Title Page

For Kwan

Hat man sein warum? des Lebens,
so verträgt man sich fast mit jedem wie?

He who has a why to live for,
can stand almost any how.

(Nietzsche, Die Götzen Dämmerung (1889),
Sprueche und Pfeile 12)


A prevailing idea from the Enlightenment, still with us today, is that the light of reason would dispel the darkness of religion and reveal the universe to us. While the desire for enlightenment and the attendant aspiration for a better human future are commendable, the identification of religion with darkness and ignorance is problematic. Religion has not gone away and is a topic of deep concern both because of its destructive capacity – most conflicts in the world have a religious component – and for its constructive capacity as a resource that gives people truth, beauty, and goodness. While secularization has developed in the West, this has not heralded the demise of religion. Christianity may be in decline in northern Europe but is expanding in Africa and the Americas. Islam is expanding in Europe and it is not inconceivable that it will be the majority religion in Europe in the course of time. With the demise of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe and the transformation of communism in China, religions are developing in those countries, both new religions and reinvigorated old religions, Orthodoxy in Russia, Buddhism and Taoism in China. In some western societies we also have the enhancement of privatized, individual spirituality linked with a quest for authentic experience and the true self.

This book is written in the context of these developments and in view of the persistence of religion in modern times. This is not a survey of religions or the contemporary religious field, of which there are plenty of fine volumes, nor is it a defense of religion as such, but is intended to develop new vocabularies and theoretical perspectives for the study of religion. It claims that the importance of religion is existential; religions provide significant meaning to life and guide people in their choices and practices.

Religions are not primarily propositions about the nature of reality, although they can be that, but ways of living and dying, ways of choosing a good life and guiding judgments about moral choice. Through actions the ways of life that we call religions mediate the human encounter with mystery. The world is a mysterious place, which scientific accounts do not exhaust but rather serve to add to its mystery. Religions show us ways of inhabiting our strange world that are transformative for individuals and for communities as a whole. Religious people in the modern world balance commitments to the secular public sphere – from voting in elections to educating children – with commitments to particular religious communities. This book attempts to describe the ways in which people are religious and to analyze the ways of being religious under the guiding thesis that religions are existentially important in providing people with meaning. While religions are, of course, important for macro-history, as large social and cultural forces moving through time, the argument here is that their primary importance lies in their significance for human persons in their communities.

The book is written broadly from within a phenomenological intellectual tradition, but a kind of phenomenology that is dialogical. It is also influenced by other intellectual traditions, particularly what might be called critical social science and what has come to be known as post-critical theology (theology chastened by postmodern critique). I tend to avoid the term “postmodern,” which now has limited usefulness, although this book is written in the wake of that great intellectual flurry and energy even though some of its results were eccentric. But it seems to me that the ultimate questions that religions deal with (why is there something rather than nothing? who am I? what is the purpose of our life?) and their meaning in people's lives necessitates an approach that is both detached (and so attempts accurate description) and intellectually committed to truth (and so attempts accurate evaluation). The general orientation of this phenomenology is towards the world and this approach shows us that religions are fundamentally about how we are or should be in the world: they are about action, the repeated actions of the liturgical moment through history, the repeated actions of the ascetic life, and the unrepeatable moral actions of social being.

Because of the impossibly vast nature of the topic, I have dealt with some of these complex issues at a fairly theoretical level, bringing in concrete examples to illustrate points. Giving an account of religion in terms of subjective meaning takes us into a number of subject areas, including cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, philosophy, and theology. I hope that the reader will find application for the ideas and general argument presented here in their own contexts. Frits Staal speculates that the centre of civilization will return once more to China and India. This is probably an accurate prediction and while few predictions of the future prove to be correct, I think it safe to say that religions will continue to thrive, continue to endow lives with meaning, and will contribute to global, social, and climatic challenges facing the world. The new world citizen can also be a religious citizen.

After a substantial introduction outlining the general thesis I wish to present, that religion must be understood in terms of the human will to meaning and in terms of the desire for transcendence, the book is divided into three parts: action, speech, and world. We can understand religions as cultural forms that mediate the human encounter with mystery. Given this general thesis, in Part One, Action, I develop the idea that religion must be understood in terms of human meaning which finds expression in action: the encounter with mystery occurs through action which is of two kinds, ritual (within which I include spiritual practices) and moral. Chapter 1 examines the two processes of reification and rationalization in modernity and argues that these are not adequate accounts of religion; the latter needs to be understood in terms of the formation of subjective meaning. Chapter 2 develops this thesis arguing that religion calls people into the world through ritual and moral action. The chapter describes three examples of ritual action from the ethnographic literature. Chapter 3 links action to spirituality and describes the cultivating of an inner journey.

Part Two, Speech, shows how mystery is mediated through text which is received into the human world and internalized. It presents an account of religion and rationality and presents an account of the internalization of the sacred text as a form of encounter with mystery. Chapter 4 is about sacred text as characteristic or prototypical of religions, Chapter 5 on the problem of linguistic relativity, and Chapter 6 on rationality and religion. I present an account in these chapters of how religious language mediates the encounter with mystery and endows meaning to communities of reception. Finally, Part Three, World, shows how science, art, and politics are related to religions and how they move towards the world, which we might call the real, through action. Chapter 7 is about religion and science and offers a view of religions in the light of complexity and constraint. Chapter 8 is focused on art in relation to religion, the way art, like religion, mediates the encounter with mystery and its interface with religion. Finally, Chapter 9 examines religion and politics and the topical notion of how being a religious person is compatible with the idea of the citizen. We end with a summary of the general argument and an epilogue.

Gavin Flood


I should like to acknowledge the people who have influenced this book in one way or another. Firstly I should like to thank my wife Emma Kwan, to whom the book is dedicated, for her constant encouragement, love, and support. She introduced me to a new world of contemporary art. My friend of many conversations, Luke Hopkins, years ago introduced me to Norman Brown's work, which has had an influence on my thinking about the present project. Another friend of many conversations, Oliver Davies, as always, has been an excellent interlocutor and I have been encouraged by his taking theology in the direction of a “new realism.” My teacher John Bowker, whose work on religion and science is exemplary, has continued to stimulate my thoughts. Rebecca Harkin, the commissioning editor at Wiley-Blackwell, first suggested the project to me and I thank her for her thoughts, comments, and encouragement. I thank the anonymous readers for their very perceptive comments. One reader presented precise suggestions and corrected some factual errors and although I have not always followed specific recommendations, I have always taken these comments very seriously. Gavin D'Costa encouraged the project and made specific, insightful suggestions that I have generally adopted. I should also like to thank colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, particularly Shaunaka Rishi Das, Jessica Frazier, and Rembert Lutjeharms, who have supported my work as have all the staff at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. Among colleagues in the Theology Faculty I would like to mention Afifi Al Akiti, George Pattison, Guy Stroumsa, Joel Rasmussen, Johannes Zachuber, Mark Edwards, Pamela Anderson, Paul Joyce, Paul Fiddes, Peggy Morgan, Philip Kennedy, and Sondra Hausner for their support. I would also like to thank my family (especially Claire and Leela) for their love and good wishes. Last but not least, I should like to thank my students at Oxford on whom I tried out some of the material presented here, and who have provided such stimulating conversations over the past few years.

I am grateful to Faber and Faber for permission to use the Wallace Steven's quote on the title page of Part Three from his Collected Poems.

On occasion when I have used Sanskrit terms, and a few Arabic terms, I have Anglicized proper names and titles of books but retained conventional diacritical marks for technical terms that I cite in brackets beside their translation. Thus Shiva and Krishna rather than imgiva and Kimgimgimga, Mahayana rather than Mahimgyimgna, and Bhagavad Gita rather than Bhagavad Gimgtimg.