Whatever your opinion of it, religion has dominated human history and still seems to have a controlling interest in our vision of ourselves. In my view, the study and understanding of the religions of the world and an honest pursuit of religious literacy is the antidote to much of the needless conflict and suffering that plagues modern life. Throughout this blog the diligent reader will find my approach to the study of our religious nature and the religions of the world.
If you know the first thing about a religion, that is to say, you have acquired a basic religious literacy, then you have ventured into a truly modern ambition. I encourage the following: adopt the goal of religious literacy as one of the untried human ambitions, so seldom attempted that we now have the freedom, at the beginning, to forbid misapprehension, trepidation, or confusion.
We can start correctly; thus, the student who pursues religious literacy can discard all embarrassment and inhibition as we move forward in our quest to understand the history of our religious longing, and our religious behavior, past and present.
The study of religion can often be quite discouraging, typically because of the tensions caused by investigating the history of practices and ideas believed by many to be of divine origin. Two central matters quickly become evident in the diligent study of religion and these often lead to dissuasion very early on for the student. The first is the matter of the origins of our living religious traditions.
The study of religion requires that we temporarily dismantle our concept of divine revelation in order to gain insight into the origins and development of religion. As we investigate our belief in revelation we can begin a search for the earthbound origins of religion and we announce, once and for all, the possibility of a mature religious literacy.
After the student’s research into origins has begun, they will invariably uncover three stages of development, which, I will argue, are the same for all religions.
The second matter is that of religious controversy and conflict. Few of the student’s discoveries are more off-putting than the discovery of our long history of religious conflict. In pursuing a detailed study of any of the world’s religions, we find that the dominant characteristic of religion is religious controversy. The student will not be able to evade these two matters and will only be dragged to an eventual, and inevitable, halt by any unwillingness to examine these two problems.
This is not to say that definitive conclusions are necessary. I do, however, insist that the concept of revelation, the terrestrial origins of religion, and the true nature of religious controversy will always impact the honest pursuit of understanding our religious nature. The student’s goal is the limitless study of what believers practice and how these practices differ between cultures and across time.
Religious literacy, at its very least, knows the first thing about our living religious traditions, the cultural and linguistic origin of the religion, the names of their scriptures and their founders, and a general apprehension of what the believer believes. Throughout their studies, and perhaps for the first time in their lives, young students are exposed to the traditions and practices of diverse people, and introduced to the historical approach to religious studies.