Elements of Religious
Part One: Symbols, myths and
In this chapter the author presents what he
considers to the the "elements of religious experience."
Certainly, symbols, myth and ritual are part of the experience of
those who follow a faith tradition. These same elements can also be
understood as the special "language" of religion. If religion
involves an experience of the totally other realm of the sacred, how
can that experience be communicated? The answer is that
religious experience is expressed (and thus experienced again)
through symbol, myth and ritual. Each of these terms has a
specialized meaning in the study of religion.
- A symbol is an object/sound that points beyond itself to the sacred realm or to some
aspect of ultimate reality.
- Actually embody some aspect of sacred reality. In other
words, they participate in that which they represent.
- Even though religious symbols participate in sacred/ultimate
reality, some difference is perceived between what is
represented and that which represents it.
- Because symbols present ultimate reality, they evoke a
strong response (emotional as well as intellectual) that goes
beyond the rational.
- The "meaning" or symbols is constructed socially. That
is there must be a "community of faith" for whom the symbols
have meaning. Those outside a particular community of
faith often find no special meaning in the symbols.
- A narration of a sequence of events, either historical or
legendary, but presented as being, and felt to be, ahistorical
and eternally valid.
- The structure of the story allows those hearing it or
narrating it to relive it.
- Often myths use highly symbolic language
- A myth can be understood as the basic, foundational stories
of a religious tradition
- A ritual is a prescribed, repeated sequence of actions and
- A ritual can be directed toward the divine or intended for
- Notice especially the author's statement that rituals are
often the means for participating in the divine drama. In this
sense, rituals provide a way for re-enacting and
re-experiencing the foundational stories (myths) of a religious
- In Islam, the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) allows
individuals to participate in and experience once again the
foundation events in the lives of Abraham, Adam and Eve,
Hagar and Muhammad.
- In Christianity, the observance of the Eucharist
is generally understood to be a re-presenting and
re-experiencing of the life, death, resurrection and return
of the Christ.
- In Judaism, those who participate in the Passover
Seder experience for themselves the deliverance
from slavery in Egypt.
- In this sense, ritual moves one from the realm of the
ordinary (the profane) to the timeless realm of the sacred.