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  • Religion, Ritual, and Family
  • Marthe Chandler (bio)

The Religious Impulse as a Homoversal

Chapters 8, "On Religion and Ritual," and 9, "The Religious Dimensions of Role-Bearing Family Lives," of Against Individualism continue the discussion between Henry Rosemont and Huston Smith that began in Rationality and Religious Experience. The conversations concern the nature of religion, religious experience, and the object of that experience. Rosemont argues that there are certain "homoversals," behaviors that cannot be entirely accounted for by physical or cultural environments.1 Language learning and facial recognition are homoversals, as is what Rosemont calls a "religious impulse … a subjective sense human beings appear to have about being in the presence of something larger than themselves, something that was [End Page 20] present before we came to be, something of which we can be a part now, and which will endure long after we are gone."2 This sense is one of belonging, of safety, of at-one-ment, or attunement.

Rosemont claims that what is important about the religious impulse is the experience itself, a "subjective sense," rather than the purported object of the experience. Huston Smith disagrees, believing that the nature of the object is more important than Rosemont believes. Their disagreement is the major theme of the present essay.

Before considering this object it should be noted that the sense of attunement, or the religious impulse, is not enough to be a religion. There must be something more. Rosemont argues that the "something more" is not a set of beliefs. Most members of a religion would be hard-pressed to describe their beliefs in any but vague and inchoate generalities—which upon reflection usually become incoherent, or, as Rosemont puts it more charitably, raise questions that "mere mortals" are "incapable of making sense of."3

What is important in understanding a religion is not its metaphysics or theology but its practices and rituals—what its followers do, how they interact with each other—not just at funerals and weddings, but in their daily lives: shaking hands, saying "thank you," hosting friends for dinner. These practices begin with the rituals in one's family: family traditions, reunions, stories, visiting cemeteries, talking to dead people. Religious rituals and practices are designed to be ego-reducing, making one more tolerant and compassionate. To the obvious counterexamples4 Rosemont notes that the heroines and heroes of religious faiths are "saints and sages like Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, the Buddha, Ibn Khaldoun, Laozi, Julian of Norwich, Black Elk, and many others."5

Rejecting the Ontological Leap to Transcendence

Despite the claim that the religious impulse is a homoversal, Rosemont rejects the usual move from the ubiquity of the religious impulse to an ontological commitment to the existence of a non-human transcendent Divinity. In Rationality and Religious Experience Rosemont focuses on the distinction between "having an experience" and "having an experience of something." The experience itself can be life transforming, and Rosemont describes several disciplines or practices that both are ego-reducing and make it more likely that one will have a religious experience. The world religious traditions include four such paths—faith: "submitting to the demands that faith makes on its followers through the sacred texts, and through their symbols, rituals, and traditions";6 scholarship: studying sacred texts, writing commentary and interpretations; leading an exemplary moral life: actively working "to overcome pain and suffering, and/or to promote justice, freedom, and equality";7 and finally, contemplation and meditation. Various traditions emphasize one or more of these disciplines but there are [End Page 21] other ways to reduce ego and transform one's life—for example, the scientific struggle to achieve objectivity, and the discipline and study required to come to a deep appreciation of an aesthetic object.8

However, when one has an experience/sense of "being in the presence of something larger than oneself" we cannot but ask, what is that something? The answer "nothing at all" is possible, and the literature of mysticism describes an experience of nothing.9 Rosemont is more than moderately skeptical of mysticism, however. Instead he identifies a number of ways the world's religious traditions have identified this object. The...


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