Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How I learned to stop worrying and love the Talmud

The Talmud is notoriously intimidating to approach, but this initial intimidation should not scare you from approaching the Talmud. There are two compelling reasons why one should not be completely steered away from the Talmud. First there is the universal utility of method. Second there are, at least, four valuable resources that I can recommend to the new student.

The universal utility of method

First, it must be stressed that the Talmud can be approached in a similar manner to nearly any other book. That is, it can be approached with basic questions concerning historical analysis (i.e. when was it written, what group of people is responsible for compiling it, etc.) it can also be approached with literary analysis (i.e., genre, subgenre, function). In addition, one can apply careful exegetical analysis (i.e. grammatical, semantic, and rhetorical analysis). The bottom line is the Talmud can be read both critically and creatively. That is, ultimately the goal of the Talmud is to provide an instruction in the practice of Mosaic Law.

Four valuable resources for studying the Talmud

Second, there are some valuable resources out there for your benefit. I will recommend for resources to get one started. It must be stressed that the resources help orient the reader with regard to the material content of the Talmud. That is, they apprise the reader to unfamiliar concepts and content that may otherwise allude, however the methods used for studying Talmud consist of the basic analytical devices used for any piece of historical literature (i.e. historical, literary, and exegetical).

The first resource I would recommend is The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Talmud by Rabbi Aaron.[1] This certainly is not the most comprehensive introduction of there; however it certainly is a quick and dirty introduction. He quickly orients the reader to some basic facts and hot topics. He also provides a handy reference guide of a list of rabbis who appeared throughout the Talmud. Although I would admonishes the reader to be careful with some of this author's handling of hot topics surrounding the Talmud. He speaks about some hot topics and quickly gives his opinion as if it were the consensus among all contemporary scholars; however he fails to cite his support for his opinion. I suppose one should expect too much out of this book, but it is useful nevertheless.

The second resource I would recommend is The Invitation to the Talmud by Jacob Neusner.[2] This is an interesting study that brings the reader into the world of the Talmud without really showing how he or she got there. The book is basically a step-by-step study of one passage within the Talmud. It is fascinating to watch Neusner work through the Talmud by starting with the Mishna and moving to the Tosefta and on through the Jerusalem and finally into the Balvi. However, the reader is left without a sense of knowing how to initiate a similar process himself.

The third resource I would recommend is Aspects of Rabbinic Theology: Major Concept of the Talmud by Solomon Schechter.[3] This book is an extremely hopeful manual on basic rabbinical theological concepts. This classic work was written in 1909, but has yet to be outdone by successive scholar. This compendium is ideal for the Christian student who is quite familiar with the Tanak from a Christian perspective. Solomon Schechter enables the student to set aside some Christian preprogrammed presuppositions such as the concept of original sin, positive imputation, etc. this book is highly recommended.

The fourth resource I would recommend is Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash by Harry L. Strack and George Stemberger.[4] This classic study has been continually updated to me that present demands of the rabbinical student. This volume will provide a more comprehensive introduction than The Complete Idiots Guide. In addition, it will prove to be more reliable than The Invitation to the Talmud. This volume will help familiarize the new student with the content and structure of the Talmud. In addition, the updated bibliography will prove beneficial to anyone seeking out further secondary research materials.


The new student should not be intimidated by the overwhelming size of the Talmud. The reason is because the Talmud is a body of literature that can be study using the same methods that are applied to any other body of literature. This should not minimize the uniqueness of the content; however the content should not and does not exclusively inform one's method. In addition, the new student should not be overwhelmed by the content because there are many great resources available to apprise the reader as he begins the task of studying.

[1] Aaron Parry, The Guide to the Talmud, (New York: Alpha Books, 2004)

[2] Jacob Neusner, The Invitation to the Talmud: A Teaching Book, Revised and Expanded, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1984)

[3] Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology: Major Concepts of the Talmud, (USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998)

[4] Harry L. Strack and George Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, translated by Markus Bochmuel, (Edinburgh, T & T Clark Publishers, 1991)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Talmud: The Reader and the task of Reading

the following article seeks to provide the basic criterion for the task of reading any book, evan Talmud.

The crisis of high level illiteracy

What is the connection between the Bible and contemporary American culture? The common charge among religious teachers and practitioners is that there a widening chasm between the content of Scripture and the contemporary American audience. However, I would contend that the contemporary American is not deficient of the content of the Bible (and other religious texts), rather than average American is deficient in his ability to read through these ancient texts with proficiency.

Mortar J. Adler reported that in the 1970s the average American reader was only educated to read up into the eighth grade level.[1] This means that the average American could read English at an elementary level with great ease, but fumbled with texts when it came to areas of analysis and Synopsys. In other words, when the average American asks a friend or colleague, “have you read book x?,” there is no clear understanding about what is meant by the word “read.”

I would further suggest that most people assume one meaning when it comes to the term “read.” The implied definition is: the process of moving one's eyes over every word with in a book. According to this definition, a book can only be read or not read. If one has suffered through this painful word by word experience throughout the whole book, then one can consider oneself a master of the book.

The Task of Reading

Now most people can and do talk intelligently about what (i.e. content) they have read, however few people intelligently about how they read any given book. In other words, most people can provide the answers to questions about the books they read, but few can answer the question about how we read books.

what kind of reader am I?

If a reader seriously wants to improve their reading ability, then they must first ask themselves the question: what kind of reader am I? There are two different types of readers: the nugget Hunter and the gold miner.

The Nugget Hunter

The nugget Hunter is somebody who possesses all the enthusiasm to be a reader, yet possesses no defined understanding of the task at hand. The nugget Hunter read books for the sake of finding small easily digestible pieces of information. He does this for the purpose of having a large bag full of party tricks. This means he is able to sound intelligent at social gatherings by spouting off obscure pieces of information or perhaps a counterintuitive conundrum.

The problem with these people is they lack intentionality and discipline for the task of reading. They do not have a clearly defined timeline for reading except in their spare time. As a result, they read only bits and pieces of masterful works like the first chapter out of Moby Dick or perhaps section 2 of Being and Time, or even excerpts from The Iliad. These type of readers can quote a line out of Hamlet, but when it comes to discussing themes of madness, they have little to say.

The nugget Hunter also has no realistically achievable goals for reading. So, even though it is possible to read John Calvin's Institutes of Christian Religion in two years by simply reading two pages every night, the nugget Hunter only reads Calvin's model statements on the nature of the soul, or perhaps the Holy Spirit's relationship to the inspiration of Scripture.

The nugget Hunter is also very gluttonous when it comes to obtaining books. Since he does not divide his time wisely or set up realistic goals, he also buys books that he will never set aside time to read no realistically work through. In addition, he will waste of money buying books he will never need. This means he will waste money and space in the process.

The nugget Hunter also has no criteria for evaluating the books he does read. This means he will criticize The Iliad for not giving enough airtime to Achilles, or he will apply anachronistic criticism to Calvin for not being more sympathetic to Jews, or even worse he will reject Karl Barth for not properly applying the historical critical method, when clearly for Barth historical critical method itself is in question!

Another very striking feature about the nugget Hunter is his ability to maintain clean pages on all his books. The nugget Hunter refuses to mark up his books because he cares more about the aesthetic value of his books rather than the informative content within them. In the end, the nugget Hunter does not know why he reads books so as a result he is unable to feel any accomplishment with the task of reading itself. The nugget Hunter is simply as his name implies: he is somebody that pushes around in the soil hoping to find a valuable gem. However, when he finds his gem he believes he's satisfied with what is found, not caring about how he obtained it. In the end, he becomes quickly bored with the Nuggets he has found and tosses them aside with no further thought.

The Gold Miner-- the active reader

There is in other kind of reader, which I would suggest the ideal reader. This reader can be compared to a gold miner. This reader understands that he does not have all the time the world and therefore he must defy his time accordingly. He cannot let all his important reading be done nearly in his spare time. He must make time. This kind of reader purposes to read with a clearly reflected upon criteria for the task of reading. In fact, he also is purposeful about the environment he reads. He always chooses an environment conducive to the task. While he is reading, he keeps all the proper tools in hand (i.e. a notebook and a pen). His goals for reading are clear. He is there can engage the book in a kind of dialogue, the dialogue may be indifferent to any social gathering is going to.

I hope I have made the choice abundantly clear. It should be more preferable want to be a gold miner rather than a nugget Hunter. However, how does one get there? A reader who wants to become a better reader should ask himself the following question:

· How much time do I have to read? (This is especially important for Talmud)

· Why am I reading this book?

· Where will I be reading this book?

· What is my frame of mind? (I.e. do I have a teacher to consult or am I independent of any outside assistance)

· how am I planning to read this book? (I.e. at what level? Elementary? Inspectionally? Analytically? Syntopically?

· What kind of notes am I going to take? (I.e. structural, conceptual, dialectical)

After one plans out there timeline for reading, one should immediately consider the purpose for motivation for reading any given book. There are three main purposes for reading: entertainment, information, and understanding. Obviously, one can read Talmud for its sheer entertainment. There are many stories and humorous anecdotes throughout the entire corpus, however this will not keep one reading with any consistency. Additionally, there is much information within the Talmud, however that information is difficult to access without a ready knowledge of Talmud.

The purpose for reading Talmud should be to understand. However, this goal should be more clearly defined itself.

  • Does one want to gain religious understanding into Jewish law?
  • Does one want to understand the historical development of Judaism?
  • Does one want to try to gain a philosophical understanding of Talmud?
  • These questions must seriously be reckoned with before one can even dream to glean the riches of Talmud.

After one has wrestled with the question of purpose, one should be intentional about the environment in which he or she reads. This environment should be comfortable, well-lit, and above all persistently used.

Next one should deal with the question of frame of mind. Is one learning in a synagogue, University, or perhaps privately at home? Ideally one should always read with reference to the presence of the community whether one is actually present or not. If one is reading with reference to an actual synagogue or Jewish studies program, then this question has are pretty good answer for you.

However, if one is reading privately at home, then he or she must not forget that Talmud is a document with living significance, which present the functions as a source for religious dispute among Jewish religious adherence both in America and abroad. If one does not see this in mind, then the interpretation of it can become idiosyncratic and as a result damaging to both the reader as well as possibly the living community. This is seen all too often in Christian individuals who read through Talmud in order to glean slanderous cannon fodder for misguided aspersions. At the very least, if one doesn't read this with reference to the living community, one should read it with reference to the presence of an academic community.

Next one should deal with the question about how to read Talmud. According to Mortimer J. Adler, there are four types of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and Syntopical. Now, I will not go into too much detail here, but it should be stressed that all books can be read using roughly the same set of principles.

I realize that there is a great emphasis placed on reading instructional manuals for specific type of books. This is especially true for reading Talmud. However, these instructional manuals tend to confuse the difference between content and method. It is true that the Talmud employs some discussions that are heavily content specific. In addition, it is true that it employs some methods or verification that do not exist outside Talmud. However, by and large, the basic method of Talmud makes use of universal rules of reasoning and argumentation (i.e. non-contradiction, coherency, causality). This means that many of the rules that one would be employed to read wealth of Nations also apply to the Talmud. So, one must be intentional about method.

Are you going to read at an elementary level? This would mean that you are reading it like a child. This is easily achievable if your first language is English and did not Hebrew or Aramaic. In fact, this is the way I read scriptures. To read the scriptures in the original languages is simultaneously profound and childish. One has to read very slowly as if they were a child, and yet because of this slower pace one is able to perceive the profound beauty of the Scriptures in their original languages.

Second, is one going to simply read inspectionally? This would mean that one is trying to gain an overall feel for the book itself.

Is one going to read it analytically? I'll talk about this type of reading later on. Suffice to say, analytical reading is a way of reading which makes use of a clearly defined criteria for the task of reading as well as for the task of analysis.

If one going to read syntopically. Syntopical reading is basically reading two books about the same subject. This is much more difficult than it sounds and yet if one is to be the scriptures with a proficiency and full benefit, one must read syntopically because the Bible is many books about a singular topic. The problem with Syntopical reading is defining that topic. If the topic is ill-defined, then the entire effort is abortive. The task of Syntopical reading makes use of all levels. It understands the humility and benefit of elementary reading. It knows when to employ inspectional reading and when to employ analytical reading. Needless to say, if one has not mastered the first three levels of reading, one cannot adequately read at this level.

Finally, one should deal with the question about taking notes. In other words, you have the freedom to markup your Talmud, then by all means do so! However, if one is not free to mark it up, then one should be taking notes with a notebook. The intentional reader knows that there are three basic ways to take notes. First, there are structural notes that focus on the genre, theme, and sequence of thought. In other words, it looks for the basic shape of the book. Second, there are conceptual notes that focus on the content, method, scope, and basis of the book. Third, there are dialecticall notes that focus on the book in relation to history of thought as well as the significance of the book in relation to other authors and historical/political events. I will make in other post that goes into greater detail about the nature of notetaking within Talmud.


Basically, readers need to understand that there is more to reading than simply running one's eyes over every word within a book. The task of reading is demanding upon everyone who wishes to practice it with greater intention and definiteness. The task of reading demands that the reader understand his time constraints as well has his purposes for reading. in the case of Talmud, one should be clearly aware of how one wants/needs to understand it. In addition, if a reader wants to become a gold miner, he should be more aware of the different methods that are available for the task of reading: namely, elementary, inspectional, analytical, and Syntopical. The reader of the Talmud should bear in mind that although there are many helpful introductions to reading it, these introductions are only helpful to the degree that they are informative. The task of reading applies to all areas regardless of its content. Finally, the intentional reader should be aware of the various types of nodes that one can take during the process of reading.

[1] Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s, How to Read a Book: Revised and Updated, (New York, Simon & Shuster, 1972), 3

Book review—A Common Faith

John Dewey is considered by many one of the most influential American philosophers. His thought and writings have continued to influence the shape of American education and politics more than any other writer of the 20th century. In fact, is one gives even a cursory glance at the first chapter of his book A Common Faith, one will quickly learn that his definition of the term “religious” is used almost without equivocation by politicians today. The following article examines John Dewey’s book A Common Faith, which was originally delivered as a series of occasional lectures to the students at Yale University. The book was originally published in 1934. It is divided into three chapters. The first chapter (1-28) discusses the nature of the problem concerning common misunderstanding of religion within both secular and formerly religious camps. The second chapter (29 -- 58) discusses the nature of faith as “a religious attitude” (56) in relation to historical forms a religion as well as its original and most vital possibility, which is a form of religious experience. The third chapter (59 -- 87) addresses more fully the solution regarding the notion of a non-historically based religion. It suggests that such a religion is possible on the basis of the notion of faith as sourced in human consciousness. This article will focus mainly on the first chapter. My aim here is twofold. First, I want to provide a basic presentation of Dewey's understanding of religion in relation to religious experience. Second, I will provide a basic critique of his reasoning with regards to the function and the limits of his so-called historical definition of faith. Ultimately, it will be suggested that Dewey has failed to adequately critique the concept of religion as a universal. In addition, he has not actually abolished formal religion, he has simply suggested in other form of religion. (I apologize that for each of the following quotations there is no citation because face but will not allow my footnotes to be transferred onto their limited wordprocessor, if anyone desires a full copy of my review feel free to ask.)

John Dewey’s book A Common Faith[1] is a theoretical proposal for the future of American religious life. It addresses the conflict concerning the nature and function of religion in relation to the notion of cultural unity and progress. After surveying the American landscape John perceived a genuine conflict between two predominant ways of thinking. The first is characterized by those who think “that nothing worthy of being called religious is possible apart from the supernatural.”[2] The second is characterized by “those who think the advance of culture and science has completely discredited the supernatural and with it all religions that were allied with believe in it.”[3] Dewey makes it abundantly clear throughout this book that he is not only empathetic towards the second group, he is also part of it but not without criticism. He states that this second group not only espouses the removal of the supernatural along with the presence of historic religions “but with them everything of religious nature.”[4]

The problem that John Dewey perceives is that both camps define religion with reference to the existence and adherence to a supernatural reality. He therefore proposes, “another conception of the nature of the religious phase of experience, one that separates from it the supernatural and the things that have grown up about it.”[5] In other words, if American culture is going to continue to advance, it must find a common religion, which is not encumbered by the presence of historical religions. According to Dewey, religion can be positively defined as, “a strictly collective term and the collection it stands for is not even the kind illustrated in textbooks of logic. It has not the unity of a regiment or assembly but that of any miscellaneous aggregate. Attempts to prove the universality proved too much or too little.”[6] He believes that the obliteration of religion is necessary on a twofold basis. First, it is possible to cultivate religious experience without the presence of formal religion. Second, if religion is studied historically, one will quickly learn that “there is no such thing as religion in general.”[7] In addition, religions do not genuinely exist in relation to the supernatural; rather the term religion “always signifies a special body of beliefs and practices having some kind of institutional organization,”[8] which are “survivals from outgrown cultures.”[9] However, Dewey is not completely one-sided with regards to the idea of religious experience. He believes that religious experience “as a quality of experience signifies something that may belong to all these experiences.”[10] In science, any given practitioner of the field may utilize special kind of experience in order to demonstrate “to prove the existence of certain kinds of objects.”[11] Additionally, he believes that many practitioners of religion also “relied upon a certain kind of experience to prove the existence of the object of religion, especially the supreme object, God.”[12] In addition he states, my purpose is to indicate what happens when religious experience is already set aside as some thing sui generis. The actual religious quality in the experience described is the effect produced, the better adjustment in life and its conditions, not the manner and cause of its production.”[13] In other words, the description of any type of religious experience is not the demonstration and proof for its alleged source, rather all that it demonstrates is that there was a transition and adjustment of life. The difference between a moment of epiphany and religious experience is that the efforts that moment only records and focuses on the point of transition and the status of readjustment. The focus of religious experience is not on any one thing in particular, rather it is a complete frame of mind which determines all others. Dewey states, “if this function were rescued through emancipation from dependence upon specific types of beliefs and practices, from those elements that constitute a religion, many individual's would find that experiences having the force of bringing about a better deeper and injuring adjustment in life and are not so rare and infrequent as they are commonly supposed.”[14]

John Dewey has made several errors in reasoning about the nature of religion, the implications of the history of religion, the function of religious experience, as well and is the possibility of a religious experience without context. First, it is true that a cursory study of the history of religion will reveal a wide variety of religious practices, which can in some instances contradict notions regarding universal claims regarding ethics and the existence of supernatural forces. However, the purpose of historical study of religion is not to demonstrate the existence of supernatural beings, rather it seeks an understanding religion in terms of historical connections, development, change, and influence. In addition, it is true that he a historical study of religion will reveal human involvement with regards to formal institutions. However, this also does not exclusively demonstrate that there is no such thing as supernatural involvement within any given historical institution. Second, it does not follow that the purpose of reports regarding the religious experience are necessarily an attempt to demonstrate the existence of God. It may be true that some people tried to demonstrate in some small way the existence of God, but the reality is the primary function of these kind of stories is to convey information regarding the experience. Third, it does not follow that something can exist in kind without regard to the existence of a thing in itself. For example, there is no such thing as a paperback book without the existence of a book in itself. The idea of a book had to precede the notion regarding a kind of book. Paperback books could not exist before the existence of books generally. In other words, logically speaking John Dewey cannot preserve the “religious experience” without the preservation of religion in general. It is true that religion in general can exist without the presence of certain kinds of historical religious institutions, but that does not mean John Dewey has once and for all obliterated a religion. He has despite his best intentions created a new religion on the basis of the concept of religion generally.

[1] John Dewey, A Common Faith, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934)

[2] John Dewey, A Common Faith, 1

[3] John Dewey, A Common Faith, 1

[4] John Dewey, A Common Faith, 1

[5] John Dewey, A Common Faith, 2

[6] John Dewey, A Common Faith, 8

[7] John Dewey, A Common Faith, 9

[8] John Dewey, A Common Faith, 9

[9] John Dewey, A Common Faith, 6

[10] John Dewey, A Common Faith, 7

[11] John Dewey, A Common Faith, 11

[12] John Dewey, A Common Faith, 11

[13] John Dewey, A Common Faith, 11

[14] John Dewey, A Common Faith, 14

my prolegomenon for the future studies of any religion

A prolegomena to the study of religion

The study and practice of any discipline requires at least in part a prolegomena. A prolegomenon is a statement about the definition of the field, the various disciplines that have approached the way the field; the various methods which have been utilized to understand the field. In addition, it includes a brief history of the subject itself in addition to a brief history of the field. Of course, it is the task of this present a prolegomenon to define the field of religion in relation to the various disciplines and methods that surround the study of it.

First, let us address the problem of defining religion. What is a definition of religion? How is it determined? How does it function? What purpose does it serve? A definition of religion is simply a declaration concerning the knowledge of its essential nature. It can include qualifications regarding its limits, functions, and purposes. In some sense it also includes a judgment concerning religion itself. For is no such thing as an absolutely neutral definition of religion. All definitions are created by private individuals or committees or possibly by religions or governments. The definition of religion as determined by the focus and function of the discipline that seeks to study religion as such. In addition, the definition is further defined by the goal(s) of the one who practices the study from the standpoint of both his field and where he stands in relation to the specific religion or religions he/he has chosen to study. So any given practitioner of the study of the field should ask the following questions before defining religion as such. First, what is my subject? Second, what is my field of discipline? Am I operating with private concerns or public concerns? If my concerns are private, then why are they significant? If my concerns are public, then how are they going to serve my public? Third, where do I stand in relation to my subject matter? Am I an outsider to the religion or am I with in the religion itself? If I am an outsider, what is my attitude towards that religion [friendly, hostile, seeker?]? If I am an insider, what is my attitude towards the religion [friendly, hostile, critically concerned (either for inner integrity or external relationships towards other individuals or communities)]? Fourth, what are my purposes or goals for studying said subject? Is it simply to gain information or perhaps understanding? If understanding is the goal, then how do I want to understand it? In other words how am I contributing to my field? Lastly, what does this mean for my field?

Next, let us leave open the question regarding subject matter (i.e. the specific religious phenomenon) and look at the various fields that have approached religion. Religion can and has been studied by six fields of discipline: sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, theology, history, and phenomenology. Mariasusai Dhavamony states, “sociology of religion is defined broadly as the study of ‘the interrelation of religion and society and the forms of interaction which take place between them.’”[1] In other words, it broadly poses to questions: first, how does religion as an enclosed society structure itself and function; second, how does this religion relate to the broader society (i.e. governing entities and the other social structures)? Anthropology is “a branch of sociological studies, that branch which devotes itself to primitive societies.’ Hence social anthropology of religion has to do with those rites, beliefs, actions, behavior patterns in preliterate societies that refer to what is regarded as being the sacred and the supernatural.”[2] In other words, anthropology of religion focuses on religion as it is produced within a culture. It limits itself in the sense that it only aims at providing “a mere description of a narrow segment” of society. In other words, religion is viewed as a product of society, which in some small way merely predicates the society itself. The next discipline is psychology of religion, which “is the study of the psychological aspect of religion; that is to say, the study of the religious function of the mind, partly dealing with the problem of the function of the individual mind in religious contexts (the individual psychological aspect) and partly with the problem of the impact of the social religious life on participants (socio-psychological aspect).”[3] In other words, what is the religious experience of the individual, or religious community, or a cultural participant that participates in a religion that may or may not represent the predominant cultural trend? Dhavamony says, “the basic assumption of the psychology of religion is that psychological motivations and responses are common to all known forms a religion.”[4] The next discipline which studies religion is philosophy of religion, which broadly is “philosophical reflection on religion by a flying systematically the philosophical method. Examine critically the truth value of the immense material of myths, symbols, and rights that come from the history of religion.”[5] In other words, philosophy of religion broadly asked the question: is it true and if so in what sense is it true? Of the next field is theology of world religion. This field of study not only assumes a non-neutral starting point but declares this starting point. The method is an eclectic in the sense that it can be historical, comparative, philological, philosophical, and even psychological. The purpose is primarily for understanding the limits of one's own theological categories as well as the differences and similarities of other religions. Broadly it is a dialogue with other religions, however the final judgment and significance is usually for the theological community that initiates the study. The next field of study is the history of religion. Mariasusai Dhavamony states, “the historians of religion consider the religious phenomena of as religious specifically, and concrete on the religious signification of the phenomena presented by the sciences.”[6] In other words, the historian focuses on the religion or religions as they change, progress, developed within a given period of time and date specified landscape. Phenomenology of religion “is the systematic treatment of the history of religion whose task is to classify and group the numerous and widely divergent data in such a way that an overall view can be obtained of their religious contents and the religious meaning that they contain.”[7] In other words, it makes use of historical analysis in order to help fully understand the experience of religion, which additionally helps the phenomenologist of religion to derive and portray an overall picture of that religion with regard to its meaning. In other words, not only does the phenomenologist allow history to inform the subject but it also allows the religion to speak for itself on the basis that there are overlapping patterns of religious experience. So there's attention to both historical development as well as sociological and psychological structure. The purpose of historical phenomenology of religion is not to provide a comparative analysis, but it is to provide an analysis of typology, structure, and form. Mariasusai Dhavamony defines the typology as the process of taking “from their historical setting similar facts and phenomena which are found in various religions and brings them together in groups.... it classifies and groups the numerous and widely differing data in such a way that an overall view can be obtained of the religious content and the religious values they contain.... a type is a pattern of traits of an individual, group, or culture that distinguishes it from another... types are used on the assumption that they provide means of classification... an ideal type is a mental construct composed of the configuration of characteristic elements of the class of phenomena is an analysis.”[8] Mariasusai Dhavamony defines structure as “the underlying and relatively stable relationship among elements, parts, or patterns in a unified, organized whole…. structure is reality significantly organized; but the significance of the lungs both to the reality and is subject who attempts to understand it.”[9] Morphology is basically the wholeness. It answers the question: how does the type of religion integrated the structure of it? Structure seeks to ask the question: how does the religion internally fits together? Morphology seeks to answer the question: what makes a total work complete? The purpose of typology is to provide a clear criteria for abstractly describing a religion without reference to a direct comparison to other religions. In addition, it helps limit the frame of reference in which an analysis takes place.[10]

Now let us turn to the question of method. There are basically three methods of studying religion, which can be practiced in any number of varieties in accordance with the discipline. The three methods are: historical, comparative, phenomenological. The historical method gives attention to a specified time and place. The comparative method gives attention to one kind of religion in relation to another. The phenomenological method gives attention to the experience of religion. Each method has its own set of limitations. The comparative method tends to disregard at least one religion in terms of its inner meaning and self provided definitions. The historical method tends to view religion only in terms of as it has existed in relation to change/progress/development. The phenomenological method has its limitations in the sense that it intends to disregard the history of religion and focuses its attention on the experience of religion as such.

[1] Phenomenology of Religion, (Rome: Gregorian University Press, 1973), 3

[2] Mariasusai Dhavamony, Phenomenology of Religion, 4

[3] Mariasusai Dhavamony, Phenomenology of Religion, 5

[4] Mariasusai Dhavamony, Phenomenology of Religion, 5

[5] Mariasusai Dhavamony, Phenomenology of Religion, 5-6

[6] Mariasusai Dhavamony, Phenomenology of Religion, 7-8

[7] Mariasusai Dhavamony, Phenomenology of Religion, 8

[8] Phenomenology of Religion, 12

[9] Phenomenology of Religion, 12-13

[10] Mariasusai Dhavamony, Phenomenology of Religion, 13

Religion: the task of defining it and a taxonomy of definitions

Religion: the task of defining religion

The Problem of Definition

What is religion? How can it be defined? J. Milton Yinger has said, “Many studies of religion stumble over the first hurdle: the problem of definition. So I am by no means certain of being able to leave over this difficulty, I have some hope of doing so, based on a conviction that the problem is less one of communication within a matter of disagreement over the nature and functions of definition.” In other words, the problem surrounding the definition of religion is often caused by a lack of understanding of the nature of the task of defining. He states further, “The disagreements, to be sure, are often substantial ones, based both on different values and on different conceptions of the nature of the universe in which we live. Once their causes are recognized, the disagreements will not be eliminated, but they will no longer rest on the failure of communication. One may be able at the least to say: I can understand how a person, starting from those particular premises, would define religion in that way.”[1] In other words, there are factors that contribute the difference in definition, which rooted in the way we make value judgments about the world and nature, however if these factors we recognized, then perhaps a more clear understanding of the conflict will emerge. Yinger states, “We must recognize that there are some patterns that are marginally religious, according to any criteria that one may select.”[2] In other words, every definition possesses its own limitation. Yinger concludes, “Definitions, then, our tools; they are to some degree arbitrary; they lay stress on similarities within a delimited area and on the differences outside it, thus giving emphasis to one aspect of reality.”[3] In other words, definitions are determined by one's focus, scope, limitation, and purpose.

Types of Definitions

Yinger suggests that there are three different types of definition. The first type of definition is according to value. Yinger states, “Such definitions describe what religion "really" or "basically" is in terms of what, in a given writer's judgment, it ought to be. Clearly such definitions are inappropriate for the tasks of science.” [4] In other words, this is the definition includes a judgment about the religion from the one is defining it. It's kind of definition is highly volatile and is something criticism from many different. Second type of definition is descriptive. Yinger states, “They designate certain kinds of beliefs and practices as religion but do not evaluate them, on the one hand; nor, on the other hand, do they indicate their function or seek to discover whether other police and practices perform similar functions.... such a definition naturally draws attention to the differences among religions as distinct historical entities. The emphasis is placed primarily on religions as cultural systems. Their doctrines, rites, sacred texts, typical group structures, and the like, are described, contrasted, and compared.”[5] This type of definition is highly useful because it provides much information about any religion, while at the same time there is much room for further judgment. The third type of definition is the science of definition. This type of definition makes use of historical and comparative studies, while working for its ultimately evaluating the religion from the standpoint of human universal values.

The following paper is an attempt to trace the development of proposed definitions for the term religion in order to provide a taxonomy of options for constructing my own definition of religion. Specifically, I would like to find a definition for religion that is functional and to some extent scienctific. A wide variety of sources has been consulted for finding a definition. I have delved into several key philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, historians, as well as some theologians. In addition, a few dictionaries have been selected for the purpose of objectivity. I have not yet come to a conclusion about the definition of religion, however presently I find the definition of Winfried Corduan with the realization that his definition of religion is largely functional however his method for studying religion includes historical study as well as phenomenological engagement.

Proposed definitions of religion:

The American Heritage dictionary provides four definitions of religion. First, a broad definition which describes religion as “belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe,” or “a personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.” Second, it can simply be “the life or condition of a person in a religious order.” Third, it can be, “a set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.” Third, it can minimally be defined as “a cause, principal, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.”

John Locke defines true religion as the joining together of two types of priests: priests who teach the arts of propitiation and atonement and priests, or philosophers, who would instruct those who would apply to them, the knowledge of things and the rules of virtue. In his own words, “Jesus Christ bringing by revelation from heaven the true religion to mankind reunited these two again religion and morality as in several parts of the worship of God, which ought never to have been separated, wearing for the obtaining the favor and forgiveness of the deity the chief part of what man could do consistent in a holy life and little or no thing and all was left to outward ceremony.”[6]

The great business of religion is to glorify God and find favor with him. This though it be the most intimate and peculiar concern of every man within himself wherewith his neighbor has nothing to do (for what interest at any one but that of charity, what way I take for the salvation of my soul?) yet since the actions of a private solitary life cannot reach to all the instances and purposes of religion in its full intent. Therefore men find themselves obliged, when they embrace any religion, to associate, to join in communion with some society, where in that religion is professed.[7]

Immanuel Kant

The one true religion comprises nothing but laws, that is, those practical principles of whose unconditioned necessity we can become aware, and which we therefore recognized as revealed through pure reason (not empirically).[8]

Leudwig Feuerbach

In the perceptions of the senses consciousness of the object is distinguishable from consciousness of self; but in religion, consciousness of the object and self-consciousness coincide. The object of the senses is out of man, the religious object is with in him, and therefore as little forsakes him as his self-consciousness or his conscience; it is the intimate, the closest object.... the object of religion is a selected object; the most excellent, the first, the supreme being; it essentially presupposes a critical judgment, a discrimination between the divine and the non-divine, between that which is worthy of adoration and that which is not worthy.... religion the solemn unveiling of man's hidden treasures, the revelation of his intimate thoughts, the open confession of his love secrets.[9]

Rabindranath Tagore

The individual and must exist for Man the great, and must express him and his interested works, in science and philosophy, in literature and arts, in service and worship. This is his religion, which is working in the heart of all his religions in various names and forms. He knows and uses this world where it is endless and thus attains greatness, but he realizes his own truth where it is perfect and thus finds its fulfillment.[10]

John Dewey

According to Dewey, religion can be positively defined as, “a strictly collective term and the collection it stands for is not even the kind illustrated in textbooks of logic. It has not the unity of a regiment or assembly but that of any miscellaneous aggregate. Attempts to prove the universality proved too much or too little.”[11] In addition, religions do not genuinely exist in relation to the supernatural; rather the term religion “always signifies a special body of beliefs and practices having some kind of institutional organization,”[12] which are “survivals from outgrown cultures.”[13] However, Dewey is not completely one-sided with regards to the idea of religious experience. He believes that religious experience “as a quality of experience signifies something that may belong to all these experiences.”[14]

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

Religion, the real formation of an inner life in protest against the conventional despotism of society, is never safe; it is always a challenge.[15]

Carl G. Yung

Numinosum—a dynamic existence or effect, not caused by arbitrary act of will. On the contrary, it ceases and controls the human subject, which is always rather its victim Than its creator.... either the quality of a visible object or the influence of an invisible presence causing a peculiar alteration of consciousness… religion appears to me to be a peculiar attitude of the human mind, which could be formulated in accordance with the original use of the term ‘religio,’ that is, a careful consideration and observation of certain dynamic factors understood to be ‘powers.’[16]

When with all our intellectual limitations, we call something ‘divine,’ we have merely given it a name, which may be based on a creed, but never on factual evidence. Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend. This is one reason why all religions employed symbolic language or images.[17]

John B. Noss

Religion is a product of the earliest attempt of the human mind to achieve a sense of security in the world.[18]

Anthony F.C. Wallace

My point of view is naturalistic. Religion is a fact in nature and, to be understood, must be seen as a product of the same laws of nature that determine other natural phenomena. It is a nearly ubiquitous form of human behavior, culturally established in complex elaborations, but absolutely useless, from a crudely technological standpoint, in the accomplishment of the primary economic, domestic, and political tasks of mankind. Furthermore, a religion is based on supernaturalistic beliefs about the nature of the world which are not only inconsistent with scientific knowledge but also difficult to relate even to naïve human experience.[19]

J. Milton Yinger

Religion then can be defined as a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with these ultimate problems of human life. It expresses the refusal capitulate to death, to give up in the face of frustration, to allow hostility to tear apart their human associations.[20]

Defined in these various ways, religion is -- and seems likely to remain -- an inevitable part of human life.

The definition: “religion is man's attempt to ‘relativize’ these difficulties by interpreting them as part of some larger good, some conception of the absolute that puts the individual's problems into new perspective, thus to remove or reduce their crushing impact. At the same time, man's social relations, his societies, are threatened by these same problems. Fear and frustration can lead to disrupting hostility, unless they can be reinterpreted as part of a shared experience. In addition, there is a tendency of each individual to think only of himself, to make his personal joys and desires into absolute goods, thereby threatening the patterns mutual adjustment that social life requires. Religion is that attempt to relativize an individual’s desires, as well as his fears, by subordinating them to a conception of absolute good more in harmony with the shared and often mutually contradictory needs and desires of human groups.”[21]

Winfried Corduan

A religion is a system of beliefs and practices that provides value to give meaning and coherence by directing a person toward transcendence.... religion (1) unifies our existence by providing the core values from which we derive meaning and goals and (2) directs us beyond the mundane routine of everyday existence.... transcendence can come to us in many different ways, through supernatural agencies or through metaphysical principles (for example, the greatest good or the first cause), an ideal, a place or awareness.[22]

Charles R. Monroe

Religion is concerned with the supernatural power of the Creator, the inevitable forces of nature and the spiritual world, and how humans react to these mysterious and supernatural forces. Religion is essential for human survival... man may rely less and less on God and religion as humans use reason and science to discover the secrets and mysteries of creation, but also at no foreseeable time the future will human beings be able to dispense with the believe in God loves us, heals us, and promises eternal peace in heaven after death.[23]

[It's obviously not an exhaustive list of definitions, however it is a list that I continually add to while I come across new definitions.]

[1] J. Milton Yinger, The Scientific Study of Religion, (London: Macmillan Company, 1970), 3

[2] J. Milton Yinger, The Scientific Study of Religion, 3

[3] J. Milton Yinger, The Scientific Study of Religion, 4

[4] J. Milton Yinger, A Scientific Study of Religion, 4

[5] J. Milton Yinger, A Scientific Study of Religion, 4

[6] John Locke: Writings on Religion, ed, by Victor Nuovo, (Oxford: Clarendon Press , 2002), 17

[7] John Locke, “Critical notes upon Edward Stillingfleet’s mischief and unreasonablenes of separation,” John Locke: Writings on Religion, ed, by Victor Nuovo, (Oxford: Clarendon Press , 2002), 73

[8] Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, trans, Theodore M. Green and Hoyt H. Hudson, (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 156

[9] Leudwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans, George Eliot, (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1957) 12 -- 13, italics mine

[10] Rabindranath Tagore, The Religion of Man, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 17

[11] John Dewey, A Common Faith, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934), 8

[12] John Dewey, A Common Faith, 9

[13] John Dewey, A Common Faith, 6

[14] John Dewey, A Common Faith, 7

[15] Out Of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man, (Providence: Berg Publishers, 1993), 379

[16] Carl G. Yung, Psychology and Religion, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1938), 4, 5; see also: Man and His Symbols, (New York: Anchor Press, 1988), 21

[17] Carl G. Yung, Man and His Symbols, (New York: Anchor Press, 1988), 21

[18] John B. Noss, Man's Religions: fifth edition, (New York: Macmillan publishing Co., 1974), 3

[19] Anthony F. C. Wallace, Religion: An Anthropological View, (New York: Random House, 1966), vi

[20] J. Milton Yinger, A Scientific Study of Religion, 5

[21] J. Milton Yinger, A Scientific Study of Religion, 15

[22] Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 21

[23] Charles R. Monroe, World Religions: An Introduction, (New York, Prometheus Books, 1995), 10-11