What is Religion and how do we study it?

In every introductory class that I have ever taken, we have discussed the basics of studying and framing religion in an academic way. For this class however, it was framed slightly differently, but effectively. Peter started with the idea that “religion is spilled poetry.” A poetic line, to be sure, but what does it mean? It has a lot to do with the origins of religion. What scholars know is that humanity started to be religious at the same time that they started to be artistic. When humanity couldn’t use the world in front of itself to express certain types of ideas, they went to symbols, stories, and metaphors to communicate the greatest mysteries they faced.

Peter took this a little further and said that while there is an artistic imagination, there is also a religious imagination that is very similar. Imagination is a word that Peter loves to use, and he also really likes myth and metaphor. However, we as a class needed to spend a little time talking about what connotation these words carry. Myth and imagination make one think of fiction and falsehood, but myths may be based on facts and may carry truths within them like fables. In the study of religion though, it’s not our job to decide that.

This language continues to be interesting to me and troubling to me, simply because I am a religious person, and I wonder if the Exodus carries the same meaning if I find out that it didn’t happen exactly the way it says so in the “Good Book”. The question comes down to, how do we study the history of a religion and separate what actually happened from what the faith would say happened. This is the separation of the secular history from the sacred history and it’s also important to study both. And we’ll see how that dichotomy plays out. Hopefully it will be a nice mix of the sacred and the secular much like the character of Father Brown that G. K. Chesterton created (one of Father Brown’s stories “The Miracle at Moon Crescent” was part of our first night’s reading).

I’ll leave you with a quote that Peter also started us with,

 “Once we accept an imaginative literalism, everything else falls into place … [the myths of Scripture] become, as purely literary myths cannot, myths to live by; its metaphors become, as purely literary metaphors cannot, metaphors to live in.”

Northrop Frye, The Double Vision