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Folk religions - Phenomenology of religion

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Department Chair, Professor
On faculty since 1991
D.Miss. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (1986)
M.Div. (Missions) Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (1983)
B.S. (Physics) Wheaton College (1977)


 

Professional interests include contextualization of the Christian faith, issues related to phenomenology (folk religions, spiritual warfare), and technology in missions (especially information technology and the use of the Internet).
Personal interests include reading novels and working around the house.

Introduction. As a discipline, the phenomenology of religion is often seen as a specialized discipline within the broad parameters of comparative or historical religious studies. The term has come to be widely used in scholarly religious discussion only in the twentieth century. Therefore, as a discipline it is still relatively new and even the term phenomenology is not used with the same meaning by all religious scholars. For some phenomenology of religion refers to an attitude toward or the study of religious phenomena in the broadest sense. For others, it refers to the actual cross-cultural comparative study and classification of religious manifestations. For still others it expresses a commitment to a specialized method of inquiry of religious expressions. Though it is impossible to give a universally agreed upon definition, generally phenomenologists of all types (philosophical, psychological, sociological, philological, and so on) are concerned with the believers' awareness of the manifestations of life, how they express that awareness, and how those expressions can be best understood.

History of the Term. Phenomenology as a term was first coined in 1764 by the Swiss-German mathematician and philosopher Johann Heinrich Lambert from two Greek terms whose combined meaning was "the setting forth or articulation of what shows itself." He used the term to refer to the illusory nature of human experience in an attempt to develop a theory of knowledge that distinguished truth from error. Immanuel Kant, a contemporary of Lambert, used the term only twice, but built the philosophical foundations for the ongoing development of it when he distinguished things as they appear to us (which he called phenomena) from things as they really are (which he called noumena). He proposed that a true and genuine knowledge of the transcendent (or noumena) was not possible as a science, but that a true and genuine knowledge of the immanent (or phenomena) as a description of the structures of human experience was possible, and proposed it as an appropriate field of philosophical and scientific inquiry. Georg W. F. Hegel, in his Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), reacted against Kant's splitting of phenomena and noumena. He proposed that phenomena were actual stages of knowledge progressing in evolutionary fashion from raw consciousness to absolute knowledge. For Hegel, phenomenology was the science by means of which we come to absolute knowledge through studying the ways our minds appear to us. The term was picked up by other philosophers but generally used of a specific study of phenomena. By the mid 1800s, it had become synonymous with "fact," and had acquired the meaning of a purely descriptive study of any subject.

In the early 1900s, a German group published a series of studies on phenomenology. The most influential thinker among the group was the Austrian-born philosopher Edmund Husserl. He sought to give philosophical foundations to a generally intuitive, non-empirical approach of phenomenological methodology. Husserl and the other like phenomenologists were generally reacting against a scientific methodology which demanded that life experiences be discarded for objective empiricism. They called for a recognition that such experiences, rather than being a hindrance, could be used as a means through which reality could be explored. As a result of Husserl's influence, the term now refers not only to a descriptive methodology but also to the movement of phenomenological philosophy. Philosophers who applied phenomenological methods to diverse disciplines include Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sarte, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Karl Jasper, Marvin Faber, and Paul Ricoeur. Though certainly not uniform in their thinking, they have generally stressed nonempirical intuitive investigation as the appropriate tool for understanding the fundamental realities of existence. Some philosophical phenomenologists (e.g., Max Scheler, Otto Grundler; Joachim Wach, Gerardus van der Leeuw) have devoted themselves to the study of religion. This is yet another sense in which the term "phenomenology of religion" may be used.

In the early 1900s, a German group published a series of studies on phenomenology. The most influential thinker among the group was the Austrian-born philosopher Edmund Husserl. He sought to give philosophical foundations to a generally intuitive, non-empirical approach of phenomenological methodology. Husserl and the other like phenomenologists were generally reacting against a scientific methodology which demanded that life experiences be discarded for objective empiricism. They called for a recognition that such experiences, rather than being a hindrance, could be used as a means through which reality could be explored. As a result of Husserl's influence, the term now refers not only to a descriptive methodology but also to the movement of phenomenological philosophy. Philosophers who applied phenomenological methods to diverse disciplines include Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sarte, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Karl Jasper, Marvin Faber, and Paul Ricoeur. Though certainly not uniform in their thinking, they have generally stressed nonempirical intuitive investigation as the appropriate tool for understanding the fundamental realities of existence. Some philosophical phenomenologists (e.g., Max Scheler, Otto Grundler; Joachim Wach, Gerardus van der Leeuw) have devoted themselves to the study of religion. This is yet another sense in which the term "phenomenology of religion" may be used.

Philosophical Phenomenology. There are several significant characteristics of philosophical phenomenology which are important to the phenomenology of religion. The watchword of the discipline, "Ze den Sachen!" ("To the things themselves!" or "To the data!") is at the foundation of phenomenological inquiry in all fields of inquiry. The phrase carries both exhortation and content. The exhortation is to get to work, and the content of our investigation is things as they appear in our immediate experience. Phenomenologists generally recognize that what is being discussed is not raw sense data, but experiences of sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, and feeling filtered through the interpretive grids we all use to make sense of the world we perceive. These occur in an almost limitless variety, and our immediate experience and interpretation of them is so complicated. Therefore, there is a stated opposition to reducing explanations of them to any single discipline or field of study or to reliance on universally applicable generalizations. Rather, like Gestalt Psychology, phenomenologists seek to consider the appearance of things as perceptual wholes.

Another underlying characteristic, developed by Husserl, is that all consciousness is a consciousness of or about something; it is always directed towards its object. This property of consciousness is called "intentionality". As far as our understanding of the consciousness is concerned, it does not matter whether the "object" of our thought is real or not, and therefore we may bracket or suspend questions of ultimate truth in our study of phenomena. Phenomenologists also refer to this suspension of judgement as epoche (derived from the Greek verb epecho, "I hold back") or reduction, but is not to be confused with reductionism as explained above. A final characteristic of phenomenological philosophy is that of the reliance on intuiting the universal essence or "whatness" of things, called the eidetic vision or eidetic reduction (adapting Plato's use of the Greek eidos as universal essence). Not all of these philosophical characteristics are used by religious phenomenologists, but almost universally they 1) use descriptive approaches, 2) oppose reductionism, 3) bracket truth questions and 4) seek intuitive insight into the essence of phenomena.

Phenomenology of Religion. The foundations for the use of phenomenology in religious discussion may be traced to Schleiermacher's Speeches on Religion (1799), in which he responded to the rampant rationalism in religious inquiry of his day. He called his contemporaries back to a sense of the role of human awareness in religious reflection. The phenomenology of religion as a discipline, however, was not developed until the late 1880s. It was then that P. D. Chantepie de la Saussaye, sometimes thought of as the founder of the phenomenology of religion, proposed in his Handbook of the History of Religion (1887) that the state of historical study of religious traditions needed to progress toward a phenomenological study of the inner essence of religious experience. Pivotal in the establishment of the phenomenology of religion as an accepted formal discipline was the work of van der Leeuw, especially his Religion in Essence and Manifestation (1938). In addition to van der Leeuw and Wach, well-known scholars in the phenomenology of religion include W. Brede Kristensen, Rudolf Otto, Friedrich Heiler, C. Jouco Bleeker, and Mircea Eliade. Generally these scholars use comparative, historical, and empirical approaches in seeking to understand the essence of religious phenomena, though they are not immune to movement beyond the purely descriptive into the normative when they find and discuss the essences of religious experience.

Distinctives of Phenomenology of Religion. There are several distinctives of the phenomenological of religion. First, it is descriptively oriented. Phenomenologists do not seek evaluative judgments, which are considered the domain of philosophy of religion. Rather, they seek accurate and appropriate descriptions and interpretations of religious phenomena. Such phenomena include rituals, symbols, prayers, ceremonies, theology (written or oral), sacred persons, art, creeds, and other religious exercises, whether corporate or individual, public or private. One particularly vexing problem in evaluative engagements in the scholarly arena is that fruitful discussion is often stifled as antagonists stake out emotional territories which color their attempts at careful reflection. Ideally, the phenomenological approach is a more productive one in which the researcher's goal is to allow the phenomena under investigation in some sense to speak for themselves, and issues of external validity are temporarily suspended.

Phenomenologists have as a goal the maintenance of a descriptive outlook in gathering, sifting, comparing, and analyzing the data of their studies. Above all, in the phenomenological approach one attempts to describe as accurately as possible the phenomena under consideration, including not only the events that occur but also the motives behind the events. The problem with explanation as found all too often in the empirical sciences is that in the process of explaining (and later predicting) the actual events themselves may be lost. The phenomenological approach is not oriented towards problem solving, but towards empathetic description. It thus keeps the events themselves as central. Further, the phenomenological method seeks to describe the phenomena from the perspective of the practitioner, known in anthropological circles as emic (or insider) description. As Smart has pointed out (1987), in crossing religious boundaries we are at the same time all too often crossing cultural boundaries, and thus a genuine cross-cultural approach is inherently necessary for an appropriate phenomenological method.

Some phenomenologists maintain that the phenomenological method does not have as a goal to explain the phenomena it describes (see Westphal, 1984). They maintain that explanation, following the behavioral science approach of Hume, Mill, and Hempel, is rooted in being able to discover universal laws which can be used to predict future behavior. It is this sense of explanation which phenomenology does not seek to posit. This does not mean that a phenomenological approach does not aim at understanding and interpretation, for it does. However, it does not seek explanation of a law-governed predictive nature--rather, it seeks to discover motives and intentions in the particular environment of the phenomena under consideration. To put it another way, the stated desire of the phenomenologist is not to find an explanation for a problem as much as to achieve an adequate understanding of it.

The phenomenological study of religion is comparative, but only in a limited sense. Because of phenomenology's emphasis on data, the more data incorporated the more potential significance of the study. Meaning may best be found in the data by using comparative methods, but the phenomenologist does not seek to list or describe similar practices across diverse religious traditions for the purpose of rating them from best to worst. Having divorced themselves from the evolutionary approach to religious development earlier in the twentieth century, and having bracketed off truth questions, phenomenologists are loathe to return to a form of comparison which might imply superiority or inferiority of one type of experience within a religious tradition as opposed to a similar practice in another religion. Because the comparative approach works best when harnessing significant types and amounts of data, the phenomenological study of religion is also systematic in its approach. Individual phenomena can best be understood not as isolated snap shots, but as belonging to a complex system of experiences all of which are related together, and thus an approach to religion as a system characterizes phenomenological methodology.

Following philosophical phenomenology, the phenomenologist of religion avoids reductionism. This is so significant that the criticism of reductionistic tendencies in the study of religion has occupied a significant amount of the phenomenological literature. To the phenomenologist, trying to reduce, and ultimately trivialize, religious phenomena to purely sociological, psychological, anthropological, economic, or environmental terms is a fundamental mistake. Such reductions ignore the complexity of the human experience, impose social values on transcendental issues, and ignore the unique intentionality of the religious participant. Phenomenologists do not seek a bird's-eye view, but, in Jonsson's term, a worm's-eye view.

Phenomenologists suspend questions of truth for the sake of developing insights into the essence of religious experience. The emphasis is on developing a genuine empathetic understanding of the experience in question, at times involving participation in the experiences under consideration to gain first-hand information. The phenomenologist of religion does not follow the metaphor of the detached, scientific observer. A more appropriate metaphor is that of an actor, who requires an intimate, empathetic knowledge of the part being portrayed for a successful production.

The development of insight into the essential structures and meanings of religious experience is the ultimate goal of phenomenology of religion. To arrive at such insights while demonstrating a rigorous methodology remains an unrealized hope for phenomenologists. This is in part because rigor and intuition are extremely difficult to combine in a field as laden with emotional content as religious studies. More importantly, however, once an "essence" is discovered, the question of ontology (or truth) can no longer be ignored. For example, when Eliade suggests that modern man is poorer than archaic generations because we have desacralized our view of the cosmos, he is no longer merely describing. Rather, he has moved into the type of ontological discussion which phenomenologists bracket out (Baird, Category Formation, 1971). At the same time that phenomenologists attempt to bracket out ultimate questions of truth, their methodology posits that the researcher accept the evaluations of the believers being studied. These are not to be accepted in regard to the ultimate question of truth, but in regard to the intentionality of the believers themselves. For phenomena to be interpreted in their context, the intentions of those who participate in the phenomena must be accepted. In this sense, the phenomenologist serves as a translator. In this metaphor, the intention is that of dynamic equivalence rather than wooden literalism, and the phenomenologist has the task of faithfully representing the experience of the devotee in the idiom of the phenomenologist's audience.

General Critique. There are several areas in which phenomenology of religion faces difficult questions in its quest to understand the essence of religious experience (for other areas, see Waardenburg, 1978).

In light of the recent deconstructionist critique of how we tend to define ourselves by the ways we describe others, phenomenology's claims of pure description have been open to examination. No one is immune from the influences of culture, historical setting, and social situation. Each of these areas lays assumptive claims on our world view. To claim to be purely descriptive is recognized as impossible in light of human conditions and constraints, let alone sin. Every person, phenomenologist included, has what might be termed hidden agendas driving the choice of data, method of analysis, and presentation of findings. In the literature, phenomenologists regularly cross the boundary from description to evaluation. Indeed, crossing such boundaries is part of what it means to be culturally and historically placed human beings and to have religious identity. Thus, the claim of phenomenology to be a purely descriptive methodology has come under attack.

Along similar lines, the phenomenologists' desire to simply accept the intentions of adherents as expressed naively eliminates the question of the deceitfulness of the human heart and our inability to know ourselves. This also is an important consideration in the intuitive approach, as the question of our own motives in the intuitive process are inappropriately bracketed. In other words, the personal psychology of the phenomenologist is not subject to examination, though this will have a considerable bearing on the types of intuitions developed as interpretations of religious phenomena. For us as Christians, the impact of sin on the human psyche dare not be ignored or down played, and this includes not only the phenomena being considered but the one who is reflecting on and seeking to describe those phenomena.

Some have charged that phenomenology tends to look at religious events as though they were a set of slides rather than a living video rooted in an historical context. The exclusion of phenomena from history or of excluding diachronic and developmental analysis altogether leaves phenomenology open to the challenge of flawed methodology. This lack of ability to properly contextualize the mass of religious phenomena typically considered by phenomenologists results in the presentation of what are assumed (or posited) to be representative events. The question of the representative nature of such events is difficult to resolve even when statistical methodologies are employed, let alone when dealing with a discipline that tends to eschew the expositing of undergirding predictive laws as its goal

The phenomenological reliance on eidetic vision or intuition also invites criticism. For instance, the very combination of "objectivity" and "intuition" is a contradiction of terms. Further, reliance on intuitive insights does not allow for escape from questions of verification. In this area phenomenology is open to charges of methodological flaws, for substantiating intuition and showing that one particular intuitive insight is more adequate than another is exceedingly difficult at best. This is particularly vexing when several phenomenologists study the same experience and each develops significantly different insights. The observation that the end result inevitably involves personal subjectivism is difficult for phenomenology to escape. More importantly, in light of biblical revelation, Christians who utilize a phenomenological approach must be willing to move beyond intuitive insight to ontological analysis in light of biblical revelation. This is especially significant in light of phenomenology's purported bracketing of truth in its methodology. This bracketing may be invaluable in the initial stages of developing an empathetic understanding of the religious experience of another. However, for the theologian or missiologist it can only be viewed as a valuable starting methodology which has its limitations.

Phenomenology demands an empathetic approach, for to represent another's religious experience in a way that the other would affirm demands empathy. In search of such empathy, there will always be a danger of identification to the extent that religious conversion occurs. Further, some phenomenologists advocate a form of participant observation. For the Christian, however, actual participation in certain types of rituals of another religion is an area full of difficulties. This may limit our ability to empathize, but is necessary in light of God's ultimate call on our lives.

Conclusion. The phenomenological approach to the study of religion has opened significant doors which are important in developing an empathetic understanding of the rich complexity of religious phenomena in the world. Missiologists regularly utilize phenomenological methodology in seeking understanding of religious phenomena in the world's contexts. For the theologian or missiologist, certain aspects of phenomenological methodology may be utilized profitably as a starting point for religious understanding. The emphasis on description, with the attendant caveats, is worthy of emulation. The avoidance of reductionism is a goal to strive for, since all too often in examining other religious phenomena we are prone to limit our explanations to one field of study or to overgeneralize our conclusions. The reliance on intuitive insight is initially helpful, but must ultimately give way to biblical revelation as the framework of our evaluative paradigm. Similarly, the ability to bracket questions of truth for the sake of understanding the phenomena at hand it helpful, as long as it is recognized that we as Christians must ultimately move beyond this bracketing toward evaluation in light of Scripture. In summary, and given the limitations discussed above, the phenomenological approach to religious study may be profitably employed as a helpful tool in understanding the bewildering variety of religious experiences. However, it must not be seen as an end in itself. Because of its emphasis on bracketing truth and human insight, the role of a phenomenological approach will of necessity be limited to that of a foundational step towards a biblical response to the religious phenomena in our world today.

 


Bibliography: Douglas Allen, "Phenomenology of Religion," Encyclopedia of Religion (1987); Robert D. Baird, Category Formation and the History of Religions (1971); Joseph Dabney Bettis, ed. Phenomenology of Religion: Eight Modern Descriptions of the Essence of Religion (1969); Walter H. Capps, Ways of Understanding Religion (1972); Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson, 1962); Åke Hulkrantz, "The Phenomenology of Religion: Aims and Methods," Temenos 6 (1970): 68-88; John N. Jonsson, Worlds within Religion (1987); Edward J. Jurji, The Phenomenology of Religion (1963); Eric J. Lott, Vision, Tradition, and Interpretation (1988); Ninian Smart, The Phenomenon of Religion (1973); Religion and the Western Mind (1985); Eric J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion: A History (1975); Herbert Spiegelbert, The Phenomenological Movement (1965); Gerhardus van der Leeuw, Religion in Essence and Manifestation (1938); Jacques Waardenburg, Reflections on the Study of Religion (1978); Merold Westphal, God, Guilt, and Death: An Existential Phenomenology of Religion (1984).

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