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The Religious Impulse

The Religious Impulse

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson will discuss the psychological, moral, spiritual, and emotional motivations that underlie the drive toward religious thinking and practice.

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Source: Music by J.S. Bach "Sarabande," "Gigue." Gerardus van der Leeuw quoted in Tillich, Paul. Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper, 1958.

Video Transcription

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Hello and welcome to The Religious Impulse.

In this lesson we're going to understand that in nearly every religious belief system, some kind of impulse is present. We'll see that it's difficult to describe exactly what this is, but that it's at the heart of religious life and practice, that it's linked with individual and collective drive toward and interactions with the mystery of the unknown.

And to help contextualize this, we'll look briefly at the insight of several philosopher theologian sociologists.

We can start by thinking of impulse as a nonrational drive or desire. In religious life, it's some kind of a motivation toward something, and it tends to involve the object of motivation as much as it does the actual movement. We might use the words desire and urge, or even need, perhaps.

So there's an interplay between what is desired and the process of seeking that. And today we have modern neuroscience to lean on for helping understand that on an individual cognitive level. And this is a great complement to the sociological and phenomenological approach to the study of religion.

But for this tutorial, maybe we can confine and trust ourselves, for a moment, to the mystery of the unknown, the questions, life's ultimate questions.

Who am I? Why am I here? What is the nature of the world around me? Is there a god or gods? What is my purpose? Do I even have a purpose? What is death? What happens after I die?

These kinds of preoccupations have plagued humanity for eons. Not easy questions to grapple with, but almost everyone in every society confronts them in some conscious or unconscious way.

So religion, then, is an individual and collective response to these questions, and the motivations and impulses behind them.

And we started with the idea that the approach to the unknown often involves the unknown in one form or another.

In other lessons, it's been pointed out that the German Enlightenment was a fertile time for actively engaging with these questions. Friedrich Schleiermacher was a very influential German theologian philosopher-- Protestant theologian-- during that time who explored this interaction between subjective and objective knowledge.

He came at it from a theological and philosophical perspective. He determined that the union with the object of search in answer to the questions was not possible by human will alone. Something else was necessary. And he describes this feeling of engagement with necessity as "utter dependence," complete and absolute dependence.

A bit later, in the late 19th century in Germany, Rudolf Otto described this experience with the Latin term numinous, to mean the power and the presence of divinity, of a divinity. He also used the terms "mysterium," "tremendum," and "fascinans" to describe the subjective experience of the holy, the terror of the sacred, the terror before the sacred. And he extended it to the societies and cultures that gave meaning and context to these questions.

And so more specifically, now, in the realm of sociology, these phenomena might be considered as ways of uniting people and maintaining cohesion. So says the famous French sociologist Emile Durkheim, and he called it solidarity. And the disparate and separate elements of experience needed some container for exchange and understanding, and this container was society. He called it the Social Glue Theory.

In Holland, at the same time, the religious philosopher Gerardus van der Leeuw was describing the same thing in terms of power. He put forth the idea that the sacred was compelling because it could be found everywhere. It represented power. And the experience of otherness meant power. Things that were unfamiliar in the world are objects to be confronted. They manifest some relationship of power, some relationship with power, to power.

I'll give you a quote from Gerardus van der Leeuw.

"Religion implies that man does not simply accept the life that is given to him. In life he seeks power, and if he does not find this, or not to an extent that satisfies him, then he attempts to draw the power in which he believes into his own life. He tries to elevate, to enhance its value, to gain for it some deeper and wider meaning. He who does not merely accept life, then, but demands something from it, that is, power, endeavors to find some meaning in life. He arranges life into a significant whole. Thus culture arises. Over the variety of the given, he throws his systematically fashioned net. From the stone he makes an image, from the instinct a commandment, and from the wilderness a tilled field. And thus he develops power."

This is from Religion in Essence and Manifestation from 1933. So there are some good examples of this interplay between the known and the unknown, and the impulse to engage with and understand this mystery.

A brilliant and poetic German American theologian philosopher named Paul Tillich wrote and spoke about this. He said that this process, this impulse, requires faith as an "ultimate concern." He describes the relationship between the questions of the philosopher who must analyze the subjective elements of experience, and the answers of the theologian, who might offer structure, meaning, and guidance for the impulse that we're talking about.

Let's review. Religious impulse might be difficult to describe, but nearly all religious belief systems express this impulse in individual and collective ways. We pointed out that it relates to a desire to understand the big questions of life, maybe even find answers, and that somehow it does involve the object of the impulse, or drive. We said that this relationship has been studied from many perspectives.

We emphasized five philosopher theologian sociologists, starting with Friedrich Schleiermacher and his idea of utter dependence.

And then we moved onto Rudolf Otto and his idea of the terror before the sacred and the mysterium tremendum.

And then we spoke about Emile Durkheim's Social Glue Theory, providing a means of solidarity in society.

And then we mentioned Gerardus van der Leeuw's notion of power, a curious but sacred force that's behind this impulse.

And we concluded with Paul Tillich's ultimate concern, a term that expresses the nuances of faith as well as the relationship between subjective and objective acknowledgement.

"Man, like every living being, is concerned about many things, above all, about those which condition his very existence. If a situation or concern claims ultimacy, it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim. It demands that all other concerns be sacrificed. Faith as ultimate concern is an act of the total personality. It is the most centered act of the human mind. It participates in the dynamics of personal life. It transcends both the drives of the non-rational unconsciousness and the structures of the rational conscious. The ecstatic character of faith doe not exclude its rational character, although it is not identical with it. And it includes non-rational strivings without being identical with them. Ecstasy means standing outside of oneself without ceasing to be oneself with all the elements which are united in the personal center."

This is from Dynamics of Faith.

So that's it for now. Thank you very much. See you next time. Take good care.

Terms to Know
"Social Glue Theory"

A key component in the religious scholarship of Durkheim.

"Terror before the Sacred"

A concept in Otto's religious scholarship.

"Ultimate Concern"

A key component of Tillich's religious scholarship.

"Utter Dependence"

A concept in the religious scholarship of Schleiermacher.


A non-rational drive or desire.


A key concept in the religious scholarship of van der Leeuw.