Religious intellectual objects

How we make gods into objects

Re-Assembling Reality #27e, by David A. Palmer and Mike Brownnutt

Each community has its own metapersons and its ways of nurturing relations between them and other community members. What we know as the main “world religions” establish more abstract and universal principles about which metapersons can be engaged with, and the types of relationships that are encouraged or allowed.

In academic discourse, the world religions are typically classified as monotheist (believing in only one God), polytheist (believing in many gods), or atheist (having no gods). The criterion for classifying is the number of gods: one; many; or none.

But in reality the distinction between the three isn’t as obvious as it seems, because what is defined as a “god” (or equivalent term, if any) in different religious traditions is different. For example, saints and angels are not considered to be gods in Roman Catholicism. But a Daoist monk I know, when stepping into a cathedral in Belgium, instantly recognised their statues as “gods” (shen) according to the Daoist meaning of the term. A Buddhist, on the other hand, might not call them “gods” but might well admit to the existence and spiritual powers of such persons.

Is this a Saint, a God or an Arhat? Statue of the Saint Bartholomew Flayed (1562) in Milan Cathedral, by Marco d’Agrate. Photo credit: Jorge Làscar via Flickr

When we treat all such non-human and para-human persons under the catch-all category of “metapersons”, we find that all traditions have many of them. The religions known as being monotheistic (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Baha’i Faith), for instance, posit the existence of many types of metapersons other than the supreme God. Depending on the tradition, these might include angels, the souls of the dead, demons, Satan, djinns, the Concourse on High, etc.

On the other hand, some religions known as being polytheistic, such as Hinduism, Daoism and Shintoism, also posit the existence of a supreme divinity that is the source of, or the Lord over, all the others.

Finally, some religions are often considered atheistic or agnostic, such as Buddhism and Confucianism. But Buddhism clearly posits the existence of myriads of metapersons including Buddha, bodhisattvas, arhats, demons, hungry ghosts and minor deities. Confucianism posits the existence of ancestors, ghosts, the spirits of the mountains, rivers and cereals, and a personalized Heaven.

All of the world religions thus postulate the existence of many kinds of metapersons. Where they differ is in their guidelines regarding with whom you should engage and how, whom you should avoid, whom you should ignore, and who is fake (see Re-Assembling Reality #21a). They also have different understandings of the nature of various metapersons. Many “polytheistic” traditions including Hinduism, Daoism, Shinto and Buddhism, are “open systems” that can recognize pretty much any type of metaperson. The priests of these traditions often integrate them into a vast, hierarchical system. Some of them are lowly, greedy demons; others are deities with different qualities and powers; others are purely transcendental.

As we have seen in Re-Assembling Reality #22, different traditions have different views on which metapersons are ontologically real, and which ones are the products of human minds. The Abrahamic monotheistic religions consider that the supreme God is ontologically real, and He alone is to be worshipped; other metapersons such as saints and angels are also considered to be ontologically real and in some traditions humans might have relationships with them, but this relationship should not be one of worship. In contrast, some forms of Buddhism consider all metapersons to be pure products of our imagination. Despite the fact that they are not considered to be ontologically real, imagining and worshipping some of them is an important spiritual practice.

And some traditions formulate ways to identify a spiritual unity underlying the diversity of metapersons. In Hinduism, for example, thousands of deities each have their own personality, but they are all considered to be different forms of the One Supreme God; thus, people worshipping all of these deities are, in fact, worshipping the same Divinity. In the Baha’i Faith, the divine or enlightened figures who are central to the world’s main religious traditions, such as Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, or Mohammad, are all considered to be Manifestations of the same supreme God.

Sound confusing? Priests, religious clerics, scholars and theologians (people we call “religious intellectuals”) try to sort it out by clarifying, in a systematic way, who are the metapersons, what their qualities are, which ones you should care about, and how you should relate to them. The systematization of metapersons by priests and religious clerics is an intellectual work: the resulting pantheons and theologies are intellectual objects.

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the Buddhist doctrine of the three bodies of Buddha (Trikāya) are intellectual objects, just as Newtonian mechanics and Quantum mechanics are intellectual objects. As discussed in Re-Assembling Reality #12, intellectual objects are constructed, debated, and modified within epistemic communities. Scientific epistemic communities are not the only ones within which intellectual objects are constructed. This also happens in religious epistemic communities. Religious intellectuals try to put some order into the blooming multiplication of metapersons. They construct intellectual objects about them — in other words, they objectify gods and other metapersons, define their characteristics, describe their relationships with each other and with the world, and try to do so in a (more or less) logical and (more or less) coherent manner.

In the major world religious traditions, this is put down in writing, so that different people can read and study the same intellectual objects, consider them from different angles, and communicate and debate about them. In the Christian tradition, the intellectual objectification of God is called theology (meaning “rational discourse on God”). There are comparable intellectual traditions in other religions, carried out by specialists such as Buddhist monks, Islamic ulama, Hindu pandits, Confucian academicians, etc. These religious scholars not only construct intellectual objects about metapersons, but about other things too such as the cosmos, human nature, human relationships, morality and virtues, and so on. All of these intellectual objects, which they strive to assemble together in a coherent way, constitute their specific “religion”. Things such as “Buddhism”, “Taoism”, “Christianity”, “Hinduism”, “Islam” and so on are, in fact, intellectual objects. These intellectual objects are written into the form of books, which try to use a logical language, in the hope of helping different readers, located in different places in space and time, to have a common consciousness of the object, to examine it from different angles, to pick it apart, and to discuss and debate it.

Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts in the library of Sakya Monastery, Tibet. Photo credit: Richard Mortel on Flickr

Books of theology, doctrine and religious philosophy attempt to be clear and logical. They are entirely different to religious scriptures such as the Vedas, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Bible or the Daodejing, which at points, are demonstrably, and even intentionally, unclear and paradoxical. Books of theology and religious philosophy contain intellectual objects based on their authors’ reflections on scriptures, that they put into relation with other things such as practice, other ideas, etc.

When we speak of an intellectual object, we refer to any intellectual construction. It can be a single concept (such as the idea that there are six energy centres or chakras in the body), a comprehensive doctrine or theory (such as the Baháʼí doctrine of progressive revelation), or all of the doctrines or teachings that constitute what is named as a specific religion such as “Islam”. Intellectual objects can vastly differ in the scale of what they aim to encompass, but what is key here is their intellectual nature, which is expressed in logical language and texts. This is distinct from (1) religious scriptures, which are textual but often convey ideas in poetic, mystical, symbolic or mythical form rather than intellectual rationalisations; and (2) the lived experience and practice of religious people, for whom emotion, community, and mystic sensibilities are often more important than intellectual objects.

Religious intellectuals have heated debates and disagreements about how to construct religions as intellectual objects. Different sects, branches and denominations of a religion often originate out of competing intellectual objectifications of their religion’s tenets. The religious intellectual objects that they create may describe how a religion should be, or how it is in practice. While religious intellectual objects are not the same as the lived religion, they are usually the basis for formal religious training and for the construction of religious orthodoxy — one of the goals of Sunday School for children or of the advanced training of monks is to ensure that all peoples’ religious ideas and practice are aligned with the religious intellectual object. Thus, the objects are models that simplify and shape the reality of the religion —there is a constant feedback loop between religious intellectual objects and lived religion, just as there is between the intellectual objects of musical theory and the practice of music.

As we discussed in Re-Assembling Reality # 26a, models aren’t the same as the reality. That’s why there is no end to the books, sermons and articles to be written by religious intellectuals: there will always be something to clarify, some paradox to explain, some disagreement to debate, some new insights to share.

Religion is made of relationships between persons. Religious intellectual objects are essential for modelling how these relationships are and the kinds of relationships we should engage in — but the relationships elude any ultimate modelling. Many religious practitioners don’t think intellectual models reflect what matters to them in their religious experience and relationships; and many religious intellectuals consider that religious practitioners are wrong in their practice because they don’t follow their models closely enough. The map isn’t the territory; the intellectual objects aren’t the relationships.

Many religious traditions don’t have religious intellectuals in the modern sense of the term: people who write books out of their intellectual models. This is especially the case in societies without writing, such as tribal societies, and among the “folk religion” of the common people in many societies. They do have their “intellectuals” — people who are deeply knowledgeable about their tradition, who think about it, who practice it, and who make records of it through making things that modern people call “art” — but they don’t objectify their tradition by writing books. Anthropologists have visited many of these societies, and, just like the anthropologists studying cosplayers we discussed in Re-Assembling Reality #27, they construct intellectual objects to model the religion of these societies.

Theologians have also studied the religions of many of these societies, and they have written theological studies about them. So we can now consult books and articles on thousands of tribal, indigenous and folk religious traditions. These are academic models: some of them are anthropological, others are sociological, others are theological — but the members of these societies might not recognise themselves in these intellectual objects.

There may be a big difference between the anthropological intellectual objects of religion and the ways that religious relationships are actually understood and practiced by people in religious communities.

And there is often a big difference between the theological intellectual objects of religion and the ways that religious relationships are actually understood and practiced by people in religious communities.

And there is often a big difference between anthropological intellectual objects of religion and theological intellectual objects of religion.

The map isn’t the territory, and different maps have different purposes.

This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forum and the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.



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David A. Palmer

David A. Palmer


I’m an anthropologist who’s passionate about exploring different realities. I write about spirituality, religion, and worldmaking.