The seven dimensions of religion

Is Buddhism a religion? Can we understand Hinduism by analysing its scriptures? Is Christianity compromised by its sampling of Pagan rituals and symbols at Christmas? Can someone be a Wiccan and a Christian at the same time? Why do you say the Gnostic gospels aren’t Christian?

I am beginning to think Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion may be helpful for answering these questions. In summary, Ninian Smart suggested that, whatever else a religion may be, it usually contains certain recognisable elements:

Ritual: Forms and orders of ceremonies (often regarded as revealed).

Narrative and Mythic: stories (often regarded as revealed) that work on several levels. Sometimes narratives fit together into a fairly complete and systematic interpretation of the universe and human’s place in it.

Experiential and emotional: dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion, liberation, ecstasy, inner peace, bliss.

Social and Institutional: belief system is shared and attitudes practiced by a group. Often rules for identifying community membership and participation.

Ethical and legal: Rules about human behaviour (often regarded as revealed).

Doctrinal and philosophical: systematic formulation of religious teachings in an intellectually coherent form.

Material: ordinary objects or places that symbolise or manifest the sacred or supernatural.

I find this helpful because it allows us to recognise how different aspects of religion differ in importance for different religions. For example, I think it would be fair to say that the narrative dimension is primary for Christianity, with the doctrinal also ranking high (but dependant on narrative), and the ethical and social also up there (but varying according to the doctrinal weight placed on it). By way of comparison, for Islam and Confucianism the legal/ethical dimension looms much larger; for Wicca it’s much lower. Indeed, for Wicca it would seem that the experiential is primary with ritual following close behind. I’ve never heard a Wiccan argue over doctrine but, boy, watch the comments fly over ritual infractions!

So, back to those questions, here’s how I would answer them. Is Buddhism a religion? Absolutely! We just need to recognise that in Buddhism, particularly in Theravada, the experiential and doctrinal is more important than the mythological. There is a de-emphasis on gods, this is true, but observe the importance placed on karma, dharma and rebirth, on the four noble truths and eightfold path to enlightenment.

Can we understand Hinduism by analysing its scriptures? As far as folk Hinduism is concerned, not in a million years! For folk Hindus mythology and ritual is far more important than doctrine, indeed many Hindus profess high ignorance of their scriptures.

Is Christianity compromised by Christmas samplings from Pagan ritual and material culture? Opinions vary but the majority say not, or don’t care enough to explore the question. As long as the nativity narrative is in the foreground Christians are prepared to tolerate quite a lot. What they don’t tolerate though is messing with the story, and this is why the Gnostic gospels come in for intense criticism. In messing with Genesis, reversing the roles of God and the snake, the Gnostics challenge Christianity at far too essential a level for Christians to brush it under the carpet. This sometimes leaves Pagans bemused, but then, this is to be expected as what they consider more essential is located in a different place.

This leads us to considering Christopaganism and whether a person can be a Christian and Wiccan at the same time. I would say, no they can’t be, not at the deepest levels, and the true colours of different Christopagans can be seen by observing what they emphasise. Christopagans can devote themselves to Jesus and Mary all they like, but if esoteric rituals are more primary for them than narrative, then they’re Pagan at the core however impressive their Christian clothing may be. On the other hand, if the narrative is more primary and the celebration of the seasons more secondary, well, they’re not doing too much different to what Christians do every Christmas and in this instance it’s the Paganism that’s more superficial.

Thinking through this, I reckon it would be interesting to explore what the seven dimensions of religion can reveal about the different traditions within different religions too. For example, Catholicism versus Protestantism, Theravada versus Mahayana, how do they differ in secondary emphasis even when the primary emphasis remains the same? What about my own way of practicing Christianity? But maybe that’s for another day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s