The Objectification of Religion: Universal Themes


Dennis McCallum

This paper is a study in the history of religion. "Objectification" is the religious tendency to reduce abstract principles to tangible, visceral objects and rituals. This tendency, found in all religious complexes, has also been prominent in Christianity, despite explicit prohibitions in the New Testament. The author believes objectification (also known as formalism) remains as one of the greatest stumbling blocks to people considering Christianity today.



Objectification of religion is one of the most interesting tendencies demonstrated by religious people. It is also one of the most universal features of religion. As Norbeck observes,

"Great religions have indeed arisen as ethical or philosophical principles for the guidance of man, but once they have become the province of multitudes...they have met a common fate of objectification; that is, of being cast into concrete form so that they may be actively appreciated by the eyes, ears, or other sense organs rather than remaining only abstract ideas and beliefs."1

And again,

"Objectification in varying degree and form appears in all known religious complexes of primitive peoples and it has been outstanding in the religions of civilized societies."2

The student of the history of religion must wonder why this is such a universal tendency. Any phenomenon that appears everywhere on earth, during every period of history, and in every known religious complex, must have some underlying explanations that are fairly common or general.

The purpose of this study is to survey some of the current and past explanations put forward for objectification of religion, and to evaluate the credibility of these views in the estimation of this author.

Methodology: Discovering Reasons for Objectivation

The first question that must be raised is whether generalized themes of the sort envisaged in this paper are really valid, or whether we are simply imposing an artificial framework onto the field of comparative religion. Parrinder complains that, "A good deal of tinkering has been done at the theory of religion, without coming to grips with the facts of religious experience."3

This complaint is no doubt appropriate, especially when one considers the very great number of blunders that unbridled speculation has produced.4 He also explains another problem,(the religious) "...state is externalized in rites which we can observe, but their meaning depends finally on an awareness of God and that men are dependent on him and must be resigned to his will. At this point the theologian takes over from the anthropologist."5

Authorities today increasingly agree that a deeper understanding is required of the cultures, economies, languages, and histories of each religious group before trying to compare them, and reach generalized conclusions, if, indeed, we can then reach such conclusions.

On the other hand, we must agree with Norbeck when he observes that,

"...very few comparative studies of primitive religion of any sizable compass have been attempted in America during the past two decades; and none has been attempted in England, where a common view seems to be that we must understand every detail of the social and cultural context of each religion from the native viewpoint before any kind of comparison is attempted... something which seems hardly attainable..."6

Norbeck recognizes that if we insist on taking every religious system as a separate entity even to the extent that it cannot be compared to others (because the social context is different) we wind up in a shoreless ocean of unintelligible detail. Unless it is possible to draw some general conclusions, there would seem to be no basis for a study of comparative religion at all! Carmody and Carmody agree with this when they say,

"...we believe that the empiricism that misses such unity (between religious concepts) and mystery is at least an unwitting reductionism-- an insistence that humanity is no more than as it behaves. Usually, that insistence indicates an impoverished imagination..."7

Certainly, if we take care to qualify any conclusions reached, and to ascertain that they are truly representative, it is legitimate to seek for more or less universal themes underlying universal practices. This is especially true when we see some practices that are far too widespread and similar to be coincidental. Whether we look into the nature of man, or into the nature of man's environment, (or both), there must be some connecting factors that explain these patterns of similarity.

As stated earlier, one pattern that is extremely similar throughout the world and throughout history, is objectification of religion. Since the subject of objectification of religion is too broad to treat completely in a paper such as this, we will be majoring on the aspect of objectification known as sacred space.8 We hope the notion of sacred space will shed light on the process of objectification as a whole.

Sacred space refers to the universal tendency of religious man to identify space that is sacred, and to carefully delimit that space from profane space. This space, once marked off, usually also plays a key role in the ongoing worship and religious practice of the faithful in that system.

Delineation of sacred space is expressed in a tremendous variety of ways in different religious systems, but is always recognizable as the same basic practice, even when the type, size, or purpose of the space differs. This is why the notion of sacred space, which is a key component in objectification of all religions, is a good departure point for a study of this type.

  • It is universal
  • It is crucial to the process of objectification, and
  • There is no obvious external reason for it

Perhaps by discovering the reasons for delineating sacred space, we can identify themes involved in the larger questions of objectification of religion.

Theory 1: Unresponsiveness to the Abstract

Some scholars suggested that objectification is universal because most people are unable to respond to abstract truths without a way to relate those truths to their senses. This seems to be Norbeck's view when he says,

"Many, and perhaps most, human beings respond poorly to words or ideas alone..." 9

Davies says,

" is as though abstract ideas need to be set within a symbol before men can be impelled to act upon them. When any attempt is made to turn symbols into bare statements of truth, this vital trigger of the emotions can easily be lost."10

Norbeck points out that ritual and the designation of sacred space enable the simple layman to "participate" in a way that is meaningful to him.11

"The remarkable thing about these observations is that some of the greatest religions began with very little objectification, but seem to have invariably developed it later."12

We wonder; if people have so much trouble relating to abstraction, why did these religious systems ever take root in the first place? Sometimes objectification has even been against the teachings of the founder of a religion, but nevertheless present in later practice. Norbeck points out that sometimes the great religions themselves have had strict rules against certain forms of objectification, "but the concrete has usually had a luxuriant growth along other avenues." For example, Muslims were not allowed to venerate pictures of Muhammad, but they quickly learned to venerate a piece of paper with his name written on it.13

Thus, even when the founder of a religious system has decreed rules to prevent common forms of objectification, worshipers have found ways around those rules.

Christianity contains examples of this as well. Christ's declaration that people should worship God "...neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem...but in Spirit and truth..." was largely ignored in favor of older ideas of "sanctuary" and "the house of God" (that is to say, sacred space).14

Wallace explains the tendency in religious man this way,

"An organism overwhelmed by information overload is incapable of discriminating response; ritual, by reducing the information content of experience below the often bewildering level of complexity and disorder with which reality confronts him, permits adaptive response."15

All these authors agree that the common man is not capable of handling pure abstraction well. Instead, they see religious man bypassing the "understanding" stage, and going directly (through vehicles of objectification) to a simpler relationship with the sacred.

Theory 2: Sacred Space as a Vehicle for Heirophany Stimulation

Mercea Eliade has developed some very stimulating theories regarding sacred space in his book, Patterns In Comparative Religion. First, he points out that man has always set apart areas as sacred.

"The enclosure, wall, or circle of stones surrounding a sacred place- these are among the most ancient of known forms of man-made sanctuary. They existed as early as the early Indus civilization (at Mohenjo-Dara, for instance) and the Aegean civilization."16

Eliade's observes that these sacred areas relate to some heirophany. A "Heirophany" is a manifestation of, or an encounter with, the sacred. He also notes that many religious systems consider their sacred space(s) to be the center of the world. This is true for some, but relatively few sacred spaces that occurred there once.17 Commemoration of heirophanies must indeed be the basis for selecting many of the worlds sacred places.

Eliade goes beyond this however, to assert the intriguing idea that,

"The heirophany therefore does not merely sanctify a given segment of undifferentiated profane space; it goes so far as to ensure that sacredness will continue there. There, in that place, the heirophany repeats itself."18

Here we begin to sense the presence of something else. Not simply the inability of simple people to understand or hold dear abstract truths, but an attempt to stimulate an event that is not available elsewhere. In other words, the holy place is not there simply to explain (or objectify) abstract concepts, but to enable the worshiper to provoke (or invoke) a spiritual event or blessing that is not available even one foot outside of the sacred space!

This seems to square with many western religious sacred space designations. The cathedral, church, mosque, etc. is not necessarily the scene of a historical heirophany, but it is more likely to provide one now. Therefore it would be a good idea, in the minds of many, to go down to the church to pray or worship, rather than to simply do so at home. Chapels are provided at hospitals so people can pray for the sick, rather than simply praying for them in their rooms.

Thus with the notion of sacred space, we may have an attempt to regularize and perhaps to control heirophany.

Turner agrees that objectification through sacred space gives man control of sacred experience, and adds that the same is true of sacred times: "Similarly periodic rituals re-enact and so renew the actions of the gods."19

Here then, sacred time designations also serve the same function as do sacred space. This idea is supplemented, according to Eliade, by the further notion of protection from the sacred.

"(the dividing structure between sacred and profane space)...also serves the purpose of preserving profane man from the danger to which he would expose himself by entering it without due care. The sacred is always dangerous to anyone who comes into contact with it unprepared, without having gone through the "gestures of approach" that every religious act demands."20

Therefore there is both a positive and a negative element present in the practice of designating space as sacred. On the positive side, an increased likelihood of a divine response to the worshiper. On the negative side, a clear boundary between the safety of the profane, and the danger of the sacred. There is containment of the sacred here, along with limitation and control. To view it differently, sacred space not only enables us to approach the deity more easily, it also enables us to leave his presence afterward.

This could be considered a functional explanation for sacred space, as opposed to the didactic explanation favored, to some extent, by Norbeck and Davies. Here it seems that Eliade has the better (or fuller) explanation. The ideas of containment and control in turn lead to connections with other concepts often excluded from the idea of religion-namely, magic and fetishism.

Theory 3: Magical Elements in Objectification

In 1940, Frazer made the statement,

"...This universal faith, this truly Catholic creed, is a belief in the efficacy of magic. While religious systems differ not only in different countries, but in the same country in different ages, the system of sympathetic magic remains everywhere and at all times substantially alike in its principles and practice."21

Although most scholars would probably still agree with Frazer on this point, today many feel that he was wrong in his attempt to differentiate between magic and objectified religion. In a book that is still useful, though not recent, Haddon brought to light many of the key elements found in magic and fetishism the world over. In it we find the following interesting observation:

"There arises in the region of human thought a powerful impulse to objectify, and even personify, the mysterious or 'supernatural' something felt; and in the region of will, a corresponding impulse to render it innocuous, or better still, propitious, by force of constraint, communion, or conciliation."22

Yet, this statement, so similar to several made by Norbeck and Eliade, is not referring to formalized religion, but to fetishism! Indeed, in this case, the localization of the deity is in terms of an object rather than a temple or shrine. Yet, we are still dealing with sacred space.

To those reluctant to understand a fetish or a spirit trap as sacred space, we pose the question, "Why should we draw a dividing line between an object twenty inches across, and a shrine 200 inches across?" Is not the difference here one of amount rather than one of substance?

In another passage, Haddon defines a fetish.

"A fetish is credited with mysterious powers owing to its being the habitation, temporary or permanent, of a spiritual being."23

There is a great similarity between the way oral cultures view a fetish, and the way many literate peoples view a temple or a shrine. What meaningful distinction can, or should be made between the sacred space recognized in fetishism, and that recognized in objectified religion? The "house of god" motif so well known in western religion seems almost identical to these notions of sacred space. Further still, Eliade points out that, "...the rocks, springs, caves and woods venerated from the earliest historic times are still, in different forms, held as sacred by Christian communities today."24

Some western thinkers are reluctant to admit the presence of an outlook for so long considered "primitive" in the heart of western culture. In a book containing much useful insight, although largely considered outdated in its basic interpretation today, Frazer says, " Age of Religion has thus everywhere, as I venture to surmise, been preceded by an Age of Magic..." 25

However, Frazer seems to be speaking more from cultural bias than from objective evidence. Parrinder denounces Frazer's view:

"Sir James Frazer called magic a primitive science and said that it came at the early stages, before religion. There is no evidence for the latter assumption. Religious and magical beliefs are intertwined at most stages of culture, and indeed a case be made out for banning the word magic and including it all, however crude, under the heading of religion; for these strange practices all depend upon spiritual conceptions and largely work by faith."26

It may be argued at this point that the theology of some religions have no explicit understanding that the deity(s) indwell a holy place. However, there is still ample similarity with so-called more primitive magical outlooks, because even fetishism sometimes views the object as "merely the vehicle or means by which the spirit communicates with his worshipers."27 Thus even those theologies that have no concept of the deity(s) literally dwelling within the sacred space idea hole that the space is a "vehicle of communication."28

We find then that notions which have been common to pre-literate cultures the world over are very similar, if not identical to some of the forces present in the process of objectification of religion. Observations such as these lead scholars like Norbeck to comment,

"Sacred objects of the great civilizations differ not at all in their general nature from those of primitive societies. Protective talismans, many uses of the cross, holy water, and the sacrament may all be objectively viewed as implying power which, although interpreted as bestowed or derived from a man-like deity, become the qualities of the acts or objects themselves."29

Here Norbeck truly points out that objects and actions are invested with spiritual qualities in the major religions today in precisely the same way that the so-called primitive fetishist or magician does. Perhaps this is a workable framework within which to understand objectification of religion; not a further development of the major religions, but a return to a way of thinking and believing that is as old as man himself. 30

Haddon bluntly agrees that, ". . .it is difficult to point out where fetishism ends and nature-worship, ancestor-worship, totemism, polytheism, and idolatry begin, or to distinguish between a fetish, an idol, and a deity.31 Here are scholars reaching the same conclusion we have already suggested--that objectified religion and magic are very difficult to differentiate.

One might wonder why, if these notions are so similar, don't oral societies have formalized structures like those we are familiar with in the modern west? Where are the temples of the non-literate peoples today?

In answer to this question Parrinder says,

"Building in stone is unknown to most illiterate peoples, either through lack of soft stone in their territory or more commonly because the necessary techniques are absent. Hence there are no great temples, monuments of the past, such as we find everywhere among the literary religions."32

Although there are temples to be found in pre-literate societies, they often do not play the prominent role that they do in literate societies. Yet this may only be a reflection of a difference in technology, not a difference in the basic way of thinking about the divine.

Having broached the subject of temples, it is interesting to note here yet another clear connection between magic and objectification of religion. Many, and perhaps most of the great cathedrals, temples, mosques, pagodas, and other shrines the world over, are actually built around a part of a human body. Whether some hair, bones, breast milk, teeth or the whole body of a saint, the shrine receives its identity and, we must suppose, some of its sacredness, from the presence of part of a dead saint's body. After all, the temple or sanctuary is "consecrated" at the same time the body part is introduced to the altar in Islam, Catholicism, some Hindu sects and Theravada Buddhism.

Students of oral societies recognize this practice as a form of contagious magic called exuvial magic. Norbeck explains, "...exuvial magic...involves the use of human exuvaie, hair combings, teeth, nail clippings, excreta, spittle, placentae, and the umbilici of new-born infants."33

Exuvial magic is a form of contagious magic, where practitioners believe the exuvaie will transmit some of the characteristics of the saint. Therefore we see again a striking parallel between objectification (especially connected with the area of sacred space) and supposed early ideas of contagious magic.

Theory 4: The Corruption of Religion Theory

All of these similarities between magical motifs and objectified religion fit in quite well with a new direction in religious historical theory that is gaining attention today. As Brow describes it,

"Led by Wilhelm Schmidt of Vienna, anthropologists have shown that the religion of the hundreds of isolated tribes in the world today is not primitive in the sense of being original. The tribes have a memory of a "high god", a benign creator-father-god, who is no longer worshiped because he is not feared. Instead of offering sacrifice to him, they concern themselves with the pressing problems of how to appease the vicious spirits of the jungle. The threats of the medicine man are more strident than the still, small voice of the father-god."34

Following this original concept, these scholars see a gradual takeover of religious life in this culture by a caste of self-serving priests. These professional religionists use conceptions that were somewhat germane to human inclinations in general to gain influence and eventually complete control of the religious life (and sometimes the political life) of the society.35

Scholars writing from this perspective have not generally focused on the method of priestly takeover, but rather on the fact of it. Yet, one thing that is regularly cited in demonstration of the fact of priestly takeover and corruption is the objectification of the given religion. This in turn is seen as a link to magical motifs.36

We have already seen the deep affinity that mankind the world over has for systems that provide for containment, regularization and control of the sacred. As Budge points out,

"Men have always craved for amulets and the priests, both Pagans and Christians, should have taken steps to satisfy this craving. In this way they could have more or less controlled the use of amulets of every kind."37

It seems that Budge has missed the point here. Priests have "taken measures" to satisfy the craving for amulets, to control their use, and even to better the protection offered by conventional amulets. The struggle between priests and magicians has usually been one between the right or wrong amulets, not between amulets and no amulets. Budge himself admits that the formalized religions of the world retained the use of magic and amulets.38 He also demonstrates that Christianity has been no different than other religions in this area.39

The final phase of development, according to the corruption theorists, is a revolt by a new religious group against the control of the priests. Brow states,"In the sixth century BC there was a tidal wave of revolt against the priestcraft of the ancient world. This wave shattered the power of the old religions, though their cults continued to exist as backwaters for centuries. Seven world religions appeared within fifty years of each other and all continue to this day: Zoroastrianism, Judaism,(sic) Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Vedanta Monism, Taoism."40

Yet, even these revolutionary religions, it is held, are eventually taken over by a priesthood using cultus and magical elements to secure power for themselves.

Theory 5: The Cognitive Restructuring Theory

Another interesting approach to the task of understanding objectification, particularly in the area of the use of ritual and sacred space, is the cognitive restructuring theory advanced by Dr. Anthony Wallis.

Wallis holds that the role of sacred space is to be found in two distinct steps found in the ritualism of all religions.41 According to Wallis, the goal of ritualism is the restructuring of the mind through the use of stimuli and suggestion, resulting in a new "cognitive synthesis." There are five steps involved in the process of cognitive restructuring:

  1. First comes the step called "Prelearning." He says that the, "elements to be reorganized in the new cognitive synthesis must be already present as a result of previous learning."42
  2. Next comes a very interesting stage called "Separation." The ritualist separates himself from normal "profane" living by one or more of several possible means. These means include "deprivation of sensory contact with previously significant features of the environment through such devices as physical isolation, darkness, distracting noise...the use of drugs...the imposition of extreme physical stress...which restricts the presentation of monotonous and repetitive stimuli,...which produce a trance." It is important to see that he is not suggesting that the worshiper is necessarily unconscious, as he explains,"...the degree of separation of attention achieved by these methods can vary greatly- from the probably minor effect of simple withdrawal to a quiet, "sacred" place to the profoundly dissociative effect of drugs, complete sensory deprivation, extreme stress, or prolonged drumming--all these procedures seem to have the effect of facilitating cognitive restructuring."43
  3. The third stage is called, "Suggestion." Having reached an altered (dissociated) state, "the cognitive materials relevant to resynthesis can be readily recombined under the influence of direct suggestion..." This suggestion can originate either from prelearning (as in the case of plains Indian vision quests), or from a religious functionary, or guide, who is present for the occasion. If neither of these are present, there can be a "spontaneous sorting out of dissociated elements..." There may be a temporary, or even a permanent change in mood, or other personality traits (as in possession phenomena, or ritual ecstasies) during the process of resynthesis.
  4. Next comes "Execution." After achieving resynthesis, "the ritual subject will be expected, sooner or later, to act in accordance with the new cognitive structure..."
  5. Finally there is the phase called "Maintenance." In cases of ritual possession,"...the individual apparently retains a lower threshold for dissociation and personality alteration." In some instances, the maintenance "...depends on post-hypnotic suggestion." In cases where lasting change is sought, it is necessary "...either to renew, periodically, the ritual itself, or to provide the subject with tangible cues from the ritual experience which will serve to maintain the new structure...such as amulets, talismans and medicine bundles...special ornaments and uniforms, and by public symbols (like the cross)."44 Thus, it is suggested that sacred space plays an important role in facilitating the process of separation (or dissociation). It does so by virtue of the fact that the temple, shrine, church or whatever is set up in such a way that it creates a sense of "differentness" which leads to a feeling of altered consciousness. A dark atmosphere is preferred, and there must be clear distinctions in architecture.

This sense is further enhanced by other elements common to objectification such as incense, unusual clerical robes, monotonous bodily gestures, and the almost universal use of highly repetitive sayings, or chanting.

Not only this, but we find the role of sacred objects and magic play an important role, according to Wallis, in the maintenance of the restructured mental outlook. This is an interesting interpretation, suggesting that "portable sacred space" can be taken with the worshipper to prolong the effects.

This analysis, which is not flattering to the ritualistic mentality, has the advantage of being applicable to most, if not all ritual practice. It also accounts in a plausible way for many of the hard to explain features that are so common to religious practice the world over.45

Summary and Conclusions: A Christian Perspective

We have seen that there are a number of explanations for the universal tendency of humankind to objectify religion. Some of these explanations seem to carry more weight than others. It would not be correct, in my view, to record and analyze these explanations without also adding the Christian perspective held by myself.

The suggestion made by Norbeck, Davies, Warnac and others that people are unresponsive to the abstract, and need something concrete to relate their faith to, is no doubt true to some extent. It seems that some objectified features are appropriate for most people, because God himself included objectified elements in the Bible.

The Old Testament is rife with classic structures of objectification, ranging from strictly delineated sacred space in the temple, to a detailed cultus surrounding that space.

It is interesting to note that in the New Testament, we find this level of objectification radically truncated, though still not eliminated altogether. There is absolutely no provision in the New Testament Era (which I take to have begun at Pentecost) for any form of sacred space. The provision for sacred space in the Old Testament is reinterpreted by Paul, Christ, Peter, and the author of Hebrews to correspond to the assembly of true believers in Christ.46 The early Christians may have continued to relate to the temple for some time, although this is condemned in Hebrews and elsewhere.47 Likewise, there was no claim made in the area of sacred time, or a religious calendar.48 Priesthood was attributed first to Christ, and secondarily, to all believers, making formal priesthood obsolete.49

There were two specific features to New Testament Christianity that suggest objectification-- water baptism, and the Lord's Supper.50

We could speculate on the likelihood that God may have provided objectified forms in the Old Testament period because He realized that the people at that time would not stay with any religion that did not have such structures. Therefore, the sacred space and the cultus served the purposes of providing a point of unity for the nation, teaching spiritual truths (many about Christ), and providing a tangible expression for a people who would not have been willing or able to maintain their spiritual identity without such structures. We already know that God was prepared to speak to the people in their own historical terms, as demonstrated by the relationship of the Deuteronomic code to Hittite suzerainty treaties.51

On the other hand, at the time of Pentecost, the universal indwelling of the Holy Spirit would enable the people to remain faithful, and would provide a more personal avenue of relationship. God therefore dispensed with the "shadows" or "elemental things" that had served as a tutor before.52 Yet even at that time, some objectification was allowed, for the sake of the special kind of fellowship that is possible through these ordinances. As Warnac observes,

"The two worlds of God and man, heaven and earth, spirit and matter meet preeminently in the religious symbol. Even the etymology of symbolon, from symballein (to cast together), suggests this."53

While recognizing the value of symbols, the Christian historian is also acutely aware of the spiritual dangers of objectification.

Even in the Old Testament period, there was a tendency to look to the symbols themselves, rather than to the reality they expressed. As Brow points out,

"...the prophets constantly had to fight priestly rapacity and the misconceptions of the people. Where there were no prophets, priesthood and temple worship always degenerated into the ugliness of priestcraft."54

Likewise Norbeck, speaking from an entirely secular perspective says,"...religious acts tend to become goals in themselves. Histories of religions provide many examples of rituals rendered meaningless by the passage of time but which are nevertheless tenaciously retained. Empty of their original significance, the rites themselves have become goals which the members of society are under compulsion to reach by faithful performance."55

Therefore we must conclude that from the Christian perspective, there are benefits and dangers in objectification. Because of this, it would be perilous to introduce new features of objectification which are not authorized in the Bible, without carefully and repeatedly differentiating between the wine and the wineskins.56

What then should we conclude regarding the "unresponsiveness to the abstract" thesis advanced by Norbeck, Davies and Warnac? To this I answer that, in my view, such an explanation is suspect. It is too easy to assert that the "great unwashed masses" are not as smart as we are. On the contrary, there is frequent response to the abstract on the part of common folk both now, and at various times throughout history. The New Testament is very lean on objectification, and long on abstract truths. Yet, the authors address their letters to the rank and file of the church, not just to the leadership.57 Also, substantial history in the Christian church demonstrates that this kind of thinking has led to the disenfranchisement of the laity from ministry, and from access to the Scriptures. The thinking that says, "They can't understand the Scriptures, so let us give them a picture of Jesus to relate to..." is foreign to the New Testament.

This position was taken by the leadership in the early church, either because it was the easy way out, (in that it spared the clergy from the burden of educating their people) or as Brow, Schmidt, and Richardson claim, because it led to personal gain on the part of a corrupt clergy.

The latter position cannot be ruled out, in my view, by anyone who believes in the biblical doctrine of the depravity of all mankind. Behavior that benefits oneself is always tempting, and anyone who has experience in church ministry knows the urge to take over and "do it myself."

Certainly, the overall effect of objectification has been to create and sustain an intermediary role for the clergy that precludes lay initiative in the vital areas of spiritual life.

For these reasons, I think the "corruption of religion" theory is a worthwhile contribution to our understanding of objectification, especially if we remember that these urges are very subtle in the minds of the various clergies, and that the changes that benefited them were very slow in developing. Later clergy, on the other hand, could look at a long tradition of objectification which tended to sustain itself.

Eliade, who was influenced by the German scholar Walter F. Otto, and who in turn is a clear and major influence on Carmody and Carmody, has a unique empathy for the religious mentality. His reflections on sacred space are useful, as noted earlier. At the same time, these authors, with their postmodern acceptance of the validity of all religious forms, end up negating the truth claims of Christianity, not to mention the logical law of non-contradiction.

We can understand and sympathize with other religious outlooks while refusing to put all truth claims on the same level, namely that of relativity to the individual's experience. While not questioning the sincerity of religious experience for the individuals involved, as Christians, we are unable to affirm that a mere sense of the "sacred" is a sufficient basis for credibility.

Assessing Religious Experience

At this point the Christian student of religion is confronted by a fascinating question. Namely, if all religious expressions are not encountering the God of the Bible, what are they encountering, and why is it so similar to objectified Christianity?

It seems to me that we have to again look to some universal feature of humankind, or of the cosmos, to account for such a universal existence of these kinds of forms.

This is where the "Magical Elements" theory seems to offer a link. Since magic is what Frazer has called, "the truly universal creed", found everywhere and at all times, and the great religions have tended toward strikingly similar forms, the likelihood of this explanation seems very strong. It would definitely be a mistake to limit our concept of magic to the more flagrant or obvious manifestations, and fail to see what Norbeck has indicated,

"Supernaturalistic ideas of sympathy extend over a tremendous range, far exceeding that of mere initiation or of contagion from direct contact. Ideas of affinity may be applied to any objects..."58

We have noted numerous signs of magical outlooks in objectified religion, ranging from containment of the sacred, to outright exuvial magic. I find myself unable to avoid the conclusion that humankind's craving for control and regularization of the sacred has played a major role in the objectification of religion.

Here lies the greatest danger in excessive objectification. Magic is an impersonal and mechanistic way to relate to God. It is interesting to note that,

"In many primitive societies confession and prayers beseeching forgiveness for sins or aid in maintaining moral standards are both unknown and unthinkable."59

Instead, we find the bare attempt to manipulate the supernatural, or at least to avoid trouble with it. Such a relationship is analogous to most people's relationship to the Internal Revenue Service. It is a legalistic relationship where we do the least we can in order to stay out of trouble. There is certainly no personal love aspect to such a relationship.60

While some sorts of magical notions may account for objectification when considered from the viewpoint of the practitioner, this does not exclude the "Cognitive Restructuring" explanation cited above. While this process would have no place whatsoever in the mind of the worshipers, it may well answer the question posed above regarding what religionists are experiencing, if not the God of the Bible.61 This theory accounts for many hard to understand features of objectified religion using phenomena that can be demonstrated in a psychologist's laboratory. It has appeal because of this simplicity. Part, if not all of this process is likely to be operative in most ritualism.

Taken together then, these explanations form a framework that accounts, in my mind, for most types of objectification of religion. At the same time, it is easier to understand the reasons for the trend observable in the Bible away from objectification, and toward the personal and the abstract-- a tendency that will continue into the future,

"I saw no temple in it, for the Lord, the Almighty, and the Lamb are its temple."62


1. Edward Norbeck, Religion in Primitive Society, (Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, NY. 1961)p. 71 Although this book does, as its title suggests, focus on oral cultures' religions, it also contains extensive sections on other religions as well.

2. Edward Norbeck, Religion in Primitive Society, p.71

3. Geoffrey Parrinder, Worship in the World's Religions, (Association Press, New York, NY. 1961)p. 18

4. Parrinder documents some of these errors, including the famous error made by Darwin in Teirra del Fuego in 1883. He asserted that the natives there were at a pre-religious state, and this was widely believed for decades, but later proved false. Geoffrey Parrinder, Worship in the World's Religions, p. 20

5. Parrinder, Geoffrey. Worship in the World's Religions, p. 19 Of course, the present author is a theologian. In addition, Parrinder himself does not shrink back from discerning patterns that run across all religions.

6. Norbeck, Edward. Religion in Primitive Society, p. 267,268

7. Carmody Denise L. and Carmody, John T., Ways To The Center Second Edition, (Wadsworth Publishing Co. Belmont CA. 1984) p.

8. Without, however, ignoring other areas entirely.

9. Edward Norbeck, Religion in Primitive Society, p. 72 Norbeck also adds,"It is doubtful that any body of philosophical or ethical principles could survive unless it involved...unity among its members brought about by joint acts, in short, a church-like organization and ritual of some kind in which adherents participate." p.71

10. Douglas Davies, "Myths and Symbols", in Eerdman's Handbook to World Religions, (Grand Rapids, MI.: William Eerdman Publishing Company, 1982,) p. 36.

11. Edward Norbeck, Religion in Primitive Society, "Whether himself a performer of the ritual or an onlooker, the individual may participate by seeing and hearing and through the vicarious experiences evoked." p. 73

12. Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, and Confucianism are examples of religious traditions that began with few or no external forms.

13. Edward Norbeck, Religion in Primitive Society, p. 72 The paper is often placed on an altar and petitions are addressed in that direction. Of course, Islam has no problem with sacred space, or with sacred time.

14. John 4:21-24. All quotations from The New American Standard Bible, (Lockman Foundation, 1963) It is also noticeable from a historical point of view as Norbeck points out, "Early Christianity involved no objectification by means of paintings and statuary..." Yet this was changed radically before long. Edward Norbeck, Religion in Primitive Society, p. 72

15. Anthony F. C. Wallis, "Rituals: Sacred and Profane--An Anthropological Approach", from Religion: An Anthropological View, (Random House, Inc. 1966) reprinted in Ways of Being Religious, Readings For a New Approach to Religion, Allen, Jay T., Lloyd, Charles L. Jr., Streng, Frederick J. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973). p. 157.

16. Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion. (The World Publishing Co.,Cleveland OH, 1958) p. 370

17. Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion. p.371 ff.

18. Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion. p. 368

19. Harold Turner, "Holy Places, Sacred Calendars", in Eerdman's Handbook to World Religions, (Grand Rapids, MI.: William Eerdman Publishing Company, 1982,) p.20

20. Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion. p. 370

21. Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, (New York, NY.: Macmillan Company, 1940) p. 56.

22. Alfred C. Haddon, Magic and Fetishism, (Constable & Company Ltd. Leicester Square, W.C. 1921) p. 92

23. Alfred C. Haddon, Magic and Fetishism, p. 77 He also says, "Animism sees all things animated by spirits; fetishism sees a spirit incorporated in an individual object." p. 77 "The material objects which form the tutelary deities or Boshun of the natives of the Gold Coast are not symbols of gods which usually reside elsewhere; each is the actual receptacle or ordinary abiding-place of an indwelling god." p. 78 He explains that these containers are prayed to, sacrificed to, and venerated like any other deity.

24. Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. p. 369

25. Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, (New York, NY.: Macmillan Company, 1940) p. 56

26. Geoffrey Parrinder, Worship in the World's Religions, p. 27 We would have to side with Parrinder here against Frazer. The argument referred to runs thus, "But if in the most backward state of human society now known to us we find magic thus conspicuously present and religion conspicuously absent, may we not reasonably conjecture that the civilized races of the world have also at some period of their history passed through a similar intellectual phase, that they attempted to force the great powers of nature to do their pleasure before they thought of courting their favor by offerings and prayer--in short that, just as on the material side of human culture there has everywhere been an Age of Stone, so on the intellectual side there has everywhere been an Age of Magic?" Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, (New York, NY.: Macmillan Company, 1940) p.55

This argument, cited here in full because it is typical of the attitude of many scholars, is based on conjecture and misinformation. There is never an absence of religion in "primitive" societies, nor is there an absence of magic in the so-called "civilized races of the world", as this paper hopefully shows.

27. Alfred C. Haddon, Magic and Fetishism, p. 79 This description fits most priestly mystical practices in well developed objectified religion. Haddon further states, "...the conception of the fetish as the vehicle of communication between spirit and worshiper raises fetishism to a higher plane in religious evolution..." p. 80 And again, "...(fetishism) includes conceptions which persist into higher forms of religion, such as the worship of the symbol of an unseen power." p. 92 Here we see an example of language that is somewhat outdated, although the content of the statement is true.

28. Harold Turner, "Holy Places, Sacred Calendars", in Eerdman's Handbook to World Religions, (Grand Rapids, MI.: William Eerdman Publishing Company, 1982,) Turner is typical of many when he says, "Since divine power is more accessible at sanctuaries, these become places of pilgrimage." Here is the "vehicle" notion to be sure. However, he then feels it necessary to add, "The synagogues, churches and mosques of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, however, should be seen as meeting-places for the worshipers, not as sacred dwelling-places for God." p.20 This distinction seems unwarranted. Why is it necessary to remove one's shoes before entering a mosque? Why are children not permitted to run in the "sanctuary"? Why may we smoke in the parking lot, but not in the sanctuary? What does the term Sanctuary mean?

Carmody and Carmody have a more accurate view when they say, "A mosque, a synagogue, and a church all show likenesses of a Hindu or a Buddhist temple. All five enclose sacred space." Denise L. Carmody and John T. Carmody, Ways To The Center Second Edition, p. 352

29. Edward Norbeck, Religion in Primitive Society, p. 82

30. This is the interpretation favored by Wallis for many objectified aspects of religion. For instance "...the simple ritual act of crossing oneself, in Catholic custom, by touching the fingers to the forehead and chest in four, must be understood as a statement of intent to secure divine power as a protection against danger, spiritual or physical. The "sign of the cross", the extremities of which are indicated by the points touched, invokes the whole story of Christ and its complex meanings; the accompanying litany--"In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen"--...constitutes both a prayer and a primitive magical conception of power inherent in naming; Thus, this simple act may be a statement ...of beliefs based both on ancient Christian mythology and even more ancient conceptions of magic." Anthony F. C. Wallis, "Rituals: Sacred and Profane--An Anthropological Approach", in Ways of Being Religious Readings For a New Approach to Religion, p. 156

31. Haddon, Alfred C. Magic and Fetishism, p.94

32. Geoffrey Parrinder, Worship in the World's Religions, p. 28. He acknowledges that there are some temples among non-literate peoples, but points out that they are small, and often not built of lasting material.

33. Edward Norbeck, Religion in Primitive Society, p. 56

34. Robert Brow, "Origins of Religion", in Eerdman's Handbook to World Religions, (Grand Rapids, MI.: William Eerdman Publishing Company, 1982,) p. 31 For a good defense of this theory on the popular level, see Don Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts, (Ventura CA: Regal Books, 1981)

35. Robert Brow, "Origins of Religion", in Eerdman's Handbook to World Religions, "The essence of priestcraft is the rise of a group of people who claim to control access to God, and who suggest that the offering of sacrifice is a meritorious act which forces God to grant favors". p. 38 Brow cites the case of India, "The Brahmins were suggesting that by the right sacrifices, which they could alone offer, they could procure the favors of the gods, various temporal blessings, and a good place in heaven. Gods, men, governments, all were under priestly control." p. 38

36. Robert Brow, "Origins of Religion", in Eerdman's Handbook to World Religions, (Grand Rapids, MI.: William Eerdman Publishing Company, 1982,) "This shows how easily priestcraft degenerates into magic. Once sacrifice becomes a meritorious act which forces God to give blessings, it can be used to obtain benefits for oneself and harm for one's enemies. Obviously we are now only one stage removed from the medicine man..." p. 38

37. Sir E.A. Wallis Budge, Amulets and Talismans, (University Books, 1961, New Hyde Park, NY) p. xvi.

38. Sir E.A. Wallis Budge, Amulets and Talismans, "...from early Christian times the Cross has been regarded as the amulet and talisman par excellence throughout Ethiopia."p.xxii,

and again,"...civilized priests of Egypt, Sumer and Babylonia... did not reject the crude magical beliefs and practices of their predecessors...on the contrary they adopted many of them unaltered, and they formed an integral part of the mystery of the religion which they formulated. Henceforth magic and religion went hand in hand. The gods became magicians, and employed magic when necessary, and dispensed it through their priests to mankind." p.xvi

and finally, " Babylonia, Assyria and Egypt amulets were designed and made by workmen attached to the great temples, and the inscriptions on them were drafted by the priests and engraved by employees in the temples." p.xxiv

39. Sir E.A. Wallis Budge, Amulets and Talismans, "Shortly after the close of the IVth century of our Era, a sort of revival in the use of amulets began and the Christians began to make use of the clergy and laity alike to drive away devils and disease-producing spirits. (the cross)...Then came pictures of the Virgin Mary, and pictures and figures of the Archangels and the great saints, and the cult of the relics of the martyrs... Untanned leather and parchment and papyrus and stones were also inscribed with extracts from the Scriptures, and finally, after the invention of paper, Amulets and Talismans of paper became common. And a species of Christian Magic came into being. The greatest name and word of power was Jesus, and the Host and sacramental oil and incense became, to many, amulets of invincible power, and the Sacred Elements were actually called "immortal medicine"." p. xxviii

40. Robert Brow, "Origins of Religion", in Eerdman's Handbook to World Religions, p. 38 and p.42. His chronology is open to debate in my view, although the major point is correct.

41. Anthony F. C. Wallis, "Rituals: Sacred and Profane--An Anthropological Approach", in Ways of Being Religious Readings For a New Approach to Religion, Wallis also applies these steps to "secular" ritual.

42. Anthony F. C. Wallis, "Rituals: Sacred and Profane--An Anthropological Approach", in Ways of Being Religious Readings For a New Approach to Religion, p. 158

43. Anthony F. C. Wallis, "Rituals: Sacred and Profane--An Anthropological Approach", in Ways of Being Religious Readings For a New Approach to Religion, p. 158.Emphasis mine.

44. Anthony F. C. Wallis, "Rituals: Sacred and Profane--An Anthropological Approach", in Ways of Being Religious Readings For a New Approach to Religion, p. 159

45. Wallis affirms that "The ritual process, as described above, is a universal human phenomenon..." and, "One- but only one- way of institutionalizing the ritual process is to interpret and apply it within the context of a belief in supernatural beings." Anthony F. C. Wallis, "Rituals: Sacred and Profane--An Anthropological Approach", in Ways of Being Religious Readings For a New Approach to Religion, p. 160

46. Paul did so frequently, but most clearly in I Cor. 3:16 (note plural "humas"), Christ did so in John 2:19-21, Peter in I Pet.2:5.

47. Heb. 8:13; 13:10-14; Acts 7:48-50 etc.

48. Col.2:16-17 directly declares the idea of a sacred calendar to be obsolete. Gal. 4:9,10 says that a sacred calendar is among the "weak and worthless elemental things." Even though Paul allows "weaker brethren" to observe "one day greater than another", it is clear that he views this outlook as unnecessary. (Rom. 14)

49. Hebrews chapters 5 through 8 decisively limits the intercession of the high Priestly role to Christ, as does I Tim. 2:5. At the same time, Peter refers to all believers as "a nation of priests" in I Pet. 2:5, because we are able to intercede for others.

50. It could be argued that the anointing with oil mentioned in James 5:14 and the laying on of hands practiced in Acts were elements of objectification also (Acts 13:3; I Tim. 4:14; II Tim. 1:6; I Tim. 5:22). However, I think these were cultural features that were not directly related to the worship of God-- that is, they deal with ways believers relate to each other rather than to God.

51. K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and The Old Testament. (Chicago, ILL. 1966) pp.91 ff.

52. See notes 48 and 49 above, as well as Heb.7:18.

53. Victor Warnac, "Symbols as Vehicles of the Sacred", in Ways of Being Religious- Readings For a New Approach to Religion, Allen, Jay T., Lloyd, Charles L. Jr., Streng, Frederick J. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973). p.150 The word "preeminently" seems too strong here.

54. Robert Brow, "Origins of Religion", in Eerdman's Handbook to World Religions, p. 37 Zech.1, Amos 5:21-24 and Isaiah 29:13,14 are examples of the kinds of passages Brow is referring to.

55. Edward Norbeck, Religion in Primitive Society, p. 74

56. Luke 5:36-39

57. See I Thess. 5:27, Phil. 1:1, and parallels.

58. Edward Norbeck, Religion in Primitive Society, p. 56

59. Edward Norbeck, Religion in Primitive Society, p. 65

60. Objectified religion is often just as mechanistic as I am suggesting, as can be seen from the following observation, "Many of the important reforms of Nicon, for example, are small matters of ritual performance, of which perhaps the most important in arousing contention was the question of the number of fingers to be used in making the sign of the cross." Edward Norbeck, Religion in Primitive Society, p. 74.

61. We cannot, in my view, rule out the idea that the possession phenomena mentioned by Wallis could involve real spiritual contact of some sort.

62. Rev. 21:22


  • Brow, Robert. "Origins of Religion", in Eerdman's Handbook to World Religions, (Grand Rapids, MI.: William Eerdman Publishing Company, 1982,) Brow lectures at the University of Toronto, and pastors a church in that city.
  • Budge, Sir E.A. Wallis. Amulets and Talismans, (University Books, 1961, New Hyde Park, NY). Budge is the keeper of Assyrian and Egyptian antiquities in the British Museum, and is on the faculty of Cambridge University.
  • Carmody Denise L. and Carmody, John T., Ways To The Center Second Edition, (Wadsworth Publishing Co. Belmont CA. 1984).
  • Davies, Douglas. "Myths and Symbols", in Eerdman's Handbook to World Religions, (Grand Rapids, MI.: William Eerdman Publishing Company, 1982,).
  • Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. (The World Publishing Co.,Cleveland OH, 1958) Eliade has traveled and taught widely. This source is drawn from lectures given at the Sorbonne, and the University of Bucharest.
  • Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough, (New York, NY.: Macmillan Company, 1940)
  • Haddon, Alfred C. Magic and Fetishism, (Constable & Company Ltd. Leicester Square, W.C. 1921) Haddon was a professor of anthropology at Christ's College Cambridge.
  • Norbeck, Edward. Religion in Primitive Society, (Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, NY. 1961) Norbeck is Professor of Anthropology at Rice University.
  • Otto, W. "Reflections on Origins" in Ways of Being Religious Readings For a New Approach to Religion, Allen, Jay T., Lloyd, Charles L. Jr., Streng, Frederick J. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973).
  • Parrinder, Geoffrey. Worship in the World's Religions, (Association Press, New York, NY. 1961) Parrinder is on the faculty of London University.
  • Turner, Harold. "Holy Places, Sacred Calendars", in Eerdman's Handbook to World Religions. (Grand Rapids, MI.: William Eerdman Publishing Company, 1982,)
  • Smith, J.E. "The Sacred and the Profane", in Ways of Being Religious Readings For a New Approach to Religion, Allen, Jay T., Lloyd, Charles L. Jr., Streng, Frederick J. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973).
  • Wallace, A.F. C. "Rituals: Sacred and Profane--An Anthropological Approach", in Ways of Being Religious Readings For a New Approach to Religion, Allen, Jay T., Lloyd, Charles L. Jr., Streng, Frederick J. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973). Wallis ia head of the department of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Warnach, Victor. "Symbols as Vehicles of the Sacred", in Ways of Being Religious Readings For a New Approach to Religion, Allen, Jay T., Lloyd, Charles L. Jr., Streng, Frederick J. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973). Warnac is referred to as a "Roman Catholic Theologian".