How to study religion

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. In order to study religion effectively, we need to use a certain set of skills. But what are those skills? As we have seen in a number of contexts, 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 multidisciplinary 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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? Be sure to read an upcoming article that explores more methods of studying religion and spirituality.


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