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Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson discusses the "phenomenology" of religion, which focuses on the experiential aspects of religion and the ways in which it can be described from both an observational and personal perspective.

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Hello and welcome to Religion 126, Phenomenology.

So what is phenomenology? Maybe you've heard the term before. Maybe you're an expert. Maybe you're an expert and you don't know you're an expert. Well, in a sense this is true because phenomenology is really about conscious experience on an individual level. And certainly you've had some conscious experiences and you've thought about them a bit. Well, that's basically what phenomenology is in a nutshell- how things appear to you, considering and thinking about what reality is, experientially.

Let's begin by outlining what we're going to cover here with this tutorial. We're going to get a clear idea of what phenomenology is, specifically as it is applied to the study of religion. We'll learn about some specific phenomenologists of religion who had wonderful insight into the universal nature of religious experience. We will see how philosophy of religion is different from other approaches to religion, noting the advantages of each.

Now right off the bat you've probably noticed that the word phenomenon is built into the title, phenomenology. It comes from the Greek word "phainomenon" which means, appearance. Now, this study of appearance or appearances is intentionally distinct from, and doesn't concern itself directly with, being, which is a fine thing because I'm not going to define that just yet. But do keep a lookout for it. Being, that is.

So phenomenology is the science of the experience of consciousness. The study of phenomena, appearances. Phenomenology has been around for hundreds of years or more. But technically, it became its own branch, it not a new foundation for philosophy in the early 20th century in Europe, primarily through the work of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

At the same time, phenomenology was being applied to the study of religion to try and make sense of religious experience itself, to add the new value of subjective experience to the already rich field of objective historical studies. Phenomenology of religion studies the many types of experience available to us and the forms they take. Perception, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, angst, wonder, fear, hope, social activities, et cetera. And while the content of religious experience is important-- a baptism or a bar mitzvah, for example-- the focus for phenomenology is really the structure of subjective consciousness. A consciousness which directs itself toward an object, at an object or event.

As we said, the new value and meaning can then be added to the objective element under study. The Romanian phenomenologist Mircea Eliade, who taught at the University of Chicago, studied traditional religious cultures around the world and found certain universal characteristics among them.

Essentially all of them seemed to divide the world of time and appearances into sacred and profane. These societies had individual and collective experiences that were consistently identified as sacred, having some quality of the supernatural, beyond the natural world. At the same time, perhaps quite simultaneously, they had experiences of the profane, everyday world. And universally, across cultures and continents, Eliade found that these experiences of the world, this principle of the vision between the sacred world and the profane world were given great value, meaning, and significance. And these experiences were given great value, meaning, and significance precisely because they were not experienced as an unsolvable division as non-religious men might tend to experience it.

But let's back up for a moment and look more precisely at how this meaning is arrived at phenomenologically for the religious men of phenomenological study.

Contradiction is at the heart of human experience-- many human experiences. Love and hate, happy and sad, pleasure and pain. Well, for the traditional societies that Eliade studied, the combination of opposites, the coexistence of the sacred and the profane, which might profanely suggest an unsolvable dilemma, constituted their reality. Any contradiction was partially mediated and integrated by certain subjective experiences. Imagination, fear, wonder, longing. And these emotional truths were given support by the structures of religious society- worship ceremonies, sacrifice, burial practices, or marriage feasts, for example.

Rudolf Otto, a contemporary of Eliade, also identified the presence and significance of the sacred and supernatural in the lives of traditional societies. He used the Latin term numinous, meaning the power and presence of divinity to describe this experience. He also used the terms mysterium, tremendum, and fascinans to describe the subjective experience of the holy, extending it to the societies and cultures that attributed meaning and provided support structures for such encounters.

These terms reflect the overwhelming mystery of the holy other. They're completely other. The different that can both attract and repel someone, fear and trembling, as it were. And at the same time wondrous, unknown, and full of beauty and potential.

So when we look back to the opposition between sacred and profane we see now a parallel opposition that is confronted. The utter nothingness of oneself, when set against the power of complete mystery. The divine-- the experience of the divine, which is felt to be entirely real. In effect, some relationship established between these two elements.

The powerful reality of the sacred was the basis of another phenomenologist's work, a Dutch founder of the discipline, Gerardus van der Leeuw. In studying primitive societies, primitive man, he put forth the idea that the sacred was most compelling precisely because it could be found everywhere. It represented power. The experience of otherness meant power. Things were unfamiliar in the world. Things that were unfamiliar in the world are therefore objects to be confronted. They manifest some relationship of power, some relationship with power, to power.

Phenomenology of religion, being more interested in the various types of individual subjective experience, is useful because ultimately questions like, is there a god, is there life after death, can be bracketed or put gently aside. Instead one explores the manifestations of religious phenomena through the different types of experience available to our human reality.

So what the phenomenology of religion doesn't directly involve itself with are the content-based changes of religion over time and their arrival on the historical scene. And while they certainly overlap with this, in some respects it's generally left for the historians of religions. And so I hope you join us for historical approaches after this.

But before we go let's do a quick review. Phenomenology is the science of the experience of consciousness, the study of phenomena. Phenomenology of religion as an academic discipline began in Europe in the early 1900s. Its principal founders were Mircea Eliade, Rudolf Otto, and Gerardus van der Leeuw.

Eliade and Otto recognized that, for a primitive man in traditional societies, the world was divided into the sacred and the profane. In the division, however, the experience of this division between oneself and the completely other was nevertheless the basis of religious experience itself. Otto called it the numinous experience, mysterious, terrifying, but fascinating and deeply compelling at the same time.

We learned about Gerardus van der Leeuw who identified religious experience for primitive man. And he identified it to be based on the experience of power, the confrontation with things overwhelming and unfamiliar that are ever-present in the natural world. These are thought to be manifestations of some higher power, beyond oneself.

And finally we saw that there are advantages to both the phenomenological approach to religions and the historical approach. Phenomenology tackles the complex web of experience and the historical approach charts the progress, changes, and emergence of religion itself as the object under study.

And that wraps up this phenomenological tutorial. Bye bye.

Terms to Know

Awareness, including self-awareness.


The science of the experience of consciousness;the study of phenomena.


Any event or experience, pl. "phenomena."