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Religious Responses: Exploring the Dimensions of Religion

What is Religion?

Before sunrise, members of a Muslim family rise in Malaysia, perform their purifying ablutions, spread their prayer rugs facing Mecca, and begin their prostrations and prayers to Allah. In a French cathedral, worshipers line up for their tum to have a priest place a wafer on their tongue, murmuring, "This is the body of Christ." In a South Indian village, a group of women reverently anoint a cylindrical stone with milk and fragrant sandalwood paste and place around it offerings of flowers. The monks of a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery sit cross-legged and upright in utter silence, which is broken occasionally by the noise of the kyosaku bat falling on their shoulders. On a mountain in Mexico, men, women, and children who have been dancing without food or water for days greet an eagle flying overhead with a burst of whistling from the small wooden flutes they wear around their necks.

These and countless other moments in the lives of people around the world are threads of the tapestry we call "religion." The word is probably derived from the Latin, meaning "to tie back," "to tie again." All of religion shares the goal of tying people back to something behind the surface of life-a greater reality, which lies beyond, or invisibly infuses, the world that we can perceive with our five senses. Attempts to connect with this greater reality have taken many forms.

Many of them are organized institutions, such as Buddhism or Christianity. These institutions are complexes of such elements as leaders, beliefs, rituals, symbols, myths, scriptures, ethics, spiritual practices, cultural components, historical traditions, and management structures. Moreover, they are not fixed and distinct categories, as simple labels such as "Buddhism" and "Christianity" suggest.

Each of these labels is an abstraction that is used in the attempt to bring some kind of order to the study of religious patterns that are in fact complex, diverse, ever-changing, and overlapping. In addition, not all religious behavior occurs within institutional confines. The inner dimensions of religion-such aexperiences, beliefs, and values-can be referred to as spirituality. This is part of what is called religion, but it may occur in personal, noninstitutional ways, without the ritual and social dimensions of organized religions. Religion is multifaceted.

1. Why Are There Religions?

2. Understandings OfSacred Reality 

3. Religious Responses From candles and oil lamps to sacred fires, light is universally used to remind worshipers of an invisible reality. At Gobind Sadan, outside New Delhi, worship at a sacred fire continues twenty-four hours a day.

4. Ritual (public or private ceremonies).

5. Narrative and mythic (stories, including overall accounts of the universe and its creatures).

6. Experiential and emotional (feelings of guilt, dread, awe, devotion, ecstasy, peace, etc.)

7. Social and institutional (group dimensions involving shared beliefs, identity, membership).

8. Ethical and legal (rules concerning human behavior).

9. Doctrinal and philosophical (systematic belief structure and intellectual framework).

10. Material· (things and places representing or manifesting the sacred).

Any of these dimensions may be thought to be divinely revealed and manifested, but in a religion all of them will in some way refer to the sacred. Religion is such a complex and elusive topic that some contemporary scholars of religion are seriously questioning whether "religion" or "religions" can be studied at all. They have determined that no matter where and at what point they try to define the concept, other parts will get away. Nonetheless, this difficult-tograsp subject is central to many people's lives and has assumed great political significance in today's world so it is important to try sincerely to understand it. In this introductory chapter, we will try to develop some understanding of religion in a generic sense-why it exists, its various patterns and modes of interpretation, its encounters with modern science, its inclusion or exclusion of women, and its potentially negative aspects-before trying in the subsequent chapters to understand the major traditions known as "religions" practiced around the world today.

Belief Perspective: Ultimate Reality Exists From the point of view of religious belief, there truly is an underlying reality that cannot readily be perceived. Human responses to this Supreme Reality have been expressed and institutionalized as the structures of religions. How have people of all times and places come to the conclusion that there is some unseen reality, even though they may be unable to perceive it with their ordinary senses? Some simply accept what has been told to them or what is written in their holy books. Others have come to their own conclusions. In general, we have two basic ways of apprehending reality: rational thought and nonrational modes of knowing. Both modes have been highly developed in Indian religious traditions. The eminent twentieth-century philosopher and erstwhile president of India, S. Radhakrishnan ( 1888-1975) observed.

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