There is an eastern parable about three blind men who visit an elephant and return to their home villages to describe this strange creature. One reported that an elephant is like a flat pancake since all he felt were the ears. Another described the animal as a long, fat snake since all he felt was the truck. And the third blind man characterized it as a big, round rock since all he felt was the body. While each description was correct in some way, all three were also limited. This classic story is rich with religious meaning. First of all, it symbolizes how religions may grasp some aspect of the Divine, yet fall short of a complete understanding. How could one comprehend the Infinite if it truly is infinite? The story also indicates that we can learn a great deal from each other. No matter how much we think we know, other traditions may add a new, necessary ingredient.
The lessons learned here apply to the academic study of religion as well. There are different scholarly perspectives on religion, from Marx to Weber to Freud to Jung to Durkheim, and each one, while at times in radical opposition, offers a valuable insight to religion. For instance, Marxís claim that religion maintains the status quo appears to be challenged by Weberís insistence that religion stimulates social change. Yet, based on the particular context in which they speak, both scholars may have captured a certain aspect of religion. For a well-rounded understanding of this subject it is important to entertain all of the diverse positions. Why do we find historians, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, even neurologists so interested in religion in the first place? Perhaps it is because religion is less about God than it is about human beings--representing our psycho-social-emotional-biological state, our cultural values, and our overall history.
The purpose of this book is to introduce the student to the main questions in religious studies and to survey some of the dominant theories drawing from a variety of disciplines. In Chapter One the question that concern us is what is religion. Though this may seem like a straightforward type query we shall find out that there is much more involved. Religion cannot be defined so easily as several different definitions will be examined. Another important question, the topic of Chapter Two, is where did religion come from. The origin of religion has always received as great deal of interest, for comprehending this gives us a handle on religionís overall purpose. Chapter Three focuses on why we should study religion to begin with. As expected from one with a degree in the subject, I shall argue that religious studies is one of the most important topics we can study for several reasons, but mainly because understanding anotherís philosophy in part determines our human relations. And, perhaps most importantly, the topic of methodology (how we should study religion) receives our attention in Chapter Four. The difference between theology and religious studies and the value of sociology of religion and transpersonal psychology will be explained in this section. The last two chapters deal with the function of religion (what is its purpose) and the future of religion (where is religion heading).
Overall, this book is ideal for the introduction portion of a world religions course. Before jumping into the various belief systems and their histories it is important to explain the general dynamics of religion. Then when the student comes across Buddhist myths, Christian hagiography, Islamic ideological work, Hindu rituals, etc., one will be able to categorize it as such. Hopefully, at least in our understanding of religion, we need not remain as helplessly narrow visioned as the blind men describing the elephant.