How to study religion (and God)

I am not a plumber.  I don’t have any skills that even remotely look like what a plumber would have.  Whenever I encounter a plumbing problem, it is best for everyone that I ask for help from someone who has plumbing expertise.  The skills need to match the situation.

This principle also applies to the study of religion and spirituality.  As we will discover through this Talking about God series, in order to study religion effectively, we need to use a certain set of skills.  But what are those skills?  As we have seen already, religion and spirituality are multi-faceted, and it should come as no surprise that the required skills are diverse as well.  The study of spirituality is a multi-disciplinary activity, including literary criticism, philosophy, anthropology, historiography, and more.

  • Let’s start with literary criticism.  As we have discussed before, one of the best ways to study a particular system of spirituality is through its sacred texts.  But where did the texts come from?  Who wrote them?  Do we have access to original manuscripts or edited copies?  What genres are contained in the texts?  These are some of the questions that a literary critic explores.
    • We can divide literary criticism into three general areas:  the sacred text itself, the origin of the text, and the literary style and characteristics of the text.
    • The study of the text itself is often referred to as textual criticism.  Textual criticism is beyond the reach of most readers as it explores ancient manuscripts written in ancient languages.   If two different manuscripts of the same text contain different words, which one is correct?  If words are missing from an ancient manuscript, how can we discover that they could have been?  This is a fascinating area that forms a foundation for the next two.
    • The study of the origin of the text is sometimes called documentary criticism.  Who wrote the sacred text?  What sources, either oral or written, did they use?  For example, was the book of Isaiah written by one, two or three authors?  If more than one author, who compiled the final version?  As above, although this area of study is exciting, it is not easily accessible by the typical reader.
    • The study of the literary characteristics of the text has many names – narrative criticism, structural criticism, rhetorical criticism, and more.  The value of this approach is that it is accessible to the majority of readers, even if the text is an English translation.  Does the author use a repeated term for emphasis?  Are there two contrasting ideas in the text?  Can an introduction, central point, and conclusion be discerned?  These are some of the questions that a literary critic asks.

Let me introduce six other skills that are needed to carefully study religion and spirituality – historiography, anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and phenomenology.  Don’t let the “-ology” intimidate you; we will explore each one together.  🙂

  • Historiography.  As the term suggests, this is the study of history.  What factors influenced the development of the religion?  What were the geographical, social or political elements that affected how each system of spirituality was formed?   What does archeology tells us about each religion’s origin?  Historiography is concerned with “what really happened” with a religion prior to our personal experience with it.
  • Anthropology and Sociology.  In the context of religious studies, anthropology and sociology are the study of individuals and institutions that influence the life of a particular community.  How do religion and spirituality shape the morality and actions of a culture?  How are religious beliefs shaped by society?  An example of this could be the “Judeo-Christian worldview” that is sometimes evident in ethics, business, and other social and individual contexts.
  • Psychology.  In this wide ranging field of study, it is possible to narrow the interaction between religion and psychology into two general motivations – extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivations can describe the usefulness of religion to an individual: a sense of piece or comfort, social status, etc.  Intrinsic motivation is evident in a person who has internalized their spiritual beliefs and they authentically “live out” their religion.
  • Philosophy.  What is the logic of spirituality?  What are the theories and truth claims of religion?  These are some of the questions that philosophy asks.  Using the existence of God as an example, philosophy does not refer to a sacred text, but rather, to questions of ontology and cosmology (ie, logical arguments that describe probability).
  • Phenomenology.  Rather than explore truth claims, societal norms, or spiritual influences, phenomenology instead studies religion “as it is”.  It attempts to describe religious or spiritual experiences without considering or evaluating any internal or external factors.  Using prayer as an example, whereas psychology explores why a person might be motivated to pray, phenomenology explores only how a person prays – their words, their posture, their emotions, etc.

Questions to ask ourselves and others …

  1. Back to the beginning. To read a sacred text carefully, what skills do you need to learn?  Who are the people or resources that you have access to for help?
  2. Think of your own spiritual experiences, and take up this challenge. Work through each of the seven methods of study, and apply them to your religious beliefs.
  3. Have you looked at your own faith through the lens of literary criticism? What happens when you explore the psychology of your beliefs or the social impact of your religious actions?  Have you ever wondered about the historical context from which your chosen religion arose?


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