Modes of Religious Expression
An Introduction for World Religion Students

Douglas P. McManaman
September 15, 2017
Reproduced with Permission

The human person is limited in a number of ways, and the reason is that he (she) is a unity of matter and spirit. We are profoundly limited by matter and all it entails, i.e., time, place, sense perception, incomplete information and the opacity and complexity of the real, etc. But the human person expresses himself, his ideas, feelings, intuitions, etc., via signs and symbols that convey meaning. Already we can see a distinction between the linguistic mode of expression (i.e., signs and symbols) and the invisible meanings expressed through that particular communicative system.

As we are all aware, our communication with one another can fail. In other words, our attempts at communication may not fully achieve our intended purpose, which is to be understood (or to achieve communion). The possible source of this failure is twofold: 1) it is often the case that this failure comes from us--for we do not always know how to say what we mean to say. With much experience, after many failures in making ourselves understood, we begin making distinctions, creating new words, leaving out certain phrases that are misleading, etc., and gradually we learn to better communicate what it is we intend to say. The other reason for our failure to communicate has to do with the disposition of the person with whom we are communicating. Sometimes the conditions that will enable a person to understand us are just not in place, for whatever reason (perhaps his vocabulary is weak, perhaps he lacks experience and is thus unfamiliar with the concepts and the historical context out of which those concepts arose, or he is unfamiliar with the particular style of discourse, etc.). We all speak within a particular historical and geographical context (time/space), and that context must be understood if what we say is to be correctly interpreted. This is why we often understand one another--for we are familiar with the current (our own) historical and geographical context, at least on a general level. But we don't always understand those of another time period; styles of communication, vocabulary, idioms (such as "it is raining cats and dogs", or "that film was sick"), concepts, etc., are very different from our own. The way around this difficulty is to become familiar with the historical and geographical context of the period; then and only then do the particular modes of expression begin to "make sense", and we begin to see what they would mean in today's context (for example, what does it mean when Jesus says: "If your eye should cause you to sin, tear it out"?)

This is so much more the case in the area of religion. God is the unutterable mystery. A religion that has developed through history will gradually say things differently, sometimes with greater refinement than what was there in its earlier stages. What was said indistinctly in another era will be said more distinctly and carefully in a later era. Human beings are always subject to cognitive constraints, and this is true for scriptural writers as well, which is why good commentaries are so important, i.e., Jewish commentaries on the Torah, biblical commentaries on the New Testament, commentaries on the Upanishads of Hinduism, etc. What God reveals about Himself is never understood completely and perfectly, but only gradually. For example, it took many centuries before the Catholic Church saw clearly enough that slavery was contrary to the dignity and rights of the human person. Before that time, the Church did not condemn the practice. Moreover, there are Christians today who believe that if one is not a professed Christian, one cannot be saved. The Catholic Church rejects this, but it took a long time for the Church to realize that there is a great reservoir of truths in the various religions of the world. The Church did not always exhibit the respect towards other religions that She does today, and it can be persuasively argued that the Church has still quite a ways to go in that regard.

When we study other religions, we are going to come across ways of thinking that are different from our own. It is very important that we keep in mind that the particular modes of expression (words, concepts, habits of thought, etc.) are distinct from the divine mystery that is expressed, and most importantly that the God who is worshipped is distinct from the particular religious expression and doctrinal articulation of a specific religion (what that religion teaches). And so there is a great deal of truth in the words of the great Muslim mystic Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn al-'Arabi when he says: "The Almighty, Omnipresent God is not imprisoned in any creed or religion, for everywhere you turn, there is the face of God." And this distinction,, which becomes increasingly obvious the more one experiences God mystically, is also the reason that another great Muslim mystic, Galal al-Din Rumi, is able to say: "I am not a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim. I belong neither to the East nor to the West…" Who God is and the "what" of a particular religious expression/articulation and mode of worship are truly distinct. Raimon Panikkar says it beautifully: "The who whom the Christian discovers may have been revealed to him in and through the what the tradition has handed down to him, but he will not confuse the two. For example, in the central Christian mystery, the Eucharist, the Christian will recognize Christ's real presence , yet he will not believe he is eating the proteins or drinking the blood of Jesus of Nazareth, for he knows that communion is with the real who , not with the what . Furthermore, in this light, we do not say that what the Buddhist believes in is what the Christian worships, but we can admit that the who behind the Buddhist's compassion or the Muslim's surrender is none other than the who of Christian agape" [1] .

And so it is important to make the effort to interpret the religion on its own terms, not on our terms, remembering that behind it is an experience of the unutterable mystery of God. For example, when Hindus speak of Maya (illusion), we must be careful to try to understand what they really mean when they teach this world is illusion, or when Christians speak of the Trinity, we must be careful to understand what that means and what it does not mean (i.e., polytheism). When we make the effort to do so, we begin to realize that what each one is saying is not so repugnant to our own way of seeing things.

Moreover, what was said centuries ago may need to be carefully re-interpreted in light of the new information at our disposal (i.e., information about human nature, different cultures and their cultural practices, morality, etc.). The bible shows Abraham engaging in a sexual relationship with his wife Sarah's slave girl. This may seem scandalous, but we need to keep in mind that Israel's understanding of God and his relationship with her was in development. It was only in time that Israel came to understand that marriage is an exclusive union and that adultery is unacceptable. In other words, we must be wary of the tendency to judge the past by our own current standards.

To keep in mind these distinctions is to think "contextually"; to disregard such distinctions is to think dogmatically. The former are contextualists, the latter are typically referred to as fundamentalists. Every religion has their fundamentalists. What is particularly attractive about fundamentalism is its simplicity--one does not have to do any research or profound thinking about what the scriptures meant then and mean today (one just interprets the writings literally and without any sense of context), and one does not have to deal with ambiguities, for all the answers are there in one neat package (a book, a catechism, etc.). The problem is that reality, especially religious reality, is not so simple, but very complex. We are very limited in our understanding of God, just as we are profoundly limited in our understanding of one another and very limited in our understanding of the universe. The sciences are in a state of continual development, and so too are the self-understandings of the various religions.