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Religious ReadingThe Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion$

Paul J. Griffiths

Print publication date: 1999

Print ISBN-13: 9780195125771

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195125771.001.0001

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(p.3) 1 Religion
Religious Reading

Paul J. Griffiths

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter sketches a theory of religion. It argues that a religious account of things is one that seems to its offerers to be comprehensive (it takes account of everything), unsurpassable (it will not be superseded in its essential features), and central (it provides answers to, or ways of thinking about, whatever questions seem to its offerers to be central to the ordering of their lives).

Keywords:   religion, answers, thinking, religious account

Religion as an Account

Defining religion is a little like writing diet books or forecasting the performance of the stock market: there's a great deal of it about and none of it seems to do much good.1 This doesn't keep people from predicting share prices or prescribing eating habits, though it probably should. It won't keep me from offering a discursive definition of religion, either, though I may have a slightly better reason for it than does the usual diet-book author or stock-market prognosticator. Since I'm writing a book about religious reading, and since my understanding of what it is to be religious is different from that of many who call themselves religious, as well as from that of many academic professionals who think of themselves as studying religion, I can't avoid offering and defending my own understanding of religion.

I do this part of the work stipulatively. A religion is, for those who have it (or, better, are had by it), principally an account. To be religious is to give an account, where giving an account of something means to make it the object of some intentional activity—to tell a story about it, have some beliefs about it, direct some actions toward it, or the like. Mathematics, as an example of a human activity, gives an account whose chief objects are abstract entities and their relations, and whose main intentional activity is the construction, expression, justification, and ordering of beliefs about such objects and their relations. Being married, to take another example, is an account given by spouses (principally to one another, but also to others) of the history and current state of their relations, (p.4) an account that involves the weaving of narratives, the regular performance of actions, the possession and nurturing of beliefs and affective responses, and much more.

Accounts that people offer may be distinguished one from another by their scope, their object, and the kinds of intentional activity they use. But there are no natural and inevitable distinctions among accounts. Decisions about the boundaries between mathematics and physics, or those between literary criticism and philosophy, are always indexed to the intellectual goals and interests of those making the distinctions. This is not to say that boundary decisions are completely arbitrary, that they have nothing to do with the accounts among which they draw boundaries. It is only to make the more modest claim that such decisions always and inevitably involve and are largely driven by the interests of those making them, and to suggest that other decisions are always both possible and defensible. Adjudicating rival boundary decisions must always involve reference to the interests implied by the decisions.

Nonetheless, paying attention to the scope, object, and kinds of intentional activity found in an account will typically give useful pointers as to how it might be demarcated from other accounts. Two accounts that differ significantly in even one of these matters are unlikely usefully to be classifiable as the same account, even though it will often be possible to imagine an account of which both are components. Consider, for instance, an account whose scope is whole numbers from one to 100, whose object is prime numbers within that range, and whose preferred intentional activity is squaring its objects. A giver of this account will, seriatim, find the square of each prime number within the chosen range. Imagine also an account identical in every respect, except that its object is even numbers within the same range. In spite of their deep similarities, these are likely, for most purposes, to be best thought of as different accounts, demarcated one from another principally by difference of object; though they might also for some purposes usefully be thought of as two components of a single account—perhaps the arithmetical account, or some such.

All human activities of cultural and conceptual interest are usefully capable of being understood as accounts in just this sense; and this means that religion must be capable of being so understood, since it is certainly of cultural and conceptual interest. If, then, to be religious is to give an account, what sort of account is it? I shall define it at a level of abstraction that makes the definition applicable to all particular religious accounts; and I shall define it by reference principally to how it appears to those who offer it. This is to say that I take the defining properties of a religious account to be both formal and phenomenal. They are formal because they are abstracted from the particularities of any particular religious account, and as a result address little if any of the substance of such an account. And they are phenomenal because they are not properties intrinsic to the account itself, but rather properties that explain how the account seems or might seem to those who offer it. These properties may also be non-phenomenal, just as the fastball that Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox hit out of the park last Friday may both have seemed to him to be traveling at 85 miles per hour (a phenomenal property) and have actually been doing so (a (p.5) nonphenomenal property). But I shall not concern myself much with the interesting question of whether the phenomenal features of any particular account are also nonphenomenal features—for example, with the question of whether the Christian account, which indisputably possesses the property of seeming unsurpassably true to me, also possesses the nonphenomenal property of being unsurpassably true (of course, that I think it possesses the latter property follows ineluctably from the fact that it possesses the former).

There are a number of advantages to describing religious accounts in terms of their formal and phenomenal properties. First (and most important for me), concentrating at the formal level on how accounts of this sort seem to those who offer them permits me to avoid controverted questions about the substantive and nonphenomenal properties of religious accounts. I do not need to decide, for instance, whether, in order to be called religious, a particular account must involve reference to a transcendent reality (God, nirvana, or the like). Neither do I need to decide whether religious accounts, in order properly to be called such, must engage certain kinds of questions—as to how we humans should most authentically live, for instance. Second, my interest in this book is principally in the modes of learning and teaching that most effectively foster the ability to come to give, to maintain, and to nurture a religious account. This is a formal question that can be answered largely without reference to the substance of what is read when one reads religiously, a question that is in most respects better answered without such reference; and so it too benefits from the approach taken here.

Consider an analogy. It is possible to say useful things about the modes of learning best designed to produce fluency in speaking some language without saying anything about the characteristics peculiar to any. Japanese and English are, in many important respects, different from one another. Fluency in speaking one obviously does not provide fluency in speaking the other. And yet there are clear and deep similarities between the formal and phenomenal properties of being a fluent speaker of Japanese, on the one hand, and those of being a fluent speaker of English, on the other. It's beyond my scope here to describe what it seems like to a fluent speaker of some language to be such a speaker, but it is surely obvious that it does seem like something. And this is the same as to say that being a fluent speaker of some language has phenomenal properties that can usefully be considered at the formal level, in abstraction from the particularities of any natural language. Considering them in this way is just what makes it possible for those who want to think and write about language learning in general to do so in ways that are of use (even if of limited use) to the teachers and learners of any particular language.

There is something of a difficulty at this point, a difficulty suggested by the language analogy. It is that the phenomenal properties of being a speaker of (say) English are rarely a matter for articulation on the part of those to whom they belong. I don't usually think about what it's like to be a speaker of English, and couldn't say all that much about it if pressed. This is to say that I can articulate only some of what it's like to be such a speaker; and what I can and cannot articulate may vary from time to time. But I want to extend the category ‘phenomenal (p.6) property’ to include properties of an account about which its offerers could say nothing, even if pressed. After all, as Thomas Nagel points out, it seems reasonable to think that it seems like something to a bat to be one, to think that a bat's experience has phenomenal properties.2 And yet it is also true that the bat can say nothing about these, even to itself, while we nonbats might be able to say something.

In light of this, I use the phrase ‘phenomenal properties of accounts’ to include (1) properties that givers of the account do or can articulate; and (2) properties they can't (or don't) articulate, but which it seems reasonable to observers and interpreters of their accounts to attribute to those accounts, even if their givers would not themselves articulate them (and even if they would deny them if they heard others articulating them). This means that an account's phenomenal properties may be articulable or nonarticulable, and this distinction is closely matched by one between their being occurrent (the account actually does seem at the moment to its offerers to be of such and such a kind, and they both can and would say so), and their being implicit (the account implies that it should seem to its offerers to be of such and such a kind, but in fact it does not explicitly seem to them like that or like anything just at the moment, and they might deny that it seems like that or like anything, if asked). So I shall understand ‘phenomenal properties’ to embrace articulable, nonarticulable, occurrent, and implicit seemings, and this should be kept in mind as you read what follows, for I shall usually not signal all these distinctions. Bear in mind also that this way of talking about the accounts people offer is intended to explain only how they seem or might seem to those who offer them. The subjunctive mood in this second phrase (‘might seem’) covers the nonarticulable and implicit phenomenal properties of accounts.

Given all these qualifications, the phenomenal properties that religious accounts possess are three: comprehensiveness, unsurpassability, and centrality. The presence of these three will suffice to make an account religious; the absence of any one will suffice to prevent it from being so. This means that to say of people that they are religious, or have a religion, is just to say that they give an account that seems to them to have these three properties—to be comprehensive, unsurpassable, and central. It is to say that one of the things religious people do, perhaps in the end the only thing they do, is to give a religious account, to be religious.

It might be objected that the construal of religion offered here is neither the only possible nor the obviously best one. It is certainly true that it rules out much that has often been called religious. Activities that are often taken to be paradigmatically such (belief in a god or gods, making offerings to the ancestors, using sacrifice to cure disease, and the like) can, according to this construal, only properly be called religious when a good deal is known about the account of which they form a part. It is true also that much not typically included under the rubric of religion may be so included under this construal. For instance, it might be that a thoroughgoing (if somewhat old-fashioned) Marxist would turn out to be religious; or that an unusually obsessive follower of the Chicago White Sox might. But disadvantages of this kind are shared by all construals of religion. (p.7) And as to whether the construal offered here is the best possible of those in the field: since the desirability of any stipulative construal of this kind must be indexed to its effectiveness in helping or allowing certain intellectual or practical goals to be met, this question reduces to the more fundamental and also more modest question of whether a particular construal does effectively serve the ends it was constructed to serve. This book is principally concerned to describe and advocate a particular form of reading; and for this end (though certainly not for all) I judge the construal offered here to be both flexible and effective.


What then is it for an account to seem to its offerers to be comprehensive?—for this is the first of the three properties that an account must possess in order to be religious. For an account to be comprehensive it must seem to those who offer it that it takes account of everything, that nothing is left unaccounted for by it. Most accounts are not comprehensive in this sense. For example, one account that I give of myself is as a parent, the father of two living children. But this is not a comprehensive account because, first, it does not comprehend (indeed, has little to say about) the accounts I give of myself as teacher, writer, spouse, citizen of the United States, and many other things. It stands alongside some of these other accounts, neither accounting for them nor being accounted for by them. But it is strictly subsumed by, accounted for by, some of the other accounts I offer, most especially the Christian account, according to which both the fact of my being a parent and the details of my acting as such are accounted for in terms of (as I see it) the fact that I am a Christian. So the parenting account is not, for me (and I suspect this to be true for all who offer such an account) a comprehensive account, and as a result also not a religious account.

It is possible, indeed usual, for people to offer more than one comprehensive account at a time. I, for example, offer a Christian account that is comprehensive, and also the following (trivial) mathematical account: everything is either a prime number or it is not. This, like my Christian account, takes account of everything: of my being a parent (which is not a prime number), of my being a Christian (which is likewise not), of the number three (which is), and so forth to infinity.

These points may be put visually. Let a circle represent each account you offer. If you offer a comprehensive account, let that be represented by a circle within whose circumference all the other circles representing your noncomprehensive accounts are drawn. Some of these subsidiary circles (of which there will typically be a great many) may stand alone inside the great circle that represents the comprehensive account, neither subsuming nor overlapping nor being subsumed by any of the other subsidiary circles. But it will more frequently be the case that subsidiary circles will be related one to another by subsumption or overlapping. The full picture will typically be very complicated indeed. So the accounts that 1 offer of myself as parent, of the human activities of mathematics (p.8) and music, of the physical states of affairs that partly constitute the cosmos, and of cultural facts like being an Englishman by birth who has become an American by choice are all (it seems to me) comprehended by the great circle of my Christian account. If you offer more than one comprehensive account, as I do, the line of your great circle's circumference will be increased in thickness for each comprehensive account you offer. Someone who offers a great many comprehensive accounts will have this fact represented by a great circle with a very thick line representing its circumference.

A couple of qualifications are necessary at this point. First, it is certainly not the case that everyone offers an explicit and articulable comprehensive account. That is, it may seem to you that no one of the accounts you offer comprehends all the others; if you're in this situation you're likely to deny offering such an account if a suggestion is made to you that you do. And this will mean that you are not, by my definition, religious, or are so only implicitly. Being explicitly religious is not, then, a necessary feature of human existence as such—and this conclusion is perfectly compatible with the truth of such claims as all people were created by God, and all people have salvation made available to them through Jesus Christ, and God exists necessarily. But it is rather less likely that anyone fails to offer an implicitly comprehensive account, and it is generally rather easy to persuade those who deny offering such an account that in fact they implicitly do. The easiest way to do this is to point at something (a book, say, or a table or a chair) and to ask whether it is what it is and not something else. The philosophically unschooled will rapidly agree that this is so, that everything must either be this thing or some other thing, and as soon as this is said a comprehensive account has been offered. The philosophically sophisticated may have more to say before they give their assent, or they may even withhold it altogether; but they, being sophisticated, will typically already have developed explicitly comprehensive accounts of their own. It seems a fair bet, then, that everyone offers a comprehensive account, though not that all do so explicitly.

The second qualification is that a comprehensive account, while it must provide rubrics under which the fact of all other accounts can be comprehended, need not determine just what the details of those other accounts are, and may often have nothing at all to say about those details. That is, it should not be supposed that offering a comprehensive account commits those who offer it to particular answers to all possible questions. Offering the Christian account does not, for example, commit me to any particular view as to whether Goldbach's Conjecture (that every even number greater than two is expressible as the sum of two primes) is true or not. But it does commit me to saying that the truth (or falsity) of this conjecture is one of the states of affairs eternally intended and known by God. Likewise, offering the comprehensive account everything is either a prime number or it is not commits me to no view about the relations between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—except the view that such relations are not a prime number.

An account will be comprehensive, then, if and only if it seems to the person who offers it to take as its object strictly everything, and thereby to have universal scope. But some comprehensive accounts, like the prime-number account (p.9) mentioned, are trivial even though their scope is universal. A trivial account is one that cannot organize a life. To find that an account is comprehensive is therefore not sufficient to make it religious; it must also appear to its offerer to be both unsurpassable and central, and as a result not to be trivial. I shall treat these two properties in order.


If I offer an account that seems to me unsurpassable, then I take it not to be capable of being replaced by or subsumed in a better account of what it accounts for.3 So, for instance, one of the accounts I offer has my children as its objects. The chief elements of that account, its essential features, include beliefs such as that they are my children, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; that I love them; that I have nonnegotiable duties toward them and they toward me, duties produced directly by the fact of my parental relation to them—and so forth. It seems to me that this account is unsurpassable in its essential features, at least this side of death. This is not to say that the account will not change in its details; what I say and think about my children now, and how I act toward them, are obviously not the same in detail as what I will say, think, or do a dozen years from now. But the essential features of the account I offer will not, in my judgment, be changed, surpassed, or superseded. This is just what makes my account of my children unsurpassable for me. Unsurpassability, then, denotes an attitude toward what are taken to be the essential features of an account by the person who gives it.

When unsurpassability is coupled with comprehensiveness something close to a religious account is found. My account of my children, though unsurpassable, is of course not comprehensive, and as a result is not a religious account. My Christian account, by contrast, has both features. The importance of unsurpassability as a feature of religious accounts is that it highlights the fact that being religious, offering a religious account, is a commitment of a nonnegotiable kind. When coupled with comprehensiveness, such an account enters sufficiently deeply into the souls of those who offer it that the abandonment of its essential features is scarcely conceivable, and if conceivable, not desirable.

I take unsurpassability and nonnegotiability to be different ways of saying the same thing: if an account seems to you to be unsurpassable, this is just to say that you take what seem to you to be the account's essential features to be incapable of abandonment. This is to say neither that the formulation and expression of these essential features will not change, nor that they cannot be added to; the example of my account of my children shows this. But it is to say that any such changes or additions will not (or so it will seem to those who offer an unsurpassable account) involve or lead to the abandonment or alteration of these essential features. Christians, when considering the obvious fact that Christian doctrine appears to change over time, have often put this by saying that such apparent changes are to be understood as unfoldings, or unpackings, or flowerings (choose your metaphor) of what is already implied by Christian doctrine, (p.10) and not as alterations or abandonments of it. Or, they have said that the content of the Christian account does not change, though its form may.4 On such views (and they are typical of those found in religious accounts when their offerers become sufficiently reflective to pronounce on such matters), apparent change in the essential features of a religious account is always either developmental or cosmetic, and as a result is compatible with unsurpassability and nonnegotiability.

None of this is to say that religious accounts, once given, are never abandoned. You can cease to offer a religious account just as you can come to offer one. But it is to say that while a religious account is being offered, intrinsic to it is the feature that its offerer regards its essential elements as incapable of loss, supersession, or abandonment. This is a part of what Christians have meant by faith. But not even accounts that seem to their offerers both comprehensive and unsurpassable are necessarily religious. Some accounts of this sort may still be trivial, incapable of structuring the life of their offerer; or peripheral, not central to that life. This would be true, for example, of the prime-number account mentioned earlier. This account is, for me, both comprehensive and unsurpassable; but it is scarcely central to my life. Something more is needed, and it is centrality.


For an account to seem central to you it must seem to be directly relevant to what you take to be the central questions of your life, the questions around which your life is oriented. Perhaps the account provides answers to these questions; or perhaps it prescribes guiding principles or intentional activities that contribute to answering, or provide ways of thinking about, these questions. Such questions may move in many areas. One is the general issue of how you should think about and relate to your fellow humans. Should you love them? Exploit them? Ignore them? Judge them to be perduring nonphysical individuals possessed of intrinsic worth? Treat them all the same, or some in one way and some in another? Another is the general issue of how you should think about and order your relations with the nonhuman order, both sentient and nonsentient. Should you treat sentient nonhumans significantly differently than you treat humans? Should you judge the nonsentient cosmos to be meaningful, or to be a collection of brutally irreducible states of affairs? Should you judge that what exists is limited to what you can perceive with your physical senses, and behave accordingly? And yet a third is the general issue of how you should think about yourself, and about what sorts of beliefs and actions you should foster in yourself, and what discourage. Should you make what seems to you to contribute to your own pleasure and happiness the central motivating factor in your decisions about what to do with your life? Should you judge that you are a perduring object of worth? Decisions about matters of these three kinds are life-orienting; they are also, when a decision already made about them is changed, life-changing. Not all may seem to everyone to be central questions, and the (p.11) examples mentioned are only examples, not an exhaustive list. But they are ideal-typical representatives of questions central to the ordering of a life.

Most people do not explicitly ask themselves questions at this level of abstraction and generality. Doing so is characteristic of an uncommon level of reflection. But most people do explicitly ask and answer more concrete questions, and in so doing imply the asking and answering of abstract questions like these. For instance, a Hindu in Bihar might ask and answer a question such as this: Is my Muslim neighbor worthy of death just because he is a Muslim? A Muslim in Lyons might ask and answer the question: Should I wear the veil to school even though it is against French law to do so? A Jew in Hoboken might ask and answer the question: Should I marry a Gentile? A Christian in Leeds might ask and answer the question: Should I devote time and energy to becoming a concert pianist even though there are homeless and hungry people on the streets not a mile from my front door? Such concrete questions are likely to seem central to those who ask and answer them. And it is characteristic of religious accounts that they address such questions and that they do so in the context of offering a comprehensive and unsurpassable account.

That religious accounts must be central as well as unsurpassable and comprehensive is among the things that make it possible to be a person and yet not offer one. It's clear that not everyone explicitly offers an account that seems to them comprehensive, unsurpassable, and central; it's clear also that there are many who would deny offering such an account if asked. So some people, perhaps many, have no explicit and articulable religious account to offer. But perhaps they offer such an account implicitly, much as native speakers of English offer an implicit account of the grammar of the English language even when they can articulate little or nothing about that grammar. Perhaps, that is to say, offering religious accounts (being religious) is a necessary feature of human existence, a part of what it means to be human. Many have thought so, but it is not so. It is entirely possible to be human and to offer no religious account, even implicitly. I've already suggested that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for anyone to avoid offering (at least implicitly) a comprehensive account. I suspect that similar things ought to be said about unsurpassable accounts: it turns out to be difficult not to offer at least one of these, even if it's of the pedestrian kind that denies (implicitly or explicitly) the possibility of offering an unsurpassable account—and in so doing, offers one. However, it is possible to fail to offer a central account with relative ease. Human beings can be (or can become) profoundly fragmented, their intentions and desires dispersed to such an extent that they do not, perhaps cannot, offer an account that seems to them directly relevant to what they take to be the questions around which their lives are oriented. For a deeply fragmented or dispersed soul, there may be no such questions: there may be only a series of disjointed, unconnected desires, chaotic in their proliferation and fragmentation. And in such a case, clearly, no central account can be offered, from which it follows that no religious account can be offered.

Being religious is therefore not an essential or intrinsic part of being human. It's important to note, though, that this is entirely compatible with the truth of (p.12) claims such as God created everyone or everyone's life comes from and is ordered to God. These are metaphysical claims. Their truth (if they are true) does not require the truth of any claims about the phenomenal properties of the accounts that people offer—not even in the extended sense of phenomenal properties in play here. Returning to the analogy of language may help to show this. Suppose it's true that there is a deep structure common to all natural languages; it would then also be true that being a native speaker of English would imply (though distantly) the presence of that deep structure in every utterance. Analogously, if it's true that everyone's life issues from and is ordered to God, this fact will be implied by any account whatever (even one lacking in central questions). But in both cases the implication is a distant one and says nothing about the particulars of the account in question: it is applicable indifferently to all accounts. I am concerned here not with such distant implications, but only with those that have to do with the particulars of some account, the properties that differentiate it from other accounts, that make it the account it is and not some other. It follows that even if being a native speaker of English implies the presence and efficacy of a deep structure, and even if failing to offer a central account implies the existence of God, in neither case are these things among the phenomenal properties (implicit or explicit) specific to the accounts in question.

To reiterate: not everyone offers a religious account. But is it possible for anyone to have more than one religion (offer more than one religious account) at a time? The answer is no, and for strictly logical reasons. Bilingualism is possible, but bireligionism is not. It is, as I've said, possible simultaneously to offer more than one comprehensive and unsurpassable account. But the addition of centrality makes this no longer possible. For each person there is a finite (usually a small) number of questions that seem central, capable of organizing a life. Suppose you entertain two accounts, each of which seems to you comprehensive, unsurpassable, and central. Then either the two accounts will seem to you to be different in some of their essential features, or they will not. If the former, then it is both logically and psychologically impossible for you not merely to entertain but actually to offer both accounts. This is because you cannot offer, simultaneously and with conviction, different answers to what seem to you life-orienting questions. Suppose you entertain different answers to the (possibly) life-orienting question: Should I kill and eat apparently sentient creatures? One answer might be: Never. Another might be: Only if they have two or more senses. A third might be: Whenever no other food is available. The first answer is incompatible with the second and third. You may entertain, but you cannot offer, an account that embraces all three. The second and third answers are different but not necessarily or obviously incompatible. You may entertain and come to offer an account that combines both. But then you are offering a single account that includes a complex answer to this particular question. In no case are you offering two different accounts at the same time.

The anthropologist Dan Sperber makes a formally identical point in his discussion of symbol systems:

(p.13) [T]here is no multi-symbolism analogous to multi-lingualism. An individual who learns a second language internalises a second grammar, and if some interference takes place, it is on a remarkably small scale. Conversely, symbolic data, no matter what their origin, integrate themselves into a single system within a given individual. If one could internalise several different symbolic devices, as one can learn several different languages, the task of the anthropologist would thereby become considerably simpler. But the anthropologist, who little by little penetrates the symbolism of his hosts, is never able to pass from one symbolism to another as easily as he passes from one language to another.5

Sperber's point is that for a user of symbolic systems there is only one active system at a time. You can act, or engage in other complex forms of pretense, when you deploy symbol systems; but this is never the same as genuine and authentic use. Transition from pretense to genuine use is possible, but it isn't possible to pretend and genuinely to use at the same time. Similarly for religious accounts. Many can be entertained at a time, but only one can be offered. This is not to say, of course, that a religious account need contain elements drawn from only one of those complexes of human thought and action called ‘Christianity’ or ‘Islam’ or the like. If you say that you are a Jewish Buddhist, for example, you typically mean that you offer a religious account some elements of which are historically Buddhist and some historically Jewish. You do not mean, because you cannot, that you simultaneously offer two religious accounts.

Skill and Information

Giving religious accounts is a practice, a human activity. It follows that every instance of giving a religious account, every token of the type, is learned, and learned in a particular social, linguistic, and institutional context. We are not born giving religious accounts any more than we are born using language, even though we may have deep and partly genetic tendencies to come to do both things, and even though there may be facts about the cosmos in which we live that strongly suggest to us the desirability of doing the former. Unless we are placed in a social and institutional context in which certain pedagogical practices are in place, we shall not, because we cannot, become religious: we shall not learn to offer a religious account. Analogously, unless we are placed in a community of language users, we shall not, because we cannot, become fluent users of any language. Rather few of us fail to become fluent users of some language or another, and we understand a good deal about the conditions necessary for becoming such. But very many of us fail to become religious, most often because the necessary social, institutional, and pedagogical practices are lacking. This has perhaps been especially true for inhabitants of Europe and the United States since the seventeenth century, but it is now becoming increasingly true for people in other parts of the world.

None of this is to say that there is a deterministic relation between the presence of the relevant practices and the offering of religious accounts. The practices, (p.14) whatever they turn out to be, may in some cases be present and yet no religious account be offered. Necessary conditionality is not sufficient conditionality; human free will, divine grace, and various other imponderables have their proper part to play. Paying attention to the practices constitutive of religious learning is therefore not intended to suggest a reductionist view of any particular religious account, or of religious accounts in general. It is not intended to suggest that when the learning practices have been analyzed there is no more to be said about religion. There is always the question of truth: is one, none, or several of the religious accounts offered true? But this is not my interest here.

Any kind of learning, including religious learning, results for us in one of two things: the acquisition and retention of information, on the one hand, or the possession of a skill, on the other. Each of these entails, in some measure, the presence of the other. Acquisition and retention of information is impossible without the possession and use of some skill that is not itself exhaustively accountable in terms of information. No human, for instance, can acquire and transmit information linguistically without being in possession of skills that go far beyond the information contained in dictionaries and manuals of syntax. The skills of reading or listening with understanding are complex and clearly not capable of analysis solely in terms of the possession of information. They involve dispositions and capacities that we do not fully understand, as is shown by the fact that we cannot program computers even to meet the test of producing a reasonable facsimile of reading or talking (one that could fool an averagely perceptive human observer), notwithstanding that the computer may have rapid access to a body of lexical and syntactical information many times larger than that possessed by any human. The same is true of other complex human skills. And even in the case of less complex skills, such as those of walking on two legs, riding a bicycle, making love, or playing the piano, skills in which the linguistic component is almost entirely (perhaps entirely) absent—even in the case of these it is at least arguable that the implicit possession of some information is among the necessary conditions for the exercise of the skill. You might need to know (even if you never need to formulate the knowledge) that pressing the pedal down will move the bicycle; that using the loud-pedal on the piano will make the noise continue; and that kissing the beloved will express your love and may be reciprocated.

There is, it should already be clear, a distinction between information presupposed by the possession of a skill and implied by its exercise, and information present to the minds of (or capable of being articulated by) possessors of that skill. Suppose you can speak a natural language; this is a skill that presupposes and implies all sorts of grammatical information, and yet you may be able to articulate little or none of it. Similarly for playing the piano or making love. This point can be clarified by speaking of three kinds of information. The first is occurrent: under this head comes all the information currently present to your mind. The second is dispositional: under this head comes information not at the moment present to your mind, but capable of becoming so when circumstance requires. And the third is implicit: under this head comes information implied in or presupposed by your skills, but not capable of articulation by you under any conditions.

(p.15) Most of the information we possess is of the third kind, a good deal is of the second kind, and very little is of the first kind. This is as true of the information that belongs to religious accounts as of any other kind, and it is important to emphasize it, because only a tiny proportion of those who offer religious accounts have any but a vanishingly small proportion of the information implied by offering such an account either present to their minds or capable of articulation. Limiting the scope of this inquiry to information of the first kind would mean excluding the vast majority of people from learning to read religiously. I don't mean to do that, so when I speak of information in what follows I include all three kinds, though once again with the proviso that in the case of implicit information I am interested only in the kind specific to the account being studied.

Information and skill are never finally separable in practice. Nonetheless, it will be useful to have a fairly sharp distinction between them in mind when reading what follows, since I shall make some theoretical use of ideas about the difference between the two—between, as philosophers have tended to put it, following Gilbert Ryle and J. L. Austin, ‘knowing how’ (possessing a skill) and ‘knowing that’ (possessing some information).6

It should be pretty clear that offering a religious account will typically require much information and plenty of skill. Again, a good (though partial) analogy is with verbal fluency in some natural language. You need to know that a lot of things are the case (that, in Latin, nouns and adjectives agree, the subjunctive mood expresses possibility rather than actuality, and the like); and you need to know how to do a lot of things (how to construct a sentence with subordinate clauses, how to understand infinitives, and the like). So also with religious accounts. You need to know the grammatical and syntactical rules by which the account is structured, you need to know the semantic content of the claims made about human persons and the setting of their life, and you need to know what is prohibited, what permitted, and what recommended in the sphere of human action. These are all examples of knowing that. But you also need to know how to offer the account: you need, to a greater or lesser extent, to possess the skills required to elucidate the account, to instantiate it in your life, to develop the capacities and proclivities that will make it possible for you to act in accord with what is prescribed or recommended by the account. Offering a religious account involves learning to play the piano as well as becoming a musicologist; and the virtuosos, the Barenboims and the Goulds, are the saints.

These points can be and should be put more strongly. Offering a religious account is, principally and paradigmatically, a skill. It consists essentially in knowing how to do certain sorts of things. Only secondarily, and quite inessentially, does it involve the possession of occurrent or dispositional information. Just as there are many more players of chess than theorists of the game, so there are many more faithful Christians than theologians, many more good Buddhists than analysts of dharma, and many more committed and ecstatic Śaivites than expositors of Śaivasiddhānta. Knowing how to offer a religious account is, as Ryle put it, “a disposition, but not a single-track disposition like a reflex or a habit” (Ryle was of course not speaking of religion, in which he had little interest).7 This means that the complex disposition that is possessing the skill of (p.16) offering a religious account does not issue in a single set of predictable actions. This is what makes it different from a habit. If I have the habit of drinking coffee or that of splitting infinitives, these facts will be evident principally in my repeated performance of such acts. But if I have a sarcastic disposition, this will be evident in many ways, including the bitter put-down, the abrasive parody, and the self-aggrandizing critique; there is no single set of actions in which this disposition issues, which is why it isn't a habit but instead a context-sensitive set of behaviors, each of which evidences my possession of the dispositional skill of being sarcastic (not a desirable disposition to be enslaved to, of course).

Being religious is more like being sarcastic than like being a coffee drinker or a splitter of infinitives. It may certainly contain and be partly constituted by habits (for example, repeating the Nicene Creed on Sundays, or praying the Paternoster daily), but it isn't limited to them or exhaustively describable in terms of sets of them. Like being sarcastic, it issues in context-specific behaviors such as acting charitably in response to a particular need, responding with forgiveness to an act of hostility, or meeting an act of injustice with denunciation. Since being religious is a skill in this sense, it's possible to get better at it (or worse). You're not, then, simply religious or not; you're more or less religious. To say that people are good (faithful, perceptive, discerning, vigorous, active) Christians is principally to say of them that they do certain things and do them in such a way that understanding of what they do is evident, and that deep commitment to it can be seen. Such people practice Christianity well, and the analogy with being a good chess player, lover, or philosopher is close and deep. In all these cases, the terms of approbation have to do with what is done rather than with what is known—even though doing always involves and implies knowing.

Ryle again:

Learning how or improving in ability is not like learning that or acquiring information. Truths can be imparted, procedures can only be inculcated, and while inculcation is a gradual process, imparting is relatively sudden. It makes sense to ask at what moment someone became apprised of a truth, but not to ask at what moment someone acquired a skill. ‘Part-trained’ is a significant phrase, 'part-informed' is not. Training is the art of setting tasks which the pupils have not yet accomplished, but are not any longer quite incapable of accomplishing.8

If indeed being religious (offering a religious account) is a dispositional skill, then, as Ryle points out, it will have to be inculcated, which is to say that those who have (or come to have) the skill will have to be trained. Reading of a certain kind will be an important part of this training; and it is the central concern of this book to make clear just what kind.

The Christian Account

An example may be of use at this point, since almost everything said so far has been abstract. What are the lineaments of some religious account, and how are the possession of information and skill required of those who try to offer it? I (p.17) shall take the Christian account as my example because it is the one I try to offer, and as a result the only one upon which I am qualified to pronounce as a native.9 It is for Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and so forth, to say what the elements of their accounts might be. I shall have a good deal to say in later chapters about particular Buddhist artifacts that I take to illustrate some of the claims I shall be making about religious reading; but I shall be interested in those not for their substance but for their form, and I shall take pains to avoid normative pronouncements as to what should and what should not belong to a Buddhist account. Such restrictions do not constrain me when I write of Christianity, though of course any construal of that account I might offer is only one of many possible ones.

The sketch of the Christian account that follows is not meant to suggest that there is a single, unchanging account with just and only these features that has been offered by all Christians everywhere and always. Semper, ubique, ab omnibus (always, everywhere, by all) is a slogan with some uses and an important Christian lineage, but it should not be taken (and I do not take it) to indicate that the Christian account does not vary with time and place. That it does is obvious. But it is also obvious that there are features that have been and remain widespread among the accounts offered by those who call themselves Christians (though just what these are is matter for debate). It seems reasonable to think that when an account is offered from which some or all of these features are absent that account is no longer usefully thought of as a Christian account, much as the absence of any Latin-derived words in some idiolect probably indicates that the idiolect is no longer usefully thought of as English. It is features of this sort that the following sketch selects and calls essential.

The first and most fundamental essential feature of the Christian account as it appears to Christians is that the account itself is seen as a response to the actions of a divine agent who is other than those offering it. God, it seems to us Christians, has acted as creator, as guide of human history, and as redeemer of fallen and sinful humanity by becoming incarnate, dying, and rising from the dead. In order to learn how to offer our account, Christians must acquire both this basic item of information about it and the skills of responsive action that such a view of it implies. We Christians have been and continue to be acted upon, or so it seems to us; the account we offer is our response.

God's action requires a response from us. It is a response that we can give or refuse to give, wherein lies our freedom. And it is a response required of us not by compulsion, but by love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The response requires knowing that certain things are the case (what God has done, what God is like, what we are like, what we should do); it also requires knowing how to do certain things, the inculcation of skills that are difficult, learned slowly, learned hard, and never fully learned.

Principal among those skills is the ordering of the will and the appetites away from the self, away from self-centered gratification, and toward God first and other humans second. We come from God: the possibility of our existence and all its boundaries are from God and of God. This means that we are fundamentally (p.18) restless and disordered until we come to see and acknowledge these facts, and to harmonize our wills with them. This restlessness and disorder is evident principally when we turn our wills and direct our appetites toward anything other than God. Things other than God are all of them necessarily and essentially good, since God made them. This means that they are proper objects of honor, affection, and use. But they are not, in themselves, proper objects of enjoyment, devotion, and reverence. Only God warrants those attitudes and responses, even though it's second nature to us to give them to things that are not God, which is to say that it's second nature to us to be idolaters. (Our first nature is given by God, and so is not idolatrous.) We must then, as Christians, inculcate the complex skill of directing our wills and appetites away from ourselves and our gratification, and toward God. Inculcating this skill and exhibiting it in our lives are proper and essential parts of the Christian account.

Closely associated with this necessity is the imperative to transform our attitudes toward humans other than ourselves. We have to learn to see each as an image of God, as created by God, and so as worthy of honor and affection. This involves learning the complex skill of discerning when to sacrifice our own interests (which are naturally dear to us, and which we naturally kill to defend and extend) for those of others, and when and how to witness to others in the hope that they might also become offerers of the Christian account, livers of the Christian life. Here, as so often, our paradigm is Jesus of Nazareth, who both gave his own life for others, and constantly taught and witnessed to them. But simple imitation is not possible, any more than simple imitation of Bobby Fischer's best games will make a good chess player, or simple imitation of Vladimir Nabokov's best novels will make a good novelist. The acquisition of a skill and the discernment to apply it well are what's needed.

The reordering of will and appetite away from self and toward God (first) and other humans (second) also has its application to the nonhuman parts of the created order, both sentient and otherwise. These also are God's creation, and are to be honored as such. They are not to be used solely for our gratification, not to be treated with casual violence or disrespect, and most emphatically not to become objects of idolatry, to be loved as if they were God. Seeing what all this means and applying it in the particular situations in which we find ourselves is, once again, a complex skill. It, too, is an essential part of the Christian account.

We Christians have often described and analyzed the inculcation of the skills mentioned in the immediately preceding paragraphs under the rubric of the training of conscience. All humans have a conscience, an internal witness and judge that instructs us in what we ought to do. But for most of us it is undeveloped, “weak” as St. Paul puts it (I Corinthians 8), clouded or obscured by sin and self-will. Inculcation of the skills I've mentioned (indeed, the whole process of religious learning for Christians) can usefully be understood as enlivening the lazy conscience.

Three kinds of practice are typically used by Christians as tools for the inculcation of these skills. The first is worship; the second, prayer; and the third, (p.19) reading or hearing the Bible for nourishment. These are not finally separable one from another. All worship involves prayer, all prayer is a form of worship, and proper use of the Bible is both prayerful and worshipful. But it may nonetheless be useful to say a few words on each separately.

Worship, the first of these three, is a communal and individual returning of praise and love to the God who has acted in such a way as to make possible and to require the offering of the Christian account. Worship is, as we Christians have developed it, a complex and highly ordered collective activity. When, for instance, Catholic Christians offer the sacrifice of the mass, we perform actions that require a high level of understanding and skill. There are skills of bodily movement: knowing how and when to genuflect, to kneel, to stand, to make the sign of the cross, and so forth. There are skills of voice: knowing when and how to sing, to chant, and so forth. And there are skills of thought and attitude: knowing when and how to compose the mind, to direct the thoughts, to order the emotions and the will. All these skills presuppose and express a broad range of knowledge that: knowledge that God has acted in such and such a way; knowledge that such and such a response is appropriate; knowledge that the bread and wine on the altar have a peculiar significance—and so forth. The knowing how and knowing that evident in Christian worship are learned and inculcated by repetition; their inculcation produces a particular skill that is in turn part of the process by which the will and the appetites are ordered to God.

Prayer, the second practice used by Christians, has both communal and private aspects. Whether done with others or alone in your room behind closed doors (Matthew 6:6), it, too, is a returning of love, praise, and service to God. Its paradigm is the Paternoster, the prayer given by Jesus (Matthew 6:9–13; Luke 11:2–4), and its shortest and most pithy form is direct address to God in the form “Your will, not mine, be done.” Like worship, it acknowledges and represents the facts about what God has done for us, and in so doing inculcates the skill of responding properly to those facts. It is part of the process by which our wills and appetites become aligned with God.

The third practice integral to the Christian account is the use of the Bible. We Christians possess what we take to be a peculiarly authoritative witness to God's actions and intentions. This authority is construed in various ways, but common to them all (or at least to all that warrant being described as Christian) are the ideas that the Bible has greater authority than any other work, that the reading of it should provide Christians with a set of tools and skills we can use to interpret the world, and that the world is to be interpreted in terms of the Bible, written into its margins, so to speak, rather than the other way around. Technically, this is to say that the Bible is a norma normans non normata, a norm that norms but is itself not normed. Here, too, many skills and much information are required: we Christians need to learn the skill of reading the Bible in a particular way, as well as a good deal of information about the Bible and about reading. George Herbert, in these lines from “The H. Scriptures I,” puts the Christian's attitude to the Bible well:

  • (p.20) Oh Book! infinite sweetnesse! let my heart
  • Suck ev'ry letter, and a hony gain
  • …………
  • … heav'n lies flat in thee,
  • Subject to ev'ry mounters bended knee.10
Sucking is another learned skill (as also was sucking at your mother's breast); learning it and practicing it contributes to the more fundamental and difficult skills of reorienting the will and the appetite.

The immediately preceding paragraphs have provided a very schematic outline of the Christian account. It has been meant only to illustrate the points made earlier about skills and information as integral parts of religious accounts. Similar schematic outlines could be given of Buddhist, Hindu, or Confucian religious accounts (though not by me). It should be clear even from this schematic version of the Christian account that it appears comprehensive, unsurpassable, and central to Christians. It also exhibits some other features likely to be found in religious accounts. It presents views about the setting of human life, and it presents them in such a way as to account in broad terms for every aspect of that life. All religious accounts are likely to do this. It presents views, also, about the nature of human persons, and about how we should conduct ourselves, and it does this in such a way as to embrace all dimensions of that life. This, too, is likely to be something that any comprehensive, unsurpassable, and central account will attempt. It also presents methods (worship, prayer, reading the Bible) intended to remind those who offer it of what they are doing, and to inculcate in them the skills needed for doing it well. It's unlikely that any religious account can get away without doing this, too. Enlivening the conscience, sharpening discernment, honing skill—whatever the preferred vocabulary, religious accounts must contain methods for doing this. That is, any religious account must contain a pedagogy. A final point about the Christian religious account that may also be applicable to others: central to its pedagogy is the teaching of a method of reading. What is read, for Christians, is primarily and paradigmatically the Bible, and this, of course, is specific to the Christian account. But it may be that the way in which its reading is taught is not specific in this way: perhaps all religious accounts recommend the kind of sucking at the nipple of the works important to them that George Herbert commends to Christians.

Religious reading (the methods of reading preferred by religious teachers and learners) is the central topic of this book. But it should be abundantly clear from what's been said about the nature of religious accounts, as well as from the sketch given of the Christian account, that the pedagogical methods appropriate to the inculcation of the skills and the acquisition of the information required for giving any particular religious account include much more than reading. In the case of Christian worship, for example, these methods may range from the didactic/discursive (the catechetical class for new or prospective Christians) to the kinesthetic (hands-on participation in worship without formal discursive instruction in the meaning of what is being done or the proper way to do it). A complete study of religious learning would be an enormous task, since it would (p.21) have to deal with a huge range of pedagogical methods at both the formal level and at the level at which these methods are actually used in the transmission of particular religious accounts. This is not what I intend in this book; it could not be done in a single work.

Instead, I shall focus the inquiry by asking how those engaged in religious teaching and learning read: what kind or kinds of reading most appropriately belong to the formation, preservation, and development of the skills required for the offering of a religious account, and how are these taught? (I have in mind a somewhat extended sense of the term ‘reading’, as will become apparent.) Answering this question—and it is a sufficiently large question by itself—won't come close to dealing with the whole topic of religious learning, of how religious accounts are transmitted and appropriated. But it will illuminate some important aspects of that larger question. It will shed some light upon how the lexicon and syntax of a religious account are typically acquired, and upon how skill in deploying them with understanding is typically developed. It will also raise some critical questions about the contemporary dominance of certain views about the significance of reading and the best way to read.


(1.) Michel Despland's La religion enoccident (Montreal, 1979) has provided me with much of what I know about the history of the use of the term ‘religion’. Karl Barth's observations, mostly in §17 of Die kirchliche Dogmatik (Munich, 1932–1967), on the difficulties for Christians of thinking about Christianity as a religion have influenced me, as also has George Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia, 1984). A different strand of Christian thinking about religion is evident in Schubert Ogden's On Theology (Dallas, 1992), and Is There Only One True Religion or Are There Many? (Dallas, 1992), where formal and a priori definitions of religion are given. These have been influential mostly in the negative sense, as an important and challenging instance of how Christians should not think about religion. I've benefited, too, from Clifford Geertz's important and much-reprinted essay “Religion as a Cultural System,” first published in M. Banton, ed., Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion (London, 1966), 1–46.

(2.) See Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” in his Mortal Questions (Cambridge, 1979), 165–180.

(3.) On unsurpassability see Lindbeck, Nature of Doctrine, 47–52.

(4.) J. H. Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, first published in 1845, is the classic example of an argument for the view that unsurpassability requires the essential doctrinal features of an unsurpassable account to change only in form or degree of explicitness, not in substance. Its thought underlies what I say in this section.

(5.) Dan Sperber, Rethinking Symbolism (Cambridge, 1975), 87–88.

(6.) On knowing how and knowing that see Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (Harmondsworth, 1990; first pub. 1949); J. L. Austin, Philosophical Papers (Oxford, 1961), especially chapters 3 and 4.

(p.190) (7.) Ryle, Concept of Mind, 46.

(8.) Ryle, Concept of Mind, 58.

(9.) The principal influences upon the version of the Christian account offered here are Augustine, J. H. Newman, John Donne, George Herbert, and Karl Barth.

(10.) C. A. Patrides, ed., The English Poems of George Herbert (London, 1974), 76–77.