Geneva Lecture 1: What is Religion? – On the Importance of Definitions

[This summer I’ll be giving three lectures and a speech at the Summer Studies in Christian Thought program at the Geneva Institute for Christian Thought in Elizabethton, Tennessee. ( If you are a junior or senior in high school or are in college, I recommend you check out the program and contact the institute if you’d like to take the courses. Local host families are available to accommodate students from outside of the area]
Lecture 1: What is Religion? – On the Importance of Definitions
Required reading: Chapter 1, “Is Christianity a Religion?” in Religion, Reason, and Revelation by Gordon H. Clark, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1961.
Summary of the reading:
Chapter 1 of Gordon Clark’s Religion, Reason, and Revelation begins with the question “Is Christianity a religion?” Quickly it is seen that the defining of terms is the crucial step towards answering the question. The necessary preliminary questions to be answered then are “What is Christianity?” and “What is religion?” Addressing the second of these questions first, Clark looks at two general methods that have been used to define the term religion: the “psychological approach” and the “comparative method.”
The psychological (or descriptive) approach is, Clark says, “based on the intimate familiarity of the experience.”(p. 6) On this approach individuals have variously suggested that religion is “passion,” “emotion,” or “a unification of character.” In each case intellectual content is minimized.
The psychological approach, Clark notes, purports to be entirely based on description. But it departs from that intention because of the normative judgments it necessarily relies upon. Clark writes,
“a normative or non-descriptive principle is needed for the selection of what to describe. It is very plausible that no one should philosophize about religion before he describes the phenomena which call for explanation. The facts, so it is said, must precede the theory. But the trouble is that a descriptive procedure can never isolate what must be described. A theory must precede the choice of facts. … The most deceiving and the most deceived author is the one who thinks he is simply describing what is there. The thereitself cannot be selected without presuppositions.” (p. 13-14)
Such a problem exists for the modern humanists who who hold that religion is a “unification of character,” or “the process of achieving a unified, coherent, and effective personality.” (p. 15) That is, a successful integration requires knowledge of what “good” is, but “good” is normative; it can never be discovered by a descriptive process. Judgments necessarily sneak in to the process.
The comparative method, which might seem to hold more promise, is based on examining the similarities of those things usually called religion: “Mohammedanism, Shintoism, Brahmanism, and so on.” (p. 6) This method looks at intellectual content; it compares the beliefs of each system.
When the various so-called religions are compared, however, we see little if any similarity. Is the existence of God the common element in religion? Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe there is a God. Buddhists (and Communists) do not. And it is difficult to determine whether there is a god in Hinduism and in Spinozism. It matters what the term “God” means. Earlier in the chapter Clark had noted that some believe religion to be a personal experience, others believe it to be social, while Christians might believe religion encompasses all of life including “politics, prayer, and procreation.” (p.15)
Clark describes the major problem (the “hunting of the snark”) inherent in the comparative method:
“The method is unsatisfactory because it requires at the outset the knowledge it aims to obtain at the end. In order to discover the common element in all religions, it would first be necessary to distinguish religions from all non-religious phenomena.” (p. 20)
To have a definite and meaningful subject of study, Clark writes, “some specific contents must be selected.” Thus he proceeds from a particular viewpoint, Christianity. Immediately it is asked “What is Christianity?” Clark chooses his definition of Christianity to be the articles of the Westminster Confession. With such a choice, we not only have a definition of Christianity but of God and undoubtably many other terms as well. Choice is necessary and “there is no hypocritical claim that the argument is without presuppositions.” (p. 24)
From the Christian perspective it is seen that there are many religions but no religion. The fall of man is seen to have distorted God’s revelation (the initial religion) and man’s reaction to it such that various deviations have arisen. The greater the deviations the more difficult it is to call it a religion.
This essay begins the theme of the book; that defining one’s terms correctly (Biblically) avoids the “insoluble difficulties, paradoxes, and obvious absurdities” which result from the comparative method.
Terms to learn:
Generic Unity (p. 4.) – The unity of various individuals found in their being members of the same genus or class. For example “Fido,” “Rover,” and “Lassie” are three individuals that are all dogs. The unity of the three is the genus (a word related to the word “generic”) in which the individuals are members.
Normative statement (p. 13) – a claim of how something oughtto be. (to be distinguished from a descriptive statement of how something is.)
Presuppositions (p. 7-8, 14, 24, 27) – assumptions, preconceived notions, biases.
Defiendum – that which is being defined; the word defined.
To consider:
1. “If a word means everything, it means nothing. To have no definite or limited meaning is to have no meaning at all.”(p. 23)
“Now if a word has all possible meanings, it means nothing. Suppose there was a word in the dictionary, and you look it up in the dictionary and the meanings were all the other words in the dictionary. Hence, suppose the word were, oh, automobile. The word automobile means cat, it means tree, it means the square root of minus one, and so on, so on, so on. Now to write a book all you have to say, “auto auto auto auto auto auto auto auto.” And that means the New York Yankees are going to win the pennant, and world series in October. Because auto means all those words. But whenever you say something meaningful you must use a word that not only means something, but also doesn’t mean something. And if you deny the law of contradiction, the words means everything. There is nothing the word doesn’t mean.” – Gordon H. Clark, “Is Christianity a Religion, Part 2”, audio lecture.
2. Is Christianity/Buddhism/Communism/Juche a religion?
3. Not every statement is a definition. For example, First Corinthians 13 does not give an explicit definition of what love is.
“[First Corinthians 13 doesn’t define the term [love]. Suppose I tell you, ‘Rembrandt’s paintings are wonderful.’ Well that doesn’t really give you any notion of the difference between Rembrandt and Rubens or something. That’s not a definition of Rembrandt’s art. It may be a true statement, but it’s not a definition.” – Gordon H. Clark, “Knowledge and Persons,” audio lecture.
Define the following terms:
God –
Man –
Sin –
“If you can’t define your terms you literally don’t know what you’re talking about.”

1 thought on “Geneva Lecture 1: What is Religion? – On the Importance of Definitions”

  1. Pingback: GHC Review 11: Religion, Reason, and Revelation | A Place for Thoughts

Comments are closed.