What Is Religion?

By Idinopulos, Thomas A. | Cross Currents, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

What Is Religion?


Idinopulos, Thomas A., Cross Currents


"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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

What Is Religion?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.