Elements of Religion

Every culture, in some form or another, has religion as part of their way of life. A religion consists of traditions, sub-traditions, and a recognition of a transcendental Being or goal. With such a variety of religions among us, a pattern can be seen. There are certain aspects that create shape and these aspects can be observed in seven dimensions. Although each religion may place more or less emphasis on a particular dimension, there is typically a sense of acknowledgment toward the others as well. The seven dimensions consist of: 1. practical/ritual; 2. experiential/emotional; 3. narrative/mythic; 4. doctrinal/philosophical; 5. ethical/legal; 6. social/institutional; and, 7. material.

The practical/ritual dimension contains the forms of preaching, prayers, worship, and sacrifice. This dimension expresses the practices that consist of the religion. Many religions, such as Catholicism and Islam, place heavy emphasis on prayer. In Catholicism, followers may pray many times a day-when waking, at dinner, before bed. Prayer also takes place during church attendance, after the words of the Father are spoken, and on an individual basis. In Islam, prayer occurs five times a day. Each prayer corresponds to a particular time of day, no matter where the person may be. It is believed that prayer the way to talk to God or Allah, that He listens and it brings the follower closer to Him.

The experiential/emotional dimension may be one of the most insisting-meaning, it is needed for all the others to continue on. This dimension covers the connection to God that is felt by the believer. This can occur in mainly two ways: numinous and mystical. Whereas the numinous experience is more of a dualist approach, the mystical experience is drawn from the inner self. In the numinous experience, the believer feels a sense of veneration toward a God that is separate from the self, mysterious and all-powerful. This is pronounced in the Catholic religion, where the feeling is felt immediately upon walking into a cathedral, hair nearly standing on end. In the mystical experience, however, the feeling does not come through from the reverence and awe of a separate being. It is inward and non-dual, an insight of being one in the same with God, nature, or whatever is believed to be the highest of all things. This experience is more a quest into discovering and understanding this connection and unity. A mystical experience is observed in many eastern religions, for example, in Buddhism. Through meditation and other practices, the Buddhist travels the journey to Enlightenment. The experience enhances the spiritual awareness of the practitioner and provides insight into attaining the unity that is there all along.

The narrative/mythic dimension is where the stories are found. These stories can be in the form of fables and other tales, historical or not. Although these stories are called myths, it is not to say that they are or are not true; rather, it may have more to do with the meaning and functionality of the said story. Stories may pertain to a variety of situations: adventures, prophecies, how everything came to be or even how the founder came to be. In the case of Gautama, the Buddha, a story is told about how he came to found the religion. This is a historical account of his separation from his family, to continue on a journey to discover truth. Sometimes, stories are interwoven into the ritual dimension of religion. For example, during Catholic Mass, the act of communion takes place. This event is a replication of the story of Jesus and his disciples before his crucifixion. Through ritual, the history of the sacred story is created again, which is believed to bring the receiver closer to God.

The doctrinal/philosophical dimension is what establishes said truths. This dimension provides an analysis of crucial questions of existence of being human and that which is beyond this physical state. In Christianity, two very important doctrines are the Trinity doctrine and the Christian doctrine. The first is an explanation of God and Jesus being one in the same through the Holy Spirit, maintaining that there is still just one God. The second doctrine is an explanation including the nature of God, and how He created all things. This dimension of doctrine and philosophy is also pertinent in Buddhism. He spent forty years with fellow yogis, creating these doctrines. This was because these doctrines of his philosophical outlook were the directions for the journey of the mystical experience.

The ethical/legal dimension pertains to the combination of virtues and law, good behavior and regulating it. In Judaism, the Ten Commandments is a set of rules governing ethical behavior. In the Torah, there are over 600 rules that the Jewish believer must follow. Some rules are regarding the ritual dimension and how to go about practicing the faith properly. In Islam, there is a much stronger tie between ethics and law. The Shari’a directs not just the daily life of the individual, but also marriage, banking, and others.

While all these previous dimensions are abstract in nature, the last two are external. The social/institutional dimension pertains to the formal organization of the group. It is, both, the actual embodiment of the group, as well as the significant leaders. Without them, new denominations, new religions would not form. As in Christianity, there are a vast number of denominations, including: Catholic, Protestant, Lutheran, Evangelical, Baptist, and so on. Each of these broke away with an organized following of people and a leader. For example, the Lutherans were one of the earliest Christian denominations to break away from the Catholic Church, provoked and led by Martin Luther. Although Mormons believe in the same Christian God, this is not a Christian denomination, but is its own religion. This group was led by Joseph Smith II, the Prophet who led the original Mormon religion.

The last dimension, is the least abstract of all. The material dimension is all things physical in nature. This includes art, statues, even the buildings themselves. Calvinists, a Christian denomination, frowns upon this dimension. They believe that God is beyond any and all physical representation, as in art or statues. Even so, most religions incorporate the material dimension, believing that it helps the believer in to understand the meaning of God. This dimension does not just incorporate art and buildings, but also locations themselves. These locations are often significant to the life of a regarded Prophet. For example, Jerusalem is the place where Jesus was Jesus was born and led his disciples. Many people from Christianity and Judaism will make voyages to this holy place.

All seven dimensions constitute the aspects of a religion, dualistic or not. While some are more emphasized than others, there is still the basic notion of that which is beyond the ordinary world and an explanation of what is believed to be ultimate reality.