The Cross-Cultural and Historical Study of Religion
In the study of religion, even more than in other fields, a problem arises when the researcher or student imposes his or her own categories and values upon the material. What results is a distortion of the actual beliefs and practices of the religion, since the student is seeing through an inappropriate lens, or filter. Yet, since religion is so fundamentally about what is most important to us, and what we believe to be the most true of reality, it is difficult to avoid this kind of distortion.
For example, in her book, Encountering God, Diana Eck (1993) noted that most of the Christian movement still does not accept a truly pluralist perspective in regard to the world's religions. In general, the most liberal viewpoint still remains inclusivist by nature. Inclusivism, to her, means that the individual still views other religions as lesser than Christianity, although included within it as a partial revelation of the truth. While this is an advance over an exclusivist position, which argues that other religions are entirely mistaken and outside of the route to salvation, it still judges other religions in terms of the Christian tradition. Thus, the religions are not completely rejected, but they are also not understood and appreciated on their own terms.
The intent in the following pages is to examine some of the problems involved in the cross-cultural and historical study of religion and some of the ways in which researchers and students can approach this study.
Although in later years his viewpoint has changed, in his earlier work on religious studies, Michael Novak (1978) was a strong proponent of standpoint theory, which, he believed, provided the subjective context in which a theory is held. That theory can be a theory about aesthetics, or it can be a theory about the nature of reality, or ultimacy. Standpoint provides a stance from which the individual vie...