Studying Religion

A couple of weeks ago we explored one way to study religion: literary criticism. This week we will expand our understanding to include more than sacred scriptures. 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.

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. For example, 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?

Perhaps 2012 will be the year that you “dive deeper” into spirituality and begin to discover and discern in ways that you have not done before.


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