World Religions

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Religious life throughout the world, regardless of the specific tradition, exhibits both personal-psychological and communal-social aspects. Of course, persons within the diverse religious traditions of the world perceive the spiritual dimension of their faith as transcending both the individual psychological and emotional as well as the corporate and social aspects of their faith’s expressions. Nonetheless, two major academic strands of religious studies over the last century have focused primarily on either the psychological (e.g., James 1961; Freud 1928; Jung 1938) or the social (e.g., Weber 1963; Durkheim 1965; Wach 1958) dimensions of religion. An Oglala Lakota’s (‘‘Sioux’’ in Algonquian) vision reveals these two interactive aspects of religion.

The Plains Indians in America were noted for their vision quests, and periods of fasting and lifecycle rituals often were associated with those quests. However, the vision of Black Elk, a Lakota shaman, occurred spontaneously when he was 9 years old and was stricken by fever and other physical maladies (Neidardt 1972, pp. 17–39). His vision began with two men dressed in traditional garb but shaped like slanting arrows coming from the sky to get him. As a little cloud descended around him, the young Black Elk rose into the sky and disappeared into a large cloud bank. He saw an expansive white plain across which he was led by a beautiful bay horse. As he looked in the four directions, he saw twelve black horses in the West, twelve white horses in the North, twelve sorrel horses in the East, and twelve buckskin horses in the South. After the arrival of Black Elk, the horses formed into lines and formations to lead him to the ‘‘Grandfathers.’’ As this heavenly equine parade proceeded, horses appeared everywhere, dancing and frolicking and changing into all types of animals, such as buffalo, deer, and wild birds. Ahead lay a large teepee.

As Black Elk entered the rainbow door of the tepee, he saw six old men sitting in a row. As he stood before the seated figures, he was struck by the fact that the old men reminded him of the ancient hills and stars. The oldest spoke, saying,‘‘Your grandfathers all over the world are having a council, and they have called you here to teach you.’’ Black Elk later remarked of the speaker,‘‘His voice was very kind but I shook all over with fear now, for I knew that these were not old men but the Powers of the World and the first was the Power of the West; the second, of the North; the third, of the East; the fourth, of the South; the fifth, of the Sky; the sixth, of the Earth.’’

The spokesman of the elders gave Black Elk six sacred objects. First, he received a wooden cup full of water, symbolizing the water of the sky that has the power to make things green and alive. Second, he was given a bow that had within it the power to destroy. Third, he was given a sacred name, ‘‘Eagle Wing Stretches,’’ which he was to embody in his role as shaman (healer and diviner) for his tribe. Fourth, he was given an herb of power that would allow him to cleanse and heal those who were sick in body or spirit. Fifth, he was given the sacred pipe, which had as its purposes a strengthening of the collective might of the Lakota tribe and a healing of the divisions among the Lakota, to allow them to live in peace and harmony. Finally, Black Elk received a bright red stick that was the ‘‘center of the nation’s circle’’ or hoop. This stick symbolized a sacred focusing of the Lakota nation and linked the Lakota to their ancestors as well as to those who would follow them.


Sri Lanka-Religion-Buddhism

Figure 1: Sri Lanka-Religion-Buddhism

Black Elk’s vision ended with a flight into a foreboding future in which the Lakota would encounter white-skinned ‘‘bluecoats’’ who would threaten the sacred hoop of the Lakota nation. Many years later, as Black Elk reflected on his vision, he realized that even in the devastating upheaval caused by the wars between his nation and the ‘‘bluecoats,’’ his people had been given the sacred objects and rituals that would allow them to rise above mundane exigencies and to heal the nation and restore the hoop in times of trouble.

The vision of Black Elk makes it clear that what sometimes appear to be perfunctory religious rituals, fantastic myths, or arcane ethical injunctions often have their roots in a deep sense of the contact between human beings and that which they have experienced as a divine power. This article emphasizes the social aspects of world religions, but it is important to keep in mind that the religious experiences codified in the social institutions of the world’s religions are not fully captured by psychological or sociological explanations alone. There has been a tendency in the academic study of religion to interpret religious experiences and behavior by reducing them to psychological or social causes or antecedents. For example, Sigmund Freud (1928) reduces religious experiences to unconscious projections of human needs that he likens to infantile fantasies that rational humans should grow beyond. A contemporary of Freud, Emile Durkheim (1965, p. 466), has a tendency to reduce religions to their social functions: ‘‘If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion.’’

While the pioneering work of Max Weber and Durkheim laid the groundwork for much of contemporary social analysis of religion, comparative sociologists of religion such as Joachim Wach (1958) have tempered earlier tendencies toward sociological reductionism. Wach sought to understand the nature of religion by examining traditions throughout the world and noting the primary elements they shared. He identified religious experience as the basic and formative element in the rise of religious traditions around the world and then investigated the expression of this experience in thought, action, and community.

Wach said that there is a symbiotic relationship between religion and society. On the one hand, religion influences the form and character of social organizations or relations in the family, clan, or nation as well as develops new social institutions such as the Christian church, the Buddhist sangha, and the ‘‘Lakota nation.’’ On the other hand, social factors shape religious experience, expression, and institutions. For example, in Black Elk’s vision, the role of the warrior in Lakota society is expressed through the two men who come to escort Black Elk into the sky, and in his later mystical venture into the future, Black Elk as Lakota shaman (wichash wakan is one who converses with and transmits the Lakota’s ultimate spiritual power, or Wakan) becomes the ultimate warrior who battles a ‘‘blue man’’ (perhaps representing personified evil or the dreaded ‘‘bluecoats’’). Lakota social conventions that name the natural directions as four (North, South, East, West) are modified by Black Elk’s vision to include Sky and Earth, making six vision directions that influence the number of elders Black Elk encounters in the heavenly teepee and the number of sacred objects he is given. Here the shaman’s vision modifies socialconventions even as it creates a social subconvention for other visionaries who also name the directions as six. The objects are conventional implements of Black Elk’s culture that are empowered to serve symbolically as multivocal conveyors of sacred knowledge and wisdom. Finally, Black Elk’s vision can be viewed sociologically as confirming the corporate sacredness (the sacred hoop) of the nation of the Lakota. For example, a Lakota’s vision was powerful and meaningful only to the extent that the tribe accepted it. In this sense one can understand why Durkheim would say that religion, in this case the Lakota’s, is society writ large in the sky.

However, for Wach and for scholars, such as Niman Smart (1969), who follow his lead, the forms and expressions of religious life are best understood as emanating from religious experience. Smart identifies six dimensions that all religions share:

(1) ritual,

(2) mythological,

(3) doctrinal,

(4) ethical,

(5) social, and

(6) experiential.

The author of this article has provided an interpretative framework for understanding the necessary interdependence of these six elements of religious traditions in Two Sacred Worlds: Experience and Structure in the World’s Religions (Shinn 1977). These dimensions of the religious life form the structure of this analysis of the social aspect of world religions.


A Jewish synagogue

Figure 2: A Jewish synagogue.

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