Topic: Religious Studies (2009) by Debbie McCauley

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‘If you ask a Māori in a settlement such as Ruatoria (where Māoris constitute a majority of the population) what he understands by religion, expect him to scratch his head in thought, before at length replying “whose religion”?’(Te Pakaka Tawhai, Aotearoa’s spiritual heritage, 1996). This paper on the implications of this quotation for students of religion generally was written by Debbie McCauley on 19 March 2009 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

Students of religious study have several issues to grapple with before commencing study, not the least being a definition itself as there seems to be no general agreement as to what constitutes a religion. Several academics have tried to define this somewhat ambiguous concept in order to give students greater understanding. For what actually constitutes a religion? And in whose opinion? Is religion merely a belief system or an entire way of life? What is the social relevance of studying religion itself? Where do new so called religious movements such as Scientology fit in? What about movements that do not want to be labelled religions? Where do you categorise Atheists, Cults or Satanists? Or do we just accept that we are studying a grey area? This essay will concentrate on a series of seven religious dimensions developed by Scottish Professor Ninian Smart (1927-2001), applying them to various world religions with an emphasis on Aotearoa and Māoritanga (Māori culture, practices and beliefs).

The practical and ritual dimension of religion can be experienced in many different ways which include meditation, yoga, lighting candles or incense and saying grace or a karakea (prayer). In the Māori tradition the function of the Tohunga (priest) ‘was to mediate between the gods and the tribe to ensure the welfare of the tribe’ (Marsden, 1992, p. 129). This included determining the best times to carry out practical activities such as fishing, gathering food and religious rites and as such had a considerable impact on the everyday activities of the Iwi (tribe). In Christianity it is mainly priests who carry out the practical and ritual dimension including preaching sermons, reading psalms from the bible, the singing of hymns and using water to baptise.

Experiential and emotional dimensions focus on how ordinary people experience religion whether this is through a sense of inner peace, devotion, fear or guilt. Hindus have faith in the concept of karma, believing that past deeds have influenced the present, while present deeds are determining the direction of future lives. Islamic followers are keen to emphasise that Islam is an entire way of life and not just a religion. 

This concept can be seen in the knowledge used by Māori that has been gathered by their ancestors over centuries in the patterns, songs, dance, carvings, images, names, symbols, paintings, poetry, traditional medicines and histories help them to experience their Māoritanga in different ways. According to Raureti (1992) ‘the traditional Māori view is that all pray to the same God in the final analysis – how and in what form is of little importance’ (p. 150). Angus Gillies in his book ‘Ngati Dread’ about the Ruatoria Māori religious sect calling itself The Rastafarians states that ‘members wove together Rastafarian teachings with local Māori beliefs and prophecies’ (Gillies, 2008, p. 6). They heightened (and funded) the experience of their religion by growing, selling and smoking vast quantities of cannabis. 

The narrative or mythic dimension of religion is important, especially when explaining such events as important as creation. Korero tahito (ancient explanations) were traditionally passed on through verbal storytelling. Māori mythology describes how Tāne Mahuta, god of the forests, pushes his parents Ranginui (the sky) & Papatūānuku (the earth) apart to create light so that life could flourish. ‘An event known as ‘Tāne te toko o te rangi’ (Walker, 1996, p. 16). When a visit is paid to the massive kauri tree named Tāne Mahuta (New Zealand’s largest known living Kauri tree estimated to be 1,200 years old) it can seem as propping up the sky, keeping Papatūānuku from Ranginui and the darkness from settling over the land once again. Most religions appear to have a creation story similar to Tāne te toko o te rangi and Genesis from the Christian Bible.  In Hinduism the mythology includes ‘The rich and varied Hindu picture of the universe in which divine, human and other animal forms mingle and merge’ (Wilson, 1996 p. 159). 

The dimension of the doctrinal and philosophical is best explained by Smart (1989): ‘Doctrines come to play a significant part in all the major religions, partly because sooner or later a faith has to adapt to social reality and so to the fact that much of the leadership is well educated and seeks some kind of intellectual statement of the basis of the faith’ (p. 39). This aspect of Māoritanga is commented upon by Tawhai (1996) who states ‘While the Christian God provides Māoridom with its first Redeemer, he appears mostly to ignore needs at the temporal and profane level, leaving this domain to the ancestral gods who continue to cater for those needs’ (p. 11). In the same way that Māori gods and goddesses stem from the ‘High God’, Io, the various Hindu gods and goddesses are merely symbolic of Brahman, the ‘One Supreme Being’. It is generally believed that the concept of one all-powerful god is seen as being too overwhelming for the ordinary human to grasp and so the division has been made into comprehensible parts, hence the various lesser gods and goddesses.

Ethical and legal dimensions can be observed in the Christian Bible’s Ten Commandments as well as Judaism’s law found in the Torah, Sikhism’s holy book Guru Granth Sahib, the Muslim’s Quran (received via Muhammad), Buddha’s collected teachings known as the Pali Canon and the wisdom of Hinduisms various gurus.  Several guidelines in Māori culture are said to have been set by the demi-god Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga. ‘Māui set precedents in social etiquette for introductions to strangers, the use of mākutu (sorcery) against rivals, prayers to the gods for deliverance from danger, and thanksgiving for successful expeditions’ (Walker, 1996, p. 20). In fact within Māoritanga, as well as many other religions, there seem to be a set of guidelines for almost every aspect of living including such mundane tasks as the cooking of food, chopping down of trees and funerals. The translation of the first scriptures of the Christian Bible into Māori in 1827 (Elsmore, 1999, p. 9) provided another set of guidelines for Māoridom.

The social and institutional dimension is best explained by Smart (1989) ‘to understand faith we need to see how it works among people’ (p. 40). In Greerton Village, Tauranga, the Christian Faith is openly represented by two of the four charity shops in this township: ‘James Place’ and ‘Centrepoint’ along with two Christian churches in the area which serve as gathering places for adherents to that faith. The social aspect of Hinduism is ‘moral activities, which Hindus believe should flow from the religious’ (Wilson, 1996, p. 165). And according to Walker (1996) ‘The mythological charters for Māori customs and social institutions were projections of current social practice back in ancestral time to the Hawaiki homeland, the Māori equivalent of the fabled Garden of Eden’ (p. 22). 

Followers of the Ringatu (upraised hand) Church which was founded by Te Kooti Rikirangi (c1812–1893) meet and worship once a month at a selected marae. According to Tarei (1992) ‘The most important part of Ringatu worship is the observation of the Kaumarua, the Twelfth, on the twelfth day of each month’ (p. 141). This is when from dusk on the eleventh of the month until dusk on the twelfth the marae is closed and Ringatu followers are united in worship. 

The last dimension is the material embodiment of the religion. In Aotearoa the Māori Meeting House (Whare Whakairo) is an assertion of identity, a focal point at the ‘heart’ of the Māori culture. The Whare Whakairo symbolically represents the embodiment of an Iwi’s ancestor whose spirit is housed within the building and visiting seems to denote the undertaking of a spiritual journey. The building is usually named for the ancestor and sometimes represents the connections between Māori mythology, genealogy, historical events and the Iwi. This is expressed by Simmons (1997) who states ‘The symbolism of the meeting house on its marae brings together the ideas that shape the Māori world. The meeting house is not simply just a building; it is a focus for expressing the most deeply held beliefs of Māoridom’ (p. 53). 

For many, the head of the ancestor embodied by the Whare Whakairo is represented at the apex of the bargeboards in front of the house. These bargeboards can be seen as the ancestor’s arms with the ends of the bargeboards representing the fingers of the hands symbolically gathering the Iwi together. The upright slabs at either side of the porch usually represent the ancestor’s main descendants who are providing guardianship. The porch itself is the area where discussions take place and can symbolise the ancestor’s brain. 

Māori mythology is often represented here too, as discussed by Simmons (1997) ‘In the apex of the roof, the pane or forehead part of the tahuhu or ridgepole is often carved with two figures, with toes turned to the centre and heads facing each other. These often represent Rangi the Sky Father and Papa the Earth Mother’ (p. 25). The doorway into the meeting house can be seen as the mouth of the ancestor and represents a boundary or a crossing-over, the meaning of which is explained by Simmons (1997) ‘The doorway is carved to mark the transition from the mythic world outside to the inside, to the historic time of the ancestors in the house’ (p. 26). 

As with the outside of the meeting house, the inside is full of rich symbolism. The ridgepole represents the backbone of the ancestor, the rafters being the ribs. There is usually a centre-post supporting the ridgepole which represents the chief, who can be said to be the living embodiment of the ancestors. There are often more carvings of the ancestor’s descendants lining the walls with tukutuku panels on either side of them. The kowhaiwhai patterning on the rafters sometimes represents the number of generations from the ancestor to members of the Iwi today. 

The counterpart of the Whare Whakairo within Hinduism is the various images and deities inspired by goddesses and gods which symbolise the One Supreme Being.  Christianity has its cathedrals or churches, Islam its mosques and Judaism its synagogues. All these places of worship are important to their individual religions. 

People have many varied ideas about what constitutes religion. In order to successfully be able to study religion the student requires a broad definition as a starting point enabling them to draw clear boundaries around the form their studies are to take. This is whilst putting aside any personal religious issues or prejudices that the student may have and being able to study the religion in context. 

Ninian Smart has provided a useful outline for students of religion as can be seen from the seven dimensions explored above. This essay supports the basis that there is an important social relevance to undertaking this type of investigation. Religious studies can help us to better understand our fellow man and promote greater tolerance for one another’s differences in both beliefs and the way we carry out those beliefs in our daily lives.



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