Toward a Definition of Religion: Literary Analysis Essay on The Sacred Quest: An Invitation to the Study of Religion

Published: 2021-07-22
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Wesleyan University
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The Sacred Quest: An Invitation to the Study of Religion by Cunningham and Kelsay analyses the major decisions that typify all religious notions and practices. The book uses a comparative, relative and thematic approach in analyzing all the religious aspects. All the theoretical aspects of religion and practices are weighted in and analyzed equally for all the main religions in the world. The book also looks into the theoretical issues concerned with the study of religion. There is an in-depth analysis of all the important topics with regards to religion, for example, rituals and sacrifices. Through a careful analysis of the book, the reader gets to know and understand the major ideas that set apart and distinguish religions around the world; know the theoretical aspects of religions that have to be looked into when religion is being studied and lastly, to identify crucially and core foundational themes and talking points of religions such as morality, different methods of worship and the diverse types of rituals. In my opinion, it is one of the most insightful religious book.

The book has nine chapters. Chapter one is titled Toward a Definition of Religion, chapter two is about The Nature of the Sacred, chapter three is The Appearance of the Sacred, chapter four is The Language(s) of the Sacred, chapter five is Ritual, chapter six is Sacred Communities, chapter seven is The Problem of Evil, chapter eight is Religion and Morality, and chapter nine is about The Quest for Salvation. There is a detailed scrutiny of all these individual chapters, and this ensures that almost all aspects of religion are covered.

This essay is going to analyze chapter one; Toward a Definition of Religion. The chapter starts by trying to establish a precise and universal definition of religion. Elements of religion are discussed, and different aspects of religions such as the relationship between religion and human through and religion and feeling are analyzed. There is focus on individual and social existence, value and religion and the author try to authenticate the substance and function of religion. This chapter explains why coming up with a definite description of religion is not easy. Cunningham says that Even this short and somewhat random list shows that the definition question is controversial. We cannot expect, in this brief chapter, to settle the issue. Five definitions of religions are provided, each one from a different person (Cunningham and Kelsay, 12).

Chapter one analyzes the cultural, spiritual, and philosophical components of trying to forge a definition. Cunningham points out that studying the definition of profit is more about seeking boundaries since there is no single accepted universal definition (Cunningham and Kelsay, 13). Cunningham addresses elements of religion since he believes that the definition of religion entails all the particulars of human and social life. The first element is religion and human through. There is a connection between thought and religion. The difference in religions is caused by human thoughts. Some people say that religion is about the actions of individuals whereas some say that religion is just what people think. For Muslims, religion to them is total submission to the will of God while to Jews; religion to them is doing what the Torah, their holy book, instructs them.

The second element concerns religion and feeling. Cunningham says that religion is a sense of total dependence on God to the Protestants but other people view religion as an experience of the holy people. The example he provides is that of Job (Cunningham and Kelsay, 14). From this story, Cunningham is trying to show the complexity and intricacy of Gods emotional relationship with human beings. Religion and action are the next elements discussed. Cunningham points out that according to some scholars, actions, and deeds, are the primary characteristic features of religious life. For Muslims, they have to face Mecca while praying whereas the Shinto go to their shrines while ringing bells and clapping their hands as a way of summoning the spirits.

Individual and social existences are further discussed. Cunningham points out that most religions all have a place for personal devotion and loyalty and they advocate for an individual search of God. Although personal commitment is encouraged, most religions recommend and urge selflessness and putting the needs of others and the society before ours. The relationship between values and religion is analyzed as well (Cunningham and Kelsay, 18). Cunningham says that religion should follow morality and that true religion is a confirmation of moral law and a way through which fundamental values and virtues can be expressed. It is important to note that morality differs among religions and what is moral in one may be immoral in another religion.

Cunningham, in the substance or function subtopic, says that the search for the definition of religion is not completed through the identification of religion because there are diverse forms of belief, such as scientific and moral forms, and all these are not same. There are several reasons which can be attributed to these differences. The first one concerns the function and role played by religion in an individual. The second reason is a substantive definition of religion which tries to restrict the scope of phenomena that is characterized as a religion.

Cunningham suggests that deliberations and cogitations of function are not solely enough and more focus needs to be laid on substance. The proposals that the author presents to overcoming such differences is establishing a middle ground between overly broad and overly narrow definitions. Cunningham further suggests that religion symbolizes and exemplifies ways through which the world might be view. Cunningham says, Religion signifies those ways of seeing the world that refer to a nation of sacred reality, made manifest in human experience, in such a way as to produce long-lasting ways of thinking, feeling, and acting and concerning problems of ordering and understanding existence. (Cunningham and Kelsay, 20) Cunningham then expounds on these definitions.

Cunningham concludes chapter one, but two main issues remain unresolved. The first issue is whether tying the definition of religion to a particular culture has the effect of limiting its applicability to other cultures and the second issue is whether there is just one definition of religion which is right (Cunningham and Kelsay, 22). Although belief, feeling, practice, the individual and the community and moral values are all necessary elements of religion, a single element, taken by itself, is not sufficient to make a religion.

Cunningham makes a good case in point, but it is too vague and overly accepting as well. The book has fascinating perspectives and shows the complex treatment of religion by various groups. The book provides a succinct and comprehensive intro to all the major religions of the world. It digs much deeper into religion. It is engaging and readable, and it provides a logical view of the different religions in the world. This chapter enables an individual who is a Christian or a Muslim to see how someone who is not from their religion thinks and believes and the manner through which the belief is integrated into their everyday lives.

Although the book analyses religion to a great extent, it is not easy to achieve an in-depth understanding of the final meaning of religion and this can be attributed to the fact that no precise way through which intuition can be measured. Getting to an objective understanding in religious matters is not easy because there are religious adherents who exaggerate their actions and intentions. In addition to that, there are two major extremes of how insiders and outsiders perceive religion. Cunningham needs to address these issues .Some insiders if religion over-romanticize and exaggerate their rituals and beliefs and they are not even aware of it. On the contrary, there are those who do not belong to any religion and they tend to demonize other peoples religious practices and beliefs knowingly and unknowingly.

It is important that Cunningham steers clear from the two polarities through walking the middle path which ensures that there are no unwarranted exaggerations of the religious practices by those who belong to particular religions and those who do not belong to any religion but they condemn the religious practices and beliefs of religious people. Cunningham ensures that he does not use misleading and derogatory terminologies. He does not use terms such as primitive or terms which demean other religions and their beliefs. The study of religion is important though that is a very sensitive matter. The world is becoming more objective and knowledgeable and people need to understand one another better, religion will go a long way in promoting this.

Work Cited

Cunningham, Lawrence S. and John Kelsay (2006). The Sacred Quest: An Invitation to the Study of Religion, 4th Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall


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