The History of Religions

Religion is that part of human life that provides faith, meaning and value. It supplies the fundamental motivation for people to live by and at times die for their values, and it supplies answers to the ultimate questions of life. Humans need values, meaning and value — sources of faith and guidance for their lives in a world they cannot fully understand or control.

People may find those values in their families and in friends, in science and in art — in their work, play and personal relationships — but many people also turn to the value systems of their religions for those values. People need to feel they have a purpose and are in relationship with the universe, with God, with the Divine. They need to know they will be rewarded for good and punished for bad.

They need to be assured of their place in the world, their destiny and their responsibilities for all of humanity and all of nature. They need to have confidence in their ability to overcome limitations and achieve goals that seem attainable. Religions have been the earliest and most successful protective systems of that need, providing the security to explore human nature, society and the cosmos, and to work for a better world.

As cultus, religion involves ritual and practice as aids to emotions and expressions of valuation, and it includes the ideas that underlie those values and beliefs. The history of religions does not aim to study these things in isolation from their contexts or to impose on them any preconceived notions about what they must be, but rather to construct a map of the religious universe that is adequate to specific historical circumstances.

That map must include the cosmologies and worldviews that are prevalent in each region of the world and at each time, as well as the beliefs, practices and institutions that support them. It must also recognize that a religion is not an end in itself but a means to the ends of human existence and the world that lies beyond it. It must take account of the ways in which the spiritual needs of humans are expressed and fulfilled by all of the world’s religions — even when those religions are at odds with each other.

The history of religions must be aware that it is in danger of becoming a hermeneutical discipline, which fixes upon one interpretative key for unlocking the mystery of the phenomenon under study. It must beware the trap of the fundamentalism that has so dominated the history of Christianity and Islam in particular, or Hans Jonas’ intelligent application of modern existentialist categories to Gnosticism, or Rudolf Otto’s use of the category of the holy.

The history of religions must also be careful not to become a functional discipline, which uses the concept of religion as a taxon for a set of social practices, with paradigmatic examples such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, or the so-called world religions. This approach leads to simplistic understandings of the religions and robs them of their power.