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First Encounter
WHAT IS RELIGION?
Some Key Characteristics
Belief system: Sacredness, Ultimate Reality, transcendence/immanence
Community: an organized group of religious people who think alike and share the
same stories and practices
Stories: Religious “myths”. These are not inherently false; myth is a technical term
that refers to certain sacred stories that religious groups tell about themselves and
their worldview.
Practice: religious rituals, ethical behavior, religious experience, and moral values
all fall under the larger category of “practice”.
Aesthetics: material expressions of religion like art, music, and architecture.
SACREDNESS
All religions are concerned with understanding, uncovering,
experiencing, and explaining the deepest level of reality. What is
“really real”? How do we know this is it?
The most common way to refer to this Ultimate Reality in America
is by using the proper noun, “God.” This is an old English word that
first appears in medieval translations of the Latin Bible.
“God” is used by English speaking scholars today to refer to
Ultimate Reality in many different religious systems, even when
their understanding of Ultimate Reality differs greatly from what
Christians believe.
THEISM, ATHEISM &
NON-THEISM
Theism: Scholars call the belief in one, ultimate sacred reality, or “one God”
monotheism to distinguish it from other ideas about Ultimate Reality. Some
religions conceive of Ultimate Reality as having many forms or manifestations.
This kind of belief system has been labeled polytheism: the belief in or worship
of more than “one God”.
Atheism (Gk: atheos without God/s) is the term scholars use to describe a
system of belief (an -ism) that rejects the idea of one or more supernatural
beings who are responsible for creating and sustaining the world.
Non-theism is a newer term used to describe a religious system that does not
need the idea of one or more gods to make sense of Ultimate Reality. Classical
Buddhism and Confucianism are two examples of non-theistic religions.
RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE
Religious systems that are centered on God or gods try to answer the question of how human
beings should experience or relate to Ultimate Reality.
Sacredness can be explained and experienced as something transcendent—the idea that
God/s are not limited by or dependent on the material world for existence. How does a
human being experience a reality that lies completely outside of his own world? A wholly
transcendent Reality must reveal itself to humans to be known and experienced.
Sacredness can also be understood as an immanent reality. This means that God/s are or
become part of the material world so that human beings can encounter sacredness through
nature or other this-worldly means. Divine self-revelation is not necessary because people
can find this Sacred Reality on their own, if they know what to look for.
Animism is the term scholars of religion use to describe beliefs and practices that presume all
of nature is imbued with and animated by sacredness or an ultimate spiritual reality. You
could say that animistic religious cultures are naturally “eco-friendly”!
Any experience that a person explains or understands within a
religious frame of reference is a religious experience. Religious
experience can be categorized in many different ways. There is
no single, absolute set of categories that account for all religious
experiences. One way of organizing your study is by asking
where the person’s experience primarily takes place. Does the
experience happen as a normal part of a social gathering; does
it take place in a person’s body via the physical senses, or is it
mostly experienced in the mind:
Social experiences
Sensory Experiences
Interior Experiences
SOCIAL EXPERIENCES
People may describe their social interactions
with others in a religious environment as
“religious experiences”. For example: “I went
to church camp,” or, “I sang in the choir,” “or
“Our home fellowship group ministered to the
homeless.” These are ‘religious’ experiences
insomuch as they take place in a social
environment for religious purposes. Not all
camps, choirs and home groups are religious
social experiences. There is nothing
essentially religious about this kind of
experience. This doesn’t mean you might not
have a sensory or interior religious
experience singing in the choir, of course.
Often social experiences are sacramental
because they revolve around rituals and
ceremonies in a communal setting.
SENSORY EXPERIENCE
Religious experiences are sometimes described in
terms of how they make a person feel, physically and
emotionally. Rudolph Otto argued that there is a
uniquely religious experience that he called
“numinous.” It is an eerie mixture of fear and
fascination that makes your heart pound and your
knees weak.. You “shouldn’t go there” but you are
drawn to the encounter nevertheless. You “know”
that you are in the presence of something uncanny or
otherworldly, dangerous even, and yet you cannot
resist. Other kinds of sensory religious experiences
include visual and auditory hallucinations.
For some, a numinous encounter may be religious,
for others, it may just be fantasy, while for scientists,
it may only be evidence of a primitive biological
response, fight or flight, to perceived danger. Those
who claim to have visions and hear voices can be
saints in a religious context but mentally ill or frauds
when judged by non-believers.
Mystical or ecstatic experiences are primarily perceived inwardly, in the mind and the emotions
rather than externally in the senses. Often, though, the senses must be subdued through various
physical techniques so that the mind, freed from the constant influx of external signals, can reach
alternate states of consciousness where these interior experiences can occur.
Music, dance, chanting, yoga … these are all physical modalities that can be used to overwhelm
the senses and precipitate an interior experience. When an experience like this takes place in a
religious framework, then the experience can be classified as “religious” and can be compared to
other religious experiences in different contexts. Is there a single, core experience we can label as
mystical Is there a common cause (external or biological) behind the experience? ? Or, do these
experiences vary in different contexts and religious frameworks?
RUDOLF OTTO’S IDEAS
Otto was a German scholar of comparative
religion and Lutheran theologian (1869-
1937). The core of religion according to Otto
is the “numinous” experience. Numen is
Otto’s term for referring to God.
A human being who experiences God,
experiences the Holy, a mysterium
tremendum et fascinans (a fearful and
fascinating mystery), a transcendent force
completely outside the human realm. In this
encounter, the human soul is awed,
humbled, speechless, and made aware of its
own unworthiness. In the presence of the
Holy the human being senses his Profane
state of being.
SIGMUND FREUD’S IDEAS
Freud was an Austrian physician and the
forefather of modern psychotherapy
(1856-1939). Religion, that is, the Judeo-
Christian, monotheistic belief in God, is
an illusion.
Freud argued that “God” is a projection
of the human mind, born out of a
person’s need to feel secure in an unsafe
world.
He thought ecstatic experiences were
self-produced effects whose true causes
lay in the repressed needs and unfulfilled
desires of the unconscious mind.
Jung described religion as something that grew out of a
person’s need to individuate—to find personal fulfillment.
The human psyche, according to Jung, is naturally
religious. Gods, spirits, and other divine beings are
healthy projections of the human mind that can assist in
the integrative process.
MODERN THEORIES
Structuralism: Early anthropologists looked for some kind of underlying
structure in the human mind that could account for the universal phenomenon of
religious thinking. This approach to studying religion often involved analyzing the
religious myths of so-called ‘primitive cultures’—those societies that had not yet
integrated into the economic or technological cultures influenced by the rise of
scientific thinking and the philosophies of the European Enlightenment—looking
for structural units of thought common to all human beings.
Deconstruction: Some theorists now choose to follow the lead of Jacques
Derrida, and like him, they virtually abhor the idea of a general theory of
anything, especially religion. Deconstruction is a post-modern way of looking at
familiar texts in unfamiliar ways to prove that what we take for granted as
absolute truths are, in fact, tenuously constructed because the language that we
use to communicate our ideas is inherently ambiguous and unstable.
PATTERNS
If we think like Derrida and the deconstructions, we could come to the
conclusion that studying religion, or anything for that matter, is an
exercise in futility. However, we can salvage the meaning of our study by
concluding that looking at religion in just one way will ultimately skew
our understanding. To be fair and to do justice to our subject, we need to
look at religion from many different angles and compare our findings.
Let’s call these ways of organizing information about religion “patterns”.
Your textbook chooses the following patterns for organizing its contents:
Worldview, Beliefs and Practices, Gender (Malloy, Experiencing the
World’s Religions, pp. 13-20). These are only some possibilities. Can you
think of others? You may have more ideas at the end of the course!
GOOD QUESTIONS TO ASK
OF RELIGIONS WE STUDY!
The nature of sacred reality (God, Ultimate Reality, the Holy, etc.). How does a particular
religion understand, experience or explain the Sacred?
The nature of the Universe. How did the world we experience come into being? Who or what is
responsible? Is it eternal (cyclical) or having begun, will it finally end (linear)?
What is the purpose of human life? Do people have a unique meaning and destiny, or is human
life different only by degree from all other life, wherever it may be found?
How do religious people know Reality? Do they have ancient sacred texts that preserve a divine
revelation, or do they look inward in meditation or mystical union to discover what else is out
there?
Does a religious group think only their religion is ‘true’ and every other religion is ‘false’, or do
they think everyone shares something in what is ultimately true and good?
What does a religion say about male and female; about the different roles for men and women?
Image credit: The Others: Teresa Isasi; FRIGHT OF
WAY Kidman sheds light on dark haunts in ''The
Others''
<http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,170503,00.html>

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Understanding Religion

  • 2. WHAT IS RELIGION? Some Key Characteristics Belief system: Sacredness, Ultimate Reality, transcendence/immanence Community: an organized group of religious people who think alike and share the same stories and practices Stories: Religious “myths”. These are not inherently false; myth is a technical term that refers to certain sacred stories that religious groups tell about themselves and their worldview. Practice: religious rituals, ethical behavior, religious experience, and moral values all fall under the larger category of “practice”. Aesthetics: material expressions of religion like art, music, and architecture.
  • 3. SACREDNESS All religions are concerned with understanding, uncovering, experiencing, and explaining the deepest level of reality. What is “really real”? How do we know this is it? The most common way to refer to this Ultimate Reality in America is by using the proper noun, “God.” This is an old English word that first appears in medieval translations of the Latin Bible. “God” is used by English speaking scholars today to refer to Ultimate Reality in many different religious systems, even when their understanding of Ultimate Reality differs greatly from what Christians believe.
  • 4. THEISM, ATHEISM & NON-THEISM Theism: Scholars call the belief in one, ultimate sacred reality, or “one God” monotheism to distinguish it from other ideas about Ultimate Reality. Some religions conceive of Ultimate Reality as having many forms or manifestations. This kind of belief system has been labeled polytheism: the belief in or worship of more than “one God”. Atheism (Gk: atheos without God/s) is the term scholars use to describe a system of belief (an -ism) that rejects the idea of one or more supernatural beings who are responsible for creating and sustaining the world. Non-theism is a newer term used to describe a religious system that does not need the idea of one or more gods to make sense of Ultimate Reality. Classical Buddhism and Confucianism are two examples of non-theistic religions.
  • 5. RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE Religious systems that are centered on God or gods try to answer the question of how human beings should experience or relate to Ultimate Reality. Sacredness can be explained and experienced as something transcendent—the idea that God/s are not limited by or dependent on the material world for existence. How does a human being experience a reality that lies completely outside of his own world? A wholly transcendent Reality must reveal itself to humans to be known and experienced. Sacredness can also be understood as an immanent reality. This means that God/s are or become part of the material world so that human beings can encounter sacredness through nature or other this-worldly means. Divine self-revelation is not necessary because people can find this Sacred Reality on their own, if they know what to look for. Animism is the term scholars of religion use to describe beliefs and practices that presume all of nature is imbued with and animated by sacredness or an ultimate spiritual reality. You could say that animistic religious cultures are naturally “eco-friendly”!
  • 6. Any experience that a person explains or understands within a religious frame of reference is a religious experience. Religious experience can be categorized in many different ways. There is no single, absolute set of categories that account for all religious experiences. One way of organizing your study is by asking where the person’s experience primarily takes place. Does the experience happen as a normal part of a social gathering; does it take place in a person’s body via the physical senses, or is it mostly experienced in the mind: Social experiences Sensory Experiences Interior Experiences
  • 7. SOCIAL EXPERIENCES People may describe their social interactions with others in a religious environment as “religious experiences”. For example: “I went to church camp,” or, “I sang in the choir,” “or “Our home fellowship group ministered to the homeless.” These are ‘religious’ experiences insomuch as they take place in a social environment for religious purposes. Not all camps, choirs and home groups are religious social experiences. There is nothing essentially religious about this kind of experience. This doesn’t mean you might not have a sensory or interior religious experience singing in the choir, of course. Often social experiences are sacramental because they revolve around rituals and ceremonies in a communal setting.
  • 8. SENSORY EXPERIENCE Religious experiences are sometimes described in terms of how they make a person feel, physically and emotionally. Rudolph Otto argued that there is a uniquely religious experience that he called “numinous.” It is an eerie mixture of fear and fascination that makes your heart pound and your knees weak.. You “shouldn’t go there” but you are drawn to the encounter nevertheless. You “know” that you are in the presence of something uncanny or otherworldly, dangerous even, and yet you cannot resist. Other kinds of sensory religious experiences include visual and auditory hallucinations. For some, a numinous encounter may be religious, for others, it may just be fantasy, while for scientists, it may only be evidence of a primitive biological response, fight or flight, to perceived danger. Those who claim to have visions and hear voices can be saints in a religious context but mentally ill or frauds when judged by non-believers.
  • 9. Mystical or ecstatic experiences are primarily perceived inwardly, in the mind and the emotions rather than externally in the senses. Often, though, the senses must be subdued through various physical techniques so that the mind, freed from the constant influx of external signals, can reach alternate states of consciousness where these interior experiences can occur. Music, dance, chanting, yoga … these are all physical modalities that can be used to overwhelm the senses and precipitate an interior experience. When an experience like this takes place in a religious framework, then the experience can be classified as “religious” and can be compared to other religious experiences in different contexts. Is there a single, core experience we can label as mystical Is there a common cause (external or biological) behind the experience? ? Or, do these experiences vary in different contexts and religious frameworks?
  • 10. RUDOLF OTTO’S IDEAS Otto was a German scholar of comparative religion and Lutheran theologian (1869- 1937). The core of religion according to Otto is the “numinous” experience. Numen is Otto’s term for referring to God. A human being who experiences God, experiences the Holy, a mysterium tremendum et fascinans (a fearful and fascinating mystery), a transcendent force completely outside the human realm. In this encounter, the human soul is awed, humbled, speechless, and made aware of its own unworthiness. In the presence of the Holy the human being senses his Profane state of being.
  • 11. SIGMUND FREUD’S IDEAS Freud was an Austrian physician and the forefather of modern psychotherapy (1856-1939). Religion, that is, the Judeo- Christian, monotheistic belief in God, is an illusion. Freud argued that “God” is a projection of the human mind, born out of a person’s need to feel secure in an unsafe world. He thought ecstatic experiences were self-produced effects whose true causes lay in the repressed needs and unfulfilled desires of the unconscious mind.
  • 12. Jung described religion as something that grew out of a person’s need to individuate—to find personal fulfillment. The human psyche, according to Jung, is naturally religious. Gods, spirits, and other divine beings are healthy projections of the human mind that can assist in the integrative process.
  • 13. MODERN THEORIES Structuralism: Early anthropologists looked for some kind of underlying structure in the human mind that could account for the universal phenomenon of religious thinking. This approach to studying religion often involved analyzing the religious myths of so-called ‘primitive cultures’—those societies that had not yet integrated into the economic or technological cultures influenced by the rise of scientific thinking and the philosophies of the European Enlightenment—looking for structural units of thought common to all human beings. Deconstruction: Some theorists now choose to follow the lead of Jacques Derrida, and like him, they virtually abhor the idea of a general theory of anything, especially religion. Deconstruction is a post-modern way of looking at familiar texts in unfamiliar ways to prove that what we take for granted as absolute truths are, in fact, tenuously constructed because the language that we use to communicate our ideas is inherently ambiguous and unstable.
  • 14. PATTERNS If we think like Derrida and the deconstructions, we could come to the conclusion that studying religion, or anything for that matter, is an exercise in futility. However, we can salvage the meaning of our study by concluding that looking at religion in just one way will ultimately skew our understanding. To be fair and to do justice to our subject, we need to look at religion from many different angles and compare our findings. Let’s call these ways of organizing information about religion “patterns”. Your textbook chooses the following patterns for organizing its contents: Worldview, Beliefs and Practices, Gender (Malloy, Experiencing the World’s Religions, pp. 13-20). These are only some possibilities. Can you think of others? You may have more ideas at the end of the course!
  • 15. GOOD QUESTIONS TO ASK OF RELIGIONS WE STUDY! The nature of sacred reality (God, Ultimate Reality, the Holy, etc.). How does a particular religion understand, experience or explain the Sacred? The nature of the Universe. How did the world we experience come into being? Who or what is responsible? Is it eternal (cyclical) or having begun, will it finally end (linear)? What is the purpose of human life? Do people have a unique meaning and destiny, or is human life different only by degree from all other life, wherever it may be found? How do religious people know Reality? Do they have ancient sacred texts that preserve a divine revelation, or do they look inward in meditation or mystical union to discover what else is out there? Does a religious group think only their religion is ‘true’ and every other religion is ‘false’, or do they think everyone shares something in what is ultimately true and good? What does a religion say about male and female; about the different roles for men and women?
  • 16. Image credit: The Others: Teresa Isasi; FRIGHT OF WAY Kidman sheds light on dark haunts in ''The Others'' <http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,170503,00.html>