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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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Welcome to this tutorial on phenomenology. Phenomenology is a method of examining religion that works by typology or categorization. As the founder of phenomenology said-- Edmund Husserl-- he said that what we're after in phenomenology are essences, essences, essences. That is, we're trying to bracket out our presuppositions about a religion. We're going to, for the moment, set aside historical factors. And we're going to try to give a generic philosophical description of religious experience. So we could call phenomenology a descriptive science.

To just take a look at three phenomenological approaches, first we start with the Romanian philosopher and historian of religious experience Mircea Eliade, who said that religion is about the sacred and the profane, taking human experience and dividing it up into things that are considered holy and things that are considered ordinary and everyday.

Moving onto Rudolf Otto, who wrote a book in 1923 called "The Idea of The Holy" in which he said that the mysterium tremendum is a good way of describing religion, which means that the religious person is fascinated and enraptured by the holy. Moving on to Gerard Van der Leeuw, who was a mid-20th century philosopher of religion. He found in religion a response to power, and suggested that the savior figure in religion is an expression of male power in society.

Let's take a look at the historical approaches versus the phenomenological approaches. Both of these approaches have strengths and weaknesses. Let's take a look at those.

The historical approach is very good at examining concrete, particular things-- important people, important movements. It enables us to look at changes in religion over time. We could say its strength is in looking at social movements and social factors and looking at the way that religion evolves.

Let's go over to the phenomenological side. As we said, phenomenology is about finding essences and categorizing those essences into topologies or key features. And when we say key features, we mean features of experience, not necessarily of social factors. That's going to be over here, the social factors. Phenomenology gives abstract qualities. When we were looking at those three phenomenological approaches, we saw these abstract descriptions of what religion is about.

The strength of phenomenology is it's going to allow us to examine religious experience. A historical approach can't really see what religion is like for the religious person. It can only look at religion from the outside, where the phenomenology is going to try to look at religion from the inside, from the standpoint of human consciousness.

Phenomenology is about religion as a phenomenon. Religion is a category of experience of human consciousness apart from whatever historical or social considerations we might have. Phenomenology doesn't deny that these social or historical factors exist. It merely wants to peer beyond them to what it posits is the essence of religious experience.

Phenomenology uses a topology or categorization method that focuses on the essence of religious experience. And that phenomenology aims at a descriptive science. We looked at three phenomenological approaches from Eliade to Otto to Van der Leeuw, and we also compared and contrasted the historical and phenomenological approaches. We said that historical criticism aims at the concrete and particular, while phenomenology aims at abstract qualities. We said that religion as examined by the phenomenological approach looks at religious experience and human consciousness apart from social and historical considerations. Thank you for watching.

Terms to Know

Awareness, including self-awareness.


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


Any event or experience, pl. "phenomena."