Seven Ways of Looking at Religion

by Benjamin Schewel, Yale, 248pp, £35

Like many of us, I suspect, I have not spent much time considering religion, its history and development from a purely intellectual standpoint. It has been enough to spend time in the pew pondering the mysteries of Christianity, my own failings, and how to live a better life.

Having read Benjamin Schewel’s book, subtitled “The Major Narratives”, I was humbled to realise the depths of my ignorance. And the thought occurred that perhaps I should have spent more time trying to understand what has brought religion to its current reduced state in contemporary society. The value of this book is that it makes accessible the work of many powerful minds who devoted their lifetimes to thinking about religion in its cultural context.

The subtitle is the key to the author’s approach, which is to digest the work of thinkers about religion and to group this around seven hypotheses, which he names as follows: the Subtraction Narrative; the Renewal Narrative; the Transsecular Narrative; the Postnaturalist Narrative; the Construct Narrative; the Perennial Narrative and the Developmental Narrative. This might sound very academic but it is not a difficult book to read.

Schewel gives a concise precis of each writer he has chosen and then places them in the context of one of the narratives. He puts the philosopher (and Catholic convert) Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, in the Renewal Narrative. Schewel writes that this narrative argues that the decline of earlier religious tradition is the cause of our current malaise and that we can only solve these problems by renewing that religious tradition. He goes on to explain MacIntyre’s thinking, beginning with the idea that the moral chaos we now experience stems from our abandonment of the “virtue tradition”.

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