Histories and Patterns
One of the great achievements of the modern mind has been the development of historical ways of unravelling the religious past. It has meant a certain distancing, a struggle even. Religions are ideologies; they call for commitments; they underpin security; they speak of certainty but often tremble; they are seen as treasures, and the guard dogs growl. The idea of looking more dispassionately at the sacred past, of deciphering the ingredients of what counts as revelation, of digging through hallowed ground — such an idea must arouse some hostilities. But the writing of the histories of civilizations and of religions serves the purposes of truth and clarity. But it could be all too dry if it were to cleave close to texts alone, and stones, and other documents, without trying to enter into the experience and attitudes of those whom it delineates. The history of religions is not just a set of chronicles, but chronicles with a soul. Facts are not just outer facts but inner ones too.
Sometimes the mode of apprehending religious facts which involves looking at and through the eyes of the believer is called the phenomenological method (though the term phenomenology also means much besides: sometimes it is shorthand for a particular philosophical slant on existence; sometimes it means the quest for a typology of religion, that is the classification of religious phenomena into types). Bede Kristensen said that the believer is always right. This means that whatever I think of a believer’s belief — be it good and true in my view or false and harmful or crazy or boring — I should as a historian, as a depicter of the human condition, try to bring out what the belief means to him. The rush to judgement breeds many errors: we think and act as if other folk believe what we believe, for we think we have the truth and are sensible, so that they (if they are sensible) will have the truth too. Or we think that they are simply not sensible if we detect that they do not in fact believe what we believe. We mistake them thus, too often, or despise them. The root of many foreign policy errors lies in this fallacious lack of empathy, this disastrous neglect of phenomenology.
The history of religions, then, involves depicting histories, but in a manner which involves empathy. It also — but more of this anon — involves a kind of structural delicacy, for religious acts and feelings occur in organic contexts, webs and skeins of beliefs, memories, associations. The history of religions is delicate and has a sensitive soul; and as such it represents a great achievement — a distancing, and yet a warmth; objectivity and yet subjectivity of spirit; description, but also evocation; method, but also imagination. It is one aspect of the nobility of the best of the humanities and the social sciences — a nobility which expresses itself in a willingness to enter into the experiences of others, and to go from a self-centred sense of what is the norm. It is because the science of religion has this warm inwardness and eschews the rush to judgement that I believe most passionately in its moral and intellectual claims upon us. It is not that we may in the last resort on these matters wish to suspend judgement. As academics, the historians of religion may wish indefinitely to do so. But we may also wish to be philosophers and reflect about the worldviews that we help to unfold and comprehend. But we must keep the two tasks separate in our minds.
But religious histories generate comparisons. For one thing the very transition in the imagination from one’s own culture to that of another tradition involves the comparative method. For we use terms, categories, nuances from our own world in describing the other world. Often in the past great mistakes have been made by bringing Western concepts to bear on Eastern faiths, so it is important to bring comparison to the surface. By being aware of contrasts in assumptions and symbolisms and social values, a better method of empathy and structural description can be attained. It is when we think we are not being comparative that we are liable to make distortions.
But there is a second reason why comparisons sprout up through the tangles of history. It is because we detect or think we detect patterns, similarities. The love exuding from Krishna in the Gītā, the awesome power of the manifestation of the Divine Being in that same poem, the spirit of devotion and grace therein — such things suggest the question of their likeness to major elements in the Christian tradition. Are the similarities real? Do they arise from some diffusion, some borrowing? Are they independent manifestations of themes lying deep in the human spirit and its world? Histories thus move towards patterns.
Types and Organisms
The move through comparison to the discovery of patterns in religion promises us something philosophically, by the way. For as has been observed there appear to be certain patterns in religious experience which help to explain some developments in independent cultural traditions: the mystic finds an inner light in East and West, the shaman a wrestling with demonic forces in North and South, the prophet an apprehension of the numinous Other in desert and countryside, the saint the imprint of love in cloister and lamasery. If such comparisons hold up, they suggest some universal themes in religion and the possibilities of a cross-cultural approach to the question of spiritual truth. The transcendent finds operational meaning in the varieties of religious experience. But all that is, for the moment, by the way.
The first major problem of method which we meet as we move towards the discovery of patterns in religion lies in the fact of the organic nature of religious systems. This is so both at the level of ideas and at the level of practices and in the interaction between them.
Thus at the level of ideas, a given concept has to be understood in the context of a whole collage. In Christianity, consequently, the idea of sin or of grace is not there by itself: it is connected with the problem of men’s alienation from God, and the history of the way this alienation has been remedied, by God’s guidance to Israel, by his incarnation in Christ, by his continuing work through the Spirit in the Church. Think already how many key ideas are connected up: sin, grace, history, Israel, incarnation, redemption, Spirit, Church. Consider the Buddhist idea of dukkha — suffering as it is sometimes called, though ‘dissatisfaction’, ‘illfare’, ‘unhappiness’ are better ways of putting it. To understand it one has to see how craving and ignorance bring it about — ignorance of the true nature of the world, which is impermanent, and of the true nature of the living being, who is without soul or self. And this ignorance is only truly known by contrast with insight or wisdom which rids humans of craving, and follows from treading the Buddha’s Path through virtue and meditation to the perception of emptiness. Consider here how many key ideas are linked up: dukkha, craving, impermanence, non-self, insight, Buddha, eightfold path, virtue, meditation, emptiness, and by implication liberation: dukkha, tanhā, avijjā, anicca, anattā, paññā, bodhi, aṭṭhangika magga, sīla, jhāna, suññatā, nibbāna.
Also, as it happens, there vary greatly the interpretations of some of the key ideas: especially so in Christianity with the coming of the Reformation. There is no Christianity as a system, but rather systems. Christianity itself becomes a typological category, rather than the name of a single tradition, a pigeonhole rather than a name-tag.
The skein-like web of ideas in a system are related along a different plane to practices. One cannot understand what Buddhists mean by emptiness or insight without attending to the practice of meditation and reflection which typically form the process through which the liberated state is known in experience. Nor can one understand the idea of the creator in the monotheisms simply by thinking of a cause of the world: the creator is numinous, awe-inspiring, replete with special, sacred power. He is to be acknowledged through worship. Can one worship a bare First Cause, or prostrate oneself before a mere Prime Mover? By thinking there is an ultimate reality, can one experience the divine love shining through the sun, the willows by the edge of the brook, the hot sand under foot, the scent of the sage bushes?.
Thus doctrines are to be seen through the lens of practice, the optic of feeling, the glass of experience. They are to be seen too through the rites and sacraments through which the mythic dimension of religion is reenacted and made real in the souls of human beings and in the experience of the community. Christ, it is said, died for our sins, and being risen we may rise with him. This makes his death a thing of Good Friday: not something just to be chronicled but to be lived through again. And the resurrection is not mere corpse-revival, but something which is present at Easter and every time the Christian experiences the risen Christ. ‘Jesus Christ is risen today’ (not two thousand years ago, just: though then they too who felt it could use the present tense in the way the Christian does now).
Conversely, it is partly through the doctrines and myth that the life and rites of the believer can be deciphered. The Christian at Mass holds in his head his own living web of beliefs; and he sees this Mass as a reenactment of the Mass. He places his actions now in the organic context of the Church as he understands it. The Buddhist in laying a flower before the statue of the Buddha does so because of a living web of the Dhamma in his brain.
So though we may make comparisons we have to respect too the contextuality. And often superficially similar organs may have quite different functions in different organisms.
Culture, Interpretation and Intra-religious Explanation
There have been those who have tried to centre religion upon a core experience: most obviously, the experience of the Holy, the numinous experience. Crudely, the argument has been something like this. If science has as its basis empirical experience, outer perception; and if morals rests upon moral experience, some special insight or feeling; then religion, if it has a separate basis, should have a basis in a special mode of experience. Now an examination of the data from the history of religions suggests that the numinous experience is vital and central, and can be found in different cultures and great traditions. Ergo we locate the basis of religion in the numinous. That one should take religious experience in the formation of religions and in their ongoing development and sustaining is, I think, correct, unavoidable. But to reduce it to a single type is wrong.
It does not, for one thing, explain the great differences between religion — the gulf between Emptiness and Yahweh. You do not find Emptiness or Nirvana speaking out of burning bushes, leading people in war, creating the world in seven days. The Buddha does not explain differences, and if we load those differences of interpretation on to varying cultures, different modes of interpretation, then it cannot even explain what otherwise it might. For instance the awesomeness of God in the numinous experience explains the response and propriety of worship, and it explains why doctrine may stress the duality between God and man, the great Otherness. But if doctrines of oneness (say Advaita) essentially rest on the same core experience the latter cannot after all be held to explain the Otherness, etc.
It is hard to accept Otto’s judgement. The numinous is pervasive, important; but it is not, as he describes it, everything. One at least has to add as important a quieter, mystical, contemplative motif: the experience of the Cloud of Unknowing, the dazzling obscurity of which Ruys-broeck wrote, the Void of Buddhism, the stage beyond perception and non-perception (as Buddhism also has it). Now there is some controversy about mysticism and the contemplative experience. Is it everywhere the same essentially (whatever that may mean)? Or is theistic mysticism essentially different from non-theistic? At the moment I do not wish to enter this controversy, though it will be necessary to evaluate the position later. There is a tricky nest of methodological problems to be faced, for how do we, not having gained Enlightenment and being at best not far along the way trodden by many saints, presume to judge the glittering dark language which they allusively use? Yet whether we say there are one or many mysticisms they do seem different in style from much of numinous, prophetic religion. A plural typology of religious experience allows us a certain rhythm in the explanation of religions.
It could be a kind of chemistry. Take a strong numinous ingredient into your tradition and certain effects are to be expected. Combine the numinous with the mystical and you get a variety of possibilities. Take mysticism more purely and you have another trend.
You have the Theravada, the Tao, Neoplatonism, perhaps; and these live in some tension and contrast to the explosive theism of Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu, Kali.
What I am suggesting is that we can look to a dynamic in religious experience which helps to explain something of the shape of religions. This is what may be called ‘intra-religious explanation’, moving from one ingredient of religion to another, not explaining religion by what lies outside it. Both kinds of explanation are called for as we explore the interaction between religious traditions and their environment. Of course, the distinction between inside and outside is only a rough one (for one thing, there is the definition of what religion is to consider, a thorny enough matter).
The problem of the classification of religious experiences may to many people seem a remote topic. But its cultural importance is vast. Thus the very power of the numinous experience of Yahweh as renewed in differing periods of Israel’s prophetic history, and the distancing thus of Jewish religion from the polymorphous luxuriance of agricultural religion led to a dualism between God and creatures, God and the cosmos, such that the many gods were banished from nature. The combination of such a rigorous monotheism with Greek rationality was potent in bringing about a flowering of the scientific spirit, first in medieval Islam, then through the Renaissance and finally in Newton and what lay beyond.
I propose, then, a theory of religion which goes beyond Otto, and seeks plurality of patterns of basic religious experience. As a preliminary distinction there is the polarity between the numinous and the mystical. This helps to foreshadow a theory of how it is the radical monotheisms of the Western triad differ in emphasis from the non-theistic, mystical Buddhist phenomenon.
How do such experiences, though, differ from ‘ordinary’ ones? Why is it that they are taken somehow as pointing to, or emanating from, that which lies beyond the world — is in some way transcendent? The question arises precisely because in making the distinction between religious and secular worldviews we have made appeal to the idea of the transcendent. Moreover, part of what is meant by a secular attitude is the unwillingness to take seriously spiritual experiences as sources of knowledge. The numinous and the mystical lose their force amid the bright lights and turmoil of the secular city.
The reason why the numinous and the mystical have a transcendental meaning is that in either case there is a sense of going beyond what is conditioned. The numinous at its most powerful does not just dwell secretly in groves and streams and mountains, and in arks and images and sacraments. Its Otherness suggests an otherness from the created order: it is unconditioned, in that what it evokes is a sense of what lies behind the stream of events available to perception and material probing. At its deepest, the mystical shines in a timeless void, empty, that is, of the images and events of ‘this world’. Thus there is a tendency for religious experience to incorporate a kind of intuition of what is transcendent.
Bracketing the Transcendent: Standing Back from God
But this does not mean that we have to believe in the transcendent in order to conduct the history of religions, or in order to construct a theory of the way religion works. Some people have written as though because religious experience, and with it much of religious practice, presupposes the transcendent (in the sense of interpreting itself through the idea of a transcendent source of object or experience) the study of religion must presuppose the transcendent. We do not have to believe in the Holy out there as an existing Being in order to explore religion. The question of whether there is truly a God or an Unconditioned — an Allah or nirvana — is a question of theology, buddhology, philosophy, value judgement, faith. The question of how humans have reacted to the numinous experience, to prophetic visions, to theophanies, to the appearance of the Divine — such a question belongs to the history of religion and such adjunct disciplines as the sociology of religion.
Some have conversely supposed that the social sciences in dealing with religion must presuppose the non-existence of the divine. How can the sociologist presuppose there is a God? This is not a scientific assumption. We have no need of that hypothesis. Truly. But it does not follow that we have to think that there is or is not a transcendent Being. We can surely examine the way religious experience operates in human history and in human society without rushing to judgement as to whether it does or does not rest on a fallacy. We put the transcendent in brackets. But we do not neglect it.
The former wrong path leads to prejudgement in one direction, the latter to reductionism. Reductionism is harmful because it devalues the force of religion, whether or not it is a human creation. It is a secret way of imposing a secular ideology on the facts, and in doing so it neglects the way it is in part because of spiritual outlooks that human society shapes itself. Reductionism tends towards the fallacy that what we do not believe in can have no independent power, for other people.
From the point of view of the science of religion, then, the Focus of experience is to be put in brackets. As explorers of faith we are neither (so far) believers or disbelievers, neither committed nor not committed. As it were we are neutral, and yet the very term may suggest the wrong things. Not neutral, like Switzerland, between the contenders. Not agnostic at the level of faith, for we are not at the level of faith. As users of the historical, scientific method, agnostics. By bracketing the Beyond we affirm a kind of methodological agnosticism, a way of approaching the phenomena of religious experience without any unnecessary slant, and trying to reveal the categories the believer uses rather than imposing our own categories on him.
It is like meteorology. One can study clouds and rainfall and the genesis of storms, jetstream, trade winds, monsoons: one does not need so far to decide whether rain is good or bad. And yet in one way it is not like meteorology, for (it will be said) you do not bracket off, in the study of the weather, the possible influence of sun spots. And isn’t that what is here happening about religion — bracketing off the influence of God? Neutrality is either fatuous or a fraud (it will be said).
The influence of God? The concept leads to some dark and exciting questions of a philosophical kind.
If we postulate a God ‘beyond’, who has an influence, an effect, on events in this world; and if we suppose these effects to be particular, for instance the occurrence of certain religious experiences; then is God as cause independently somehow accessible to us? If I see smoke curling up from a hillside I can infer a fire, because experience has shown, and can continue to show, the connection between smoke and fire. I may not see fire now, but only infer it; but I can see fire (I could see it, if I were close by on that hillside). Is there an analogy with God? Can I correctly infer that God is cause of some religious experience because it is possible to see the fire of God as well as the smoke of experience? But there is a paradox here. The only way known to us of having an experience of God is by having an experience of him in this world, and it is the question of whether that experience in this world is caused by God with which we started. We seem to be in a cosmic Catch-22. Our best knowledge of a Beyond is through experience of it, but we cannot state that it is an experience of the Beyond independently of experience of the Beyond. Or to put it another way: If there is a Beyond we can know something of it through the relevant transcendental experiences; if there is not then those experiences lose their force — they are simply peculiar experiences on the surface of the universe. If we believe in the Beyond we have warrant in experience for the belief — the best possible. If we do not so believe in the Beyond there could in principle be nothing to cause us to change our mind. Belief in God is in a way verifiable; disbelief is unfalsifiable. Belief in the Beyond seems to be a matter of choice.
But we are still left with the fact of the power of religious experience. The influence of that which is ascribed to the transcendent is not affected by these philosophical arguments. The question of faith is a question of where to locate significance, whether in the numinous, the mystical or the secular world, whether in transcendental myth or not. This perhaps makes the task of bracketing the Beyond an easier one. Even if we believe in the Beyond as operative, it is so only as the secret Focus which lies beyond experience in this world.
In the theistic framework the situation of religious experience even more clearly shows itself. For according to theism everything is an effect of the divine Being: as Creator and Sustainer of the whole universe he has an unseen hand in every event. It is not as though my experience now of the blue sky and the Californian mountains which I see in the near distance is exempt from that unseen hand — the divine Being sustains the mountains and the sky, and they impinge on me. It is as much caused by the divine Being as some more extraordinary revelatory experience (and looked at in the right way is it not itself revelatory?). What makes the numinous and the mystical experiences of special significance is (we might say) a certain transparency to the ultimate. Even a naturalistic explanation of them does not affect their transparency. The fact that a numinous experience has natural causes or conditions does not by itself mean that it is not an experience brought about by the divine Being since his unseen hand is, as we have said, everywhere, and so in the natural causes of the supernatural experience.
But the judgement that there is a Beyond, that seminal experience of the Beyond is to be located in Sinai or at Mecca, or in the life of Christ or the theophany of Krishna — such a judgement is a religious, theological judgement. It is one of the things to be described in the exploration of religion. It has to be bracketed, if we are looking at religion and faith in a scientific manner (but I repeat, such science is warm science, evocative).
In brief, then, the real existence of the Beyond is to be bracketed, together with other beliefs in the realm of religion which are essentially open to debate and choice. Yet the power of religious factors as an ingredient in human history, society and psychology has to be acknowledged, and the question left open as to whether or not it is to be seen as some consequence of human projection. The danger of a projection theory is that it empirically undervalues the inherent powers of religion. The process of bracketing is designed to protect them. But the question of the power of religion has much wider scope than our examination of religious experience would suggest.
The Relationship of Power and Performance
I made use above of the idea of the location of significance (in certain events or experiences). The notion of significance is a complex one, but it includes the notion of being charged whether positively or negatively with value. Thus in a pre-scientific age an eclipse of the moon carries special significance because it may presage a disaster. 1066 is considered a significant year in English history because it brought a new rule into being continuous with the modern nation, and so in a sense is a founding event. As such it carries positive value for Englishmen in reflection about their identity.
Now for various reasons, religious experience carries a charge. It has an intrinsic significance. And yet how is that significance to be conveyed from one person to another? This is part of the wider question of the analysis of ritual and performance in the sphere of religion and more generally in human existence.
Very roughly and crudely we may consider religion as concerned with the powers within humanity and its environment — powers having both positive and negative charge. If we are used to the idea of objects of perception, we should perhaps take equally seriously objects of feeling, i.e., states of affairs, events, etc., ‘out there’ which ‘naturally’ bring about certain positive or negative feelings and moods in us. ‘Naturally’ means: given both how human beings are built and, more importantly, given those cultural assumptions which deeply implanted mean that people react in certain ways ‘naturally’ to things and events, the latter come invested with positive or negative charges. Thus for most Westerners snakes seem dangerous. This may have depth-psychological or ancient evolutionary roots, but it has something too to do with cultural attitudes. The sight of a snake does not typically give rise to an inference, such as ‘Here is a thing which can emit poison dangerous, even fatal to human beings, so I had better back away’. Already the snake bears this message on its mien. Again: a sunset has a certain positive charge: for most people it evokes admiration. True, it may presage inconvenient weather and the normally positive charge may be over-ridden by reflections of this kind.
In brief: the world around us is not neutral, but soaked in feelings. It may be that ‘scientifically’ sometimes we may wish to bracket out the feelings, to train ourselves at a kind of anaesthetic objectivity. But in ordinary life perception has its feelings as well as its information. Things, people and events typically have their charges, and they are things and people of substance.
Much has been made in the history of anthropology and the study of religion of mana, that sacred power inhering in things and persons — for instance in a chief or a sacred rock. But we can generalize: such magical substance is met in even the most secular and modern environment. A President is endowed with a kind of mana: he has a socially and historically conditioned complex charged substance. The beloved has a magic substance, made available to the lover through reciprocated love. A forbidden action emanates a kind of dangerousness (it can be a sign of one’s own powerful substance that this can be overcome: forbidden fruits thus seem to be sweetest).
Such substance is connected intimately with behaviour and language. It is to put it simply, conveyed through ritual, through performative acts. But first let me make a small terminological proposal. The capacity of things, etc., to arouse certain feelings and so certain kinds of behaviour in human beings I shall call their ‘powers’. These can have positive, negative or neutral charge (a neutral charge is the case of no power). Regarding persons, I shall use the term ‘substance’, for the powers to alter others’ behaviour and feeling is now attributable to a conscious being, who through his own behaviour may wish to increase his substance, since his powers to impress themselves become positively a sign of his or her own status, importance, etc. Thus I partly trade here on the sense of the expression ‘a person of substance’. Moreover, substance suggests a quasimaterial something which allows us to subsume under a person’s substance his possessions — his clothes, house, etc. For a man’s power to impress negatively or positively is bound up with the various extensions of his ego which are located in what he has, rules over, participates in. Moreover, one can extend this notion of substance to quasi-persons such as corporate groups, such as nations (which are liable to feel insulted, flattered, secure, fearful, etc. — in an analogical sense; but which is very real in feeling — for what German did not feel humilitated by Versailles in that Germany was humiliated?). Phenomenologically such quasi-persons exist, even if ideologically we may perchance wish to oppose such ‘primitive’ thinking, or philosophically wish to be nominalists and boil nations down to organized collections of individuals. The point is: a nation is defined in part by national self-consciousness, and this implies a notion of participation and mutual inherence.
Consider revenge. Someone has done me harm, or so I think. I ‘naturally’ wish to get even, as we say: in other words to inflict some humiliation upon him to make up for or more than make up for the harm he has done me. Exercising my power to harm the other person involves some kind of symbolic and ritual or performative act. Performative: for even when I kick someone back who has kicked me, it is with the thought of ‘paying him back’. It is a meaningful movement of my foot, directed at him as a focus. It is to show the power which I have, and here power is exercised through a performative act. Performative speech is the most magical way of exercising power since it involves scarcely any material energy or force, but can have profound effects in changing the feelings and behaviour of other people. But often performative acts are speechless (though they may presuppose speech and reason as a basis for the direction of intentions and the identifying of the focus of acts).
Thus the history of religions, which among other things concerns itself with ritual, has a wider interest in performative acts and language. Once this widening of scope has taken place, it becomes once again inappropriate to draw any sharp line between ways in which the transcendental foci have their power and other persons or quasi-persons exercise their substance.
Ritual and Performative Acts as Paths of Power
The inner logic of performative acts is that something is being conveyed, but not primarily of course by way of information. Rather configurations of a person’s substance are conveyed to another: his substance as loving or hating, menacing or consoling and so forth. Ritual or performative gestures open up a pathway so to speak between two persons or entities, so that influences can pass across. Thus if two persons pass each other daily in the street sooner or later the ‘ice will be broken’: they will not be able to ignore one another (i.e., ignore one another in a neutral kind of way, so no good or bad influences pass either way, for no contact is made). But once the ice is broken gestures are made: most typically, though not necessarily friendly, ones. Thus my substance under its friendly configuration is in part conveyed, and in exchange his to me.
Thus we can see most ritual as a form of non-informational communication. Thus rituals of worship enhance the substance of the divine Being, and open up a pathway through which hopefully benign divine power (grace) will be channelled to the worshipper. More generally, one can look to a wider history of religions approach as both divine-human and other-human interactions (e.g., State-individual, collective-individual interactions).
Thus not only is there the seminal study of religious experiences, in which power is conveyed or generated non-ritually, and in a psychic manner, but also there is the performative communication and generation of power. Thus we might define the central thrust of the history of religions as being the analysis and estimating of the powers transmitted through the experiential and ritual dimensions of religion (and analogies to religion). But since the Foci of experience and ritual are themselves delineated and defined mythically and doctrinally, it is not possible just to prise loose the experiential and ritual powers of religion from the mental and intellectual factors surrounding them.
Powers come as positive, negative and neutral. But it is worth remarking that there is a kind of earned neutrality, and a detachment which is striven for. Thus in Buddhism and elsewhere one sees the attempt made with great effort and detailed analysis to achieve a kind of transcendental calm: the experience of nirvana is itself that of a kind of ineffable peace. Here the positive and negative powers of the world of ritual and dynamic experience are somehow transcended. So one also needs to consider within the field of religion and worldview analysis the neutralization of powers. The secular analogy is the kind of calm, contemplative objectivity which science can demand.
If ritual and performative acts can be seen as pathways of power, they also confer certain shapes or configurations on the substances which are communicated along those paths. Thus most generally substance can be seen as positive or negative, benign or malign, as we have noted. But benignity can take a more particular form, as in love, or solemnity. And more particularly again, the shape of the Being or Person from whom the power ritually emanates can be depicted as having as very special mythic and doctrinal character. Thus in the Eucharist it is the essence of Christ which is conveyed — his body and blood. Not only to the very ideas of body and blood have particular echoes and resonances: but also Christ’s own example and nature is somehow embedded in the life which is communicated in the Eucharist. To absorb Christ’s substance truly is through grace to obtain the willingness to sacrifice oneself, to show love or agape to others, to rely lovingly upon God as he did, and so on. Thus the power has a configuration.
This is how too we can understand iconography. The holy picture or other symbolic representation of the divine or transcendental Being is a kind of congealed performative. It itself is a pathway of power. Not magically: for there is a certain sort of performative response in the face of the picture or statue which is necessary (typically) for the appropriation of the power, the unlocking as it were of the gate which the picture constitutes. Give the holy pictures a totally new performative setting — as in a museum of art in the modern world, and you call forth different responses — not divine power, but esthetic transformation, not holiness but beauty, not myth but story.
Although secularization does make an important difference to performative and symbolic styles (for one thing sacred ritual is no longer given a transcendental focus, so that spiritual power from the Beyond is not, so to speak, tapped), the same general principles apply. Thus instead of myth of the old sort we may have charged history — for instance the story of the Revolution. The celebrations of that, story not only recreate the existential power of the primary events of the ‘new era’: they also help to give shape to action through the configurations of the Revolution itself, or at least as it has become depicted in official history and doctrinal interpretation. For this reason the scientific study of religion and worldview-analysis are important ingredients in the understanding of modern as well as ancient times.
The Science of Religion as an Interpreter of History
As we see then the history or science of religion, including within this the symbolic analysis of existential worldviews even if ‘secular’ in character, needs empathy, evocation, sensitivity as well as structural awareness. It is not descriptive in a merely external sense, for the facts are both inner and outer. But it does tend towards some generalization and some theorizing. It is at this level that it is useful now to discuss briefly some ways in which it is relevant to reflection about modern history. It is possible here to learn from and to advance beyond such theorists as diverse as Max Weber and Mircea Eliade.
What special contribution can the religionist make to the understanding of modern history? It is largely a matter of emphasis. There has been an unduly technical approach, itself not thoroughly scientific, because subjectively and symbolically loaded, to human affairs in so far as economics and political science (taken in a rather technical and ‘scientific’ way) have dominated thinking about modern history. On the other hand historians — ‘pure’ historians — have been more oriented towards the past (19th century history being very modern) and have rather inclined towards the nitty-gritty and the eschewing of wider-ranging hypotheses. Even now Toynbee is a dirty word among many professional historians. (Of course one might want to criticize him for being a bad generalizer, but the nisus is towards objecting to the very task of generalizing.)
Let me enter a disclaimer. I do not want in any way to minimize the importance of political institutions and economic forces in the shaping of history. It is only that we have to perceive them as playing a part in and partly being shaped by a wider world of human experience where the analysis of symbolic and meaning elements is often of crucial importance. Let us look to a few examples.
Modern economists are increasingly interested in returning to Weberian reflections but in a new key. Thus consider the role of post-Confucian mental factors in the extraordinary recent history of economic development in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea.
Consider too the way in which economic and technological changes bring about the dissolution of certain kinds of ritual and performative behaviour. Modernization is not just (or even perhaps) a rational component in historical change, but rather has its own symbolic weight in relation to traditional identities. Thus modernization itself requires an intelligible symbolic mediation. This was for various reasons wanting in the Shah’s drive towards modernization in Iran. Economist, especially developmental economists, must pay close attention to the relation between traditional values and those less consciously perhaps conveyed by the technologies and economic transactions and structures.
As I shall show later in my treatment of Mao, it is necessary to analyse ideologies not merely from the point of view of exhibiting their apparently rational content but also with a view to unfolding their existential or, if you like, spiritual function. Thus Maoism’s success in reorganizing Chinese experience is due not to the supposedly scientific nature of Marxism but more to the way it was mediated both emotionally and intellectually to a major human predicament, namely that of the Chinese intelligentsia and peasant classes confronted by the disintegration of the old China in the face of foreign incursions and values. Its supposedly scientific character has however an attraction, since science itself comes to us charged with the symbolisms of power and modernity, because of its actual capacities to unlock secrets of the world and methods of manipulating it. In other words: the scientific air of Marxism itself needs symbolic analysis.
The contribution of the history of religions in the upshot can be said to be threefold. But the emphasis is after all only an emphasis. It is not unique to the science of religion to emphasize the three elements of empathy, organic analysis and awareness of the symbolic. But because the science of religion does stress these things it is well suited to a certain understanding of how historical processes operate. Thus that enigma of modern times, the Nazi period, is unintelligible without empathy, that is a recognition of what the world looked like through the eyes of German supporters of the Nazis; and that world itself has to be unfolded as a kind of organism, involving various interrelated elements of perception. Moreover it needs to be seen in symbolic and performative terms. The humiliation of Versailles after the tragic and long war of the trenches and the Eastern front, the devastation of the Depression these generated a thirst for explanations of a myth-laden kind, and for a New Order, a kind of collective rite or passage into a new German identity. Who better to symbolize and focus than the leader who is betwixt and between, not associated (because Austrian and of humble origins) with the old ruling class, and yet deeply identified with the sufferings of Germany because of his four years in the trenches? Hitler was the Unknown Soldier, the anonymous hero, and at the same time at the Nuremberg rally he was the apotheosis of the humiliated, harsh for revenge and power.
Again the emphasis on mental and symbolic factors happens more generally to explain the course, or courses, which Marxism has taken in its interplay with nationalism. Thus the science of religion helps to redress certain balances. It seeks worldview analysis as important in the explanatory process. The existential and mental life of human beings is seen as no mere epiphenomenon. It thus redresses the balance against an over ‘materialist’ view of history. It suggests self-analysis and the uncovering of the symbolic forces which themselves can underlie fashions in academe and government. Moreover, the science of religion naturally enough does not tend to understimate the power of traditional religions, whereas rationalist historians and social scientists naturally bend in a different direction.
The fact is of course: religious and symbolic ideological factors are neither more nor less important than they are. Our job is to come to a just appraisal of their actual ‘causative’ force. Thus the emphasis in the science of religion is important as a counter-balance, but ultimately the sciences of humanity should not need such balancing acts. There is a seamless web connecting the various kinds and levels of explanation we use in trying to understand human history, experience and society.
And because we are concerned with change, a desideratum for a new perspective on universal history, now that the histories of cultures have flowed into a single global history, is a theory of the factors involved in symbolic change. Perhaps part of the answer is a kind of internal syncretism. As new forces arise, e.g. the scientific establish, academic history, etc., or new forms of art, so symbolism has somewhat to conform and adapt. New transformations attempt to relate old mythic functions to new forms of knowledge.
Another way all this can be described is as follows. Each conscious being is his own universe, and part of that universe is the world as he sees it: the constellation of values and entities that he relates to — his past, his friends and family, the nation, his god or other schematization of the cosmos. These foci of his feeling and imagination act dynamically: his actions relate to them and to the particularities with which he is confronted. It is that world of his foci which is what the science of religion is about, in its broadest sense. At the microscopic level then we are concerned with the delineation of the individual conscious universe. But macroscopically the science of religion concerns universes that overlap — the worlds of great groups and traditions. If the historian of religions sees the importance of the imaginative and mental inhabitants of these worlds (inhabitants both abstract and personal), it is because he thinks of them not just as vapours given off by social and economic forces, but themselves as engines of change, in continuous dynamic interplay with men’s other levels of transaction.
Whether such gods exist, whether such abstract or other inhabitants have any truth, is beside the point. It is their power which is important to us.
It is in the first instance from this perspective that I embark upon the following comparisons and analyses, before getting round to reflections and evaluations concerning them.