Cuando la inmensidad se viste de verso, vida y canción, allí hay resurrección y la promesa de un mundo a todo color
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
Located at the agora of Bet She’an, Palestine, these are the remains of a temple built in honor of Dionysus, the protecting god of wine, theaters, emotions, sensuality, and excesses. This deity is part of the polytheism that characterized Greco-Roman society. Many of these religions have disappeared.
- A Rich, Growing Variety. As many of you might know or suspect, 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, not to mention the commonalities that allow us to study them comparatively.
- Impossible to Classify Completely. Given this rich variety, it would be impossible for all religions to coincide in every area and for us to have complete, systematic classifications for all or most of them. Moreover, depending on their philosophical leanings, nature and goals, religions may be classified differently according to different perspectives, fields of expertise, and methodologies. Through many lenses and angles, the possibilities are plentiful.
- “Central Beliefs” as a Criterion. For all these reasons and as a first step, it is useful to classify religions according to some more manageable categories. If we take into account their main beliefs , for example, we may easily identify four major types of religions.
a. 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 ways of life 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. From the past up to the present, their meaningful interactions with the elements are prevalent and breathtaking.
b. 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.
c. Religions that put God aside and, adopting some form of deep spirituality, focus on ideas that can identify and stimulate the potential humans have to improve themselves are usually labeled as abstract idealistic. Their emphasis is anthropological, namely, it is based on the power of self. 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.
d. 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.
4. Other Classifications. In addition to this major criterion of classification, other possibilities are as relevant, legitimate and instructive.
If we focus on their foundation, character and relational target, religions that follow very closely the teachings and examples of sages might be labeled as wisdom religions (for example, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, Xintoism, Moonisn, Sikhism, and Hare Krishna). The communities of individuals who proclaim revolutionary messages of liberation and reconciliation, and denounce injustices might be seen as prophetic (for example, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Baha‘ i). Religions that center their beliefs around the mysterious and engaging powers of nature may be regarded as primeval, in the sense of original, nativist or primitive. Some will use the adjective spiritualistic to name religions that relate to non-material superior beings or divine spirits (for example, Afro-Caribbean and Brazilian forms of spirituality called camdomblé, budú, macumba or atabaque). Groups that might seem secular and philosophical but that also have some air of mysticism and spirituality may be referenced as religious-humanistic (for example, certain expressions of yoga, Rosa Cruz, Theosophy, New-Gnosticism, Seicho-No-lê and Masonery).
In cases when religions believe in an personal or impersonal God, they may be further classified as monotheistic, polytheistic, pantheistic, henotheistic and animistic. Within polytheism some individuals and communities might have a god or goddess they prefer in addition to others (monolatry). With respect to animism, one may go a step forward and think of magism, manism, and totemism.
Religions may also be grouped in dual or binary opposition categories. Depending on the numbers of followers, visibility, dominance, and access to privileges, religions may be classified as majority or minority. The first ones tend to be official and formal, whereas the other ones tend to be un-official and informal. Sometimes their relationship with the state or not determines the use of these rubrics. Take, for example, Anglicanism in England or Islam, through shariah law, in Islamic states. Since there too much room in the area, one could use many synonymous terms to convey different levels of relational aspects between both groups.
National or ethnic religions are normally tied to countries where they originated or might still be the religion of the majority of the people in that part of the world hold on to, as Islam in Indonesia is. Think also of Judaism in Palestine, and Hinduism and Buddhism in India. At some points in their history, the following groups represented these kinds of religions: The Slavs, Germanics and Celts in Central and Northern Europe and Greek and Latin religious groups in Mediterranean Europe; religions in the Ancient Middle East (for example, in Mesopotamia, Persia, Assyria, Canaan) and Northern Africa.
At the time when cultures only had languages that circulated orally and writing was not invented, religions are normally characterized as pre-historic. After the invention of writing and civilizations started recording their events, the word historic was applied to religions in which some of their members knew how to write and read.
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 as old and 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 Mayans, Aztecs or Incas, who are no longer in our midst, or whose beliefs might have partially survived in other religious traditions.
5. And Much More. 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 and numerous as the approaches to study them through these systems.
6. Validation and Openness to Old and New Categories. Needless to say, all classifications and typologies are limited and arbitrary, but at the same time useful and conventional. The labels or descriptive phrases we have mentioned are only approximations on the basis of some perceived similarities. Technically, they are heuristic designations. To make the most of our investigation, therefore, we need to keep our options and minds open to what every classification offers and other interpretative possibilities, 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.
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.
If religions believe in a personal God involved in human affairs.
If religions believe in impersonal, divine forces removed from human history.
Due to their immense variety, other names could well be pre-historic, traditional, tribalor aborigine.
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
Inspired by belief and trust, our understandings of religion(s) are adventurous, finite pathways to the thresholds of the Absolute Unknown…
Years of experience in the fields of biblical studies and world 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 and actions. Completing the cycle, our actions will bring new perceptions that will become new interpretations.
Things do not mean anything in themselves and for 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. Everything we do and experience is socially constructed, mediated and limited. That is why, in our effort to understand ourselves and the world around us, 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 the understanding of it, religion, as a worldwide human phenomenon or experience with “the Holy”, should be looked at with different eyes, through different lenses and from different social locations. The fact that people around the world still experience “The Unknown” 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 from somewhere to somewhere.
How should we, then, interpret religion and their concrete cultural efforts to encounter the Invisible Mystery 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?
At some level, religion may be interpreted or studied informally paying attention to information that religious people themselves provide and know about in response to their own experiences with the Mystery, without the intromission of the outsiders’ theories. In other words, we may look at religions phenomenologically. From pre-historic times, older societies interacted with the enigmatic powers of nature and, based on their own assumptions, beliefs, and knowledge, they had different understandings and used different words to name what for us is the Unknown. In fact, the word “religion” or its equivalent was not known to them. Some saw their world around in terms of magical and impersonal forces (i.e., animatism), while others believed that some form of soul was present in mountains, trees, rivers, and rocks (i.e., animism). Many tribal groups regarded animals as emblematic symbols or representatives of their tribes and the spirits of chiefs were venerated and offered sacrifices (i.e., totemism). These different comprehensions of what cannot be fully comprehended created the conditions for tribes and clans to be believed in many deities, personal and impersonal (i.e. polytheism); and out of so many options some focused on one deity (i.e. monolatry). The practice of worshipping one God was also prevalent (i.e. monotheism), which many wrongly assume to have been the foundation for polytheism to emerge.
Nowadays individuals and communities have a more informal and empirical understandings of religious phenomena. However, the information they have access to and process is usually anecdotal, circumstantial, and punctual. Religion particularly draws attention when extreme practices or activities are at stake. However, there are more systematic, scientific efforts to make sense of religious experiences and the groups and institutions that perpetuate them in our midst. Their analyses are available to our benefit.
The modern study of religion grew out of the Enlightenment in the 17thcentury 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. Theology. This phenomenon may be studied considering the efforts to facilitate a relationship with a mystical, unknown reality, enacted through eyes of faith, legitimated by the same faith, and contextualized through the use of cultural capital. This approximation works with all the elements given by religious experiences to try to understand how it all makes sense to them through the eyes of faith and presumed revelations. The emphasis is normally on religious facts, not in themselves, but thinking of in their nature, structure, language, occasion, intentionality, changes, and meaning. Sacred texts and oral traditions are sources of information, as well as creeds and doctrines. When this point of view is adopted, religions are seen from the inside out. One tries to walk in the shoes of believers and looks at the cohesion of their world views.
2. History. We may study religion observing closely key events, people, times, and circumstances of the past, which have significantly shaped the course of human life, and putting emphasis on the place religion has had in this process throughout generations or at some particular stages. A variant of this is typically called the History of Religions approach that, in addition to focusing on the key ingredients that concern historical research, will concentrate on the origin, development and growth of world religions, how they relate to each other and their influence on secular societies. This field will also study religions in their own contexts as their replicas either to maintain and challenge that influence.
3. Politics. An important approach is one that focuses on the connections that religion has with the secular understandings and uses of privilege, power, and resources to help – or not – the larger society achieve its common goals. According to this angle of interpretation, the relationship between religious groups and the state becomes an important theme to take into consideration. In some societies a sharp distinction between what the government is and does cannot be fully distinguished. In other contexts these are two clearly differentiated institutions with little connection. Sometimes the state takes over and powerfully influence religions, whereas in other cases religions seem to be in the car seat of society.
4. Psychology. Fixing our eyes on the points of contact and differences between religion and the human thought-processes, ideas, and internal emotions as expressed in concrete behaviors at any given social context, is also an area to focus on. Part of this approach involves an assessment of the heart the individuals and the communities they are part of and their religious behaviors. The most authentic experiences about the divine take place in the context of human totality in which there should be a focus on matters pertaining to the soul and feelings of humans, whether they are viewed as normal or abnormal.
5. Philosophy. One could analyze religion 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. In a philosophical approach to religion an exploration of reasonable human efforts to conceptualize and relate to the Absolute is of primary importance. The point of encounter is always rational and how it is legitimated through the use of myths. Privilege themes are the existence of God, human origin, purpose and meaning, the world we live in, and what it means to be persons of character.
6. Sociology. Another relevant approach is to pay attention to the ways in which religious communities organize themselves, how their members interact with each other and how power and privileges are used, based on their place and function in the world and as replicas of the dominant society. In this kind of approach, a special attention is given to major and minor groups and their impact, social change, order and efforts to subvert it or maintain it. This disciple also studies several institutions and what they mean and symbolize.
7. Anthropology. Religion may be studied singling out the worldviews, values, beliefs, and customs of past or remote ethnic groups and their respective institutions in relation to religious ideologies and praxis. As opposed to what Sociology does but also incorporating some of the same beliefs and procedures, in this discipline past ways of life are the focus, an effort to describe and understand what they do automatically or without thinking about it. Ethnic, archaeological and linguistic realities are seriously considered. The ties with other social sciences are undeniable. It studies more primitive or traditional societies focusing on the culture, language, and their symbolic and relational aspects.
8. Literature. Not all religions have written language but the ones that do produce literature that is considered inspired and authoritative. When this is the case, these religions may be compared and contrasted, putting our emphasis on the content, format, context, intentionality, relationship with oral traditions, and other characteristics associated with their sacred writings. This allows us to see unique features but also in what ways religions are similar.
9. Economics. We may approach religion in order to explain the relationship there is between spiritual or esoteric ideas and actions and the production, consumption, and distribution of goods, as well as the structure, the use of resources, and classes of people involved in this complex, dynamic process. All religions have an economical dimension tied to the environment and their survival we must not bypass.
10. Art. The followers of all religions around the world have what may be taken as a decorative, entertaining component. Their spirituality manifests itself in and through cultural artifacts, symbols, and actions that meet the needs of their souls. Thus, it is advisable to analyze them putting our energy on the aesthetical manifestations of religious views as concrete vehicles of people’s souls and their quest for order, beauty, and meaning.
11. Ethics. In religion ideas do matter. Among other things, they reveal peoples’ understandings of right and wrong. Therefore, it is important we study those ideas in order to describe the religious values, principles, and norms that allow their societies to distinguish good from evil and form character. When one adopts a moral perspective in the study of religious experiences or world religions, one delves into issues such as rules or norms that embody, strengthen, and promote virtues and that oppose vices. Good and evil are at the center of it with its connections to higher realities.
12. Science. For some experts in the 21stcentury, the idea of God and what the exact sciences are, do and teach are not necessarily something mutually exclusive. Even though there many scholars who believe in a close universe with its own rules and organizing principles yet to be discovered and manipulated for progress, for some religion and science they are not mutually exclusive although different in their premises, procedures, and methodologies. To some open-minded scientists, the universe does not explain “God” but somewhat seems to lead back to “God.”
13. Themes from Diverse Angles. Religions may also be studied thematically. From different disciplines and thanks to the use of different tools of analysis, one could do research about the other life, reconciliation, time, sanctions, rewards, sacred traditions, notion of time, salvation, good and evil, peace and non-violence, predestination, providence, prayer, fasting, and meditation, just to name a few.
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 fociof analysis one could and should add to this conventional and practical list of possibilities.
Needless to say, no option is superior or rules the others out. Because of their heuristic nature, they are limited and there 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 interdisciplinaryapproach but also a cross-disciplinaryone, even to a point in which popular and difficult-to-classify perspectives will be included. Aholistic approachto the study of religion is the ideal in order to have a holistic understandingof 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,” thanks to the different paths or roads they have travelled on.
Sometimes this field is called “the science of religion.”
 For example, think about the influence of religion in the feelings of guilt, fear, forgiveness, and control. Also consider the needs of to give and receive love, personal satisfaction, forgiveness, protection, shelter, food, clothing, belonging and acceptance, relationships, and community. Consider human desires and the idea of holding on to something greater than ourselves or fighting for something worthwhile. Think about issues of identity, personality, self, awareness, life-cycle stages, and traumatic or meaningful experiences in life. There is a psychological dimension to all of them.