Seminar in Religious Studies:
Gender & Religion in Cross-Cultural Perspective

(HRS 220)

Dimensions of Religious Life

In considering the religious traditions featured in this course I will often refer to the dynamic interrelationship between three closely connected dimensions of religious life, and indeed culture generally: (a) the awareness of unseen realities (i.e., spirits, gods, universal principles etc.) cultivated by religious & even non-religious individuals of all types, especially as inspired by stories, ceremonies, and theological discussions; (b) engagement by these individuals and their audiences in various forms of religious or non-religious practice & customs; and (c) commitment on the part of those individuals to the communities in which such practices and depictions take place. Gender distinctions are an inherent part of each dimension, and so considering them together also draws attention to such distinctions.

These three dimensions not only support one another in fascinating ways; they may also on occasion work against one another, and at the very least are in tension simply because they each consist of different types of human experience. In Europe and American today, when people investigating other religious traditions ask "what do they believe?" they are primarily interested in unseen realities.  The problem with this question, as you may notice by observing the religious traditions more familiar to you, is that the propositional beliefs (i.e., "I believe that[generally some claim about unseen realities]") which people express are only the tip of a much more complex and interesting iceberg: faith in unseen realities interacts with faith in practices, and also faithin one's community--each dimension involving different types of faith.  Honing in on the ways that depictions of unseen realities, engagement in religious practice & custom, and commitment to particular communities are related to one another will force you to consider the multidimensional nature of both faith & gender--not only with respect to foreign traditions but also with regards to your own religious life and/or that of others close to you.

The three interrelated dimensions of religious life are a major resource, then, through which I describe and explain the way gendered individuals take part in their religious traditions. You yourself may find it helpful to think in terms of these three dimensions--though you are not required to do so--in your analyses of the readings. Therefore I find it helpful to specify more precisely to what I am referring in speaking of each of these dimensions.

(a) "awareness of unseen realities:" by this I mean an individual's attention to powers, forces, and worlds that, while normally invisible to most, are felt to be subtly present; barring mystical vision, such awareness is inspired by (a) verbal depiction of the unseen, in one of the many diverse genres of expression--poetry, prose, commentary, conversation; sung, orally recited or written, or informally spoken; and/or (b) symbolic depiction of the unseen through sculpture, design, architecture, dramatic enactment(including that of rituals, ceremonies and customs).

In distinguishing between positive vs. negative and personal vs. impersonal unseen realities, I find it useful to speak of supernatural powers, universal forces, and other worlds. Supernatural powers are usually personalities (e.g, celestial deities, demonic beings, spirits, deified humans, or ghosts) working for good, evil, or some combination of both. Universal forces are the hidden fundamental causes or factors (e.g., "fate," "moral obligation," "sin," "faith")--usually felt to be available and applicable to everyone in all times and places--that give rise to and/or influence all that we see and experience, whether positive or negative. (Note however that supernatural powers often embody universal forces, and universal powers are sometimes personified as supernatural powers.) Other worlds are the realms inhabited by powers and ruled by forces--though note that such unseen worlds may intersect quite dynamically with ours (e.g., supernatural powers manifest in human form, spiritsof the dead influencing the living), and indeed powers and forces are usually felt to be invisibly present in our everyday world as well. [a fine point...]

In reflecting on specific examples of these dimensions, I sometimes find it helpful to ask myself:

      * to what extent do verbal and/or symbolic depictions each influence the individual's awareness of unseen realities in a given tradition?
       * to what extent are individuals of a particular tradition attentive to positive unseen realities, and to what extent to negative ones?

       * which of a tradition's unseen realities, if any, is regarded as a personal presence; and which as an impersonal force?

(b) "engagement in religious rituals & customs:" here I am referring to ritual actions (including the "speech acts" of recitation) performed regularly in a prescribed fashion--whether that prescription is explicitly articulated anywhere or simply passed on through people's behaviors. This includes not only formal rites, but also less formal everyday actions thatare somehow linked to unseen realities.

While some sources specify exactly the details of such ritual actions, others refer to them only indirectly. With regards to the less explicit kinds of sources just mentioned, I find it helpful to note small, apparently insignificant details that suggest some connection to practices and customs. I also find itimportant to keep in mind that certain practices & customs occur only during particular seasons or life-cycle rituals, and are not characteristic of everyday reality. Wherever possible, I try to figure out which practices and customs occur regularly--daily or weekly--and are thus a consistent part of people's daily behavior. [a second fine point...]

When encountering specific examples of this dimension, I sometimes ask:

       *what specific actions, objects, and words are involved in the practices & customs of a given religious?

       *in what settings are those practices performed, and by whom? how frequently and for how long?

(c) "commitment to community:" when I speak of this dimension I am referring to the individual roles that people in a given group take on in relation to one another--both inside and outside their communities; and also to the complex network of relationships formed by many such individual roles.

The key to understanding the way that community shapes the previous two dimensions, in my experience, is uncovering the various processes by which certain people specialize in particular kinds of activities (i.e., leadership, administration, music, art, literary production), and also the relationships of different specialists with people who do not specialize in those activities (ie., those who tend to more common work, whether in or out of the home). In class I will often distinguish between specialists trained within established institutions (e.g.., professors), as opposed to those who gain their authority from some type of charisma (e.g.. independent authors and speakers); in fact the two are not mutually exclusive. [one third fine point...] These issues are central because the sources that depict unseen realities and record practices and customs are most often created by particular kinds of specialists, who are addressing either their own colleagues, other types of specialists, non-specialists, or some combination of these. (The documents of early Christianity found in the New Testament, for example, clearly represent leaders and writers in different communities addressing the very different needs of a variety of members--Jewish & Greek, men & women, etc.) I find that understanding writers (and other artists/artisans) & their audiences in this way helps ensure accurate reading of sources, especially those of distant times and places. [a fourth and final fine point concerning how to read for this information]

In this context I sometimes find it helpful to ask myself:

       *what different degrees of specialization are available to members of a given religious community?
       *in what ways are different types of specialists trained and recognized, and in what ways do they interact with non-specialists?


Although it is useful to distinguish the three dimensions identified above, as suggested in my descriptions of them I will always end up by emphasizing that they can never be completely separated. This is because awareness of the unseen, engagement in practices and customs, and commitment to communities are not freefloating entities: they manifest in flesh-and-blood human beings. The individual person, then, might be thought of as a fourth dimension that encompases the other three, much as time encompases the three dimensions of space. The three dimensions of an individual's religious life overlap, support and reinforce one another in fascinating ways, as we will see when we examine the religious lives of specific individuals. Yet they may also pull the individual in very different directions, even working against one another. For example, the routine of ritual may numb a person's mind to the point where they lose awareness of their unseen goal. Likewise absorption in the social dimensions of community life may lead to such forgetfulness. On the other hand, fascination with the unseen may lead some visionaries to leave behind their community and experiment with new kinds of practices. Furthermore, even small differences in practice may cause tension between different communities. As we proceed through the term you will see that the interaction of these three dimensions is as complex as the trajectory of line in a three dimensional graph.

Actually one might further multiply the number of dimensions involved in the study of religion & human culture more broadly. If we wish to speak of a particular individual at a particular point in time and space, then the dimensions mentioned above suffice. We are all aware, though, of the vastness of time, space, and individual perspectives, which adds mind-boggling complexity to the study of human religiousity. Stretching our investigation to include a range of times and places involves us in the innumerable aspects of history, which requires gathering a wide range of sources.


[1] Considering depictions of unseen powers, forces, and worlds is central to understanding both the general goal(s) and particular form(s) of practices & customs, as suggested in #2 below. It is important, though, to distinguish such depictions from the practices and customs themselves, since it is possible to carry out such actions --including oral recitations invoking unseen powers, forces, and/or worlds!--without any awareness of those realities. [back to text]

[2] It is important as well in discussing practices & customs to distinguish between the actions actually performed by real people, on the one hand, and the articulation of what an ideal practitioner is supposed to do, on the other. Certainly the articulation of rules for practice by certain authorities generally reflects an implicit understanding among many common practitioners that things should be done in a particular way; and yet in reality a given individual--even one who is aware of and approves of such rules--will likely deviate from the precise rules at least some of the time. [back to text]

[3] As with the note above regarding practices & customs, with social roles and relationships too a distinction needs to be made between ideal and actual behaviors. Ideals may occasionally be articulated (either explicitly or implicitly) in written, spoken, or visual sources, but most of the time such ideals lie dormant as the sense of obligation that people feel towards each other to act in certain ways. Actual behavior is much more easy to observe for those present in a given social context; but written, spoken, and visual sources rarely allow for such direct observations, especially when dealing with distant historical periods. [back to text]

[4] As with practices and customs it is often difficult to find sources that describe explicitly the dynamic between different types of specialists and non-specialists in a given community explicitly. Yet I usually find it possible to find clues about people's roles and relationships written between the lines, and encourage you to do the same. For example, clues about specialization in a community may often in detected in (a) references to practices & custom (which are usually prescribed for certain types of people, acting in specific social contexts) and in (b) the depiction of unseen realities related to such practices (which often describe particular kinds of people relating to supernatural powers, universal forces, or other worlds). [back to text]

Reading Analyses & Synopsis

Dimensions of Religious Life (TOP)

Final Papers

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