INTRODUCTION

Chapter Outline:
    A.  Facing Mystery
    B.  A Basic Human Faith
    C.  The Development of Religion in Cultures and Individuals
    D.  The Academic Study of Religion

Facing Mystery
Although many thinkers have defined religion in different ways, this book will rely on the following definition: religion is a positive human response to mystery. In other words, religious belief and practice can give concrete meaning to things that are difficult or impossible for humans to understand. While religion is one response to mystery, it is not the only possible response. Some respond with ideas such as agnosticism (belief that mystery cannot be understood) or atheism (belief that mystery has no direction or meaning). These positions can either be strong or tentative. 

A Basic Human Faith
A positive response to mystery is something that most humans throughout history have shared.  Humans seem to have a general optimism that the world has meaning or makes sense. Human self-awareness allows us to reflect on our position in the order of things. Religion has long been a major expression of the human ability to conceive of life in a meaningful way.

 

Development of Religion in Cultures and Individuals

This course will follow an approach outlined by sociologist Robert Bellah, who theorized that religions pass through specific stages of development: primitive, archaic, historic (or "classical"), and modern.  This developmental pattern is also apparent in individuals, who seem to pass through similar stages of understanding.

 

The Academic Study of Religion

Theology is often defined as a rational reflection about the meaning and coherence of a religious tradition.  Although this course will discuss theology (Chapter 11), it would be more appropriate to call the course a “religious studies” course.   Theology typically is done from within a religious tradition; religious studies looks at religion from an “outsider’s” perspective.  The academic study of religion is an "outsider's" approach.

End of notes on the Introduction 

This page last changed Tuesday April 27, 2004

In The Presence of Mystery