What does it mean to study religion in the twenty-first century? In our generation, one finds many different attitudes toward religion. However, most agree that it is important to understand religious faith for several reasons.
Religion is essential for understanding history, including the history of art, architecture, and literature. Flip through any history book and see how many conflicts and significant causes from the spread of Islam to the abolition of slavery are linked to religious movements. Go to an art museum and note how much traditional painting and sculpture is religiously inspired. Check out the great buildings in any traditional society and see how many cathedrals, temples, or mosques stand among them. It would be hopeless to try to get inside history and art without some comprehension of the motivation inspiring religious works and their creators.
Nor is it just a matter of times past. Any reading of or listening to the news, including the speeches of politicians, reminds us that religion has considerable social, political, and even economic influence today. Its institutions and people’s beliefs toward marriage, medical procedures, the role of women, the role of the state in education and welfare, all are major parts of the debates of our times. On a larger scale, religion is still invoked on behalf of war and the foreign policy of several nations, even if it may not be the only factor involved.
It is also the case that religious attitudes and experiences continue to have an effect on personal psychology, and so can help us understand why some people act and feel the way they do.
Finally, religious claims raise important philosophical questions that thoughtful people should want to think through. Is there a God? What is the real nature and purpose of human life? How should I act when ethical decisions are difficult? And much else.
Clearly, this is something we should know more about.
What is religion? Everyone has some idea, perhaps some mental picture, to go with the word. If one tries to turn that idea or picture into a clear, comprehensive definition, however, the task may be surprisingly difficult.
First, then, let us look at two quite different examples of the phenomena often called religious.
Picture the great shrine at Ise (pronounced Ee-say) in Japan on the eve of the Harvest Festival. Ise is the preeminent place of worship of Shinto, the religion of the ancient gods of the island nation. Here at Ise are worshiped Amaterasu, the solar goddess said to be ancestress of the imperial family, and Toyouke, goddess of food and bestower of plenty. Each of these high goddesses has her own shrine, the two nearly identical temples being about five miles apart. Each shrine is a simple, rustic house of unpainted but gold-tipped wood set in a rectangular field spread with white gravel. The field, which holds three or four auxiliary buildings, is surrounded by four wooden palisades. Every 20 years, the entire shrine complex is rebuilt with new wood in exact imitation of the old on an adjacent alternative site, also spread with white gravel.
On the night of the Harvest Festival, torches flare in the crisp October air when a procession of white-robed priests bearing boxes of food offerings, their black wooden shoes crackling like snare drums on the white gravel, approaches the shrine. The priests enter behind the fences and are lost to the observer’s view as they carefully spread the plates of rice, water, salt, rice wine, vegetables, and seafood before the encased mirror that represents the presence of Amaterasu. One can, however, hear the shrill, mysterious music of the reed flutes, so suggestive of uncanny divine activity. A prayer is read, and then the offerings are slowly and solemnly removed from the boxes and presented on an offering table. The priests next proceed to a smaller shrine on higher ground above the principal temple. This is a shrine to the aramitama, the “rough spirit” or aggressive side of the divine Amaterasu. Here offerings are also presented. Later, in early morning while it is still dark, the whole ritual is repeated. The following night it is repeated—again, twice—at the shrine of Toyouke. Why it is done twice and why it is done at night are matters lost in centuries of tradition at the Ise shrines (if there ever existed an explicit reason). The very sense of mystery evoked by the feeling of something lingering from a half-forgotten past, and the atmosphere of mystic wonder in which actions seem weighted with meanings the human mind does not quite grasp, give Shinto rites their particular kind of religious aura.
Now turn to another scene. It suggests not only one kind of religious experience, conversion, but also one major type of religious personality, the founder of a great religious movement lasting many centuries, in this case Jesus. Although based on real experiences, the following retelling is a stylized and idealized account of religious experience in a Christian context. It is not presented as being representative of all Christian experience. It offers, however, a subjective counterpart to the preceding religious expression in rite. (We should emphasize that Japanese religion also has its subjective meditative side, and Christianity is often highly ritualistic.)
An American girl was in her room reading the New Testament and praying. As she read, a vivid image came before her mind’s eye. She saw Jesus on a hill, and he seemed to be surrounded by beseeching figures in ragged garments, some clearly sick or deformed. He stood out because he was taller, was dressed in something a bit fuller and whiter, and was on higher ground. Above all, he had an air of power and calm amidst the suffering, and his hands were raised in healing. His face possessed a simple majesty, and his eyes made you want to keep looking at them. Then he seemed to step out of the gospel scene to look directly at the American girl. He beckoned.
She prayed on. Deep and warm feelings about the image sang through her, rising and falling like cresting surfs of molten light. She saw other scenes from the story—the manger, the cross with the bleeding flesh on it, and the garden where the ecstatic women saw the same person in calm white outside the empty tomb. These tableaux grew brighter and brighter. In contrast, her life, as it came into view beside the mind-painted images, was gray, lacking all sparkle or color. Indeed, much in it seemed worse than gray as she thought of things she wished could be washed out or made to belong to another life. She recalled people she liked and even envied those who talked of accepting Christ and of being forgiven or being saved. She saw the beckoning hand wanting to make her a part of this story.
She felt herself entering the vision and prayed still more deeply. She then sensed clear and distinct words being spoken in her, almost as though by a new person coming into being within her mind and body, words of accepting Jesus Christ as the center of her personal faith. She arose, tingling, feeling full of light, and almost floating, with a queer but beautiful sort of quiet deep-seated joy. She sat down, with little sense of time or place, just bathing in the new marvelous experience.
You have just read two very different vignettes that have one thing in common. Both would be accepted by most people as expressions of human religion or culture, first of all because they are thoughts, feelings, or actions that do not meet ordinary, practical needs in ordinary, practical ways. They do not directly spin cloth or pick grain. Even if they were directed toward a practical end, such as a better harvest, they do not go about it through a practical course of planting and cultivating. They add to what is practical by implying another point of reference and another level of activity. If that point of reference or level is more than human, probably it would be called religious.
Even if a religious act is a dance or prayer for rain, it does not set about meeting this practical need by using ordinary deduction about cause and effect. Contrary to what some have believed, primitive peoples are nearly as aware as moderns of the distinction between the practical and the nonpractical. Certainly, modern Shinto priests at a Harvest Festival are as aware of the facts of meteorology and agricultural science as are Americans expressing gratitude to God on Thanksgiving Day.
Religion, however, adds other dimensions full of color, stylized acts, and symbols that outsiders sometimes see as bizarre and totally nonsensical. In this they are akin to such human practices as wearing clothes even in hot weather, writing poetry, or flying to the moon. These are also impractical things that like religion must be profoundly human, for they are only dimly foreshadowed in the behavior of our animal kin. Something in these gestures must be making a statement about a side of being human that is not just concerned with practicality. They must be trying to tell us—emphatically—that there is another dimension in being human. Apart from speech and fire, in fact, what most obviously separates even very primal human societies from animals are such artifacts as haunting masks, paintings on stones of spirit ancestors, and the magic rocks or tufts of grass of sorcerers. They tell us across great gulfs of cultural development that here were creatures who did not just deal in practicalities but who feared pictures in the mind; thought about who they were and where they came from; told stories; sensed the working of indirect invisible currents of force in the cosmos as well as the obvious; and doubtlessly knew wonder, humor, joy, and dread.
We could go back to the very beginnings of human culture as we know it, the stunning cave paintings of such sites as the Lascaux and Chauvet caverns in southern France. The latter, discovered only in 1994, contains the oldest known cave paintings of all, the earliest made perhaps some 35,000 years ago, and is the subject of a remarkable documentary by Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
These incredibly dynamic and graceful pictures, nearly all of powerful animals, drawn far underground in pitch darkness except for the light of torches, may—according to various theories—have represented hunting magic, the site of initiations, myths told in a sort of code, or the visions of shamans. We may never know. But, clearly, they had some significance far beyond the immediate and practical in the everyday sense; they were a way of enhancing the meaning of human life through symbol and creativity.1