The Eyes of the Beholders: How Should We Interpret Religion?

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Years of experience in the fields of biblical studies and religion, as well as in other walks of life, have taught me one valuable lesson: reality is what we make of it, and what we make of it is both the result of our perceptions that translate into interpretations.  Things do not mean anything in themselves. Thanks to the role played by many factors or variables, “meaning”  is something we create, and opinions or interpretations embody and convey such creations.  And such creations, in turn, are subject to other peoples’ multidimensional understandings.  That is why, in our effort to understand ourselves and the world around, we must take a close look at many perspectives for, according to Plato, “Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.”

The timeless truth contained in this old saying applies to religion as well.  To enrich of understanding of it, religion, as a worldwide human phenomenon or experience with “the Holy”, should be looked at with different eyes, through different lens and from different social locations. The fact that people around the world still experience “The Divine” differently and have different ways of naming such experiences reminds us that we must study religion from different angles and, at the same time, with the help of different methodologies.[1]Just remember that any method, based on the original meaning of the Greek word that the term “method” is a transliteration of, is a path or a road taking us somewhere.

How should we, then, interpret religion and their concrete cultural efforts to encounter the Sacred in the here and now?  What are some possible approximations that would serve us as paths leading to a deeper understanding of this human behavior?

The modern study of religion grew out of the Enlightenment in the 17th century in Europe, and from there it spread out to other parts of the world.  Indebted to the contributions of a multitude of thinkers who were part of this movement, in its early and late stages, religion (and the many cultural appropriations of it) may be studied from the following perspectives or points of view:

  1. Taking into account the human efforts to facilitate a relationship with a mystical reality, enacted through eyes of faith, legitimated by the same faith, and contextualized through the use of cultural capital (i.e., Theology or Religion).
  1. Observing closely key events, people, times, and circumstances of the past, which have significantly shaped the course of human life, and the place religion has had in this process throughout generations or at particular stages (i.e., History).
  1. Considering the connections that religion has with the secular understanding and use of privilege, power, and resources to help – or not – the larger society achieve its common goals (i.e, Politics).
  1. Fixing our eyes on the points of contact and differences between religion and the human thought-processes and emotions as expressed in concrete behaviors at any given social context (i.e., Psychology).
  1. Focusing on the religious ideas that touch on fundamental ideas pertaining to the nature of human existence, and their evolution, interconnections, logic, and relevance to people’s lives (i.e., Philosophy).
  1. Paying attention to the ways in which religious communities organize themselves and how their members interact with each other, on the basis of their place and function in the world and as replicas of the dominant society (i.e., Sociology).
  1. Analyzing the values, beliefs, and customs of past or remote ethnic groups and their respective institutions in relation to religious ideologies and praxis (i.e,  Anthropology).
  1. Putting our emphasis on the content, format, context, intentionality, and other characteristics of religious, written traditions (i.e., Literature).
  1. Reflecting on the relationship there is between religion and the production, consumption, and distribution of goods and the structure and classes of people involved in this process (i.e., Economics).
  1. Putting our energy on the aesthetical manifestations of religious views as concrete manifestations of people’s soul and their quest for order, beauty, and meaning (i.e, Art).
  1. And emphasizing the religious values, principles, and norms developed to create sets of expected behaviors that would better societies, distinguish good from evil, and form character (i.e., Ethics).

It is obvious that this list of paths is not exhaustive.  The disciplines or areas of knowledge they represent are important, but there are other foci of analysis one could and should add to this conventional and practical list of possibilities.

Needless to day, no option is superior or rules the others out. Because of their heuristic nature, they are limited and is only so much they can add to our understanding of religion.  They are simply approximations.  Thus, all of them are valid and necessary.  Moreover,  at any given moment one of them or a combination of them should be given more notoriety because of the relevant explanatory power they might have, so they should all be kept in mind and used when it is appropriate.  Specific approaches must be aware of the larger, pool of options and how they influence each other.

With all these caveats, not only is it necessary to have an interdisciplinary approach but also a cross-disciplinary one, even to a point in which popular and difficult-to-classify perspectives will be included.  A holistic approach to the study  of religion is the ideal in order to have a holistic understanding of it!

What is the reward ahead of us once we make these approaches our own?  An exciting inquisitive journey that would not exhaust the meaning of religion, nor the attempts to grasp its mystery.  Only then will the true nature of religion be seen through the eyes of countless beholders, hopefully to appreciate its manifold expressions of “beauty.”

 

 

[1] To read my previous posts of religion, pleas see http://blogs.reinhardt.edu/ich/2017/02/27/how-does-it-work-the-role-of-religion/;  http://blogs.reinhardt.edu/ich/2017/01/25/what-is-religion-naming-a-faith-driven-experience/ ; http://blogs.reinhardt.edu/ich/2017/02/10/in-our-image-and-likeness-how-does-religion-facilitate-a-relationship-with-the-holy/ ; http://blogs.reinhardt.edu/ich/2017/02/18/in-the-beginning-the-origin-of-religion/

 

 

 

About amartinez

Dr. Aquiles E. Martinez is Professor of Religion (Biblical Studies) and Coordinator of the Religion and Philosophy Programs at Reinhardt University. Ordained in the United Methodist Church, Dr. Martinez has dedicated a good part of his life to equip pastors and church leaders in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, with the appropriate skills, knowledge, and experiences so they can serve their communities effectively. In addition to his many books, articles, and essays published in English and Spanish, Dr. Martinez has served several churches and the global community as an effort to help people develop significant relationships with God and their neighbors, especially with marginalized communities.
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