Do We Need Religion? on the Experience of Self-Transcendence

Article excerpt

Do We Need Religion? On the Experience of Self-Transcendence. Yale Cultural Sociology Series. By Hans Joas. Translated by Alex Skinner. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm Publishers, 2008. x + 153 pp. $27.95 (paper).

In this newly translated book, social theorist Hans Joas offers a prescient collection of essays on the contemporary relevance of religion. Rather than approach religion in a purely functional manner, inquiring whether or not religion is useful, Joas shifts the concept of "need" in the book's title and asks, "Cían we live without the experience articulated in faith, in religion?" Implied here is a distinction between experience and its articulation crucial to Joas s argument. On the one hand are experiences of self-transcendence experiences "of being pulled beyond the boundaries of one's self, being captivated by something outside of myself, a relaxation of or liberation from one s fixation on oneself," of which Joas gives several examples (pp. 7-11). On the other hand arc interpretations that articulate such experiences for personal and public reflection. Joas s positive answer to the book title s question depends on the contention that specific interpretations, especially those of religious traditions and institutions, can enable us to have specific, valuable experiences of self-transcendence.

The essay are divided into three sections. The first section, "Religious Experience," delineates Joas s approach to religion. For instance, he makes a distinction between prayer and the sacraments to illustrate religion's articulating force: while prayer is an experience of self -tran seen de nce converted into an activity, and so can take non-religious forms, the ritual consumption of the sacraments requires its religious interpretation in order to render it a sell -transcending experience at all. In another example that speaks to the question of religion's necessity Joas asserts, "My belief that God Himself suffered my fear when he took human form enables me to integrate my fear or anxiety into m ? courage to live . . . and to experience afresh salvation" (p. 17; emphasis added). Thus, specifically religious articulations can render specific communal and individual religious experiences. Furthermore, Joas insists that pluralism is no obstacle to religion s articulating power (chap. 2). Rejecting the notion that modernization and pluralism entail secularization, he contests the proposal that the increasing contingency of contemporary life could or should be met by the attempt to reduce pluralism. Rather, pluralism should be accepted and instituted as a value and opportunity to foster religious freedom and tolerance. Finally, Joas shows how his approach to religion depends upon and fosters novelty and creativity by insisting on the need for constant rearticulation of one's experiences of self-transcendence (chap. 3).

In the second section, Joas explores the wide area named by its title, "Between Theology and Social Science." Noting early that William James's Varieties of Religious Experience "brought about a sea change in the scientific study of religion in the early tvventiedi century" (p. 52), he continues throughout to reference James's emphasis on "religious experience" and the "individualization of religion" as the best tools for understanding and for living out religion in the contemporary world. …