Reading: Differing Perspectives

Closely related to representation of religion is the recurring issue of differing perspectives. In talking about perspectives here, we are thinking about how we look at something. We rarely approach anything neutrally—either consciously or subconsciously we tend to adopt a particular perspective—and how we look at something affects what we see. Whenever we make assumptions, we impose them on events, phenomena and other people. This is as true for scholars examining religion as for individuals encountering it personally.

Religion provides a world-view, a way of seeing the world and interacting with it. How you see the world—as God’s everlasting creation, as an illusion, as inherently sacred, as a finite resource for humanity’s use—will naturally affect how you treat it. How you see your role in the world—to honor the earth as goddess, to establish God’s kingdom, to attain personal enrichment, to achieve enlightenment—will affect how you act. What you perceive will happen after you die, what you believe happened before you were born, will color how you conduct yourself and interpret events in this life. One of the strongest arguments for the study of contemporary religion is that it helps us to understand how different people see the world and why they act accordingly.

Think of what perspectives would affect the way you or others might see something, or would make people seeing the same thing have different impressions of what is going on. What a religious person might regard as a miraculous cure from cancer, an atheist might simply call spontaneous remission; whatever you call it, there may be no obvious explanation, but different perspectives will dictate different analyses. Gender is one obvious factor that influences how religion is both presented and perceived. For example, one of the Ten Commandments in the Judaeo-Christian tradition admonishes “Do not covet your neighbor’s household: you must not covet your neighbor’s wife, his slave, his slave-girl, his ox, his donkey or anything that belongs to him.”[1] What are women to make of this? If this commandment does not apply to them, what about the others? The feminist call for women’s experience and points of view to provide a different lens through which the past and contemporary practice of religion might be viewed is also worth considering.

If you belong to a minority group, your perspective might well differ from mainstream society—for example, native Americans tend not to view Columbus Day (U.S. public holiday that celebrates the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World) celebrations in the same way as many Americans of European ancestry. What is deemed appropriate can vary according to cultural perspective. In the Japanese context, the Good Samaritan described in the Christian Bible was extremely thoughtless, for by helping anonymously he left the man he helped with a huge debt of obligation which the latter was unable to discharge. One of the most difficult aspects of studying religion is the extent to which it is possible to disentangle cultural tradition, and its concomitant rules of appropriate behavior, from religion. This is all the more difficult in situations of cultural and religious pluralism, where a variety of cultural and religious norms are operating in the same context. A common human trait is to assume that one’s own perspective is self-evidently right or normative. Thus, principles that some deem universal, such as gender equality or human rights, can from a different perspective be regarded as culturally or religiously construed and contestable.

  1. Exodus 20:16, Revised English Bible, Oxford: Oxford University Press/Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989