WHAT IS RELIGION?
by Thomas A. Idinopulos

The study of religion is not the same thing as the practice of faith, and therein lies the problem.

    THOMAS A. IDINOPULOS, Professor of Religion at Miami University of Ohio, is the author of Jerusalem Blessed, Jerusalem Cursed and Weathered by Miracles: A History of Palestine from Bonaparte to Muhammed Ali to Ben-Gurion and the Mufti (Ivan R. Dee, 1991 and 1998, respectively). His articles in Cross Currents include "Dostoyevsky's Criminal Heroes" (Summer 1975) and "Christianity and the Holocaust" (Fall 1978).

          "Religion. . . . means the voluntary subjection of oneself to God."
          ---The Catholic Encyclopaedia,
          1913

"We have learned more about 'the religions,'
but this has made us perhaps less. . . . aware
of what it is that we. . . . mean by 'religion.' "
---Wilfred Cantwell Smith, 1962

I begin with two epigraphs. The first, which speaks for itself, is useful in pointing to the transcendent dimension of religion. Today increasingly, we who are students and teachers of religion are in danger of ignoring this dimension. The second epigraph is drawn from Wilfred Cantwell Smith's excellent study of the dilemma facing any serious study of religion.(1) I should express the dilemma this way: our rationally based academic study of religion must be the study of what is observable, which includes historical knowledge of the rituals, mythologies, religious communities, ideas, teachings, institutions, arts, architecture. But religion is not exhausted by the observable. There is another dimension called the nonobservable, which is the source of religion's purpose and meaning. It is the failure to recognize the difference between the observable and the nonobservable, confusing one with the other or by denying one in behalf of the other, that confounds our understanding of religion.

What are the difficulties in understanding religion? Begin with the multiplicity of religions. History shows a bewildering variety of religions, cults, sects, denominational developments, and spiritual movements of every sort. Taken together, the world's religions reflect the geographic, social, and linguistic diversity of the planet itself. While no scholar can be expected to know about all these religions, anyone seriously studying any of them will hunt for some principle, definition, or criterion of meaning that identifies the "one in the many." What should we understand by "religion" amid the study of religions?

The question inevitably leads to comparison, a rational seeking of the intelligible, common element or pattern of meaning in a group of otherwise diverse entities. Comparison among religions assumes some sort of commonality among religions, a very big and perhaps faulty assumption. Unfortunately, most comparisons of religion seem to consist less in the discernment of commonality than in the imposition of it. Whenever, for example, different religions are compared according to such notions as deity, eternity, grace, judgment, salvation, and so on, selected criteria of meaning are used to organize data rather than to discern a pattern within them.

If there is something common to religions that makes useful comparison possible, it is not obvious to everyone. This should not surprise us if we recognize what Smith called "the inebriating variety of man's religious life."(2) Today, increasingly, religion scholars are moving toward area studies, which eschew comparison in favor of what is distinct or unique in any ethno-cultural configuration called religion.

The more we learn about religions, the more we appreciate not their similarities but their differences and some are important. The religion of ancient Israel, for example, was shaped by the preexisting religious culture of the ancient Near East; but Israelite religion is not finally understood without grasping how and why the Israelites distinguished their deity, Yahweh, from the deities of Canaan. Another example: Christianity was mothered by first century apocalyptic Judaism, but (as the present-day Jesus-studies industry demonstrates) the uniqueness of the Christian religion is wrapped in the mystery of how and why the person of Jesus inspired (if not actually caused) a religion separate and distinct from first century Judaism to come into being.

To take a more extreme example of how differences more than similarities are crucial in shaping and understanding a religion, take the case of Theravada Buddhism. Here is a something called "religion" which is not a religion. Although Theravada Buddhism is usually included in any book on the world's religions, it is not theistic, recognizes no sacred being or beings, and does not officially encourage worship of Buddha or any "higher being" (despite popular veneration of the Buddha-ideal). Theravada Buddhism appears to be a technique or program for human self-purification or self-fulfillment or self-negation. If the word religion is attached to Theravada Buddhism, it must be done so loosely as to allow the differences from other religions to prevail.

What then are we to do about the books like those of the late Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and more recently Huston Smith, that stress the similarities of religion? Such works will always be in demand because human beings want to believe that there is an inner core of common religious meaning that provides an intelligible unifying structure of meaning to the bewildering multiplicity of world religions. No matter how much we stress the differences among religions, the public desire for assurance about religious unity will inspire authors to continue to invent overarching pseudo-philosophical categories like "Eternal Wisdom," "Universal Spirit," or "Cosmic Soul," and promote them as the "truth" to which the various religions point. Perhaps there is a universal religious truth and perhaps there is not. If there is, however, I believe we should look for it not in what a religion asserts as truth but in how it asserts its truth. As we shall see in discussing W. C. Smith's ideas, it is form not content that religions have in common.

There are other problems in comparing religions. Comparison proceeds through an act of abstraction by detaching a religion from its cultural matrix and viewing it as a discrete set of symbols, myths, ritual ceremonies, and verbally stated beliefs or teachings. This practice reduces religion to a set of meanings, principles, or truths. The result is a kind of intellectualized scholars' religion, which can be discussed, taught, and written about. The only question is whether or not this scholars' religion bears relationship to the religion which human beings live by on a daily basis.

I can illustrate scholars' religion by my own experience as a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School more than thirty years ago. My professors, with a few notable exceptions, approached the teaching of Christianity on the basis of what Christians believe or have believed. Thus the study and teaching of Christianity, and hence the understanding of it, was based almost exclusively on formal doctrines or the belief-content of the religion. What interested my professors was the Christian religion taken as a set of formal confessional and theological meanings, together with the theoretical methods or philosophical ideas which could illuminate and extend those truths.

I cannot say that my professors showed much interest in the thoughts, feelings, and practices of Christians believers. They did not pay much attention to Christianity as a practiced religion. Virtually no attention was paid to the diversity of Christian expression in different cultures. In fact, religion per se was hardly studied, except in the History of Religions field, which, for all the attention paid to myth, ritual, and symbol, was top-heavy with methodology and theory.

It is remarkable how the trends of study in our profession have changed in the thirty years since I left Chicago. Today, I would say that not Christian theology but the Christian religion in its cultural context is what scholars want to know about and what students want to learn about. This does not mean that confessional beliefs, doctrines, and theological ideas are not relevant, but they are now put on the same footing as church festivals, ritual practices, and the ordinary day-to-day habits of faith that distinguish one Christian from another.

I think this is a healthy development. When emphasis shifts away from what a Christian believes or does not believe, we can begin to understand the power and meaning of Christianity in a given culture, at a certain time. In other words, I should say that a better way to ascertain Christian belief is to focus on how Christians actually live their lives. I say this on the basis of years spent with Greek villagers who, when asked what they believe, can hardly answer in any precise way. But ask them how they would identify themselves as Greek Orthodox and you will hear a recital of ritual observances and traditional acts of faith that leave no doubt that their faith is not a matter of what is believed or thought about, but rather what is done or felt or imagined. For such villagers the daily life of faith is not reducible to or equatable with a set of formal beliefs. The academic or pedagogical implications here are enormous. When professors teach Christianity as a matter of beliefs, ideas, and institutions, they may be teaching something that is not at all equivalent to the religion practiced by the people who claim the Christian religion as their own. But if they were to teach Christianity as practiced, they would have to pay attention to that which is not so easily categorized as doctrine -- the unspoken, often emotional undertones of faith on the part of ordinary believers.

A big part of the difficulty in understanding religion is that of definition. We don't exactly know what we mean by the word, religion. We don't know how to use the word or what constitutes a misuse of the word. It would be convenient to assume that by "religion," we mean the fetishisms, animisms, polytheisms, and monotheisms of the known historic religions. It would also be convenient to assume that all the religions were like branches of a large tree, with a visible trunk. If we looked hard enough at the tree trunk we could discover a common structure of meaning that would lead to an accurate, comprehensive, and convincing definition of religion.

If what was already said about the diversity of religions is taken seriously, we would not think that religions are branches of a single tree. Therefore, no single definition of religion seems possible. Efforts to define religion according to conceptions such as "the supernatural," the dichotomy of "sacred and profane," and "ultimate concern," may clarify aspects of religious expression, but they are hardly adequate to the meaning of religion itself. Buddhism does not easily accommodate references to the "supernatural." Nor does the sacred/profane dichotomy do justice to the complexity of religious feeling, which is often a mixture of the two. And the phrase "ultimate concern" suffers from such vagueness that it hardly qualifies as a general definition of religion.(3)

An examination of writings on theories of religion shows that most definitions of religion are achieved not by exhaustive empirical study but rather by singling out one or another attractive or compelling feature of religious practice, and then elevating that feature normatively as a criterion of meaning. Certainly this is true of Dewey's definition of religion as "the active relation between the ideal and the actual," and Whitehead's, "what a man does with his solitariness"; or Westermark's more wordy rendering, "a regardful attitude towards a supernatural being, on whom man feels himself dependent and to whom he makes an appeal in his worship."(4) These and similar definitions suffer from the old Greek philosophical practice of hunting for essences among a welter of related particulars. The problem is that any exception from the norm is simply called that, an exception; the norm remains unaffected. Another large problem is that so much of actively practiced religion is on the level of feeling, and is mystical or ineffable. Words like "ideal," "actual," "solitariness," "supernatural," can hardly do justice to religion as experience of and response to mystery.

Exceptions to norms are no small matter in religion. People are willing to die to prevent exceptions and others to fight to the death to prevent being seen merely as an exception. Historic Christianity has had its own struggles with exceptions. Having gone through the agony of the Reformation, the Catholic Church eventually recognized, even if it did not approve, the existence of exceptions to itself. Judaism has never been so tolerant. When Halachically correct Orthodoxy firmly established itself as the essential norm of Judaism, it rejected both Conservative and Reform Judaism. They were not recognized even as exceptions to the essentialism norm of Orthodox Judaism.

That essentialist norm of Orthodoxy proved so powerful that it prevailed for all three branches of Judaism. For none of the three traditions of Judaism were tolerant of real deviations from the norm. Thus none will accept the authenticity of a new movement called "Jews for Jesus." Members of the movement champion the messiahship of Jesus but go to great lengths to deny that they belong to the Christian church and do not want to be called Christians. They consider themselves Jews, "Jews for Jesus," they say, and want to be so recognized by all other Jews.

If we accept the Orthodox definition of Judaism, then the "Jews for Jesus" movement is not Judaism. What then is it? Is it an exception to Judaism, a sect, a thing all its own? Or is it like one of the Protestant sects of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, which was detested and rejected by the established Catholic Church -- only to reemerge several hundred years later fully recognized and respected as the Baptist and Methodist churches. Whether or not the "Jews for Jesus" movement is a religion or a sect will not matter to established Judaism today. Committed, as they are, to an essentialist, unchanging, and nonfluid conception of Judaism, none of the three branches of Judaism will accept its credentials.

A further difficulty in understanding religion arises over the issue of values. Scholars and teachers of religion like to believe that there is a specific beneficial religious value, not in conflict with other values; I suspect there are few who do not in some way recommend positive religious meanings or values to their students. The constant reliance on terms like "sacred," "spiritual," and "ultimacy" suggests that, try as we might, our teaching of religion is not value-free. Each of us has some working notion of what constitutes good religion and what is bad religion -- and that notion figures in our teaching.

The social scientists would scold us for this. If we listen to them, we should be able to study and teach religion according to its multiple functions and its social dynamics. Richard Comstock is a scholar and teacher who admires the social scientific approach to religion:

    The normative problem of what a good religion ought to be is a problem for philosophers, theologians, religious thinkers; however the scholarly study of religion is rather concerned with an understanding of how religions have actually operated in human history, not with how they ought to operate according to the particular value scheme of the critics."(5)

I wish it were possible to make a neat distinction between critics and scholars of religion, as Comstock does. But for me the difficulty of understanding religion increases in confronting religious practices that are wrong, evil, degraded, demonic, and don't appear any the less religious for being so. Consider the Hebrew Bible. One recalls Lucretius's remark: "To how many evil deeds has religion persuaded men." Has anyone satisfactorily explained why Yahweh, the author of the Covenant law prohibiting murder, orders Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and commands Saul to massacre the Amalekites? Consider the immolation of infants on ancient altars; the blood sacrifices of the Aztecs; or the Hebrew herem, which gave rise to the Muslim jihad and to the Christian crusade. I would not hesitate to make a moral judgment on these practices. Nor would I hesitate to condemn the American church community called "Faith Tabernacle," which finds in The Letter of James warrant to prohibit the use of modern medicine and allows their own children to die from sickness rather than resort to doctors.

Professor Comstock, it seems, would caution scholars not to judge religious practices that are different from our own. But is this not asking us to suspend our moral intelligence? Most people would distinguish between faith and fanaticism. Whether we rush quickly or slowly to judgement, we who are professors of religion know that the line between faith and fanaticism is very thin indeed. And that thinness only in turn thickens the difficulty of understanding religion. For if religion is one of the forces within the complex psychic energy of human beings, that force is both creative and destructive.

Faced, then, with the powerful and morally complex character of religion, some scholars will want to emphasize the right and good in religion and forget the rest. Such is the case with Gordon Allport in his classic study of religious psychology, The Individual and His Religion. For none can doubt that religion is a source of psychic strength, providing support, solace, and warmth in a world experienced as cold and cruel.

Allport says he writes "as a scientist" and that his approach is "naturalistic." He wishes to dissociate his analysis from any sort of psychopathology of religion, an approach favored by skeptics:

    My reason for not dwelling more fully than I do upon the function religion plays in infantile and neurotic personalities is that I am seeking to trace the full course of religious development in the normally mature and productive personality. I am dealing with the psychology, not with the psychopathology, of religion. The neurotic function of religious belief, its aid as an "escape from freedom," is indeed commonly encountered, so commonly that opponents of religion see only this function and declare it to dominate any life that harbors a religious sentiment. With this view I disagree. Many personalities attain a religious view of life without suffering development and without self-deception.(6)

I couldn't agree more with Allport's last sentence. Indeed, we know of countless human beings who are well-adjusted religiously and who are mentally healthy because of their religious convictions and associations. But we also know, as Allport certainly knows, of numerous individuals who suffer their "dark nights of the soul," and never truly experience the dawn of psychic health. Many of those individuals are famous as spiritual heroes and pioneers, such as St. John of the Cross, Martin Luther, and Søren Kierkegaard. We also know that Moses, Gautama, Jesus, and Muhammad suffered their Gethsemanes as prelude to a greater vision of the ideal, for which they strove.

But the "dark night of the soul" is not always creative. It can also be an invitation to madness. Is not madness often intertwined with spirituality? Do not molesters, murderers, mass murderers, and terrorists often invoke some sacred being or meaning as cause or justification for their actions? Why should we doubt their sincerity? Is it not true that the religion which condemns murder also legitimizes it?

I have had my own experience of the connection between religion, madness, and murder. I once tried marijuana, three joints in ten or fifteen minutes, washed down with glasses of Southern Comfort. My brain cracked; I was suddenly seized by anxieties of great intensity. I imagined myself under a judgment so severe I thought myself doomed. I remember telling my wife that I feared throwing myself off the balcony of the house into the ravine below. I also felt this terrible fear that I would harm the children who were sleeping nearby. As my fears mounted I urged my wife to call the police to come and get me. Fortunately, she didn't. She had drunk nothing and had taken only a puff or two of one joint. More sober and sane than me, she ignored my request and called a friend, who was experienced in drug counseling.

Upon arriving, the friend sat me down and began what became a two-hour conversation. Her intention was to coax me away from anxiety until the liquor and drugs wore off. In the middle of the ordeal, suddenly, unexpectedly, I experienced a moment of total lucidity. I announced that I knew who God was. Yes, I knew all about God. I remember it as a very good feeling. I believed I had solved an immense theological problem. I was ahead of my colleagues; I would be recognized for my achievement. Then I was asked to explain God. I wanted to but couldn't. I said nothing. There was silence. I was sure I knew all about God but I couldn't say anything about God.

I recalled this experience in rereading recently Allport's book about the positive affects of religion on the human psyche. But just as there is religion which can help to socially organize a human being, bringing about a more mature outlook on life, there is also another kind of religion which is unpredictable, chaotic, and potentially destructive.

My one experience with marijuana and booze convinces me that just below the surface of the mind lies a pool of chaotic psychic energy that finds expression in forms we call religion. Could this be the source of the so-called "innateness" of religious feeling in human beings? Just how we are to understand this energy, what meaning we are to give it, I cannot be sure. What is most difficult to understand about religion is that the angels which Allport describes so well and the demons I have tried to describe from my own experience, seem to lie so close together that it may be difficult to tell them apart.

Another difficulty in understanding religion focuses on our ignorance of the original sources of religion. If we knew with any certainty how and why religion came into being, we might then know what religion is. The quest for knowledge about religion's origins was the intellectual motive behind the pioneering anthropological research on religion carried out by such major scholars as Muller, Tylor, Frazer, Spencer, Marett, Durkeim, and others. This effort to uncover religion's origins cannot be dismissed as speculative or disregarded merely because there is considerable disagreement among scholars on this subject. The anthropological data does not allow one to conclude that the human is essentially homo religiosus, but we know of no period of history in which the human has not expressed itself religiously. Religion may or may not be innate in human beings, but the evidence for its inevitability is overwhelming.(7) For us the outstanding question should not be, when did religion emerge?, rather how to understand the dynamics of religion's inevitability. This means trying to understand the function of religion in human experience.

Comstock would have us avoid questions of religion's origins in favor of the "function" of religion:

    The quest for origins has been superseded by a quest for more adequate description. A different question is now being asked. Instead of asking, "What is the origin of religion? scholars now tend to ask, "How does religion function?" "What is it like?" "What does it do for the individual or for his society?"(8)

What is a functional analysis of religion? The answer seems to be that religion has a host of observable functions -- psychological, social aesthetic, moral. A functional analysis of religion would concentrate on them. Presumably, in a functional analysis, myths, dogmas, creeds, confessions, and theological teachings would be conveniently categorized as the "belief system," and placed alongside the more practical system of priestly functionaries, rituals, ceremonies, etc. These systems would then be listed together with another system, the institutional or social organization of the religious community. Any number of subsystems could also be described.

Just what we are finally to understand by such systems, what meanings are to be discerned in them, we cannot be sure, but the functionalist method is championed as a truly empirical way of study religion. Consider what Comstock next tells us:

    . . . . a more empirical approach to religion is now being adopted. The question as to how religion originated is a speculative question, difficult to answer in a scientific way. But the fact remains that religion does exist as a very concrete factor in human experience and behavior. May it not be more fruitful to accept it as a "given" which it is our task to examine according to the best analytical tools and methods of accurate description that can be devised.(9)

Certainly we can accept religion as a "given." But that hardly settles the issue of how to study religion. It is significant that Comstock urges his readers to use the "best analytical tools and methods of accurate description," without telling his readers what those tools and methods are. Just how are we to practice the "empirical approach?" One would have thought that if one really took an "empirical approach" and made an effort to describe religion, the first thing one would do would be to take a long, careful look at the lives of religious people. And if one did that, one would soon discover that a religious life, filled with energy and faith, providing a vision for living and a will-to-live, is a whole life that cannot be reduced to functions. To put the matter differently, the authentic religious life is so filled with "nonobservables" as to defeat any application of the so-called "empirical method."

It is one thing to preach empiricism and another thing to practice it. What can we learn of American Catholics by describing the functions of American Catholics? We can count their numbers. Discover places of residence. How much money they make. How they vote. How they view the pope. How they stand on political issues. What they believe or don't believe. Certainly the answers to our questions yield useful information. But is information the goal of an empirical study of religion? Or is something more than information needed?

Is there a point after a great quantity of information has been recorded, after the descriptive task has been done, that one wants to sit back and ask thoughtfully, what makes an American Catholic just that? What keeps him or her Catholic? Why does someone stop being Catholic? What meaning does Catholicism hold for the Catholic? Is there such a thing called Catholicism over and above what Catholics feel and think? These questions can arise from information, but the questions are not answered by the search for more information. Ultimately they are questions of meaning, of aim or purpose, of self-identity. Such questions do not require further observation and are not answerable by observation. They are questions that require intuition, insight, discernment. Questions of religious self-identity are not Comstock's kind of functional questions. They are old-fashioned humanistic or ontological questions and drive us back in speculative, philosophical, or theological probings about religious being and meaning.

I spoke of religion as energy, faith, a vision of transcendence, and the will to live in relation to it. When religion is thought of in this way, it ceases to be merely a religion. To illustrate the point, allow me to speak of my mother, who would be amused to learn that her son discussed her in this essay. She would question the need of it. She is a conventionally Greek Orthodox woman who has never felt the need to ponder, much less question, her religion. To her being religious is as natural as breathing. She recites a few simple prayers before going to bed and lights candles in church on Sunday. She has no sophisticated beliefs about God and God's relation to the world. Hers is a simple, strong, direct faith that sustain her life. When she reads the Bible she does so to learn how to lead her life and to gain the inspiration to do so. In every way she conforms to Allport's account of a person strengthened in life by religious faith.

When religion and life blend as they do for my mother, religion ceases to be anything distinctive, objective, something external, a mere practice. It is well-known that religious people do not think of themselves as religious, because they cannot imagine themselves as other than religious. One could think of authentically religious people as growing a kind of skin which covers whole body, gives them their appearance, holds them together, contains the pores through which they breathe; when breathing stops, they are buried with this one skin and no other. To such people, religion is not something "practiced," something that could be listed on a list of personality traits and career achievements. When one is religious as my mother is religious, the word "religion" loses its meaning or becomes irrelevant. No scholar has made us more aware of the inadequacies of the word than Wilfred Cantwell Smith. He urges us to abandon it altogether in favor of another word, faith, which he contends more accurately expresses the meaning of religion. Smith defines faith as ". . . . a inner religious experience or involvement of a particular person; the impingement on him of the transcendent, putative or real."(10)

It is the experience of the transcendent, including the human response to that experience, that creates faith, or more precisely the life of faith. Smith seems to regard human beings as having a propensity for faith, so that one speaks of their faith as "innate." In his analysis, faith and transcendence are more accurate descriptions of the lives of religious human beings than conventional uses of the word, religion. The reason for this has to do with the distinction between participant and observer. This is a fundamental distinction for Smith, separating religious people (the participants) from the detached, so-called objective students of religious people (the observers). Smith's argument is that religious persons do not ordinarily have "a religion." The word, religion, comes into usage not as the participant's word but as the observer's word, one that focuses on observable doctrines, institutions, ceremonies, and other practices. By contrast, faith is about the nonobservable, life-shaping vision of transcendence held by a participant.

To illustrate the difference between participant and observer, Smith speaks of heaven and hell. "Heaven and Hell, to a believer, are stupendous places into one or another of which irretrievably he is about to step. To an observer they are items in the believer's mind. To the believer, they are parts of the universe; to the observer, they are parts of a religion."

Smith considers transcendence to be the one dimension common to all peoples of religious faith: "what they have in common lies not in the tradition that introduces them to transcendence, [not in their faith by which they personally respond, but] in that to which they respond, the transcendent itself."(11)

If both faith and transcendence lie beyond the observer's knowledge, what is possible within the limit of observation? The answer, it seems, begins with the frank admission that the academic study of religion is about religion, a historical object, not about the living faith of countless human beings. In grasping this point we are in a position to see that all academic study of religion is actually study about (what Smith calls) "the cumulative tradition"

    of the past religious life of the community in question: temples, scripture, theological systems, dance patterns, legal and other social institution, conventions, moral codes, myths, and so on; anything that can be and is transmitted from one person, one generation, to another, and that an historian can observe."(12)

The "cumulative tradition," in Smith's view, gives the religion scholar ample data for study. And the recognition that the "cumulative tradition" is the observable facts of religion, not the nonobservable reality of faith, should keep the scholar from presuming that through study alone the essential meaning of religion can be understood. It is equally true that no academic study of religion is worth its salt that ignores or dismisses the dimensions of faith and transcendence that are an inherent part of the religious life. It is not necessary for the scholar to define transcendence, to name the gods, so to speak. There are as many envisagements of transcendence as there are types of faith; and there are as many nuanced conceptions of transcendence, with or without gods, as there are persons of faith. What matters is that human faith be understood to have an ultimate reference, whose meaning, it seems must remain mysterious.

In conclusion, Smith writes: "There would seem little doubt but that the conscious application of a tradition-faith analysis to an understanding of outside cultures would prove quickly and richly effective."(13) Unfortunately, he gives us no direction as to how to make the "application of a tradition-faith analysis." We put down his book with a sense that we have been introduced to a powerful critique of what is wrong with the study of religion without being told how to correct it.

Part of the problem is that Smith draws sharp lines between faith and religion, participant and observer, the nonobservable and the observable. This tends to suggest that he views tradition, faith, and transcendence as three discrete, even disjunctive, elements of experience. This is unfortunate because it is not, I think, what he intends. Smith is no Barthian setting faith against culture, God against religion. Yet, lacking any concept of relationship, we are left in his analysis with three elements whose organic connection remains unexplained. The absence of explicit connections is no small omission; it betrays Smith's reluctance to extend his thinking beyond the historical and personal to the nature of experience itself. Had he done so, he would have found that there is considerably more continuity to human experience, including the experience of faith, than his analysis allows for.

My own understanding of the continuity of experience and faith was deepened by the late Bernard Eugene Meland, my theology professor at Chicago many years ago. According to Meland, faith is not only personal but also social.(14) The social aspect of faith is an inheritance, which can include the "cumulative tradition," but goes deeper into qualities of feeling that pass from one generation to another, from older family members to younger.(15) Thus faith cannot be just "an experience;" it is also a quality of experience itself, mediated through the structure of experience that links the past to the present in human life.

I can illustrate this social and inherited aspect of faith by again referring to my mother. To use Smith's analysis, my mother's faith is expressed or made observable through the "cumulative tradition." I do not share much of my mother's appreciation of the "cumulative tradition" but I can say that her faith has entered my feelings and shaped my life in creative, transforming, even redemptive ways. In that respect her faith has shaped my own faith. If I were to use Meland's analysis, I would have to say that what made this possible was the structure of experience, a "context of feeling," which mediates faith. Thus faith is not only personal, "an experience," but also a social energy, which links past to present by giving new forms to old valuations.

The structure of experience also means that transcendence cannot be wholly nonobservable and utterly mysterious, as Smith would have it. For if faith is experienced within a structure of experience, then transcendence is not only "an experience," but also a relationship of depth or ultimacy mediated through human feeling. Apart from how transcendence is identified or named, transcendence is experienced as a creative advance, linking past to present, one generation to another, offering a vision of the creative and redemptive good that gives hope and a sense that life is worth living.

The scholar of religion, therefore, need not feel limited to the observable, to the "cumulative tradition." The structural connections between the "cumulative tradition," faith, and transcendence make it possible for the academic study of the religious dimension of human life to be not merely descriptive of data but also insightful as to meaning. Acknowledging the structure of experience makes it possible to avoid both historicism and social scientific reductionism. Acknowledging that structure restores to the study of the religious a sense that this study is about something more than mere data, just as religion is about something more than itself.(16)

Notes

    Bibliographic note: In addition to works cited, I found of particular value Steward Elliott Guthrie's Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), and Wayne Proudfoot's Religious Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985). See also two anthologies I edited with Professor Edward A. Yonan: Religion and Reductionism and The Sacred and Its Scholars: Comparative Methodologies for the Study of Primary Religious Data (Leiden: Brill & Co., 1994 and 1996 respectively).

1. [Back to text]  Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (New York: Mentor Books, 1962), 74.

2. [Back to text]  Ibid., 135.

3. [Back to text]  See W. Richard Comstock, The Study of Religion and Primitive Religions (New York: Harper & Row, 1972). See also Comstock's probing article, "Toward Open Definitions of Religion," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 52, no. 3 (1986): 499-517.

4. [Back to text]  Cited in Bernard Meland's Faith and Culture (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1953, 1972), 107; Gordon W. Allport, The Individual and His Religion (New York: Macmillan Paperbacks, 1960), 65.

5. [Back to text]  Comstock, Study of Religion, 20.

6. [Back to text]  Gordon W. Allport, Individual and His Religion, xii-xiii.

7. [Back to text]  See John Herman Randall, Jr. The Meaning of Religion for Man (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1968), 27-28.

8. [Back to text]  Comstock, Study of Religion, 10.

9. [Back to text]  Ibid., 11.

10. [Back to text]  Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion, 141.

11. [Back to text]  Ibid., 119 and 173.

12. [Back to text]  Ibid., 141.

13. [Back to text]  Ibid., 176.

14. [Back to text]  Meland, Faith and Culture, 98-116.

15. [Back to text]  Randall, The Meaning of Religion for Man, 56.

16. [Back to text]  I gratefully acknowledge the critical attention given to earlier drafts of this paper by my colleagues, Wagne Elzey and Alan Miller, who do not necessarily share my views of all the matters discussed.

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Source: Cross Currents, Fall 1998, Vol. 48 Issue 3.