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II. DIMENSIONS OF RELIGION

In The Religious Experience of Mankind (1st edition 1969, 2nd edition 1976, 3rd edition 1984), Ninian Smart argued that a religion typically has six aspects or dimensions. In his most recent overview, entitled The World’s Religions: Old Traditions and Modern Transformations (1989), he again used these six dimensions and added a seventh. These dimensions are:

II.I. The Practical and Ritual Dimension

Religions typically have particular practices in which people engage. The form of these practices varies greatly and may include such activities as worship, preaching, prayer, meditation, confession, sacrifice, offerings, rites of passage and other sacred ceremonies.

Religions typically have particular practices in which people engage. The form of these practices varies greatly and may include such activities as worship, preaching, prayer, meditation, confession, sacrifice, offerings, rites of passage and other sacred ceremonies. Sometimes these practices are quite elaborate and publicly visible, as in the eucharistic liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church or the sacred ceremonies of Australian aboriginal religions. Sometimes they are much less elaborate and less publicly visible, as in the forms of meditation practised in Buddhism or the private prayer which is part of various religious traditions. In using the word “ritual” to describe such activities one does nor necessarily imply that there is a precisely specified form which the practices must take, nor does one necessarily imply that people undertake these activities simply out of habit. In many forms of ritual there is both an outer (or visible) and inner (or non-visible) aspect.

II.II. The Experiential Dimension

Just as the forms of religious practice vary, so too do the religious experiences which people claim to have had. The Buddha spoke of the enlightenment he experienced through meditation. Various Hebrew prophets and the prophet Muhammad spoke of the revelatory experiences that were the basis of their religious teachings. Some religious experiences which have been reported are quite dramatic, such as the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus, the experience of ecstasy associated with shamanism in central and northern regions of Asia, and the phenomenon of spirit possession in parts of Eurasia, Africa and the Pacific. Other reported religious experiences may be less dramatic but they are nevertheless regarded as real and significant by those experiencing them. Examples of the latter are experiences of sacred awe, divine illumination, enlightenment, a brilliant emptiness within, an assurance of salvation, etc.

II.III. The Narrative or Mythic Dimension

In very many religions, there are narratives. These narratives may be about the activities of God, gods or other spiritual entities, about the career of a sacred teacher, about the experiences of a religious collectivity, and so on. The narratives in the Jewish and Christian scriptures about the creation of the world, about the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses and about God’s leading the people of Israel out of Egypt fit into this category, as do the accounts given in Australian aboriginal religion of the activities of sacred beings in shaping the contours of the land. So, too, do the narratives in Islam about the life of the prophet Muhammad and in Buddhism about the experiences of Gautama (the Buddha). Smart emphasizes that he uses the term “mythic” in a purely technical sense to refer to a narrative which has religious significance. He does not imply that the narrative is necessarily false. In most preliterate cultures, religious beliefs are expressed primarily in narrative form, these narratives being transmitted orally.

II.IV. The Doctrinal and Philosophical Dimension

In literate cultures especially, doctrines in more or less systematic propositional form may result from reflection on what was initially cast in narrative form; alternatively or in addition, these doctrines may be derived at least partly from more general philosophical sources. The content of these beliefs or doctrines varies greatly from one religion to another, ranging, for example, from the doctrine of the Trinity in Christianity to the teachings of Hinduism about the continuous cycle of death and rebirth to which every creature is subject, from the 99 names for the one God in Islam to Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths about the nature of suffering, the cause of suffering, the possibility of a cessation of suffering, and the way that leads to this outcome. In some religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there are scriptures in which religious narratives and/or doctrines are recorded.

II.V. The Ethical Dimension

Smart states that “throughout history we find that religions usually incorporate a code of ethics” (The Religious Experience of Mankind, 3rd edition, p. 9). In Buddhism, for example, it is taught that one’s actions should be controlled by the Five Precepts—refrain from killing, from stealing, from lying, from wrongful sexual acts and from intoxicants. Judaism has the Torah (law) which contains not only the Ten Commandments but also many other moral, as well as ritual, prescriptions. Likewise Islam has the Shari’a (law) prescribing various moral and ritual duties. In Christianity, Jesus summed up his ethical teaching in the commandment “love your neighbour as yourself.” At least in some measure, the ethical dimension of a religion may tie in with parts of its doctrinal and mythic dimensions. For example, the Buddha’s injunction to refrain from intoxicants is consistent with his perception that such substances would obstruct self-awareness. The Christian teaching on love toward others is consistent with narratives of Christ’s own behaviour and with the doctrine that God is love. And the stern moral prescriptions in the Shari’a are consistent with Islamic teaching that each person will ultimately be subject to God’s judgment.

II.VI. The Social and Institutional Dimension

While it is possible, in principle, for an individual to have her or his own unique religious beliefs and to engage in her or his own religious practices without necessarily associating with other religious believers, most religions have some form of social organization. Especially in some small-scale societies, the social institutions in which religious practices take place may be identical with those in which other activities, such as economic activities, take place. In other societies, there are specialized religious institutions, such as organized denominations in Christianity, monastic orders in Buddhism, and congregations of the faithful in Judaism or Islam. Even within the same broad religious tradition, such as Christianity, there may be more than one model of religious organization—ranging, for example, from the formalized and hierarchical system of the Church of Rome to the more egalitarian and informal system in some Protestant churches. Many, but not all, religions have specialized religious functionaries such as gurus, monks, priests, imams, ‘ulema, rabbis, ministers, shamans, etc.

II.VII. The Material Dimension

In his recent book, Smart adds a seventh dimension of religion, the material dimension, in recognition of the fact that there are often specific religious artifacts, places, buildings, emblems, etc. The relative importance of these varies from religion to religion. In some small-scale societies, for instance, there are no specific religious buildings; on the other hand there may be parts of the natural environment which are invested with religious significance, such as sacred sites in Australian aboriginal religions, and Mount Fuji in traditional Japanese folk religion. Temples, mosques or churches constitute parts of the material dimension in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. In various religions there are also sacred or symbolic objects such as totems, relics, emblems, sacramental elements, and the like. It is important to note that although all, or nearly all, of the above dimensions are present in each of the major world religions, the emphasis on any particular dimension can vary from one religion to another, and even from one subtradition to another within the same broad religion. As Smart observes:

There are religious movements or manifestations where one or other of the dimensions is so weak as to be virtually absent: nonliterate small-scale societies do not have much means of expressing the doctrinal dimension; Buddhist modernists, concentrating on meditation, ethics and philosophy, pay scant regard to the narrative dimension of Buddhism; some newly formed groups may not have evolved anything much in the way of the material dimension.

Also there are so many people who are not formally part of any social religious grouping, but have their own particular worldviews and practices, that we can observe in society atoms of religion which do not possess any well-formed social dimension. (Ninian Smart, The World’s Religions: Old Traditions and Modern Transformations, p. 21)

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