Outline

I. If we approach Christianity as a religion, then some definition of religion would be useful, even though definitions of subjects so pervasive and complex are difficult.

A. Some classic definitions of religion indicate both the limitations and the usefulness of the process of defining.

1. In the early nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher defined the essence of religion as "a feeling of absolute dependence."

2. Rudolf Otto, in the twentieth century, in his Idea of the Holy, defined religion as "that which grows out of and gives expression to the experience of the holy in its various aspects."

3. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead says that religion is what an individual does with his solitariness.

4. In contrast, Emil Durkheim, the founder of sociology, described religion as "social."

5. Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment philosopher, defined religion as the recognition of all our duties as divine commands.

6. John Dewey, the American philosopher, refers to the religious as any activity pursued in behalf of an ideal against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of its general and enduring value.

7. Paul Tillich's definition of religion has been very influential in the field of theology. He says that religion is a matter of being grasped by an "ultimate concern," which qualifies all our other concerns as preliminary and contains the answer to the question of the meaning of our lives.

8. Sigmund Freud described religion as comparable to a "childhood neurosis" and "wish fulfillment."

9. Karl Marx defined religion as a "sign of the oppressed creature—the opium of the people."

B. Three major kinds of definition have been applied to religion.

1. The essential definition seeks some ideal center to religion that can be used to measure its various manifestations and counterfeits. A classical example is Van der Leeuw's book Religion in Essence and Manifestation.

2. The functional definition is less concerned with what religion is than what religion does for the individual or for the group.

3. The descriptive definition seeks primarily to describe how religion appears to the observer—it begins with the phenomena, rather than seeking functions or essence. The elements come first, then we examine the functions, and perhaps last, seek the essence.

C. The descriptive approach works best when we are asking about a religion rather than about religion.

II. A descriptive definition can be approached by considering four inadequate definitions of religion.

A. A religion might be defined in terms of membership in a group.

1. The most obvious way of designating a person as religious is also the least adequate.

2. The inadequacy of the definition is clear from the ease by which exceptions can be named: ways in which social gatherings are not religious and ways in which religion can be private (or antisocial).

B. A religion might be defined in terms of ritual behavior.

1. Rituals are patterns of repetitive, non-rational behavior.

2. The resemblance between religious ritual and obsessive-compulsive behavior was noted by Freud and suggests the limits of the definition.

C. A religion might be defined in terms of belief or doctrine.

1. Although belief and teaching is central to some religious traditions, it is almost absent from others.

2. Systems of belief and teaching are also found in non-religious forms.

D. A religion might be defined in terms of morality.

1. Although some religious traditions contain moral standards, not all do, and religion has sometimes advocated immoral behavior.

2. Likewise, a strong moral code can be found outside religions and even opposed to religion.

III. A more adequate descriptive definition of a religion must include what is found there either uniquely or in a degree not found elsewhere.

A. A working definition of religion includes these elements:

1. Religion is a way of life,

2. Is organized around experiences and convictions, and

3. Concerns ultimate power.

B. Because of historical and conceptual proximity, it is important, if possible, to distinguish magic and religion.

1. Sociologically, "magic" often functions as a way of scapegoating strange religion.

2. Religion and magic can be distinguished, however, with regard to the key issues of pragmatism and control of power.

IV. The various elements in the "way of life" that is a religion serve to mediate its experiences and convictions concerning ultimate power.

A. Fellowship or community is the social vehicle for the transmission of tradition, including the symbolic world shared by adherents.

B. Ritual is the social expression of identity that identifies the location of power through the demarcation of sacred time and space.

C. Doctrine is the articulated and explicit form of belief that lies embedded in the myth and ritual of the community.

D. Morality identifies the modes of non-ritual behavior that are appropriate to the experiences and convictions concerning ultimate power.

E. Mysticism, finally, is that dimension of a religion that seeks an unmediated access to the ultimate power. Essential Reading:

J. C. Livingston, Anatomy of the Sacred: An Introduction to Religion, 4th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2001), 3-50.

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