Friday 9 May 2008

The Study of Religion! - An Essay

The Study of Religion!

To understand my approach to the study of religion, I must first have working definitions of what the terms mean and what they mean together. After I know what I believe that they mean, then I will know how I will approach this subject. I will define the term religion and then the term study. Then I will attempt to synthesize what the two
mean together. Only then, after coming to an understanding of 'The Study of Religion' can I look at my approach to that study, and all of the preconceptions and baggage I bring to that endeavor.

I understand religion to be the synthesis of both the internal and external life. Religion is both personal and corporate; religion is personal in that it should help the individual become what he is capable of being, and corporate in that sustaining or achieving that change can only be done in community. Saint Irenaeus stated: "The Glory of God is man fully alive." That glory is becoming what one was intended to be; maybe even becoming more than what you believe you can be. Religion should help our actions live up to our ideas. It should help us discover our true heart and to learn to live from that heart. Religion should include what one believes, and why one believes what one believes. Those beliefs should enable us to become what we were meant to be; it should affect all of our relationships, and all aspects of our lives. In my opinion, if a person is truly religious, their actions will live up to their beliefs. It should have a positive impact on their relationships, their work and their play. Religion should be viewed as a quest - a lifelong quest to ever be reaching higher and striving harder to achieve the goals of that religion. Religion will incorporate standards that should lead people to have standards of personal behaviour. Religion should also be active; it should impact body, mind and spirit. Religion is mind, in that we study what we believe and how it should influence us. It is body in that it has a creative element, in art, poetry, story, music, painting and sculpture. It has elements of the spirit in prayer, meditation, and the mysteries.

tory is an integral part of all aspects of religion. It can teach and encourage and challenge. The ultimate intent of story is to provide hope. It is to entertain, and challenge the reader to see anew the world around him. Madeline L'Engle sums it up this way: "We are all strangers in a strange land, longing for home, but not quite knowing what or where home is. We glimpse it sometimes in our dreams, or as we turn a corner, and suddenly there is a strange, sweet familiarity that vanishes almost as soon as it comes. In literature the longing for home is found in the many stories of paradise, of the forgotten place where we once belonged." This longing is filled through story, and as such, story encourages and challenges all aspects of spirituality.

Religion is a glue that is used as a tool of reconnection; reconnecting people with God or the divine; connecting people with community or others, and it should help reconnect people with their true selves. C.S. Lewis in his space trilogy speaks of the human nature as 'bent'. We are people of a broken nature and religion should help us to learn to be straight again.

Next the term study. For me, study is not just memorization of numbers, facts, theories or theologies. Study is an intentional active interaction with a material - a subject matter to wrestle with, to discover its very nature, and by that process of engagement come out changed by it. C.S. Lewis in an essay on Hamlet states: "Mere change is not growth. Growth is the synthesis of change and continuity, and where there is no continuity there is no growth." That personal and corporate change must have continuity, and not just be change for the sake of change.

My personal background plays tremendous havoc on my approach and study of religion. I come from mixed Irish and Scottish stock with parents who were an Irish Catholic Father and Pagan Scottish mother. I was raised in the Roman Catholic church until my parents fought over going to mass so much we stopped going all together. Yet I remained in Catholic school until graduation. In my nearly 40 years on this earth I have held membership in many Christian traditions such as Baptist Convention of Ontario & Quebec, the Presbyterian Church of Canada, Mennonite Brethren, and now have returned home to the Catholic Church. In the interim years I have also practiced Shaolin Buddism through my Senpai, and at one point late in high school, with a group of friends, tried to revive a religion around Odin and Loki. How does all of that affect my study of religion?

I have always been fascinated by religions, religious practices and means of grace. I collect religious items from different traditions like prayer beads, Muslim, Buddhist or catholic(Rosary). I have a prie-dieu from Montreal, a prayer shawl from Jerusalem and a prayer mat from a mosque in Morocco. I love studying other traditions to learn from them, and through studying other traditions learning to have a deeper respect and appreciation for my own. Donald Nicholl in his article "Scientia Cordis" declares: "Certainly a striking feature of many of the great spiritual adventures of this century has been the way in which, having lost their bearings within their own traditions, they have sought them in some other - and have almost gone over to that tradition, only to discover their bearings once more within their own." This is seen in people like Thomas Merton, Etty Hillesum, and many others throughout history. I find that my own study of religion often follows that same path. I become fascinated by a person, their writings or an aspect of a tradition and in my study become drawn into their tradition or practice, only to emerge and return to Catholicism, renewed, and with a fresh passion and appreciation for the richness in my own tradition.

So for me one of the most important elements in the study of religion is the study of faiths and practices of faith, and also the stories used in the different traditions. I would like to use a story to sum up my understanding:
"The Reason for Religion is not Reason:

A student, clearly troubled by something Jacob had said, followed him as he left the bakery. "Jacob, did you say that what is Holy has no beginning or end?"
"Yes," replied Jacob.
"But that is not possible," said the student. "That is because only the possible can be measured," said Jacob.
The student struggled to understand. "Jacob, you are not making sense."
Jacob nodded in agreement, then placed his hands in front of the student, covering his eyes. "You see," said Jacob, "reason explains the darkness, but it is not a light.""

The study of religion should help us see the light and be able to understand and explain it, both in our own traditions and also in the traditions of others. Yet we always need to be cautious of not reading our own tradition into those we study. For as in the first chapter of The Sacred Paths of the East, Theodore M. Ludwig states: "The Human adventure can be viewed from many perspectives - and indeed there should be many perspectives, since there is not just one human story, but many stories. Common to these stories is a searching for meaning, for wholeness, for some connection to the larger continuity of human life. That searching has often been expressed in what we call religious structures, ideas, and experiences." So the desire for knowledge and understanding must be balanced with a respect for the tradition being studied, our own tradition and the process of that study.


  1. John Eldredge, Waking the Dead: Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2004. p.10
  2. Madeleine L'Engle, The Rock of Higher: Story as Truth: Wheaton: Shaw, 1993. p.24
  3. C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, Walter Hooper, ed., Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969 (online)
  4. Donald Nicholl, The Beatitude of Truth, Dartmon Longman & Todd, London, 1997 p.150
  5. Noah benShea, Jacob the Baker: New York, Ballantine Books, 1989. p.20,21
  6. Theodore M. Ludwig (2001), The Sacred Paths of the East 2nd Ed., Prentice Hall, Toronto, p.3


L'Engle, Madeleine The Rock that is Higher: Story as Truth,
Wheaton, Shaw, 1993.

Eldredge, John Waking the Dead
Tennessee, Thomas Nelson, 2004.

Noah benShea, Jacob the Baker:
New York, Ballantine Books, 1989.

Ludwig, Theodore M. The Sacred Paths of the East
Prentice Hall, Toronto, 2001,

Nicholl, Donald The Beatitude of Truth
Dartman Longman & Todd, London, 1997,

(First written for RS200 The Study of Religion Winter 2008.)

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