The dance of our reconciliation
La danza de nuestra reconciliación
Entre luces y sombras, me doy a conocer esperando que tu corazón siempre me responda
Between lights and shades, I make myself known hoping that your heart always answers me
There is a wide range of religions in the world. No one really knows their exact number, and yet each one of them has its own unique, defining traits.
Given this rich and overwhelming diversity, it would be impossible for all religions to coincide in every area and for us to have a full understanding of them. For these reasons, I think it is useful to classify religions according to some more manageable categories.
If we take into account their central beliefs, for example, we may easily identify four mayor types of religions.
- Religions that do not have a well-articulated notion of God, interact with the mystery and power of nature, and believe that there is a great spirit or force that impacts life in its many facets, may be designated as naturalistic or super-naturalistic. Take, for instance, the ideologies and practices of the Eskimo tribes, the sedentary and nomadic groups in the South Pacific islands, and the diverse ethnic societies in Africa and North, Central, and South America. Their meaningful interaction with the elements is remarkable.
- Religions that believe that all forms of life on the earth and the sky have higher powers dwelling in them and that they are responsible for everything in life are called animistic. Taking for granted that everything in the cosmos has a “soul,” pre-historic religions or hunting-and-gathering societies in very remote parts of the world today fall under this rubric. Think also of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Africa before the European colonization, and the religious communities of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
- Religions that put God aside and, adopting some form of spirituality, focus on ideas that can identify and stimulate the potential humans have to improve themselves are usually labeled as abstract idealistic. Buddhism and Confucianism are good examples of this. Such is their emphasis on self-help that many experts argue that they are not religions but moral philosophies with religious overtones.
- In closing, religions that claim that their beliefs and practices come directly from God – typically in the form of revelation – are theistic or deistic. They may believe in one, true, unique supreme being or power (monotheistic), such as in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They may also be devoted to many (polytheistic), like the practitioners of Hinduism do. The human role is repressed or minimized to give God the absolute spotlight.
In addition to these four mayor types, religions may be classified according to other criteria, sometimes to designate experiences and groups outside of religious institutions. Depending on the number of followers and how spread out they are, religions are presented as either world religions, indigenous-local religions, or new religions.
Out of historical interests, one might think of dead or living religions as well. Consider, for instance, pre-historic religions, Greco-Roman mystery religions or the Mayas, Aztecs or Incas, who are no longer in our midst, or whose beliefs might have partially survived in other religious traditions.
Other criteria may include geographical location or origin, number of adepts, whether religions have local or universal appeal or not, or even the type of concept of the deity that originated them. They may or may not have sacred texts, emphasize esoteric worship acts or ethic, seek to convert people or they may even believe that you have to be born into a religion to be part of it. In other words, the systems of classification are as diverse as the approaches to study them through these systems. To make the most of our investigation, we need to keep our options and minds open, especially as new religious groups emerge and the old ones struggle to recreate themselves.
 Part of the problem is that estimates confuse religions with sub-groups or denomination.
 See my http://blogs.reinhardt.edu/ich/2017/02/18/in-the-beginning-the-origin-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/ ; http://blogs.reinhardt.edu/ich/2017/03/02/the-eyes-of-the-beholders-how-should-we-interpret-religion/
 Perhaps influenced by a biased understanding of Christianity, in the past many scholars used to classify religions based on the criterion as to whether they were true or false. Fortunately, this is no longer a legitimate approach because of its judgmental nature and the lack of the neutral, objective, attitude that must characterize any scientific inquiry.
 Although some experts add civil religions as representing another type of religion, to me this is a phrase that, in reality, refers to political groups with some religious characteristics. Consider, for instance, the radical views of Communism, Patriotism, and Capitalism and those who see these as “sacred.”
 From the oldest to most recent, for example, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
 Scientology, for example.
Que tus palabras y gestos alumbren el corazón de quienes crucen tu camino
May your words and gestures enlighten the heart of those who cross your path
Puertas abiertas, de manos abiertas, de memorias ciertas
La libertad comienza con un sueño…
Freedom begins with a dream…
Destellos de la divina plenitud iluminan nuestro horizonte con trazos de esperanza
Glimpses of the divine fullness illuminate our horizon with strokes of hope
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.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:
- 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).
- 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).
- 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).
- 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).
- 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).
- 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).
- 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).
- Putting our emphasis on the content, format, context, intentionality, and other characteristics of religious, written traditions (i.e., Literature).
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.”
 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/