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Introduction: Comparative Religions: Spring Semester, Los Medanos College, Pittsburg, CA

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Comparative Religions – Spring Semester, Los Medanos College

Dr. Peter Krey

Introduction January 18th through 20th 2003.

The ecumenical movement brought many Christians from different traditions together. Many times, in my ministry in Brooklyn, the police brought clergy together, New York’s finest, by picking us clergy up in their vans to bring us to their meetings dealing with intractable city problems. When Rabbis and Imams were also present it was an inter-faith meeting. When only Christian denominations were together, then it was ecumenical.[1]

In one of the meetings, a lay leader, i.e., non-clergy, compared the church to a coffee: Chock Full O’Nuts. We all laughed. He later ran off with the treasury.

In that ecumenical meeting, hearing Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic priests and Protestant clergy talk, it occurred to me that they were representatives of former Greek and Roman empires whose values their churches continued to keep alive. I later came upon this thought in Thomas Hobbes:

If a man consider the original of this great ecclesiastical dominion, he will easily perceive that the papacy is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.[2]

But to be attached too closely to the secular times seems to some religious people to take away human freedom. Why not live out of previous cultures in present circumstances, if the values cherished are positive, that is, if Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox actually do so?

Reinhold Niebuhr speaks of the need for personal or individual transcendence in several of his books. Why not live in Western culture out of Eastern values? Why not be Caucasian and live out of African-American ethos, or vice versa? Some people are even in the body of a man, but want to live out of the life of a woman, or vice versa. They sometimes even surgically and with the help of hormonal treatments change their bodies to transcend, I should rather say, change, their gender into the opposite one.

Reinhold Niebuhr is far more conservative and does not refer to what is happening here on the edge and margins of our culture. But he says:

Part of the anatomy of human self-hood is to be able to stand beyond and outside his [or her]self and his [or her] communities.[3]

Niebuhr means that a human being has to be free to transcend the given community s/he is part of. Religions may provide ways to participate in such freedom. He speaks about the “transcendent dimension within the human soul” in one of his later books.[4]

His concept of transcendence helps me, a practicing and deeply rooted Christian of the Lutheran denomination, as traditions are called here, to learn about and understand other religions. But the same concept also more basically explains why many people feel unfulfilled, duck-taped to and caught in, an impersonal, depersonalizing secular order.

Niebuhr also provides a criterion for determining whether religion is positive of negative in the place just cited:

It was a mistake of the religious ages to regard the religious dimension[5] as good in itself and an equal mistake of the secular age to regard it as purely the source of evil. It can be both destructive and creative. It is creative when an ultimate norm or value is set in judgment over the historically relative and ambiguous achievements of [hu]man existence. It is destructive and a source of evil if a simple identification is made between the ultimate norm and the norms and values, which we cherish.[6]

There are huge gyroscopes on ships that keep them stable in the stormy waves – in the same way, the longer compass and the gyroscopes of stability for society are sometimes provided by religions to people and cultures. What about states? Question: What happens when the deep cultural strain is merged with the state?

To repeat: Often we fear to study other religions because we are afraid our own beliefs and convictions will become undermined. The concept of transcendence can also help us here. We are free to investigate other religions and do not have to forsake our rootedness in our own religion. It even becomes our experience that it takes knowing other religions to understand our own.

And we can investigate these religions from many different scholarly stand-points:

± phenomenology of religions: the source of religion is an encounter with the holy, {Rudolf Otto (1869-1937)} and the holy is the numinous, while the manifestations by which religions display themselves are their phenomenology. The religious phenomena that undergo rigorous descriptive observation and analysis (via Edmund Husserl’s method) are authentic records, (sacred texts, symbols and doctrine), (piety, social structure, and their idea of the holy), historic settings, career of the founder, saint, or philosopher. Thus the phenomenology of religion is the objective analysis of religious essence (the numinous) as it displays itself on the world stage.[7] “Religious phenomenology demonstrates the primitive, folk, and world religions live through the stress and strain of interaction with law and ethics. They are quickened through ritual, social change, and historical interpenetrations.”[8]

± Comparative religions: religions studied side by side and compared to highlight their similarities and differences. “Only what has been understood can be compared.”[9] Seeing the ways that various religions solve the same social and historical problems confronting human beings help bring out the particular nature or essence of each one. For such a study of religions to succeed one needs sympathy for things that are religious, personal religious experience, and impartiality.[10] Actually to understand a religion an inner participation and commitment are also a prerequisite.[11] For example in comparing religions the teachings of one are often compared with the reality of another. Doctrine ought only be compared with doctrine, however, ideal with ideal, and reality with reality.”[12]

± history of religions: a religion can be studied as it progresses and changes through history, from its founding to it most modern manifestations. In doing so, the historian does not need to limit his or her study to one religion, but can trace the origins and interactions of the world religions, starting with the most ancient e.g., the Hindu, to the latest, e.g., Islam, or Protestantism, if you will. (Karl Jaspers has an Axial Theory of religions, where Protestantism – with Luther and the Reformation -is considered an early modern breakthrough into the numinous after Confucius, Buddha, Moses, Socrates, and Mohammed.)

± sociology of religions: Robert Bellah theorizes that

there are three approaches to religion:

1) the cognitive propositional

2) the expressive experiential

Using a Noam Chomsky expression, there is a deep structure to all religions and there are surface structures. (Perhaps phenomenology of religion tries to get at this distinction with the numinous and the phenomenal.)

3) the cultural linguistic

Religion is a whole way of life, according to Bellah. Learning religion is like learning a language with a whole grammar into which one is inducted over a long period of time. Religion is a system of beliefs and practices relative to the sacred creating a moral community. This moral community is critical. Private religion violates moral community. [A constant theme of Bellah.] This definition of religion marginalizes private religion.

See a sample lecture of Robert Bellah using a cultural-linguistic approach: “Being-consciousness and Deficiency-consciousness.”

± theology of religions: such a study views other religions from a Christian theological stand-point, pointing out that a scientific approach to religion is doomed to miss the essence of religions. Schlette argues there is special sacred history and general sacred history of the non-Christian religions and they are willed and sanctioned by God with their negative as well as positive elements. They encounter God’s divine guidance and presence and are embraced in God’s universal salvific will. The non-Christian religions are ways of salvation, while the Christians walk the extraordinary way, whose election is for the sake of other religions. Christianity is not a superior way of salvation, but an epiphany for other religions. The ways lead through the darkness into the way through clear light. (I might add to Schlette that some of Christianity still needs to muddle its way into clearer light as do other religions.) Schlette presents an interesting way of one religion affirming the participation of the other religions in salvation history. As in the case of Judaism, other religions are like an Old Testament to the New Testament of Christianity.

± anthropology of religions: the many methods used by this discipline make such a study unwieldy. Interestingly enough, one study speaks of making a “hiérography” of a religion, much the way anthropologists do an ethnography of a culture.[13]

± Philosophy of Religions: religions as grist for the mill of metaphysics, except that the truth question would be unavoidable, where other “scientific” studies might avoid evaluation and attempt neutrality. Everything in religions is submitted to philosophical questioning. In an important sense, this discipline is like the theology of religions, if Greek Philosophy is understood as an alternative to Christianity. Jaspers argues that Greek Philosophy also belongs to the great religions launched in the Axial Age.

A question: I wonder if there is a psychology of religions and if one might be possible from a Jungian, if not a Freudian perspective. Although, Freud’s Future of an Illusion need not preclude a psychoanalytic investigation of religions.


[1] Οiκoυμέvη: “ecumenical” the civilized world, social responsibility for the whole world, locally as well as globally. œkumenical, from oiκoς i.e., oikos house, household, kingdom.

[2]Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, (London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1962), p. 500.

[3]For example in The Structure of Nations and Empires, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959). P. 290.

[4]The Self and the Dramas of History, (New York: University Press of America, Inc., 1983), p. 240. He even claims that the social dimension of the self has to be allowed for the transcendence of an individual self even if it seems irrelevant to any sense of meaning the community may have. (Ibid.)

[5]Niebuhr writes that “The sense of the ultimate can be defined as the religious dimension of existence” (P. 290).

[6]Ibid. Paul Tillich’s great rule of the ambiguity of all human phenomena, especially includes religions. Tillich is a great Christian theologian, who believed Luther’s theology should be translated into modern language and symbols. God is the ground of being. Faith is ultimate concern. Justification by grace is acceptance of the unacceptable, etc.

[7]Edward J. Juri, Phenomenology of Religion, (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1963), p. vii-viii, 3, and 293.

[8]Ibid., p. 4.

[9]Heinz Robert Schlette, Towards a Theology of Religions, (London: Burns & Oates, 1966),p. 46.

[10]Ibid.

[11]Note how much Huston Smith answers these strictures.

[12]Ibid., p. 131. Schlette is citing T. Ohm in an endnote.

[13]Schlette, p. 46 and n.130.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sociology of Religion: Robert Bellah’s Lecture

Deficiency Cognition         Being Cognition

manipulation                 Participation

partial                      Total

subject/object split         Identity

means                        End in itself

standard time                Non spatial, non-temporal

University of California at Berkeley, Sociology 112

Robert N. Bellah

Parallel to the theorizing of Alfred Schutz on daily reality we have the thinking of Abraham Maslow concerning Deficiency cognition and Being cognition.[1] In the latter what he describes as peak experiences come close to what tribal people experienced as “the felt whole”. (See the chart.) Maslow would argue that D – experience characterizes the anxiety of daily life. It is a mode of relating to the world in a partial reality, a deficiency reality. One is not concerned with how things are, but how to use them. One is concerned with manipulation, even of people. Things and people are used to get ahead. In deficiency reality the full immediacy of being in the presence of anything is absent or severely limited. In contrast to this, Maslow speaks of B-cognition in which participation is predominant, that is, “being with” – and being with is its own end. This is the classical ideal type which predominates in B-cognition. Not how to use, but to be open to totality has primacy.

D-cognition has a complete split between subjects and objects. I am clarifying that I am me and not you. I am an independent person relative to anyone. Thus parents cannot nor can you tell me what to do. This goes into our very self definition.

In B-cognition the subject/object split is for the moment abandoned. If I am really with you this moment, the distinction between you and me is not gone, but not salient. In D-cognition there is a great sense of difference from the Other. I am me! Such an emphasis makes a big deal about the Other. But for Being cognition there is no other.

Another distinction between B and D cognition is that in the latter one looks at things as means, because one always looks ahead. But in the former, the means is its own end. We are a very means oriented culture and hence we are very manipulated, while also being keyed into standard time and space. B-cognition is a-spatial and atemporal. Eternity is not endless existence in time but out of time. Something going on forever and ever is not heaven, but the worst nightmare. First Maslow did not have the question of religion in mind at all. B-cognition can occur in all kinds of places. He called them peak experiences, and occurring in athletic feats they can rival contemplative graces. Joe Montana reports entering a “zone.” He reports no longer hearing the crowd – all become one. The difference between player and game, dance and dancer disappears. The minute you worry what will happen next it is gone and you are out of the zone. This is an experience of the felt whole. The feeling proceeds through participation.

Is this experience in sports the same as a religious one? Richardson speaks about feeling a finite whole, while in religion one feels an infinite whole. But is there really a distinction? A finite whole is like the immensity of the ocean, or the presence of another. Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan of the eighteenth century spoke of an infinite whole. -There came into my soul and was as it were, diffused through it, a sense of divine being. How excellent that Being was. And wrapped with him in heaven. And he wanted that excellence to remain his whole life. He continued about feeling the general rightness of all things, and perfect being.

In life dominated by deficiency cognition things are not that great. The consideration is how to respond to the next challenge. This is the expressive experiential point of view (See p. 1 above) with cultural definition.

Another peak experience comes from P. Havel, the current president of Check Republic, who had it when he was in prison. It is recorded in his Letters from Prison.

On a hot cloudless day Havel gazed into the crown of a gorgeous tree that stretched over the fences alongside the watchtowers of his prison. Its branches quivered in the fragile sky. And he went into a vision – all his memories became co-present with an acceptance of the inevitable sovereignty of being. (That is merely the gist of a much longer description of his vision.) Being is one of the definitions of God. Havel felt he was trembling at the abyss of meaning, standing at the edge of the finite. I was struck by the love, he said, I don’t know from whom or from what. He described participation, rightness of things, personal well being.

These experiences are often expressed aesthetically in music or poetry. Wallace Stevens brings in an awakening: Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake, to watch a definition become certain. A cock crows on the left and all is well. Not the balances we achieve, but the balances that happen, moments of awakening, sit at the edge of sleep. Behold the academics as structures in the mist. (These notes should identify his poem so that it could be more accurately transcribed.)

Is there a method to achieve enlightenment?

Sit in order to be enlightened and you will not be. It cannot be manipulated. The sense of enlightenment comes or doesn’t come by itself. You cannot force it. These are trance states. Sometimes dances or bodily movements induce trance states. People in sports don’t seek them, it suddenly comes to them. Quiet meditation and prayer are the background for it often. Taking the Eucharist can be shattering, an incredible experience – when you know you are the body of Christ. Certain things set it up and make it more likely. Samsara is the world of suffering. Even in the world of deficiency something can break.

Can it be achieved through morality?

Morality has a prohibitive and punitive aspect, but also a positive aspect, an attraction to the good component. The former is quintessential to the problem. But for Plato beauty equaled the good. Morality is constraint but also attraction to good. Morality has a special relation to Being cognition.

In B-cognition realities come together. Objects can have different realities. Havel saw the world tree. But it could be just another tree. An object can have another meaning from the one it has in the world of working. Communion bread and wine, for example. A symbol has an ordinary meaning in one realm and can have another meaning in another realm. In the world of daily life we are constantly surrounded by symbols or potential symbols: a tree, a room, a teacher, can mean a lot of other things. Part of us thinks about it in our consciousness. We can train ourselves to become sensitive, but it is of itself. It cannot be manipulated.

Maslow himself had a B-cognition as the Dean of Brandeis University. (Brandeis is located in a suburb of Boston.) A procession was going to take place, and he was expected to attend in full regalia. He had always avoided these processions as silly rituals. We often say, “That is just a ritual.” But without rituals we would not be human. He was the dean, so he could not very well avoid the exercise. As the procession began to move, he suddenly saw it stretch out before him. He saw Plato, Aristotle, Marx, Freud and others before him, all in their place until he himself took his place. Behind him were all his students, and his students’ students yet unborn. He experienced an apprehension of the academic procession of academic learning extending backward through time and space, seeing the real basis of the university. If we no longer glimpse that sacred foundation, then it is gone. There is no wholesale knowledge outlet for the consumer society, no ideology factory, but a community devoted to the search for meaning, and if only for a job, all is lost.

Kenneth Burke makes ‘beyond’ into a verb, and speaks of ‘beyonding.’  It is symbolic transcendence. There is something deeper, something truer. One can be trapped in the world of dreadful immanence, totally captivated in the deficiency world with no way out. Like Weber one can be trapped in the iron cage. Sole response can be determined by desire and need. Thus one needs beyonding. One needs to break the dreadful fatalities of this world of realities. To hold everyday reality as the paramount reality is a dangerous assumption. It is just a necessary one for a time. But those locked into this time fail to overcome the deficiencies, and thus ceremonies are necessary, practices whose goods are internal to them. They are not means to an end. It is not what we achieve, but what happens. Meals, sports, concerts, the Sabbath, day of rest, rituals, Time, in part, out of time, with the anxieties of life temporarily allayed. A break seems to be essential.


[1]Abraham H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1968).

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Written by peterkrey

December 10, 2009 at 2:16 am

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