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Selections from Religious Traditions of the World, H. Byron Earhart (editor), Copyright © 1993 by HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.  HTML and web pages copyright © by SpiritSite.com.
 


"There is a big difference between religion (as a generic human activity) and religions (meaning the religious traditions of particular cultures)."

H. Byron Earhart (ed.), Religious Traditions of the World,
Part Three

The Academic Journey

In the study of religion, as in the study of many other human subjects, there is a tension between focus on the generic character of the subject and its particular historical forms. This is clear in the distinction between "art" and "arts." Study can concentrate on the nature of art as a generic aspect of human life and history (and like religion, art is found in every individual life as well as the life of all cultures). Or the study of art can focus on a specific art form, such as painting or ceramics, and a particular culture (and historical period) such as early Chinese landscape painting. The same can be said for music and languages: Each of these kinds of human expression is universally present in all cultures, and each has its generic quality. But neither music nor art exists "in general." The music we hear and the art we see are quite specific: They always appear in a given culture and time in very concrete and distinctive forms. Similar examples could be multiplied for other aspects of human life, such as society, and politics: We know they are found in all cultures and can make general statements about them, but in any culture they appear in actual, discrete shapes and forms.

This side trip into several human subjects shows us that just as there is an important distinction between art (as a generic subject) and arts (as specific art forms), so also there is a big difference between religion (as a generic human activity) and religions (meaning the religious traditions of particular cultures). In any field of study, concern for either the generic character of a subject or its specific forms goes beyond practical or existential involvement in the subject.

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