"Religion ... means the voluntary subjection of oneself to God."
The Catholic Encyclopaedia, 1913
"We have learned more about 'the religions,' but this has made us perhaps less...aware of what it is that we...mean by 'religion.'"
Wilfred Cantwell Smith, 1962
I begin with two epigraphs. The first, which speaks for itself, is useful in pointing to the transcendent dimension of religion. Today increasingly, we who are students and teachers of religion are in danger of ignoring this dimension. The second epigraph is drawn from Wilfred Cantwell Smith's excellent study of the dilemma facing any serious study of religion.(1) I should express the dilemma this way: our rationally based academic study of religion must be the study of what is observable, which includes historical knowledge of the rituals, mythologies, religious communities, ideas, teachings, institutions, arts, architecture. But religion is not exhausted by the observable. There is another dimension called the nonobservable, which is the source of religion's purpose and meaning. It is the failure to recognize the difference between the observable and the nonobservable, confusing one with the other or by denying one in behalf of the other, that confounds our understanding of religion.
What are the difficulties in understanding religion? Begin with the multiplicity of religions. History shows a bewildering variety of religions, cults, sects, denominational developments, and spiritual movements of every sort. Taken together, the world's religions reflect the geographic, social, and linguistic diversity of the planet itself. While no scholar can be expected to know about all these religions, anyone seriously studying any of them will hunt for some principle, definition, or criterion of meaning that identifies the "one in the many." What should we understand by "religion" amid the study of religions?
The question inevitably leads to comparison, a rational seeking of the intelligible, common element or pattern of meaning in a group of otherwise diverse entities. Comparison among religions assumes some sort of commonality among religions, a very big and perhaps faulty assumption. Unfortunately, most comparisons of religion seem to consist less in the discernment of commonality than in the imposition of it. Whenever, for example, different religions are compared according to such notions as deity, eternity, grace, judgment, salvation, and so on, selected criteria of meaning are used to organize data rather than to discern a pattern within them.
If there is something common to religions that makes useful comparison possible, it is not obvious to everyone. This should not surprise us if we recognize what Smith called "the inebriating variety of man's religious life."(2) Today, increasingly, religion scholars are moving toward area studies, which eschew comparison in favor of what is distinct or unique in any ethno-cultural configuration called religion.
The more we learn about religions, the more we appreciate not their similarities but their differences and some are important. The religion of ancient Israel, for example, was shaped by the preexisting religious culture of the ancient Near East; but Israelite religion is not finally understood without grasping how and why the Israelites distinguished their deity, Yahweh, from the deities of Canaan. Another example: Christianity was mothered by first century apocalyptic Judaism, but (as the present-day Jesus-studies industry demonstrates) the uniqueness of the Christian religion is wrapped in the mystery of how and why the person of Jesus inspired (if not actually caused) a religion separate and distinct from first century Judaism to come into being.
To take a more extreme example of how differences more than similarities are crucial in shaping and understanding a religion, take the case of Theravada Buddhism. Here is a something called "religion" which is not a religion. …