Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Sorting out Meanings: "Religion," "Spiritual," "Interreligious," "Interfaith," Etc

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Sorting out Meanings: "Religion," "Spiritual," "Interreligious," "Interfaith," Etc

Article excerpt

I. The Task

When I started my higher education at the end of World War II, in the fall of 1946, there were virtually no departments of religious studies in North America. There were sectarian departments of Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish theology studies in divinity schools or private colleges/universities; in a few cases some state universities granted credit for special courses in theology taught by "adjunct" teachers sponsored by churches or synagogues. In 1964 Temple University (which became a "state-related university" officially in 1966) created a Department of Religion, the same year that the American Academy of Religion (AAR) was formed. At the same time the Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) committed its billion-plus members to ecumenical (intra-Christian) and interreligious/interideological dialogue. Interreligious dialogue in general grew gradually thereafter, experienced a sudden surge with the end of the Cold War (1990), and took another leap forward in a 2007 delayed response to the events of September 11, 2001, when world Islam entered the dialogue. All this embrace of dialogue in the area of religion, and ideology, was most recently reflected in the establishment in 2013 of an official study section of the AAR devoted to Interreligious/Interfaith Studies.

The sudden flood of scholars into the field of Interreligious Studies broadcast the cacophony of terms needing clarification in this broad area. These reflections hope to contribute to meeting that need. They are, naturally in no way official or definitive but, nevertheless, are based on close and intense involvement in the field since (in 1957) the research for, and writing of, a German thesis for my Licentiate (S.T.L.) in Catholic Theology (1959, from the Pontifical Theological Faculty of the University of Tubingen--perhaps the first Catholic layperson ever to receive a degree in Catholic theology) and my American Ph.D. (from the University of Wisconsin) dissertation in Intellectual/Cultural History and Philosophy (1961). (1)

First, a reminder: We need to recognize that no term from whatever culture can possibly be without its limitations. Hence, the best we can do is consciously to choose terms that we think will be the most helpful--and then always bear in mind their cultural and other limitations. Only thus can we avoid, on one hand, being condemned to silence because we cannot find any words to describe reality that will not be limited and hence distorting and, on the other hand, being guilty of "idolatry," that is, mistaking our words--the "idols" (the images, the symbols, the "finger pointing to the moon")--for the reality they are supposed to describe or to image.

II. Religion

"What is religion?" Let us start with the etymological roots of the Western term "religion," even though it turns out not to be particularly helpful. We say in English that we "ought" to choose good and avoid evil; we speak of being "obliged" to choose the good. Our English word "obliged" comes from a Latin root, ob-ligare, "to be bound to." We have the English cognate ligare, "to bind," as in "//gament," which "binds" our bones together. Hence, "obliged" means that we are "bound to," obliged to, do the good. The Latin root of the term "religion" is fundamentally the same as that of "oblige," that is, "re-ligare," "to be bound back." This word root is really more helpful in another way that we use the term "religious," as when we say that someone follows his or her routine "religiously," meaning that he or she is "bound" to it. That regular commitment may at times, or even often, be a part of what we normally name "religion," but it surely is not its core. Nevertheless, those using Western languages, including English, which has become quasi-universal, are pretty well stuck with the term "religion," even though it does not really point to the core of what it is naming. So, let us make the best of it and try to define it as clearly and helpfully as possible. …

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