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A Methodological Approach to the Investigation of Religions

A Methodological Approach to the Investigation of Religions

Robert Barton and Sarah L. Gregory-Barton

             Regardless of historical time or culture, when delving into religious studies, there are various areas of structure that should be examined. Our intent here is to develop a regular and thorough method by which this may be accomplished. A methodology is necessary so that one is not only able to have a comprehensive view of his or her own religion, but also thereby have a consistent framework through which any religion may be seen. Especially in the religious community, two major difficulties have surfaced from a lack of such foundational directives. There has been an urgent need for researchers within the community to have an organized methodology in order to converse about their own religions to those of their faith as well as a standard set of properties by which communications between faiths may occur. Also, outside of this community, anthropological experts will be able fill in the answers to these questions from the gathered archeological and other evidences; even though a concrete “religion” might not be immediately accessible or apparent from the physical evidence. Hence, they may reason that such a methodology is a means for further understanding of a culture’s religion.

 1.Nature of the sacred reality, central reality or absolute reality: Is there a concept of a central or absolute reality toward which the religion orients itself? How does this central or absolute reality relate to the every day world of the people? What is the nature of this central reality?

 2.Extent of the system: Is the nature of the system to be a universal religion or a cosmic religion?

 A.Who is included? Is the religion believed to include all of humanity or does it only include a specific group such as a linguistic or cultural group?

B. Where does it extend? Is it seen as encompassing all of creation or is the ‘world’ of the religion defined or limited to a specific geographical area such as the lands of a tribal body?

3. Ontology: What exists? What does it mean to exist? Is there a single form of existence or multiple forms of existence “spiritual” “material” “divine”? If there are multiple forms of existence, how do the various forms relate to one another?

 A. Cosmogony: How did the world come into being? Was the world created by a being, from a being or was it given order from a preexisting wild state?

 B. Cosmology: What is the nature of the world? How is the world organized and structured? What do the words for direction mean?

a. Physics: What are the explanations for the physical world? What is it made of?

b. Metaphysics: Is there a metaphysical structure underlying the world or worlds, if so what is the nature of that structure?

 c. Eschatology: Is the world believed to have an end at some point in the future? If so how will it end? Is the end seen as an end of existence in an ultimate universal crisis? Is the end seen as an end of the order of the cosmic system or some aspects of the cosmic system in an ultimate social or spiritual crisis?

   C. Numinology: Does the system recognize the existence of a set of numinous realities, and if so, with what are these realities associated? How many are there? Do they possess personhood or are they impersonal? Do human beings possess numina, such as souls? Do the creatures and/or structures of the world possess numina? This is often referred to as animism. Do the forces of nature possess numina? This is often referred to as dynamism.

 a. Origin: How do or did the numina come into being? If so, when, from where and from what did or do numina come into being? Did they or do they come into being for some specific purpose?

 b. Destiny: What happens to numina? If humans have numina what happens to them after death? If creatures and structures or the world have numina, what happens to them after death or destruction of the structure or object?

D. Theology: Does the system include a concept of the divine? What is the nature of the divine? Is there one god? Are there two gods in a dualistic relationship of negative opposition, or a dualistic relationship of dynamic mutually supporting opposites? If there is a duality, on what dual system is it based? Is there a form of monistic polytheism in which there are many gods all seen as manifestations of one source? Is it completely polytheistic with individual gods dealt with as having their own personalities? Can new gods come into being, can they die?

a. Nature of the relationship of the divine to the rest of the world: How does the divine relate to the world? Does one god create and control or is creation and/or control shared among gods? Do gods have specific special areas of concern or are they more generalized? Can the gods be appeased, communicated with, placated or asked for favors? 

E. Humanity: What are the components of a human? Do we see defined components such as body, mind, spirit, soul, shade, breath, face and honor? Does identity revolve around the individual or the role of the individual in the society, who the individual comes from, what family or clan they are part of or various combinations of these factors? What makes up and defines a person?

a. The nature of humanity relating to the rest of the world: Does humanity have any special sovereignty over other creatures or the world in general? Does humanity have any special responsibility toward other creatures? How does human kind relate with gods, spirits or other creatures?

 F. Time: Are concepts of time historical and seen through a linear progression or are they cyclical with a periodic creation and recreation. Is sacred narrative located historically or is it located in a mythic time cycle?

 4. Cultural institutionalization: Is this religion considered a separate, defined religion or is it part of a cultural whole that is not separable in the minds of the people? Is the religion new and learned from others or is it old and part of the ‘way of the people’?

 5. Liturgy: This area is a common problem area since so many researchers have confused liturgy with specific liturgies and not recognized the fact that while we may not have a specific complete liturgy we may actually be able to find out a great deal about the subject of liturgy in a culture. Another point of confusion is that many researchers not being trained in religion equate liturgies with religion and believe that if they do not have a specific liturgy to research they cannot research the religion in any way. We end up with the problem that anthropological or linguistic scholars who are untrained in religious studies have a lot of information that they are not qualified to interpret relative to religion and if they do not have the text of a specific liturgy in hand they believe that there is no evidence of the details of religion.

A. Liturgical roles: Do different people in a community have different roles in relation to liturgy and religious practice? How many different roles are there? How are these roles distributed among the people? How do people qualify for these roles? Are there liturgical and religious specialists such as clergy? Are there people with no liturgical role at all? Does the community relate to the central reality collectively with a corporate identity or does each person relate individually?

  a. Specialized roles: How do the holders of specialized roles relate to the rest of the people? How do they relate to the central or absolute reality of the system? Do the holders of specialized roles possess any type of agency, if so, where does that agency originate? Are specialists functioning as prayer leaders with no specific agency? Are specialists sacramental with an agency in which they represent the divine? Are specialists sacrificial with an agency as representatives of the people?

 b. Unspecialized roles: How do the holders of non-specialized roles relate to the specialists? How do the holders of non-specialized roles relate to the central reality? Do they participate actively or passively in ritual actions? Are non-specialists excluded from some or all liturgical practices?

 c. Role of divine and spirits: Are spirits or divinities seen as present? Are they witnesses or do they have functions to perform?

  B. Sacred places: Are sacred places permanent, temporary or do we see some of each? How defined are the sacred places?

a. Natural: To what extent are sacred places or some sacred places naturally occurring? Do these sacred places have a special numinosity or a special mythic significance?

b. Constructed: Are sacred places or some sacred places constructed? Are they constructed on a naturally sacred site or are they completely synthetic? Are they made sacred through the process of prayer and ritual and so become sacred because they are used to a sacred purpose or are they made sacred by the presence of some sacred object or relic?

 c. Place of the divine: Are these sacred places considered a home for a deity or a place where deity can be especially communicated with?

C. Liturgical rhythms: How are the rites and festivals organized?

 a. Institutionalization: What is the organization of group rites such as seasonal rites?

b. Personal: Birth, death, rites of passage when are these done? Are they always personal or are they performed periodically in groups?

D. Liturgical principles: What are the definable principles seen in the liturgies? Centrality, liminality, sacrifice, reciprocity, ecstasy and possession are all themes and principles that may run through a liturgical practice.

E. Liturgies: Are there specific liturgical actions that must always be done.

 F. Liturgical purposes or functions: Adoration, thanksgiving, petition, purification contractual, cosmic and ontological transformation are all possible functions for liturgies.

 6. Morality: Is morality relevant to the system? Does the central reality have a moral dimension? Is human suffering related to moral status or the moral dimension of gods, spirits or various realities?

 A. Moral codes:  Is there a specific moral code taught in the system, and if so what is it and how is it taught? What defines and justifies the moral code as correct?

 B. Evil: How is evil viewed? Is evil seen as a state of being or as a type of action chosen? Is their a being which is evil?

 7. Etiquette and procedure: Are matters of etiquette and proper procedure relevant to the system? Does the central reality respond to such matters? Is human suffering related to improprieties of etiquette on the part of human beings or other entities?

 A. Code of Etiquette and procedure:  Is there a specific code of etiquette taught in the system, if so what is it and how is it taught?

 8. Mysticism: Is there an experiential dimension to the system?

 A. Mystical disciplines: Are there specific methods to foster religious experience practiced within the system? How are these regarded? Are these methods and experiences reserved to a specific group of people or specialists? Are there formal or informal arrangements to teach these mystical disciplines? Do formal or informal arrangements exist to prevent the misuse of these disciplines or to punish those who inappropriately teach or practice these mystical disciplines?

 B. Mystical experiences: What forms do religious experiences take in the system? Are spontaneous experiences recognized, and what value is given to them? Are there formal or informal arrangements to provide assessment and valuation to religious experiences? If a mystical experience conflicts with accepted belief or practice, how is the conflict resolved?

 9. Sacred Narrative: Does the systems have narratives, written or oral that are specially privileged? What are these narratives? How do these narratives relate to concepts of identity and history internal to the culture or external to the culture? What role do these narratives play within the system? How do these narratives relate to other aspects of the system? 


Animism: The belief that objects possess a soul, soul-like quality or vital living principle.

Centrality: The cosmological principle in which the parts of a cosmological system exist relative to a sacred center.

Cosmic Religion: A term used by religious historians to describe religious systems which apply to a specific body of people and/or a specific geography. Tribal spiritual systems of worship and belief are often limited to “The People” and “The World” in which the people live and so are often referred to as cosmic religions.  

Cosmogony: A myth which gives an account of how the “world” of a religion was created, given form or originally systemized. These myths can be seen in forms ranging from an initial creation from nothingness to a story of how the gods and or people came to be in the world and gave shape to the wilderness. The primary identifying element of a cosmogonic myth is the giving or establishing of form.

Cosmology: The structure of a world.

Dynamism:  The belief that natural forces possess a soul, soul-like quality or vital living principle.

Eschatology: The knowledge of the end of things. This subject deals with beliefs about the end of the world or system of order.

Liminality: The concept of there being a defined edge or limit to worlds and systems. The point of division between what is inside of a system and what is outside of a system.

Liturgy: A system of ritual and ceremony.

Metaphysics: The study of what is believed to be beyond physics or beneath what may be perceived through our physical senses.

Monism: A philosophical position which holds that all that exists is of a single substance or of a single kind. Often the single substance of which all things partake are seen as either physical or mental. Another monistic position maintains that all things exist of a neutral substance that may be organized in either physical or mental systems.

Numinous: The perceived presence of a spirit.

Ontology: From ontos (being) and logos (knowledge, discourse or reason). In religious studies this term is used to define areas of belief about the nature of being and existence.

Sacrament: A substance or act that is invested with some type of special spiritual grace invested in it through divine will.

Theology: From theos (god) and logos (knowledge, discourse or reason) and used to represent the study and discussion of the nature of deities, the sacred and or the divine.

Universal Religion: A category of religions which maintain that they are aware of or in possession of an absolute truth applicable to the entirety of existence and all people or beings.