Dimensions of Religious Life

While introducing you to the six religious traditions featured in this course, I will periodically draw attention to three aspects (which I call "dimensions") of the way a human being preserves &/or modifies the religious culture(s) (s)he inherits: (1) reflection regarding the supernatural (i.e., spirits, gods, etc.), as most vividly manifested by storytellers, writers, visual and other types of artists but also often expressed in ordinary conversation; (2) specific art forms, rituals & customs (referred to generally as "practices") that inspire and support such reflection; and (3) communities in which such reflection and practices take place. In Europe and American today, when people investigating other religious traditions ask "what do they believe?" they are primarily interested in unseen realities; but 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 the supernatural interacts with building faith in practices, and also developing faith in one's community--each dimension involving different types of trust.

Throughout the term, primarily in the overviews presented for each tradition and in guiding you in writing your papers, I will therefore suggest that you view the textbook readings and primary sources in terms of the three "dimensions of religious life," as it were, that I have described above. Additionally, you may find it helpful to think in terms of these three dimensions--though you are not required to do so--in comparing the examples you will present and discuss in your comparative papers. I will ask you in particular to consider (explicitly avoiding the misleadingly passive term "faith") the multidimensional process by which religious people develop trust in their traditions--not only with respect to foreign traditions but also with regards to your own religious life and/or that of others close to you. As you do this I hope you will begin to see that, without paying attention to the multi-dimensional nature of religious life, the sources and films you encounter will appear somewhat flat and uninteresting, like three-dimensional realities that have been flattened to less then their full volume.

Given the importance of these concepts, I find it helpful to specify at the outset precisely what I am referring to in speaking of each aspect of religious culture. The trial RAT given on the third day of class will ask you to answer multiple choice questions about several of the basic terms that I use (as described in the guidelines for RATs) and several parts of the journal reflections will ask...

(1)"reflection regarding the supernatural:" by this I mean any attention paid, both by individuals and by cultures generally, to powers, forces, and worlds that, while normally invisible to most, are felt to be subtly present; barring mystical vision, such reflection is expressed in and 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 order to distinguish between positive vs. negative and personal vs. impersonal supernatural realities, I find it useful to speak of spiritual powers, spiritual forces, and other worlds. Spiritual powers are usually personalities (e.g, celestial deities, demonic beings, spirits, deified humans, or ghosts) working for good, evil, or some combination of both. Spiritual 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 spiritual powers often embody forces, and spiritualforces are sometimes personified as 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., spiritual powers manifest in human form, spirits of 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 are verbal and/or symbolic depictions of the supernatural integral to such reflection in a given culture?
       * to what extent are individuals and religious traditions attentive to positive supernatural realities, and to what extent to negative ones?
which of a culture's supernatural realities, if any, are regarded as a personally present; and which are regarded as impersonal forces?

(2)"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 the supernatural.

While some sources specify exactly the details of such arts, rituals, and customs, 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 actual practice. I also find it important to keep in mind that certain art forms, rituals, & 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 of those practices occur most 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 often 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?

(3) "communities:" 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 within a culture 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 sometimes 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. [a third fine point...] These issues are central because the sources that depict unseen realities and record the details of artistic creation, ritual, 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. [advice re: how to read sources for this information--the last fine point!]

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

      *what different degrees of specialization are available to members of a given cultural 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, since they are not freefloating entities, but aspects experienced by each individual. The individual person, in fact, might be thought of as a fourth dimension that encompases the other three, much as time encompases the three dimensions of space. One might further multiply the number of dimensions involved in the study of religious life: taking into account the diversity of individual perspectives within a given culture, as well as the vastness of time and space, adds mind-boggling complexity to the study of human culture. Stretching our investigation to include a range of times and places may involve us in the innumerable aspects of history, which requires sampling a wider range of sources. In this course I attempt to expose you to as many different times, places, and viewpoints as possible in the brief span of time allotted.

It is important to acknowledge, finally, that a given individual's engagement with the aspects of religious culture described above can become unbalanced and/or disfunctional. For example, the routine of ritual, or the fascination of a particular artistic form, 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 arts & rituals. Furthermore, even small differences in the practice of art or religion may cause tension between different communities. The interweaving of reflection, practice, and community in human culture, then, is as complex as the trajectory of a line in a three dimensional graph.

[1] Considering depictions of supernatural 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 reflection concerning those realities. [back to text]

[2] It is important as well in discussing rituals & 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 rituals & 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 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]

Dimensions of Religious Life (TOP)
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