Phenomenology grew out of a philosophic movement that sought to accurately describe human experience rather than explain it. Consequently, the phenomenological approach to religion attempts to understand religion in its own terms; that is, it seeks to describe and understand religious experience and avoid reductionism: reducing it to sociological or psychological or philosophical terms or making judgments about the validity or truth of that experience. Reductionism is often described as an attempt to explain one phenomenon totally in terms of another. For example, some sociologists may argue that religion can be completely explained as a sociological phenomenon. Critics of so-called reductionism would respond that if you explain religion solely in terms of sociology, you will miss the "irreducibly religious character of the belief, act, symbol, or institution." Phenomenologists maintain that one must attempt to understand religion as religion; that is, it must be understood as an expression of its essential character. As we have seen, for Livingston and others, this essential character is the "sacred." Studying religion thus means to study it as it is perceived by adherents to be an expression of the sacred.
We can describe phenomenology in terms of its purpose, perspective and process.
Purpose: The purpose of phenomenology is to describe accurately the religious character of beliefs and phenomena.
Perspective: Phenomenology adopts the perspective of the "insider" (a devotee of the religion being studied). In so doing, it attempts to re-experience a certain religious phenomenon's essential character or structure. This approach thus insists that the observer try to empathize with the viewpoint of the people who are devoted to a religious belief or practice.In other words, it asks "What does this mean to the devotee of this religion?"
Procedure: The phenomenological method requires a "bracketing of convictions." In other words, one refrains from asking "is it right" long enough to ask "what does it mean?" It must be emphasized that this bracketing of convictions is a temporary stance of neutrality; one retains his or her own beliefs, but tries to understand the beliefs of others in their own terms.
One scholar has compared the study of religion to the work of an actor. Just as an actor strives to faithfully portray the values, world view, and understandings of a character, the scholar of religion strives to portray as faithfully as possible the beliefs and world view of the adherents of a particular religion. Whether the actor agrees or disagrees with what the character does, thinks and says is irrelevant - at least while he/she is on stage. The actor certainly does not give up his own convictions; he simply "brackets" them while portraying the character. At the end of the day, he resumes his own identity.
Foremost among advocates of the phenomenological approach was the 20th century scholar, Mircea Eliade who argued:
"A religious phenomenon will only be recognized as such if it is grasped at its own level, that is to say, if it is studied as something religious. To try to grasp the essence of such a phenomenon by means of physiology, sociology, economics, linguistics, art or any other study is false; it misses the one unique and irreducible element in it - the element of the sacred."
While phenomenology has advantages over other approaches to the study of religion, it also has limitations and potential problems. For example, a description of a religious phenomenon may be overly simplistic. In addition, how can one decide if the perspective of an insider is accurate? Moreover, explanations of the causes of religious phenomena can be both necessary and valid.
It is therefore important to give some attention to hermeneutics: the art of interpretation. Hermeneutics attempts to set forth principles that insure a valid interpretation of religious phenomena. For an interpretation to be valid, both description and explanation must be combined. Consequently, three principles of interpretation can be suggested:
Understanding must precede explanation. In other words, attempts at explanations of religious beliefs and phenomena are legitimate when combined with an honest attempt to understand them.
Description and explanations must not limited to describing in terms acceptable to the "insider"
Multiple explanations are allowed since they help avoid reductionism and show the depth and intricacies of religious phenomena.
This is the approach taken by most comparative religious studies. It seeks to isolate and describe different types of religious phenomena by means of comparison and contrast. For example, phenomenology might look at the symbolism and use of water in different modern and ancient religions. It could describe sacrifice, sacred meals, stories, religious leadership as found in various religions. Through description, comparison and contrast we come to see common and pervasive forms of religious experience. At the same time, these common forms of religion will be analyzed and various explanations will be suggested. In analysis and interpretation, we are most likely to rely on the social sciences and other disciplines mentioned above. This combination of phenomenology and interpretation is the approach that we will most commonly employ in our study of religion.