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

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.[1]  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.[2]

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.


[1]Sometimes this field is called “the science of religion.”

[2]  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.





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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