", now in full swing for the third time, delights in comparing its participants to detectives in the field, hot on the trail of smoking-gun arguments to clinch the case. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came right at the cusp of such a paradigm shift engendered by the growing confidence in the powers of empirical observation though still under the sway of the lingering power of the tenacious Semitic sense of justice and the Christian social ethic. As well, there was the growing influx and presence of the ubiquity of Transcendence renewed by the discovery of the powerful, and highly exportable spiritualities of Eastern religions, most notably Hinduism and Buddhism. Given Sir Arthur's theosophical leanings, it should come as no surprise that after Sherlock Holmes' resurrection from a near-death struggle with the systemically evil genius Professor Moriarty, that Holmes finds release from his historically-conditioned, London-based cocaine addiction by a sojourn to Tibet and an extended period of study under the Dalai Lama. (Something to which folk like Richard Gere, Stephen Segal, and a growing number of our contemporaries can no doubt relate.)
Psychology is one of the most powerful secular paradigms of modern culture. It is difficult to go anywhere without hearing psych-speak. We talk of people as being in denial or co-dependent. We joke about it, for example, "How many pshychologists does it take to change a light bulb?" (Do you know the answer?) We speak of childhood trauma and dysfuntional relationships. This dynamic spills richly over the radio waves into our culture's literature and language. If we were to isolate the origins of psychology, we would have to look deep into pre-history. One of the clear antecedents of the modern pursuit for internal lucidity is the concept of "the all-seeing God" the "one who searches heart and mind" "and before whom no thought is hidden." This concern is reflected in wisdom literature by the injunctions not to be deceived, that is self-deceived, and in such psalmic phrases as "discern in me any hidden fault, oh Lord." Plato, of course was a consummate psychologist as his aim was to liberate the psyche (soul) from the material impediments that would obscure its participation in the pure light of unmediated idealism. One could argue that modern psychology is a secularization of a deeply rooted religious aspiration to be clear, lucid, in possession of wise counsel, and knowing reality for what it is. As one of the most popular paradigms of modern culture, psychology continues to occupy a place of central concern in culture and is reflected in all kinds of daily aspects of our lives, including the stories we read and the movies we watch. How aware of the presence of psychological dynamics are we? Can you think of some examples to illustrate this premise?
The earliest stories of humanity are religious. Since stories have their origins in roots that are overtly religious, can they ever truly surmount their beginnings no matter how subtly or radically they try? Those stories, incidentally, are called myths. Myth is the first form of storytelling that we are aware of and its roots extend deep into pre-history. Generally, myths tell stories that are fabulous, often evoke the supernatural, and at the same time establish links to existential and experiential realities that form, inform, and reflect entire cultures of perception, participation, and practice. On one hand, the genres of myths that have survived are oftentimes viewed as false because we no longer accept their premises, worldview, or paradigmatic conceptions of reality, while on the other hand, however, myths are never merely true or false. Indeed, it is entirely wrong to think of myths as either true or false. The only question to ask of myth is whether it is living or dead. Communities of consciousness determine whether a myth is living or dead. All thought is mythic in the sense that all thought is based on paradigms, though, one should remember that paradigms can and will shift. When a paradigm shifts so dramatically that we can no longer live within its parameters we tend to "demythologize." However, one should be aware that all demythologizing involves a "remythologizing," whether we recognize the full extent of the new paradigm or not. Another way to say this is that every de-sacralization involves a new re-sacralization. A prime example of this took place during the Enlightenment when many intellectuals (such as Voltaire) rejected ecclesiastical and scriptural authority but in its place divinized reason. One result of that shift is that "Thus sayeth the Lord" is replaced with "Science says". All that simply implies a new myth so close to us that we take it for granted and thus do not recognize it yet as mythic in its paradigmatic importance.
Literature participates in both myth and ritual. As a message, worldview, implied metaphysic or ethic, literature can participate in the mythic as a form of "sacred communication." As a message to be imbibed, savored, understood, ingested, embraced and/or comprehended, literature requires discipline and ritual. It becomes a sacred act, at least when the literature is engaging, thought-provoking, life-altering, or simply entertaining. Entertainment is itself an act that propels towards transcendence. So-called "escape literature" tries to catapult us out of the ordinary hum-drum snares of everyday (or profane) existence into moments of sublime release. What are we escaping from in those moments? Answer: time and history. In those moments of supreme release we escape the historical vicissitudes of time-bounded ordinary business as usual, to approach the timeless. Archaic homo religiosus invented entertainment in rituals and festivals that in their most grandiose aspirations were precipitated by a return to the chaos that preceded the creation of the universe. (For more on this line of thinking visit a "Synopsis of the Sacred" on my Homepage.)
Drama, like literature, arises from a religiously significant past and involves participation in myth, ritual, and symbol. Just as the literary antecedents and sources of contemporary narratives owe their origins to the sacred stories of archaic religious strata so too does drama owe its origins to the sacred rituals and religious performances of an almost forgotten era. Aristotle points out that the origins of Greek drama harked back to the religious rituals of the Orphic and Dionysian mysteries. These precipitators of drama used to gather at the mouths of caves to invoke the spirits of the departed ancestors. Aided by ritual masks, called personae, the participants were possessed of the characters they were enacting as they performed ritual dramas recounting their valued sacred traditions. Has much changed? Actors still are trying to "get into character," and instead of holding huge festivals at the mouths of caves, we have the Academy Awards with all its sacred rituals and sermons. I have long since maintained that Soap Operas are among the most religious shows on television. They require a loyalty among their audiences which borders on religious fanaticism. Their content is generally about bringing truth to light. There is a strong sense of ethics in the sub-text and an almost providential guidance in the inevitable and eventual resolution of obscure and cloudy issues. This is the rule in soap operas: there is no secret so dark and deep that it will not be brought to light; and, there is no one so evil or good that they cannot be pressed into the service of the secret or the truth it obscures. Sound familiar? Movies like "The Matrix," "Little Buddha," and "Jesus of Montreal" overtly dip into the deep-structure paradigms of both eastern and western religions. In fact, I like to refer to "The Matrix" as "the greatest story very stold," with its bold utilization of western apocalyptic/prophetic messianism and its delving into eastern metaphysical conceptions of reality.
So, How do you find meaning in the movies? Sara Anson Vaux wrote a book entitled Finding Meaning in the Movies in which she discerned several levels of interpretive categories that help reveal what a film is about (you can add these to everything else that has been stated thus far). Like all art forms, movies are about something. In other words, they are objects of and for interpretation and thus can yield meanings that are not far removed from religious or "value-laden" categories. Her categories include "authenticity", "alienation", "purity of heart", "vocation", "celebration", "healing", and "integrity". "Authenticity" has to do with issues of realizing one's own essential selfhood and not being captured in the mold which others would cast us into. "Alienation" is the experience of disharmony in nature and/or community, the sense that someone or something does not belong or has someway been pushed to the periphery. "Purity of heart" has to do with a way of being that is free from malice, ulterior motives, manipulation and truly seeks a positive outcome for others. "Vocation" has to do with finding one's proper calling in life, which is the ability to fulfil one's destiny and to rise to the occasion for which one is properly fit and perhaps absolutely necessary. "Celebration" is the experience, recognition, and rejoicing in gracious appreciation of the gifts life bestows upon us, often in difficult moments of hardship. "Healing" is the experience of renewed existence, restored life, and harmony out of the midst of suffering, despair, fragmentation and mental, physical, or communal infirmity. "Integrity" has to do with issues of ethics and being true to one's self and others
The idea of vocation has all but been lost in our contemporary culture. All too often we think of a person's occupation as their "vocation." However, the original sense of vocation (from the latin vocare: to call) is that of a transcendental "calling." The prophets were called by God to serve as his instruments. Krishna states in the Bhagavad-Gita that it is better to pursue your own calling poorly than another very well. This is indeed the essence of karma yoga. Still today people seek to fulfill their particular callings as a way of rising to the maximum of their potential. Sherlock Holmes illustrates this dynamic as he is particularly suited to be the instrument of truth and justice he serves. Heroes are often "called" upon to perform the tasks that only they can do. Hercules is a notable example of heroic vocation. Why does James Bond always save the world? Because he can, and often only he can. That is why he is 007. It is the numeric particularity of his calling as the elite of British secret service agents. Double 001 through 006 have ostensibly failed in their calling, or died trying. Indeed, in typical mythic pattern, a providential element is often displayed as Bond over-and-over-again becomes the instrument of a higher cause and once again by the skin of his teeth is able to save the world, or at least some aspect of its current capitalistic, western empiralistic form.
Anytime there is a question of right or wrong, good or bad, black and white versus shades of gray, hard choices versus easy ways out, or meaning versus the lack thereof, we are in the presence of the necessity for ethical decision making. Wherever people struggle with fundamental issues they intersect religious categories. Meaning, purpose, and identity are not quantities that can be counted as much as they are qualities that imply values and normative paradigms. The major origins of our sense of the ethical, the good, the true, the pure are religious in their origins, whether they hark back to biblical norms or the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Stories that portray the struggle between good and evil, or plumb the depths of the human psyche and its potential for good deeds or acts of horrific evil cannot help but deal with the deep metaphysical issues so fundamental to the meaning and purpose of human existence.
One of the particularly unique ideas in western culture is the Judeo/Christian perspective of the concern for the victim. The plight of Israel under imperial oppression, the songs of the suffering servant, the psalmic plea for justice and comfort, the lamentations of Jeremiah or Job all reflect a point of view from the eyes of the victim. In the Christian tradition, many of the stories of Jesus ask the reader to look at things from the side of the other person. The story of the Good Samaritan asks you to think about aid to the other from the standpoint of the man in the ditch. Jesus himself becomes the quintessential victim and thus the tradition is irrevocably bound to consider the plight of all victims. One aspect of the western literary tradition has been to carry forth this dynamic.
When we think of prophets we usually are thinking of the ability to forecast the future. However, first and foremost for the traditional prophets was not so much the task of fore-telling events but rather forth-telling the will of God for God's people. Thus, the prophetic dynamic refers to the social and religious criticism of the Hebrew prophets, their zeal for a proper understanding of God and God's concerns for justice and accountability before the eyes of history. Typical, or rather, quintessential prophetic critiques can be found in Isaiah 58 and Matthew 25. Both passages assume and subsume forms of socially engaged activism as true worship (i.e. helping the widows and orphans). This dynamic flows into western history as a powerful apparatus for challenging systemic evil, that is, the evil which is particular to systems and structures of government, ecclesiastical authority, and all types of vested interests such as multi-national corporations. Seen in this light, Marx is a social prophet as are such movements as Greenpeace and Amnesty International socially prophetic. Can you discern some of the themes and relevance of the prophetic dynamic in modern life, literature, and culture?
As early as 1912 in Das Heilige, the profound thinker Rudolf Otto used the newly developed cinematic genre of the Horror Film to speak about the mysterium tremendum et fascinans which is evoked by encounter with the Holy. Scary films are fraught with the sense of the supernatural and often trigger responses that remind the viewer of his/her creaturliness (absolute vulnerability) in the face of forces beyond human control. Often at stake is the sense of our finitude in the face of infinity. Infinity of anything is an overwhelming and potentially terrifying prospect. It is perhaps ironic to think in this regard that although ecstasy may be a glimpse of eternity, horror is the actual experience of it. Here are some interesting questions to ponder: Does terror lead to Holiness (in other words; can someone literally get the "Hell" scared out of them? What do you think the religious roots of Horror may be? What are its lessons? What are some truly horrifying experiences you can think of either in life, or literature and film? Did you feel a sense of the sacred when you experienced it?
What About the Seemingly Trivial? What about, say, Dr. Suess stories? Dr. Seuss writes children's literature with the idea of educating and entertaining them. Hmm.both education and entertainment are part of the legacy and invention of homo religiosus, our archaic creators of culture. Education in particular was taken up by such traditions as Christianity to be not only for the elite but the masses, including the children of the poor. Jesus is quite adamant in his concern for children, "for such is the kingdom of Heaven." How about comic books? Did you know that Superman was modeled in part on Moses? If there is a hero or character of particular importance in the story, such as "the Cat in the Hat", or a figure of exceedingly evil bent, such as say the Grinch who stole Christmas (is that not some sort of religious holiday?), or if it is written in verse of any kind, or simply tries to make meaning out of any aspect of life, or provide any kind of escape, then it owes a debt to the religious origins of all those categories.
1) psychological searches for self-knowledge, purpose, identity, or meaning
2) supernatural or mythic elements that are cultural metaphors (such as vampires in horror films)
3) truth revelations and characters either servicing or suppressing the truth
4) heroic vocation or calling
5) concern for victims or looking at things from the victim's point of view
6) potential for good or evil
7) identifying and/or challenge of systemic evil
8) reactions to vulnerability in the face of uncontrollable forces
9) social and religious criticism
10) de-mythologizing and re-mythologizing
11) questions of "Why?" such as "when bad things happen to good people" (i.e. theodicy)
12) issues of what is proper ethical conduct in any given circumstance
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.
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.
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.
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)
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...
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
Hinduism: Vast and variegated religion originating in sacrificial cult with deeply developed philosophical systems. "All roads lead to the One." "Atman is Brahman."
Buddhism: Heterodox development of Hindu yoga that emphasizes meditation, enlightenment, and release from Samsara in order to attain Nirvana. It is expressed in many schools such as the two major branches of Theravadin and Mahayana illustrate.
Confucianism: "As it is in Heaven, so on Earth." Emphasizes virtue, filial piety (family values), education, scholarship, good manners, protocol, and ceremony.
Taoism: "Go with the flow." Emphasizes nature, harmony, simplicity, intuition, flexibility, and non-duality.
Examples of Tenacious and Pervasive Western Paradigms: Christianity, Platonism, Aristotilianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism
Christianity: Originally a Semitic/prophetic/Abrahamic based religion. It shares the linear idea of history, the prophetic dynamic of social and religious criticism, personal accountability, and Monotheism with Judaism, Islam, and to some extent Zoroastrianism. Emphasizes agape, extending God's agenda of love and service to others in the role-model and pattern of Jesus.
Platonism: Highly metaphysical philosophy that sees real reality as in the realm of ideals. We are basically ideas in the mind of God. Very heavily psychologically oriented towards releasing the soul from bondage through anamnesis, that is, un-forgetting.
Aristotilianism: Sociologically oriented. Concerned with the maximum good for the maximum amount of people. Concerned with natural law, arts, drama, music, sciences as tools and techne to improve society.
Stoicism: Stuff happens; no one ever promised you a rose garden. You are the Master of your fate, the captain of your soul. All things in moderation. Pursue virtue and the rational. Lower your expectations. Don't let others push your buttons. Equilibrium and even-keeled equanimity are the keys to life.
Epicureanism: Pleasure is good. Pick a lifestyle that affords you the most amount of comfort with the least amount of stress. It doesn't take much to be happy: "A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and you." Not to be confused with hedonism which grovels in the heresy of "pleasure is the good," in other words, if it feels good do it, no matter what the consequences. True Epicureans are moderates.
Platonism, Christianity, Marxism, Freudian Psycho-analysis, Skinner's Behaviorism, Sartrian Existentialism, and Konrad Lorenz's Ethology all reflect overt or hidden dynamics relevant to the study of religion. The influence of such paradigmatic figures as Hegel, who turned Christianity from religion to philosophy (especially in terms of its historicist view of the thesis/anti-thesis/synthesis dynamic in history), Feuerbach, the Father of Modern Atheism (famous quote: "Theology is Anthropology"), and Darwin, who popularized the evolutionary model of human origins, has helped to formulate discrete and powerfully seductive interpretive paradigms concerning Cosmology/Anthropology/Metaphysics.
Fundamentalism: originally a nineteenth-century, Protestant reaction to modernity and the advent of Darwinian Evolution, it refers to a fixed-code hermeneutic and a textual revelation that is "once and for all delivered." All knowledge is thus subordinated to the Revelation.
Relativism: a contemporary reading of Pluralism that says truth is cultural-specific and entirely socially constructed to the extent that no particular truth transcends its context, thus truth is to be found everywhere and nowhere. Post-Modernism is viewed by Gellner to be the latest fad-version of a general Post-Ethnographic option in the contemporary world.
Enlightenment Rationality: the scientific method, technology, and the fruits of liberal western thought seen as a transcendent form of knowledge and truth that cuts across the confines of the culturally specific.
Process Theology: A possible fourth option which sees the reality of revelation as neither culturally-specific nor fixed-code but rather as progressively realized at various stages of evolutionary, cultural, scientific, and epistemological epochs. There is a transcendent realm that continually is manifest.
Terms like God and Science or God and the Big Bang acknowledges the advent of the contemporary model of the universe and its potential religious significance. It displays the ingenious discovery of the tools to augment our perception that has allowed us to exceed our inate empirical capabilities in order to see and hear to the very edge of the universe. We have reached a stage that might be characterized by the phrase "cosmology as metaphysics," the integration of Descriptive and Normative Disciplines.
God is a common English term used to express the idea of divinity, the concept of the Absolute, a Supreme Being, or even something as abstract as the ultimate ground of being. In the history of religions the concept of God, or of various gods and goddesses has taken on a variety of forms. In many traditions there is a conscious realization that all notions of God, or divinity fall far short of doing justice to the actual reality to which the concept refers. "My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts…my ways are higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts," declares the God of the Hebrew Bible. There are concepts of God that are clearly characterized by various anthropomorphisms such as are most notably expressed in the polytheistic pantheons of tribal to imperial cultures. Such phrases as "the hand of God" or "the eyes of God" as well as all gender references can be considered as anthropomorphisms, thus imposing human forms upon that which is beyond conceptuality.
An important way of thinking about divinity has developed in the Abrahamic Religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This concept is known as Monotheism, the idea of one God. Various other traditions have posed alternate visions of the unity of the godhead or of the unity of ultimate reality such as the idea of brahman in Hinduism, Nirvana in Buddhism, or the Tao in Taoism. Various philosophical conceptions of God deal with attributes...the divine as imbued with qualities, traits, characteristics such as omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence... other qualities might include justice and mercy…
A number of traditional arguments for the existence of God have been developed, which raises an interesting question: Can one prove the existence of God? The answer is: to some minds… Some minds have been convinced by some arguments for God or a combination thereof.
Some traditional arguments are the cosmological argument, which is an argument based on motion or causality; the teleological argument, which is an argument from design and is also known as the clockmaker argument (a particular favorite of the Deists). A modern revitalization of the teleological argument has developed using the anthropic principle of modern physics; the ontological argument, which is based on a sophisticated definition-based proposition; the moral argument associated with Immanuel Kant; and Pascal's Wager.
In terms of conceiving God, it is possible for any single tradition to hold various perceptions in tension with one another. Practically all traditions have ambivalent paradigms, this can be especially true when it comes to perceiving divinity. One view which is often portrayed in the Western tradition is the idea of a God who is above or outside of nature, or, in other words, Supernatural. Another view that counter-balances this is the idea that God is not outside nature but within it. Such a view can easily lead to Pantheism, which is to say that everything is God. Another view, which is more consonant with the Western traditions says that God is both outside, that is greater than the universe, but that God also suffuses everything. Everything is seen as being in God. God is both transcendent and immanent. This view is known as Panentheism, everthing is in God, but God is also bigger than it all.
There really is no such thing as a conflict between "science" and "religion" proper. There are however certain conflicts between various sciences and various religious expressions. Evolutionary Biology and modern Astro-Physics, for example have had their conflicts with certain forms of religiously based fixed-code hermeneutics such as Christian Fundamentalism or certain forms of Islamic Orthodoxy. The relationship of science and religion can be seen really as a matter of interpretation. Certainly the Big Bang Cosmogonic Story as currently espoused by most astro-physicists conflicts with the interpretation of a literal six-day creation some six thousand years ago as found for example in the notes of the MacArthur Study Bible. However, that would not be true of all contemporary Christian readings of the biblical account of creation.
One way to sort out the issues is to examine the relationships of Cosmology, Anthropology, and Metaphysics. As distinct categories these three traditional disciplines deal with all aspects of existence (and even non-existence), but as a spectrumed polarity they can help dilineate fundamental orientations depending on where in the spectrum on positions their foundational explanations of phenomena. So, if one is inclined to think that the universe has a metaphysical foundation and that there is an ultimate Ground of Being, Spirit, or God undergirding all reality they will tend to interpret everything, including the origin and ordering of matter from a different perspective than a person who positions themselves on the other end of the spectrum, and sees a materialistic explanation for everything.
Those scientist that tend to see purposes and meaning to life are Teleological in their orientation and think in terms of the "designs of the universe" and of doing astro-physics as "thinking God's thoughts." Those scientists that tend to view life as a happenstance conglomeration of minute causes and chance coincidences, as just "matter in motion" are Reductionists and practice nothing-buttery (as in: "this is nothing but a bunch of animated dust"). Remember the anecdote of the astronomers' convention where one astronomer gave a speech in which he said, "In the eyes of Astronomy, man is just an infinitesimal speck of insignificant dust upon the lens cap of the universe." He was followed by another astronomer who responded, "Nonsense, in the eyes of the universe man is the astronomer. We are the eyes of the universe."
In an age of science one has to consider as well the interplay between Descriptive and Normative Disciplines. One might well wonder if science were to operate unchecked by such normative concerns as ethics, whether one could witness, in the words of the Strassbourg philosopher, Georges Gusdorf, "The triumph of science as the destruction of the world."