Jeff Smith noon, July 25
- Community Blog
Defining the Infinite. It's a Problem.
Warning: The following is a paper I wrote for a class on theories of religion at ASU in 2001. Happy Sunday!
For quite some time now, the problem of defining what we mean by the term “religion” has plagued the field of religious studies, with no satisfying solution yet in sight. Recent scholars have begun to address the concept of definition itself, which has come to be viewed in terms of what Ricouer might have identified as the same “hermeneutics of suspicion” skeptics had historically applied to the religious claims that our effort at definition would seek to encompass. We now have doubts as to the validity of an approach that seems to fly in the face of that which it would endeavor to explain. In our attempt to clarify the parameters of our concern, thereby eliminating the problem of vagueness, we have created for ourselves another problem: That of selecting the correct methodology by which this may be accomplished.
Platvoet reminds us that “religion” is “a very modern term, born and bred in rapidly modernizing societies” , and of “the idea of a universally valid definition of ’religion’ as a recent Western idiosyncrasy.” Molendijk quotes Johnathan Z. Smith as saying that religion is a scholarly notion that “has no independent existence apart from the academy,” and then himself states that “the conviction has gained ground that the concept of religion is framed by the scholar,” and that categories such as religion “are produced in a historical and cultural context” . It seems very possible, then, that a concept such as religion, produced inside the confines of one “historical and cultural context” may not have a directly corresponding equivalent in another.
In his efforts at “circumscription of the topic,” William James ventured that “One way to mark it out easily is to say what aspects of the subject we leave out.” Definitions, by their very nature, create boundaries between that which is included and that which is excluded. Both Molendijk and Platvoet write that the institutionalization of religion in the Western world has played a key role in our tendency to believe that the religious and the secular are mutually exclusive and naturally opposed categories.
Molendijk points out that “The perception of religion as a distinct sphere of human culture is related to major developments in the modern Western world,” commencing with the revolutions of the latter eighteenth century and leading to the eventual separation of Church and State. Platvoet writes that “In our highly differentiated societies, the churches, other religious associations, and religion itself, have become as distinct institutions as have the non-religious institutions.” It is this relatively recent differentiation between Church and State in Western civilization that is responsible for our tendency to wish to define religion(s) in a way that “differentiates them unequivocally from everything that is not ’religion’.” This insistence upon a dichotomy between what is religious/sacred and what is secular/profane is responsible for all of our difficulties in attempting a definition, simply because it does not reflect the worldview of many of those we wish to study.
Our quandary is made explicit by Platvoet: “The basic conditions for a universally valid definition of ’religion’ -- the material one that religion is distinct from ’non-religion’ in all societies, and the formal one that humans everywhere possess a concept for it in their heads and a term for it in their languages -- are consequently absent in all but a few societies.” The scholar who would attempt to study “religion” that fits a preconceived definition of it may only consider those specific aspects which are accounted for in advance of the encounter. The problem, Platvoet says, lies not with the use of definitions but with the failure to realize that they are inherently exclusionary in nature.
As we can see, approaching such cultures as those alluded to by Platvoet while employing the use of the filter imposed by definition is bound to yield incomplete data. According to Jamake Highwater, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, “…there still shines in Indians a primal mentality which is fundamentally inclusive and which accepts rather than rejects.” In addition, he tells us that “Indians don’t believe that there is one fixed and eternal truth; they think there are many different and equally valid truths.” How then, can we possibly hope to determine “the” truth of their religions?
DeMallie tells us that the truth of the wakan (sacred) of the Lakota culture “…is personal knowledge, gained through experience and not through general philosophical truths. Its truth is individual, not universal.” How then, to reconcile this with a “scientific” methodology that first defines an area of inquiry and then attempts to “objectively” study it?
Consider the following, from Merleau-Ponty, as quoted by Highwater: “Science is and always has been that admirable, active, ingenious, and bold way of thinking whose fundamental bias is to treat everything as if it were an object-in-general…” It is this treatment, by science, of all things as independent and impersonal objects that renders its methods intrinsically incompatible with the paradigms of such people as Native Americans, for whom the subject/object duality is not an accepted fact.
It is not only that “…cultures cannot be understood from the perspective of an objective science, because comparisons are inevitably made with the value judgments of a single outside culture,” but also that “…objectivity counts for nothing since it is, to begin with, an exclusively Western notion.” Even more succinctly, “…we are all prone to make evaluations without employing any of the ideas and visions of the things we are attempting to evaluate. While we claim to be looking at someone else, we are always looking at ourselves.” So much for being “objective” or “purely descriptive.”
This “something called ’objectivity’ in which Western people believe without reservation” is the illusory foundation upon which all classical science is built. Nowhere is its inadequacy more evident than when it is juxtaposed with the Native American experience of transformation.
Highwater tells us that “In watching a ritual you do not see what is physically before you. What you see is an interaction of forces by which something else rises. Those who see only what is before them are blind to all the other potentials of experience.” One such potential is that of the phenomenon of transformation. Utterly beyond the capacity of external observation to detect, American Indians may experience intimate knowledge of a thing by temporarily turning into it.
This wholly internal, psychological experience comprises a large part of the meaning of ritual. Highwater quotes Wallace Stevens: “… reality is not what it is. It consists of the many realities which it can be made into."
It is obvious that if we wish to study realities that are so very individual, personal, dynamic and full of infinite potential, we must accept the fact that general, impersonal, static and finite definitions are useless. Platvoet suggests the “constant reformation of the Western concepts of ’religion’," and proposes the use of “operational definitions,” which are, in essence, rules made to be broken. These “operational definitions” are developed in such a way that they are adapted “to the specific traits and marks of a particular other religion.” The religion in question is then studied within the context of this framework. How this differs from past endeavors is hard to say. I would submit that all definitions of religion are “operational” ones, whether their proposers have the foresight to recognize it or not.
Platvoet also says that these adaptations of definition should extend “as far as the Western concept of religion will permit.” I must admit, this strikes me as quite silly, due to the enduring fact that the “Western concept of religion” is wholly inadequate to contend with the realities of other cultures, and despite Platvoet’s apparent optimism on this subject, I believe that it is likely to remain so.
Ultimately, our difficulties with the study of “religion,” which for many is inseparable from reality/realities itself/themselves, and from direct personal experience of this/those reality/realities, may be unsolvable. The difficulty of even constructing a sentence that adequately defines the problem attests to the multilevullar complexity with which we are confronted. As Joseph Campbell once remarked, “No matter what system of thought you have, it can’t possibly include boundless Life.”
Expounding upon the ideas of Jung, Campbell continues, “Religion is a defense against having a religious experience…it has reduced the whole thing to concepts and ideas, and having the concept and idea short-circuits the transcendent experience…The image of God becomes the final obstruction. Your God is your ultimate barrier. This is basic Hinduism and basic Buddhism.”
Similarly, our idea or definition of what constitutes “religion” inevitably mitigates against our apprehension of it. Just as finite, preconceived ideas about “God” thwart the aspiring adept’s attempts to experience that which is infinite and therefore beyond the constraining finitude of thought, so must our finite, preconceived ideas about “religion” frustrate our attempts to penetrate its mysteries.
Our efforts at definition might be termed a form of via positiva. This is an approach to knowledge of God that has traditionally been embraced by Western Christianity. Here, God is described “positively,” in terms of attributes that attempt to convey what God is. Also referred to as cataphatic, this approach automatically implies its opposite, the apophatic, or via negativa, which presumes that God is that which is unknowable. As Wolters observes, “Any description however exalted is inevitably a human one, and because of this difference in kind can never be accurate or adequate.”
There is a third approach, however, that is not descriptive but rather instructive. Wilber tells us of this method, referred to by G. Spencer-Brown as injunctive. It might also be thought of as “process oriented” rather than “goal oriented.” While a definition describes that which we seek to find at the end of our investigative journey, the latter focuses on the journey itself. Brown compares this process to the use of a recipe. A definition of a certain type of cake does us little good if we wish to understand the taste of one, but following a set of commands, or injunctions, may allow us to experience it firsthand. Wilber writes that this third way is thus “an invitation, in the form of a set of experimental rules, to discover Reality for oneself.” What we seek may be “…literally indescribable, but it can nevertheless be pointed to by setting down a group of rules, an experiment, which, if it be followed faithfully and wholly, will result in the experience-reality.”
Note Wilber’s hyphenated construction “experience-reality.” It might well be one with which many cultures would agree. He continues, “This third and injunctive way forms the core of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, and can be found in the mystical aspects of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.”
It would seem then, that at least some of the very religions we wish to know contain actual and explicit instructions on how to reach their truths. Perhaps this is what Platvoet sensed and reached toward with his recommendation concerning the continual modification of definition, in accordance with new data. But what is missing here is the process by which the data is acquired. His focus is still upon the descriptive, grounded in the notion of subject/object dualism, and upon the acquisition of “objective” knowledge, rather than upon the injunctive, which would provide us with the means to propel ourselves into direct experience of the subjective knowledge we know to be critical to the religions of many cultures.
We may note that Wilber identifies this process with the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism in general, but only with the “mystical” aspects of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Here we have yet another instance of the divisive character of all that is Western. The Westerner’s “mysticism” is simply “reality” for others, and does not require a separate appellation any more than what we consider “religion” does. Therefore, religious studies must rid itself of the idea of “mysticism” as something that may be separated out, and even ignored. To once again quote Platvoet, “Although ’religion,’ therefore, has been virtually a universal phenomenon in all societies throughout history so far, it can be shown to have existed in most societies and periods of history only analytically, by us applying to them our modern Western concepts…” If this method is improper for the study of ’religion’ in general, it is even more inadequate in relation to what we call “mysticism,” which is even more obviously impervious to this type of analysis.
What is clearly needed, then, is the application of the injunctive methods provided by various religious traditions to the field of religious studies itself. There is ample evidence that, for many cultures, not only is our still undefined category known as “religion” inseparable from what we see as other aspects of culture (also identified by us in terms of categories), but that the experience of “religion” is equally inseparable for the experience of these other “aspects,” and from the experience of reality/realities as a whole. This seamless approach to Being must somehow be participated in and emulated by those who engage in the field of religious studies. I am not saying that we all must become “mystics,” but rather, at the very least, that we must realize that the division which creates the category of mysticism exists only as part of our own cultural context. Many of us might tend to associate that category with the notion of transcendence of the physical. But what is to be transcended here is not physical, but merely mental, intellectual…
Unfortunately, it is only the intellectual that falls within the realm of scholarly concern, and that which is beyond the capacity of intellect may also lie forever beyond the feeble reach of scholarship.
Platvoet, Jan G. “To Define or not to Define: The Problem of the Definition of Religion.” Numen Book Series: Studies In the History of Religions. Boston, Massachusetts: Brill, 1999.
Molendijk, Arie L. and Peter Pels. “Religion in the Making: The Emergence of the Sciences of Religion.” Numen Book Series: Studies in the History of Religions. Boston, Massachusetts: Brill, 1988.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penguin Books, 1958.
Highwater, Jamake. The Primal Mind. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.
DeMallie, Raymond J., ed. The Sixth Grandfather. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth, Program Six: “Masks of Eternity.” New York: Mystic Fire Video, Inc., 1988.
Wolters, Clifton, trans. & ed. The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works. New York: Penguin Books, 1961.
Wilber, Ken. The Spectrum of Consciousness. Wheaton, Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House, 1977.
Smith, Jonathan Z. “A Twice-Told Tale: The History of the History of Religions’ History.” NUMEN, Volume 48. Boston, Massachusetts: Brill, 2001.
(Note: Specific work not available. Link is to Smith's best known.)