Scholarly article on topic 'Theological and Phenomenological Methods in Teaching omparative Religion Courses'

Theological and Phenomenological Methods in Teaching omparative Religion Courses Academic research paper on "Philosophy, ethics and religion"

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Abstract of research paper on Philosophy, ethics and religion, author of scientific article — Jaffary Awang, Yusri Mohamad Ramli

Abstract Since its establishment, the Department of Theology and Philosophy has introduced comparative religion courses. The courses are always being improved in other to suit educational and current trend. Nevertheless, dimensions of the courses are directly related to religious beliefs, practices, histories and influences on people. Theology and phenomenology have become the common methods practiced in giving input regarding the subject matters. The objective of the article is to analyze both methods that have been implemented as the foundation of the ongoing research. This is carried out in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the practice in religious toleration.

Academic research paper on topic "Theological and Phenomenological Methods in Teaching omparative Religion Courses"

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Procedía Social and Behavioral Sciences 18 (2011) 180-186

Kongres Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran UKM, 2010

Theological and Phenomenological Methods in Teaching Comparative Religion Courses

Jaffary Awang & Yusri Mohamad Ramli*

Faculty of Islamic Studies, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 43600 UKMBangi, Malaysia


Since its establishment, the Department of Theology and Philosophy has introduced comparative religion courses. The courses are always being improved in other to suit educational and current trend. Nevertheless, dimensions of the courses are directly related to religious beliefs, practices, histories and influences on people. Theology and phenomenology have become the common methods practiced in giving input regarding the subject matters. The objective of the article is to analyze both methods that have been implemented as the foundation of the ongoing research. This is carried out in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the practice in religious toleration.

© 2011 Published by Elsevier Ltd. Selection and/or peer-review under responsibility of Kongres Pengajaran & Pembelajaran UKM, 2010

Keywords: comparative religion; religious studies; theology; phenomenology; teaching method;

1. Introduction

Basically, the research that is carried out would evaluate the impact of comparative religion courses on undergraduates' religious toleration at the Department of Theology and Philosophy, National University of Malaysia or (UKM). However, the postgraduates' courses are not included in the research focus because most of master's and doctoral students have prior exposure to this field and are less significant than the undergraduates who would be more potentially reveal variation in findings regarding the impact of religions toleration. Generally, the article plays a role as an initial analytical exposure to the dimensions and methods that are being practiced in teaching and learning of the courses. It could also act as a yardstick in creating benchmarking of the research objectives.

Historically, comparative religion or religious studies could be perceived as a new knowledge in Malaysia compared to other fields in Islamic Studies such as Islamic jurisprudence fiqh), Islamic theology ('aqidah) and sufism (tasawwuf). It is believed that pioneering effort in introducing comparative religion to the students began since the birth of UKM. Among the early courses that are being offered to undergraduates are Comparative Religion, Sociology and History of Religion. Generally, the courses have emphasized on the objectives to understand and to study religious beliefs, practices, history of development, and influences on daily life of its adherents (Fakulti Pengajian Islam 1976:78-107). The courses then are being improved and improvised from time to

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1877-0428 © 2011 Published by Elsevier Ltd. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.05.026

time with addition of some other courses such as Psychology of Religion, Anthropology of Religion and Philosophy of Religion (Fakulti Pengajian Islam 1980:49-67)

Currently, the courses of comparative religion that are being offered by the department for undergraduates are (Fakulti Pengajian Islam 2010:89-139):

i. PPPH2123 Comparative Religion

ii. PPPH2433 Study of Contemporary Comparative Religion

iii. PPPH3463 Christianity and Judaism

iv. PPPH3513 Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism

v. PPPH3493 Christianity in the Malay Archipelago

vi. PPPH3523 Study of Eastern Religions

All courses that are being offered to Year 2 and 3 undergraduates are identified in this research as comparative religion courses because of their specific and thematic comparison which is the foundation of teaching and learning of religions. There are other courses that are related to religious studies such as PPPH2443 Psychology of Religion, PPPH3473 Sociology of Religion and PPPH3483 Anthropology of Religion. Nonetheless, the courses focus only on certain perspectives of religions.

There are various suggestions by scholars in defining and describing religion. They in different ways embrace the distinctions between belief, action, and emotion. One of the most original and influential models for understanding what the word 'religion' embraces is that described by Ninian Smart who had propose a model of religious dimensions which he emphasizes is reflected by a complex phenomenon. However, he did not think of the model as static and watertight but as a helpful and flexible way to understand the resemblances between the religions we encounter and study. Therefore he had originally suggested his model in the late 1960s with six dimensions, but by the 1990s, these had increased to seven and even nine. Smart's (1998) most popular model is divided into seven dimensions which are practical and ritual, experiential and emotional, narrative and mythic, doctrinal and philosophical, ethical and legal, social and institutional and material and aesthetic.

On the other hand, Eric Sharpe (1983:97) in Understanding Religion interacts with Smart's ideas and suggests that religion has four functional modes namely existential: the circle of faith, intellectual: the circle of beliefs, institutional: the circle of organizations and ethical: the circle of duties.

Dominic Corrywright and Peggy Morgan (2006) divided the doctrine based on subject matters or perspectives in studying comparative religion which are Theology, Phenomenology, Philosophy, Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology and Identity.

By using Corrywright and Morgan's category, this research would deduce that the dimensions are already in their own courses as offered by the department except Theology, Phenomenology and Identity. Religious Identity has not yet been encompassed as a single subject in any university. It is always being included as a key feature of Anthropology, Sociology, Philosophy and Psychology. Meanwhile, Theology and Phenomenology are implicitly embraced by those six courses of comparative religion offered by the department. Hence, this paper evaluates both perspectives based on our experiences and observations in teaching the courses.

2. Theological Method

Doctrine and beliefs are the basic dimensions in studying religions. Faith in God, divine revelation, the other world and afterlife are the synonymous elements with theological perspective. According to Western academics, theology is usually perceived as Christian theology. Therefore, a part of Western religious masters are exclusively inclined to Christianity while comparing other religions. Therefore, Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr. Osman Bakar (2009) believes that comparative religion that is being taught by non Muslim scholars in the West is more likely a Christian centric. It is biased to Western tradition especially European Christendom and perceive other religions as alien tradition. But other current Christian theologians are now intends to use the term theology in the broadest possible way.

Some of the non Muslims try to liberalize the approach with pluralistic attitude in religious truth. Referring to Huston Smith, they presume the truth is not attached to any religion. Meanwhile, there are other non trends that are not attached to polemic of validity by focusing on the diverse internal and universal values of the religions of the

world. Such examples are perennialists and traditionalists such as Rene Guenon, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy and Frithjof Schuon.

In earlier Eastern Muslim tradition, theological approach in similar pattern is perceived as apologetic inclination. It enriches apologetic theological debates by Muslim scholars such as al-Shahrastani, Ibn Hazm, and includes Nur al-Din al-Raniri who represents the field expert in Malay world. Nevertheless, pluralistic approach is a new direction that is brought by liberal groups that are influenced by Western comparative religion. Universalism and inclusivism are seen as less dominant except in terms of ethics, spirituality and interfaith relations. Even though the problem of truth claim is always categorized as an issue related to religious philosophy, the development of Islamic and Christian theology which had no doubt explicitly influenced by philosophy affects the understanding and interaction between one to another.

In another perspective, it could be deduced as a common trait mostly that comparative religion courses that are taught in universities around world are included within theology faculties such as Kulliyyah Usul al-Din at Jami'ah al-Azhar, Harvard Divinity School at University of Harvard, Divinity School at University of Chicago, Faculty of Theology at University of Oxford, Teologiska Fakulteten at Uppsala Universitet, and also Faculty of Islamic Studies at UKM. Nevertheless, according to Lammert Leertouwer (1990:1), methodology and academic procedure in comparative religion is quite different than theology which is based on religious validity and certain perception.

Comparative religion however does not put the evaluation of religious truth but it is up to the researcher to believe in the truth of a religion. The approach is far from being skeptical and apologetic although it may exist personally within a person who is studying religions. All expert in this field agreed that belief in certain religion is not necessary for someone to study religions. But, the uppermost important matter is intellectual interest and willing to understand and examine issues in religions and religious life. However, this does not mean that one has to abandon or change his or her faith position in order to carry out the research. Consequently, some people could be confused with the aim and objective of comparative religion. As an example, a researcher of Hinduism does not necessarily become a Hindu. Nevertheless, there are other relative factors such as universities making it compulsory for a certain belief as its condition of enrolment. On the other hand, the university might believe a student with certain religion could boost the core aim of the university. Therefore, comparative religion is always perceived especially by western academia as secular knowledge regarding its methodology.

Nevertheless, there are two groups with few differences. One might state that theology might be a branch of religious studies or vice versa. Therefore, theology and religious studies could be seen as an inseparable synonym. The approach of this group could be seen from a perspective that is inclined towards speculative theology in describing religions which is based on differences that existed between their own religions with others. The second group that is more scientific in research sidelines theological sentiment in comparative religion. As a result, the research is more inclined to be agnostic or even atheistic in their methodology or even in their own personal belief.

Nonetheless, the courses that are carried out by the researchers are officially choosing to sideline extreme or liberal attitude. We prefer a moderation of two tendencies by balancing between rationalities and emotions, as well as speculative beliefs and scientific evidences which could harmonize theology and comparative religion. Professor Brian Bocking (1994) states:

If you don't know the difference between theology and religious studies, then you're a theologian.

However, the methods and materials that are being employed comprise of all forms without considering the school of thought embraced by the researchers or the writers. This is due to apologetic approach is the most popular trend in comparative religion during medieval age and contribute towards knowledge development. Examples of these researchers are al-Shahrastani, Ibn Taymiyyah, Yuhanna al-Dimashqi, and Theodore Abu Qurrah. This is similar to experimental approach with neutral attitude that enhances the scientific approach and new techniques in studying religions such as being used by al-Biruni and Clifford Geertz.

By exposing a variety of inclinations and materials to the students, negative biased attitude that leads to prejudice and skepticism in every students would be avoided. However, positive bias or affirmative attitude is an important natural human instinct because it involves strong faith and rational belief towards religion. Indirectly, intolerance attitude and negative views towards other religions would not suffice. Simultaneously, the goal of "Islamic Studies" and "Studies on Islam" which is the main objective of the establishment of the faculty could be achieved through the enhancement of Islamic faith exclusively and understanding towards religions inclusively.

Consequently, the best approach in understanding religions faith could be directly seen from the sacred texts of the religions and also what the believers of the religions believe and practice in their daily lives without any pre perception or comparison by the students which would normally based on their emotion, prejudice or superiority. This technique has been practiced by al-Biruni in his research on Indian citizens and is presumed as a pioneer to what is today known as scientific method. The similar approach has been practiced by al-Ghazali in Islamic thought field such as in his academic autobiography, al-Munqidh min al-dalal which demonstrates a philosophical method of doubt. David Tracy (1988:446-455), a theology expert in United States of America, sees theology as the intellectual interpretations and reflections within a religious tradition. Thus, it has become a principle in the comparative religion especially in theological aspects and if someone is not following the principle, he would be considered as a theologian. With this empathic methodology, the students could understand the basic doctrines of a religion without making mistakes and fallacies in comparing diverse religions. There are other relative factors that could influence the evaluation and comparison such as diverse views and practices of religions. The usage of insider's view would reveal rational attitude of the students in understanding the differences between religious doctrines and nurture toleration in interfaith relation.

Besides, some of them who are not or new in this field always believed that being "comparative" may be an important element in this field. In reality, one who studies a religion without comparing it to other religion is still considered as comparative religion. This is because the comparison is only a basic methodology in understanding the religions. The study of religions or religious studies encompasses much more and does not necessitate comparisons. There are also other difficult direct matters in different religious contexts and traditions that could only be understood within the sole and soul of the religion itself. This knowledge is called comparative religion because basically the comparison is subconsciously done when the researcher attempts to understand another religion against his or her own. Nonetheless, the religions comparison scope is more wider and multidisciplinary involving history, philology, archeology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and so on. It is also poly methodic involving classification, excavation, manuscript and relic analysis, exploration, observation and experiment. Nonetheless, the comparative methodology which is based on thematic comparison is a popular method used in comparing the similar and diverse aspects of the theologies.

Nevertheless, the categorization or classification based on certain trend would help in understanding the evolutionary development of a certain religious faith and interaction between religions. The emphasis to local religions would also play a part in giving examples and portrayals to the students. As a result, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Sikhism in Malaysia are given as examples in understanding a religious doctrine.

A practical method that is usually used by researchers in delivering theological understanding is textually enhancing cognitive element which are knowledge and understanding the beliefs of the religions. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm states: "I believe in order that I may understand". He described theology as 'faith seeking understanding' (Corrywright & Morgan 2116:47):

Textual approach also involves lectures, discussion in tutorials and further readings. The researchers would also integrate skimming of main ideas and scanning of interesting and important matters so that students could master the learning process effectively. Besides, receptive and reflective methodologies lectures and texts that are being read could be a medium of cognitive and analytical skills enhancement.

Some of the works that have been employed in lectures and tutorial discussions of theological elements in the courses are:

i. Mary Pat Fisher. Living Religions. 7th Edition, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

ii. Karen Armstrong. 1993. A history of God. London: Vintage Books.

iii. Rowley, H. H. 1956. Prophecy and religion in ancient China and Israel. London: the Athlone Press.

iv. Coomaraswamy, Ananda Kentish. 1977. Hinduism and Buddhism. 3rd reprinting. Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

v. Ibn Hazm. Al-Fisal fi al-Milal wa al-Ahwa wa al-Nihal. Ed. Nasr, Muhammad I. and Abdul Rahman Umyarah. Beirut: Dar a-Jil, 1415H/1985 C.E.

vi. Al-Shahrastani. Al-Milal wa al-Nihal. Ed. Muhammad Syed Kilani. Beirut: Dar al-Ma'rifah, 1961.

vii. Al-Biruni. Kitab tahqiq ma lil-Hind. India, Deccan, Hyderabad: Osmania Oriental Publications Bureau, Osmania University, 1958.

viii. Abd al-Wahhab, Ahmad. 1992. Al-Nubuwwah wa al-anbiya f al-Yahudiyyah wa al-Masihiyyah wa alIslam. Al-Qahirah: Maktabah Wahbah.

Input approaches are also being employed in the teaching and learning process. The researchers also trained the students to gain knowledge based on output results of completed tasks. This includes library research and field work like questionnaire, group discussion, interview, discussion and observation that would help them in enhancing practical skills. Some of the current examples that have positive effects are interviewing people who are responsible in guarding religious houses of worship such as priests and monks of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism for course PPPH3513 Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. The fieldwork assignments are based on titles that have been given to the students which then have be written in a report or essay. The students who once were afraid to stand up and discussing about religion with people of other religions are showing interest in interacting rationally and educationally with respect.

3. Phenomenological Method

As mentioned earlier, comparative religion involves the usage of diverse teaching and learning methods such as textual, apologetic, comparative, value, interview, questionnaire, group focus approaches. The diversity of the approaches reflects how appealing religious issue is to be researched and analysed from different perspectives for diverse reasons. Thus, another method than theology that always be used in comparative religion is phenomenology. It will be analysed in his part in the context of teaching and learning at the department.

Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that was revolutionizing in the West around 20th century. The branch of philosophy focuses on detailed religious issues. There are other clusters such as 'Transcendental Phenomenology' by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), 'Existential Phenomenology' by Jean-Paul Santre and Maurice Merleon-Pouty and 'Hermeneutic Phenomenology' by Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Paul Picocur (Douglas Allen 2005:7). Generally, Phenomenology is defined as "...a descriptive analysis of the essence ofpure consciousness". (Edmund Husserl, 1931)

Specifically, religious phenomenology focuses on religions experiences aspects and explains the religious phenomena based on the peoples' orientation. In 1887, Pierre Daniel Chantepie de la Saussaye discusses the approaches in religions researchers in his research entitles 'Outline of the phenomenology of religion'. He categorises religious research into two; research related to the elements or contents and another is related to religious manifestation. In explaining both categories, he employs philosophical and historical views (Wikipedia 2010). This means the phenomenological approach emphasizes thinking aspects that are related to the philosophy and facts of history.

Phenomenology aims to research phenomena that emerge from experiences. The phenomologists would explain the experiences as a basic foundation or structure of phenomena. Therefore, ". phenomenology attempts to free itself from unexamined presuppositions, to avoid causal and other explanations, to utilize a method that allows it to describe that which appears and to intuit or decipher essential meanings". (Douglas Allen 2005:7)

In religious context, both elements are inseparable. The philosophy determines a concept and getaway of the religions. It is also related to value and thinking of outside our senses. Meanwhile, religious histories are related to the births of religions, the sacrifices of the philosophers and theologians and the creation of civilized religious communities.

In the Department of Theology and Philosophy teaching and learning context, phenomenological approach is being employed to discuss religious doctrines, civilised religious values, ritualistic practices and religious celebrations. Religions doctrine refers to basic beliefs in a religion such as Islam believes in Allah and unity (tawhid), Christianity with trinity, Hinduism with trimurti and Judaism with Yahweh. The foundation of the doctrines is based on religious books and related works. At this stage, the students would be exposed to conceptual aspects. They are required to refer to religious texts in researching the concept of God, revelation, and prophecy. PPPH2123 Comparative Religion exposes the students to religions contents prior to any comparison. The focus is given to early history until current time. This requires the students to research facts on diverse religions such as Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Sikhism or Buddhism. To better the students' understandings, additional books written by Muslim and Western philosophers are also provided.

On the other hand, PPPH2433 Study of Contemporary Comparative Religion, PPPH3463 Christianity and Judaism, PPPH3493 Christianity in the Malay Archipelago, PPPH3513 Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, and PPPH3523 Study of Eastern Religions focus more on issues related to current local or international issues such as the usage of the term "Allah" in Malaysia, controversial religious issues, and caricatures in the West. The phenomena are researched by analysing students' views and opinions towards other religions. They are encouraged to understand the differences of problems by linking the histories of diverse religions as the first step. To illustrate, in understanding the caricature issue, the students are exposed to the histories of Islam and Christianity. Apart from that, content analysis could also be directly applied in discussing this issue.

The course also includes the values of religious lives that are being mould based on religious teachings. The value of life in religion comprises of weddings, familial relationship, responsibility and other related issues. The phenomenological aspect could also be applied while discussing the issues of value. The students are asked to voice their opinions regarding happenings around their surroundings. This is to ensure that they are applying what they have learnt with what is truly happening. At times, the lecturers of comparative religion would require the students to either individually or collectively elaborate on a certain religious phenomena. At times, the students, in pairs or triplets, would have to complete a mini research study related to understanding and practice of other religions. The research findings would be shared with other students. An evaluation would be carried out to determine how the students create a relationship between their conceptual knowledge and religious values with reality.

In addition, the students are asked to analyse texts that have been given by their lecturers. Usually, the texts are taken from text books or combined articles produced in English. Based on this analysis, the students are required to firstly explain what they have understood. Secondly via 'Problem Based Learning' (PBL), they would have to further elaborate on what they have known either through other readings or based on what they have known. Every analysed text contains different issues happenings either inside or outside of Malaysia. Thus, the students should explain the situation or problems either theoretically or religious practices. They would also give their views and opinions regarding this matter. It is aligned with PBL that emphasizes learning through realistic problems (Nabishah Mohamad : 117). The comparative religion by using this approach is offered to Year 2 and Year 3 undergraduates of second semester in every session.

Phenomenology is also relevant in comparative religion teaching and learning because one needs to comprehend the religion according to its believers' eyes before making any analysis. One should not only depend on religious texts but most importantly, how the believers understand, implement and improvise the religion and its practices in their daily lives. In conclusion, phenomenology that is based on textual understanding, religious conceptual and structure is deemed as appropriate in increasing the students' understanding. (Douglas Allen 2115:12-17)

4. Conclusion

Basically, comparative religion is pluralistic from diverse religious and beliefs views either theistic or non theistic. It is also receptive in the sense that no limitations or restrictions are implemented by certain religious groups only. Additionally, it involves religious, social, symbol and dynamic development system in thinking and life. Comparative religion is seen as involving both historical and systematical/para-historical values. It is not only about understanding religions from books or lecturers but from the students' understanding too.

Consequently, the objective to understand the influence of a religion, practice and interaction of diverse human aspects could be achieved. It is not only enhancing the intellect but is also personally strengthening one's faith and believe in a religion although comparative religion is an elucidative and understanding and not apologetic or evangelizing in nature of its methodology and purpose.

Theology and phenomenology that are integrated in the teaching and learning process of comparative religion courses are perceived as relevant and permanent dimensions in religious understanding. Nevertheless, the aspects of practical contribution, application of knowledge in religious life of the diversified Malaysian and the world needs to be further examined.

Generally, the objectives are not thoroughly achievable due to certain factors such as the development of this new knowledge, lack of experts in this field, undergraduates' lack of exposure and other possible factors. Nevertheless, with expertise and determination, it is possible to enhance the level of the effectiveness of this course in order to contribute to the toleration and interaction with religious diversity such as in Malaysia.

5. Acknowledgement

This work was supported by Action and Strategic Research Grant, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia [grant number: UKM-PTS-075-2010].


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