Eastern Religion
Robert Sutton


Over the course of the first few weeks, there are four questions that we will be discussing.  These are

  1. What value is there in studying Eastern religions?
  2. What are the difficulties involved in this study?
  3. What are the methods and disciplines used in studying Eastern religions?
  4. What is religion?

1.  What is the value of the study of Eastern religions?

On a practical level, our world is becoming smaller.  In educational circles there is now a significant interest in what is variously referred to as “Global Education,” or “Culture Studies.”  While in Wilmington it is not as obvious as in most large urban centers, we still, even here, rub shoulders with persons of various cultural, ethnic, and religious identities.  The problems of mutual understanding and peaceful co-existence diminish with an increase understanding of the various worldwide traditions, not just those of the East.

Understanding how religions influence human behavior is essential for a critical understanding of the world we read about in the front-pages of our newspapers or viewing on television.  For example, is it really possible to divorce religion from:

Without a sophisticated understanding of the religious historical forces at work in the modern world, you will become a bystander, dependent on and easily manipulated by the interpretations of others for understanding global and national events.

Studying Eastern religions can have the strange effect of creating a greater understanding of one’s own religious tradition.  That is to say, the study of Eastern religions allows for self-reflection concerning one’s fundamental beliefs.  Eastern wisdom is, in many ways, quite different from the West. This study presents you with the opportunity, and it might be the only time you get this opportunity, of tapping into the collective wisdom of humanity.  In so doing, you might find something of interest, namely, that you are not alone in asking the questions that you have asked yourself.  One of the distinctive features of American culture is a radical individualism that has its strengths and weakness but one thing it does is to place a great deal of responsibility on you to come up with “personal” answers to some of life's most fundamental and recurring questions:

The study of Eastern religions is a study in how these questions, and others, have been asked and answered.  And, just as you are not alone in asking these questions, you might also be surprised to learn that others have come to conclusions similar to your own.

2.  What are the difficulties involved in studying Eastern religions?

3. What are the methods and disciplines for this study?

Any appreciation of any religious tradition, especially not our own, requires an imaginative capacity.  There is a significant difference between the acquisition of information and a sympathetic appreciation of humanity's spiritual quest.  In this course, we will use every method and academic discipline, which will aid us in this task. 

Traditionally, one can identify six major methodologies, which have been used in the academic study of religions:

  1. Historical  Method- details the historical development
  2. Psychological- sees religion largely in terms of the limit situations of life—birth, death, disease, injustice, life's mysteries, etc.
  3. Sociological- studies the strong interaction between a society's self-conception and its ideas about God or other ultimate shapers and sanctioners of human behavior.
  4. Phenomenological- interested mainly in describing what religious people do in their ceremonies, assemblies, storytelling, myth making, etc. 
  5. Structuralism and  6 Semantic- The “Hermeneutical” approach, concerned with how meaning is communicated.

In this course, as I indicated, we will employ all these methods.

Virtually every discipline can be and has been used in helping scholars and students understand religious expression and behavior:  History, archaeology, language, studies, psychology, economics, art, sociology, anthropology, architecture, math, virtually all the physical sciences.

4. What is religion?

Religion is, in general difficult to define.  If the definition is too broad one ends in vagueness and thus fails to achieve real understanding.  If, on the other hand, the definition is too narrow, one will exclude more and more phenomenon as the definition becomes more and more restrictive.  This is one of the reasons for the phenomenological approach, as well as the other methods.  Notice, they do not define religion but turn, with one method or another, to the actual investigation and examination of religion.

In this book Smart offers a paradigm for studying religion. Paradigm means to show an example or pattern side by side in all its form. Now, in this case, various actual religions are set side by side and compared. Prof. Smart offers 7 elements in his paradigm, which serve to both define religion in general and also allow for a comparison of diverse and actual systems of belief and practice.

  1. Practical and Ritual: Forms and orders of ceremonies (private and/or public) (often regarded as revealed)
  2. Experiential and Emotional: Experiences of dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion, liberation, ecstasy, inner peace, bliss.
  3. Narrative and Mythic (What is a myth?): Stories (often regarded as revealed) that work on several levels. Sometimes these narratives fit together into a fairly complete and systematic interpretation of the universe and human's place in it.
  4. Doctrinal and Philosophical: Systematic formulation of religious teachings in an intellectually coherent form.
  5. Ethical and Legal: Rules about human behavior (often regarded as revealed from supernatural realm).
  6. Social and Institutional:  The shared attitudes, beliefs and practices that identify group membership and articulate social roles.
  7. Material: Simply put, the “stuff” that religious people make and view as sacred, whether it be buildings or works of artistic expression.

In your notebook I want you to complete a graph over the course of this semester.  On the right hand side, please list these 7 elements and across the top you will list the religions, which we will study. Thus, for each of these religions, you will fill in the appropriate box concerning how these religions look in terms of these elements.

There are certain weaknesses with this approach.  Not all these elements are found equally within a particular religion and, one must bear in mind that religions change over time.  Often these changes are in response to a particular element, for example element 1, being emphasized at the expense of another element, such as no.2, which a large number of people find important.  This is one way of understanding the dynamic behind the reformation or the Wesleyan movement.

In addition to this paradigm, I would suggest another which I also want you to develop a graph of in you notebook. Every religion, at least it could be argued, has a diagnosis of the human situation, a means for responding to this situation and a vision of health or wholeness.  You could say, “need,” “vehicle of salvation,” and “healed state.”

Before looking specifically at the Eastern religions, I want us to consider two very basic approaches to thinking about religion.  These two perspectives suggest viewing religion as either (1) something that satisfies strong psychological or sociological needs or (2) it is the vehicle through which persons can get in touch with reality that transcends the everyday, physical world.

In accordance with the first view, one can refer to Sigmund Freud, who understood religion to be a “universal obsession neurosis” and it was he who predicted that, with the advent of psychology, the neurosis, like other neurosis, would pass away as the human species evolved. This is an evolutionary scheme deeply influenced by Darwin and other philosophers, such as Hegel and Marx. Indeed the word “primitive” has its basis in such a view.  It might be helpful to see some significant dates related to Freud and Darwin's lives. It is important to note this relationship because, as Darwin had argued that human beings, as biological beings, evolved like all other biological beings on the planet, Freud argued that individuals evolve and the human race itself also evolved psychological.

Freud, born in 1856

1859 Darwin, The Origin of the Species

1871 Darwin, The Descent of Man

1882 Darwin dies

1899 Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams

1923ff, Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents.

1939 Freud Dies

We can also look at Karl Marx who understood religion, or at least the Christian form with which he was familiar, to be a tool for oppression which functioned as a kind of “reverse mirror.” He says:

Man makes religion, religion does not make man. In other words, religion is the self- consciousness and self-feeling of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again.  But, man is no abstract being squatting outside of the world.  Man is the world of man, the state, society.  This state, this society, produces religion, a reversed world-consciousness, because they are a reversed world.... Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people. . . .

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for the real happiness.  The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.  The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion ("Introduction," Towards a Critique of Hegel's "Philosophy of Right," 1844).

He elsewhere explains,  "The social principles of Christianity declare all vile acts of the oppressors against the oppressed to be either the just punishment of original sin and other sins or trials the Lord in his infinite mercy imposes on those redeemed" (The Communism of the Paper Rheinischer Beobachter).

From the other perspective, one points to religious claims, often based on mystical experiences, that individuals are in touch with a reality or dimension, which is different from the ordinary world.  William James has remarked: 

Some years ago I myself made some observations on this aspect of nitrous oxide intoxication, and reported them in print. One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation.
No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question,  for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality. Looking back on my own experiences, they all converge towards a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance (Varieties of Religious Experience 258).

Similarly, Rudolph Otto in The Idea of the Holy (Das Heilige), has found in the literature of various religions what he called the mysterium tremendum:

We are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, ‘mysterium tremendum’. The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its ‘profane’, nonreligious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost gristly horror and shuddering. It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of–whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.
–Otto, “The Analysis of Tremendum,” The Idea of the Holy, chapter IV.

It is important to know these ideas.  They have been tremendously influential and, in a more limited way the each of these authors envisioned, each point to important elements of religious experience.  What I want to suggest is that both of these views of religion, when understood in more sophisticated ways, can be seen as partly true and in need of the other to give a fuller statement.

On-line Resources:

American Academy of Religion. Why Study Religion? http://www.studyreligion.org/why/index.html.

McCutcheon, Russell T., "Studying Religion," http://www.as.ua.edu/rel/studyingreligion.html.

MacKendrick, Kenneth. The Study of Religion: An Introduction and Provocation, http://www.ccsr.ca/mackendrick.htm.