Seven Ways of Looking at Religion

The Major Narratives

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Benjamin Schewel
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , September
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Three approaches to the study of religion tend to dominate: surveys of tradition exemplified by Huston Smith; theories such as those pioneered by Max Weber and Emile Durkheim; and cultural themes like power, gender, ritual, and belief. None of these satisfied Benjamin Schewel, so a decade ago, he began writing a guide he could not find, one that maps a broader view. 

Seven perspectives beckon. Schewel introduces a framework, a justification for its inclusion, and three exponents of each type. These illustrate “the narrative commitments that undergird the various strands of the contemporary academic discourse on religion” (194). 

“The Subtraction Narrative” unsurprisingly stimulates reactions by philosophers and historians of religion. Daniel Dennett suggests various suppositions about the evolution of religious tendencies. John Dewey embraces naturalism instead of supernaturalism. Marcel Gauchet charts how religion has gradually declined as human-centered projects supplant it. 

An opposite movement, “The Renewal Narrative,” regards this ebb “as a sign of humanity’s growing desire for substantive spiritual renewal” (33). Virtue ethics imbued with a Catholic influence satisfies Alasdair MacIntyre. Recovery of the pre-Socratic openness towards investigation pleases Martin Heidegger. The resurgence of the purity of “golden-age Islam” comforts Muhammed Iqbal. For Schewel, the simple fact that three disparate proposals coexist weakens any particular appeal to one tradition.

Modernity may energize religion, rather than dissipate its spirit, in what Schewel calls “The Transsecular Narrative.” Schewel often cites Charles Taylor, who promotes “exclusive humanism” as but one element in an “immanent frame” broadening “metaphysical and theological conceptions in a way that premodern cultures could not” (57).

Yet, for Schewel, Taylor “ends up perpetuating a falsely nativist historical world-view” dismissing “the robust global contexts within which the modern West emerged” (63). A slump, for another observer of Western prospects, accounts for a model of an open American but monopoly European Christian market. Schewel exposes flaws in Rodney Stark’s argument, although remaining more sympathetic to Jeffrey Stout’s dogged avowal of “constructive religious contributions to public discourse” (74) which advance America’s democracy. 

Secular and secularism share with natural and naturalism multivalent meanings. Thomas Nagel’s effort to display “some kind of Platonism” as a teleological foil against the excesses of neo-Darwinian assertions for cosmic evolution—what Schewel calls “The Postnaturalist Narrative”—incites Schewel’s longest rebuttal thus far. However, he typically returns to an equitable ruling, here on Nagel’s strengths. Hans Jonas reports Gnostic tendencies reoccurring in modern Western intellectual as well as religious legacies. Alfred North Whitehead’s historical and scientific details from a century ago need revision, but Schewel guardedly agrees with Whitehead’s quest to reconcile science and religion. 

Similarly, intellectual history motivates what Schewel calls “The Construct Narrative,” which looks at the massive alteration religion causes in human affairs. In too brief an entry, Talal Asad points back to medieval Christian monasticism, resulting much later in the privatization of belief and practice. Guy Strousma considers the cause of missionaries encountering the wider world in the early modern era, and their effect on an outmoded Christian and Eurocentric polity. So does Jason Josephson. He corrects Edward Said’s miscalculated locus for Orientalism, transferring it from the Middle to the Far East; Josephson details Japanese influences upon Western religious notions. 

Moving to a venerable alternative attitude towards non-Western ideas, “The Perennial Narrative” stretches beyond traditionalists. Aldous Huxley values spiritual objectivity. John Hick testifies that a religious reality not only exists but exceeds finite human comprehension, and that this realization generates other-centeredness away from selfishness, extending Huxley’s stance. Hick’s “metaphysical ambiguity” complements Rudolf Otto’s arousal of love and fear into the numinous experience. Schewel sides with Hick’s defined transcendence. 

Development and growth—“The Developmental Narrative”—occupy the last thematic chapter, commencing with G.W.F. Hegel’s proposal that as humans understand God better, so religion advances. This dense thesis demands articulation, which Schewel adds. He leans away from any Eurocentricity based on Hegel’s limited global knowledge. Karl Jaspers’s Axial Age formulation helps. Schewel realizes its limitations, but its scaffolding withstands sociological inspection. Robert Bellah’s interplay between “cognitive capacities” and religious epochs incorporates Jaspers’s chronology, even if Bellah doubts another impending Axial Age. Still, as Schewel puts it pithily, Bellah fails to answer “why religion?” 

When concluding, Schewel synthesizes these seven typologies. He warns that he relates a history of religion, not a narrative of religious history. Seconding Hick, Schewel avers that a spiritual reality exceeds human understanding. He parallels that developmental narrative by highlighting the tribal, archaic, Axial Age (extended until ca. 1500 CE), early modern, and global stages of religious emergence. These two dozen pages depart from his guided tour of its theoretical predecessors, and is rather a brisk survey over millennia. 

His prospectus predicts that religion will endure in global affairs. Pluralities among competing communities will spread and accelerate. Leading figures will try to alter this future by aggressive or amicable means. Schewel idealistically judges globalization as easing a benign application of how “religion’s many constructive powers can be effectively encouraged” (191) while discouraging its less amenable expressions. Intellectual elites will consider religious compatibility with “the natural-scientific framework.” Finally, a second Axial Age may emerge. 

This may spark conversations among students of the philosophy, history, and cultures of religion. Schewel discusses these concepts in academic language, but he lapses into neither jargon nor cant. His endnotes not only document but in some cases enrich his text with further commentary. Nearly two hundred and fifty sources display Schewel’s range of research. Given the complexity of this content, the index assists comprehension of its academic assertions. That book which Schewel had not found can now be consulted. May it ease the perplexity of many inquirers. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

John L. Murphy is Humanities Coordinator at DeVry University.

Date of Review: 
February 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benjamin Schewel is a fellow in the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain at the University of Groningen and an affiliate scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.


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