What is it about Religious People?

What is it about Religious People?

Richter, Kent. Religion: A Study in Beauty, Truth, and Goodness Oxford University Press: 2017.

[An Installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

Here’s why I asked for a textbook for Christmas: because I am always on the lookout for textbooks, and because I had found this one that looked like it might be ideal for Introduction to Religion (theory and method), and because it was almost Christmas and I had been forbidden to buy anything for myself. What was I supposed to do?

Now that I’ve been through an entire session of the course, I’ve concluded that it is a good book in many ways, and works well in the structure of the class, although I miss some of the features of the book I used last time. And while I have some reservations, I think the things I appreciate outweigh them.

Cover of the book shows a Tibetan stupa and prayer flags

I especially like that Richter “gets” religion.

I know that seems like a strange thing to say about an introductory book on religion. You’d think that, of all people, the authors of books on religion would “get” religion. But you’d be wrong, I think.

Of course books on religion that are designed for teaching courses on religion need to take an outside, academic perspective on the topic. I agree with that, honestly. But beyond that, most introductory texts treat the religions like the animals in the zoo. They generally contain very little that really gives a reader any sense that religion is something people … live. Something that is part of religious people’s lives in much the way our jobs or our children or our homes are part of our lives.

As a religious person myself, I always notice this. I have felt for a long time that the approach misrepresents the reality of religion “on the ground.” The obligatory sidebars or pages in the middle of the chapter on each of the world religions that are in the voice of some “real Christian/Muslim/Buddhist/etc.” don’t make up for it.

So when I ran across Richter’s subtitle in one of my periodic searches, it felt promising. Because it rang true to the religious person in me. Religion does function, for religious people, as the compass that orients them/us towards Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. A triplet that I always think of as Aristotelian, which probably means it really came from Thomas Aquinas, which probably should have tipped me off that Richter’s book would be a little more Christian-centric than is entirely desirable for an introduction to religion textbook.

And sure enough, I did have that feeling at times during the session. Especially because Richter’s “working definition” of religion was “a complex set of beliefs, behaviors, and experiences rooted in some notion of transmundane reality thought of as Ultimate Being (18).” More Thomas Aquinas. “Being” works OK for the Judaism-Christianity-Islam set, but honestly not that well for Buddhism. So I found myself referring constantly to Ultimate Reality, and being immediately and constantly at odds with the book on that point.

He is up front about his approaching religion as a phenomenologist, and he discusses the elements of phenomenology of religion, which I appreciate. He has the characteristic blind spots of the phenomenological approach – he leans towards a somewhat unconscious essentialism, and he’s a little “world religions-y” in his orientation – but I have another book that corrects for that, so that feature works for me.

He is accessible. I did not hear the chronic refrain I heard last time about how it’s so hard to understand him because “he writes in a kind of old fashioned way.” [That is, with subordinate clauses.] And he has lovely chapter-by-chapter glossaries and a comprehensive index and helpful section introductions and summaries. He uses a lot of examples, and explains them pretty well, so that there is more “world religions” content in his book than I normally include in this course – kind of a free-with-purchase bonus. All good features.

And he speaks directly to issues of beauty, religious experience, and eschatology. As he himself points out, this is an underserved area in religion texts, even though it is really important for religious people. That was a big persuasion point for me, too.

Finally, he has a helpful way of returning to and incorporating the way religious people experience themselves as living in a coherent web of ideas and of ritual and social responses to those ideas. He uses the terminology of “internal logic,” and I confess that there I missed the language of “religious worlds” used by that “old-fashioned” author. [William E. Paden, Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994. If you can handle subordinate clauses, this is really a wonderful book, although it is something of a period piece in other ways as well.] But Richter is good at bringing up, over and over, the idea that religious phenomena make sense within their own frames of reference, and that those frames are organized and unified by religious people’s representations of Ultimate Reality.

We are getting farther and farther away, as a culture, it seems to me, from the Kantian understanding that there are things-in-themselves that are, in the end, the arbiters of whether things-for-us are anywhere close to correct. This basic idea was really hard for the students this session to understand – I think because it implies that people can think things and know things and say things and they can really be … well, wrong. Not just “wrong for them,” but wrong, in relation to … well, Reality. Richter’s up-front phenomenological treatment is based on that premise, of course, since phenomenology has its roots in that Kantian premise, and is in one sense all about recognizing and acknowledging our own ultimate ignorance.

That means we have to talk about it. I think that’s another good thing about this book.

And another indicator that Richter “gets” religion.

He knows there’s Something More to know.

A circular view of an endless stack of books
What’s next?

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