The Phenomenology of Religion as Understanding the Human
– Indicating a Direction
Gavin Flood and Oliver Davies
The Phenomenology of Religion has virtually disappeared as a serious intellectual endeavor having been subjected to sustained political and philosophical critique primarily on three fronts: from (a) what might broadly be called a socio-cultural constructivist stance, from (b) the Neuroscience of religion, and from (c) Phenomenological Theology. (a) The socio-cultural critique has highlighted that the Phenomenology of Religion either has no explanatory power because it is in thrall to the categories of religions themselves in its declared attempt to be descriptive or that it contains an implicit theology that ignores power structures in the histories of civilizations. On this view the study of religion should be critique, a critique whose origins lie in a Critical Theory perspective (and partly in Deconstruction), which has, at the end of the day, an emancipatory agenda in exposing the structures of power and oppression, particularly of women and the colonized other. (b) The neuroscience of religion has been unabashedly reductionistic with the high ambition of explaining the cultural fact of religion through individual neurological processes. (c) Theological Phenomenology has drawn the Phenomenology of Religion away from its agnostic or secular presuppositions towards an exclusively Christian theological orientation. In contrast to (a) and (b), the appropriation of Phenomenology by (mostly Francophone) Theology, has sought to redescribe Christian thinking in terms of phenomenological categories – such as Being, body, world – that is in the articulation of Christian truth. This absorption of Phenomenology by Christian Theology is an implicit critique of the Phenomenology of Religion on the grounds that the latter disclaims truth in the service of agnostic description.
There are, however, problems with these forms of critique. What we might call the ‘power critique’ of the Phenomenology of Religion as well as the Neuroscience perspectives are too reductionist in not taking seriously emic claims and in not regarding human aspiration to verticality as having explanatory force. The Theological critique becomes too specialized, restricted to Theology, and loses relevance to the wider society and pluralist communities in which we live; it becomes the pursuit of privileged elites.
The purpose of this conference is to examine these issues with a view to an intellectual reinvigoration or repristination of the Phenomenology of Religion not as its former incarnation of an attempted neutral description of religions’ doctrines, practices, and histories, but with a view to its explanatory potential as a form of philosophical analysis that drives to the heart of what it is to be human. If what we might call ‘the religious impulse’ or less controversially ‘the vertical attraction’ present through the histories of civilizations is central to the humanum, then a Phenomenology of Religion is an intellectual practice that seeks to expose its parameters. The Phenomenology of Religion is thus a philosophical discourse about what it is to be human and a way of offering an account of religions (in the plural) through history. A Phenomenology of Religion on this view is a kind of Philosophical Anthropology.
In concrete terms, such a programme might entail an initial level of description that draws on the ontic sciences such as Psychology or Sociology but in particular, perhaps above all, Philology. The Philological study of religious documents sets Phenomenology at a coal face of religious articulation and the evidential ground of the history of civilizations. A higher-level Phenomenology that assumes the first level will ask questions of meaning and raise the necessity of the specification of constraint in any given instance and might constructively interact with the hard sciences, such as Evolutionary Anthropology. A further level might raise questions of truth, would be a primarily ontological inquiry, and might interface with the Philosophy of Religion. The first level Phenomenology is close to what in Anthropology has been called the Ontological Turn, although this current proposal is focused on ontologies exposed through deep textual study. Here Philology comes into its own as the way in which a civilization can show itself through the texts it produces. This is to privilege text as the most important site of cultural production and to rejoice in the method that allows what shows itself to be seen. Our conference will begin to explore the enterprise that is the Phenomenology of Religion, as being richly human and as being simultaneously detached and engaged. A new Phenomenology of Religion is actively and joyously dialogical in the fields of its production (textual or even ethnographic) and concerned above all with exposing human truth and articulating a Philosophical Anthropology that must re-vision the human in the contemporary situation of the post-global pandemic and the environmental imperative to change our habits. This new Phenomenology of Religion will be relevant in its cultural fields of production and at the end of the day, needs to offer more than description but a deeper, contemporary account of what it is to be human.
The Model of Verticality
The intellectual object of the Phenomenology of Religion needs to be the process of verticality in the human case.7 The model is quite simple and arguably shared across the histories of civilizations as can be seen from the work on the history of human civilizations since the Enlightenment.8 It is as follows. The historical religions (that have been the conceptual engines of civilizations9) have had text as their foundational resource: the extension of language into a field of privilege and something set aside from quotidian use. But text alone is insufficient to generate human transformation that the history of civilizations has required and needs to be embodied in practice. It is not beliefs, but embodied practices recapitulated through the generations that are constitutive of religions, and these practices are enactments or what we might call entextualisations of scriptures, a pattern that we see repeated through civilizations.
Verticality as human experience and aspiration is generated by the interaction of text and practice. What is verticality? It is openness to cosmos and an orientation that regards the telos of human life as being something beyond itself. Such as telos has been traditionally described as salvation, realizing the eschaton, liberation, or even utopia in traditional terms. I am sympathetic to Martin Reisebrodt’s understanding of religion as the promise of salvation.10 We might say, then, that religions have emerged historically through the interaction of tool use/technology and sociality that produces advanced linguistic consciousness, which in turn is understood as mediating the relationship between human communities and wider cosmos. Verticality is a kind of process that involves practice and while it might have a telos, that telos is always future orientated and never arrived at. Religion on this view is focused on text in conjunction with ritualization and it is this fusion of text and act that is the intellectual object of a Phenomenology of Religion that thereby not only has descriptive power but explanatory force in recognizing the centrality of first/second person accounts in the explanation and understanding of human life both historically and in the contemporary world. We call this verticality in order to distance this Phenomenology from the notion of transcendence that implies something outside of world. Something outside world could not be the object of a Phenomenology of Religion, but verticality can be an intellectual object because always within world (where Dasein’s being-in-the-world is the assumed given).
A Hindu Example
We might illustrate this with an example from the history of world civilizations, namely the amalgam of traditions originating in India that we name ‘Hinduism.’ This provides a fine illustration because of the ancient continuity of the tradition and because its fundamental recognition of openness to cosmos generated through entextualised practice. That these practices are accompanied by clearly demarcated, unequal social boundaries – castes – and that ancient India was a slave society like all ancient societies including Europe, and some more modern ones such as the USA, should not detract us from a phenomenological description of verticality as the dynamic of the interaction of text and practice.
Rather than attempt a summary history of Indian religions, let us simply take one example from that long history in the early medieval period. From around the seventh to thirteenth centuries India was dominated by what we might call tantric religion, in particular a tradition focused on the deity Śiva, regarded as the theos, the creator, sustainer and destroyer of the universe. In this religion of tantric Śaivism – that called itself the Mantra Mārga, the path of the linguistic codes for changing self and world – we have a textual revelation regarded as being from Śiva and a set of practices that enact that revelation with a view to salvation from the cycle of reincarnation and also the attaining of magical power in this world and pleasure in higher worlds invisible to the human eye. Within this Mantra Mārga were a number of traditions, in one of which ultimate reality is conceptualized as the union of Śiva in the form of Ānandabhairava and his consort Ānandabhairavī. There is a text extoling these two or even this composite deity, surrounded by a retinue of goddesses each associated with human faculties, namely the five senses along with the mind (manas), the intellect (buddhi) and the sense of self or ego (ahaṃkāra). This text that is called the ‘Hymn of praise to the circle of deities located in the body’ (Dehasthadevatācakrastotra) is enacted in daily practice. That is, it would have been recited and the circle of deities visualized or meditated upon in the heart of the practitioner. Indeed, the manuscript of the hymn is accompanied by a description of the visualization to accompany its recitation.
The purpose of this practice is the understanding that the cosmos and body are identified with or rather are an emanation of the God/Goddess identified with a pure consciousness (caitanya) and power (śakti). Although not mentioned in the text itself, we know from its wider context that this emanation of cosmic powers conceptualised as goddesses is regarded as rhythmic pulsation – throb or vibration (spanda) – that the practitioner realizes in themselves or that is internalized. Here text plus meditative/ritual action leads to an openness to cosmos identified with the body. This is a verticality – an aspiration to vertical ascent to the deities regarded as being located at the top of the cosmos. This cosmos is also conceptualized as being within the human heart in the image of a lotus. In this example we see the way in which text (the hymn itself) is turned into practice (its recitation and meditation) in the life of practitioners and how its telos of liberation and power can be redescribed in terms of verticality for a more abstract, phenomenological model.
The Phenomenology of Religion and Philology
This example is intended to illustrate the relevance of a Phenomenology of Religion whose intellectual object is the integration of text into practice and the consequent aspiration to verticality thereby entailed. In concrete terms, such a programme of Phenomenology might entail an initial level of description that draws on the ontic sciences such as Psychology or Sociology but in particular, perhaps above all, Philology. The Philological study of religious documents – such as the hymn just cited – sets Phenomenology at a coal face of religious articulation and the evidential ground of the history of civilizations. A higher-level Phenomenology that assumes the first level will ask questions of meaning and raise the necessity of the specification of constraint in any given instance and might constructively interact with the hard sciences, such as Evolutionary Anthropology. A further level might raise questions of truth, which would be a primarily ontological inquiry, and might interface with the Philosophy of Religion. The first level Phenomenology is close to what in Anthropology has been called the Ontological Turn, although the focus of a Phenomenology of Religion would be on ontologies exposed through deep textual study. Here Philology comes into its own as the way in which a civilization can show itself through the texts it produces. This is to privilege text as the most important site of cultural production and to rejoice in the method that allows what shows itself to be seen.
The critique of Religious Studies in recent years as simply one of the last gasps of a Western hegemony that seeks to impose its own categories on the colonized other or relegate worldviews of the global south to a lower understanding of the world, cannot be leveled against a new Phenomenology such as this. On the contrary, rather than the imposition of hegemonic categories, it seeks the challenge dominant modes of ‘western’ thinking through the absorption of forms of thinking other than it. By letting be seen that which shows itself, what shows itself in traditions of the global south becomes absorbed into the framework of verticality. While Phenomenology is perhaps not directly engaged in social critique – as Critical Theory – it is nevertheless transformative through the absorption of other ways of thinking and in recognition of the shared human sociality that has been constitutive of the human species.
This Phenomenology of Religion is simultaneously detached and engaged. A new Phenomenology of Religion is actively and joyously dialogical in the fields of its production (textual or even ethnographic) and so is necessarily interpretative. Implicit here is the idea that a new Phenomenology of Religion is always Hermeneutical and so concerned with exposing human truth and articulating a Philosophical Anthropology. Such a Phenomenology must re-vision the human in the contemporary situation of the post-global pandemic and the environmental imperative to change our habits. This new Phenomenology of Religion will be relevant in its cultural fields of production and at the end of the day, needs to offer more than description but a deeper, contemporary account of being human in a globalizing world. Religions as the ritualization of text that embodies cultural memory and generates verticality, as the intellectual object of the Phenomenology of Religion reveals something central to the human experiment, namely the transformative power of human communities’ openness to cosmic constraint.11
1 Danielle Hervieu-Léger, Religion as a Chain of Memory, trans Simon Lee (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000 (1993)).
2 Gavin Flood, The Ascetic Self: Subjectivity, Memory and Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 8-13.
3 Martin Heidegger, The Phenomenology of Religious Life, trans. Matthias Frisch and Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferecei (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), p. 22. See also Hent de Vries, Philosophy and the Turn to Religion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), pp. 175-81.
4 Thomas Wynn, ‘The Palaeolithic Record,’ in Maggie Tallerman and Kathleen R. Gibson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp.282-95.
5 Michael J. O’Brien, Briggs Buchanan, Metin I. Eren, ‘The transparency of Imitation versus Emulation in the Middle Palaeolithic,’ chapter 3 in Convergent Evolution in Stone-Tool Technology (Cambridge Mas.: MIT Press, 2018).
6 The phrase ‘religiously human’ will be controversial. For the last thirty years or more the Phenomenology of Religion has come under sustained attack from critical and constructivist perspectives that wish to explain away religion as an epiphenomenon of processes of socio-political power and a hegemony that seeks to understand and dominate the other through a monological epistemic model. This has argued against the notion of religion being sui generis in any sense and against the idea of Eliade’s homo religiosus. But new ways of understanding the human in evolutionary terms necessitate our rethinking and revisiting the idea of what we name ‘religion’ as being fundamental to human life.
7 The term ‘verticality’ has been used in particular by Anthony Steinbock in his important book Phenomenology and Mysticism: the Verticality of Religious Experience (Bloomington: Indian University Press, 2007), in particular the notion of ‘vertical givenness’. It is also a term found in Peter Sloterdjik’s discussion of ‘Height Psychology’, You Must Change Your Life (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), pp. 113-14.
8 For example, Robert Bellah’s magisterial last book Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011).
9 What constitutes a civilization is a large topic. While technological development has been traditionally identified with civilizational development (and advance), hence we speak of a Stone Age, and Bronze Age and so on, their impelling force has been accompanying sets of discourse-practice formations. I have partly addressed this in Religion and the Philosophy of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), pp. 18-26.
10 Martin Reisebrodt, The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2014).
11 The idea of ‘constraint’ rather than ‘cause,’ is important for a Phenomenology of Religion that seeks to address the question of what controls an event into its particularity. On this idea see John Bowker, Why Religions Matter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 133-64.