If religion is to create minimum conditions for a connection with the Unknown Mystery to develop a relationship with it, that is viable, meaningful, and somewhat real, religion must necessarily be conceived and implemented in particular settings where such a relationship may be experienced or contextualized. For obvious reasons, such a goal cannot be achieved in a vacuum otherwise it would be an obscure abstraction, a bunch of peculiar ideas floating up in the air, or a delusional aspiration no one would be able to understand, relate to, or live up to. Thus, to be relevant, communicable, operational, and understood, religions require mediations.
- The Frames of History and Culture. To be workable, religious communities need natural scenarios where they can begin, develop, and spread out as well as human environments with which to interact, assimilate, and reprocess. They are what they are because of existing connections to a distant or recent past that involves key individuals and communities, dates, events, circumstances, and geographical areas. Religions have been molded by stories of old and have been part of chronological trajectories that explain their present. But religions are what they are because of dynamic and complex relations with the views, values, and practices of larger, influencing communities of which they are incomplete but real replicas. To illustrate this point, we may say that time, people, and space have created them in “their own image and likeness.” The outside influence is such that, in their characterization of the Unknown, religions tend to project unto the Unknown the activities they do to physically survive as human beings. Said differently, their conceptualization of Higher Beings is directly tied to whether religious communities are gatherers, farmers and/or hunters. Like all of us, religions are “children of history and culture.”
- Sensorial Filters. In order to assimilate, adapt, and reprocess what their social environment offers, religions routinely and inevitably resort to and appeal to all human senses. These in-born gifts are the media through which they interact with the world, internalize information, generate meaning, acquire knowledge, learn, and live. Thanks to the sense we all share, religions can respond to outside stimuli and discern their place, function, and existence in life. What the members of world religions value, believe in, symbolize, and do is always articulated and carried out based on what their followers can see, hear, touch, smell, and touch in their daily lives. This important, transcultural traits make religions subject to monitoring and scrutiny.
- The Unstoppable Power of Faith. The sensorial makeup of religions has a gearing, integrating force that may be taken as a sixth sense, namely, faith. As a gift, virtue or ability, faith is that element that creates its own world of meaning and that shapes and reshapes religions and their manifold, cultural expressions. Presuming that there is a superior or more profound reality out there that humans cannot perfectly fathom but still can have access to, religions interpret social reality believing in what is absolutely special, miraculous, or way out of the ordinary. Relying on its own legitimating evidence, religious faith determines the existence of religious reality and such a reality, in turn, validates, nourishes and keeps that faith alive.
- The Sacralization of Social Reality. Permeated and nurtured by faith, religions proceed to conceptualize life and organize it accordingly: they sacralize it. As a result, nature, people, events, places, times, animals, activities, and objects are set apart and regarded as extremely out of the ordinary, as entities with intrinsic, mystical nature and/or power. Colored by this assumption of which its members are absolutely persuaded, religions pay their highest respect and wholeheartedly believe in selected individuals, groups or communities; buildings, houses, cities, temples, shrines, and altars;; valleys, seas, lakes, rivers, islands, mountains, trees, rocks, animals, parks, ecological reservoirs, the sun, the moon, the stars, the clouds, the wind, the fire, the rain, the storm, and other elements of nature and the cosmos. For religions, texts, oral traditions, beliefs, and principles are sacrosanct, and so are special times during the year. Even faith itself is assigned ultimacy, transformative energy, and mystery, to a point of becoming almost like “blind faith.” To reinterpret Thomas Aquinas, a Medieval Christian theologian and philosopher, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
- Contextualized, Repetitive Vehicles. As context-bound-sensorial phenomena shaped by faith, how do religions initiate, maintain, and develop a significant relationship with the Invisible Mystery? They simply have and take advantage of a series of recurring elements present in all religions.
a) Worldviews. The taken-for-granted understanding that there is something higher and more powerful than ourselves in the universe, is the center of very concrete ways of looking at the world, in its inhabitants, and the cosmos. Rooted in culture and history, religions are characterized by diverse and profound worldviews that embody and justify what religions are and do. These worldviews, for the most part implicit, may be inferred from everything religions believe and do. They may also be evaluated on the basis of what they give birth to: texts, doctrines, stories, symbols, ceremonies, rituals, behaviors, etc. These worldviews, in turn, influence, legitimate, and strengthen the believers’ ideology, and their place and role in the world.
b) Sets of Official Beliefs. Indebted to the past and very much influenced by tradition, in every religion we find bodies of formal, mandatory values and beliefs that embody and shape the identity of insiders. With logical variations and unique characteristics, they usually come in the form of creeds, confessions, doctrinesor resolutionsin order to meet the spiritual, intellectual, and moral life-and-death needs of the believing communities. These are not simple teachings or lessons, but non-negotiable precepts that frame peoples’ journeys and require obedience.
c) Binding Moral Norms. Oftentimes articulated as beliefs, religions around the world have been historically known for having diverse, concrete, and complex understandings of what is right and what is wrong. Anchored in tradition and the practicality of life, they all have sets of ideas that structure peoples’ lives and provide them with criteria to evaluate what they believe and how they act. They all have moral systems to which they hold themselves accountable. To facilitate their relationship with the Unknown, develop their character, and create a better society, religions rely on rules and regulations. As mechanisms of social control, this element gives them the possibility to determine, in an orderly fashion, who complies and who deviates from the established, ethical standards.
d) Authoritative Texts and Oral Traditions. Beliefs and moral choices come from somewhere. In the case of religions, there are powerful and meaningful storiestransmitted by word of mouth (i.e., “Holy” or “Sacred Stories”) and committed to writing (i.e. “Holy” or “Sacred Texts”) that serve as sources of authority upon which to base their ideologies and ways of living. Seen as inspired and authoritative, normally these sources give religions a sense of belonging, identity, and purpose. At the heart of these sacred texts and oral traditions, we normally stand powerful and extraordinary stories that contain, program, and develop the collective patterns of understanding, evaluation, organization, and course of actions of religious communities. In other words, we find what scholar normally call myths.
e) Rituals and Symbols. A series of dramatic, repetitive actions and activities, identified as “rituals,” enable religious communities to make meaningful and practical connections with what they believe are the most important dimensions of life. Resorting to the use of symbols and images are also reoccurring media whereby humans, through faith, reconnect with the Unknown and cultivate their mystical relationships. Thanks to these routine vehicles, typically used in the context of worshipor adoration, the psychological, intellectual, spiritual, moral, and physical needs of religious individuals and communities are met.
f) Social Organization. To make sure that religions survive and grow, religions need to come together and organized themselves and their resources. To this end and faithful to their belief systems, they will create and implement structures to make their religion stable, viable and satisfying. At its front end, we identify gifted individuals playing mediating, teaching, and leadership roles. Priests, priestesses, mediums, rabbis, gurus,inmans, and pastors are some examples. But religions are complex and diverse social phenomena whose tenets are interpreted and applied differently. That is why, with varying degrees of popularity and following and still within the bounds of official institutional structuresthat provide order and meaning, religions are comprised of sub-groups, denominationsor sects. Internally speaking, world religions are not compact, univocal or uniform. What we find is different, and sometimes conflicting, understandings of what it means to be a faithful follower of the Holy.
g) Maintenance and Growth Mechanisms. In order for religious movements to survive, especially after the death of their founders and charismatic leaders, they must strengthen themselves and resort to initiatives to grow and formalize or even institutionalize their movements. Unless they have disappeared and become part of the so-called “dead religions,” there are involuntary factors that help religions spread out and exist if not to move up to the next stages. But there are also some strategies and tactics religions, by design and intent, depend on to perpetuate themselves and deliver their messages of love, faith, and love. The effective use of resources and organization, the presence of charismatic leadership, proselytizing and instructing outsiders, and helping people in need,are some of the most popular ones.
All the above concrete vehicles are common ground; they define a large number of religions in the world and, therefore, constitute relative criteriawe should use in our analysis to better understand them at deeper levels. But let us not forget that, because every religion is a social construct seeking to facilitate a faith-encounter with a Supreme Reality in context, they will all develop their own unique personalityin their understandings the Holy and the applications of such understandings. This means that we can only understand world religions when we take into account the particular settings, circumstances, and histories where they all emerged from and live their faiths. It is imperative we are aware of this crucial issue. For this very reason, religions must always be studied in terms of similarities and differences. And this is what the field of Comparative Religionsdoes to our benefit.
For a more formal definition of religion, please see my post “What is Religion? Naming a Faith-Driven Experience,” http://blogs.reinhardt.edu/ich/2017/01/25/what-is-religion-naming-a-faith-driven-experience/.
To put our discussion in more dramatic terms, it is like saying that religion, in a sense, does not reveal the mystery as it absolutely is. Though its characterization of the Unknown, it rather “hides” it as it shows us more who we truly are and what we would like to be.
One implication of this statement is that we cannot fully understand religion without understanding its culture and vice versa.
For example, internal peace, harmony, and happiness; prayers or favors granted; miracles; prophecies fulfilled, body possessed by spirits; trances, visions and dreams; mental powers; and the extraordinary revelation of texts and traditions.
Take, for example, areas, building or houses where holy prophets were born, raised, lived, received revelations, performed or experienced miracles, suffered, and died. Think also of places where important an important events took place, the ones that changed history.
Places or geographical areas where important religious events happened or where religions originated, are oftentimes set apart, put on a pedestal, and become the locus of periodical ceremonies and rituals such as festivals and pilgrimages.
In world religions, mother nature is held in the highest esteem as a source or agent of revelation. For many of them, it is a context in which worshippers may experience the divine and this understanding help them make an effort to preserve some of the most beautiful places around the world
Because of the lack of effective organization, leadership, and missionary activities. But also due to geographical isolation, war, natural disasters, and power struggles.
Take, for instance, commerce, trade and labor in other countries, imperial agency, forced migration, colonial expansionism, in-growth based on kinship, and internal divisions.
This means that all religions may and should be studied focusing on these seven areas.