The academic (and legal and political) problems with the concept of "religion," which arise from its context of origin, are epitomized (although less often mentioned) in the particular case of the concept of "God." The adoption of such paraphrases as the sacred or the holy probably owed as much, in the early stages of religious studies, to a desire to avoid appearing theological as it did to their empirical appropriateness. Indeed, there is still a dearth of comparative studies of both the overlap and the individual distinctiveness of the meanings popularly given to the concepts of God," "sacred" , and "holy" , or of "gods" , the "supernatural," "divine" , and so on.
Among these paraphrases, ultimacy has an honorable pedigree but has been underused. Theologian Paul Tillich's description of all religion (both official and otherwise) as "ultimate concern" echoed both Luther's description of gods and Jesus's of devotion. It had the distinct advantage, for ministers or academics who deal empirically with religion, of returning divinity to experience. That it fell out of fashion following Tillich's death may have been due partly to the absence of any tradition that operationalized it, in those terms, and partly to the fear (among both believers and nonbelievers) that it was intended to be an exact synonym for God. J. Milton Yinger (1973) also attempted within social science to construct an inclusive functionalist definition of religion based on "ultimate concern," which generated initial interest but, similarly, appears to have had little continuing impact.
The Institute for the Study of Human Ideas of Ultimate Reality and Meaning (URAM) has, however, more recently taken up and developed the expression. The articles in its quarterly journal, Ultimate Reality and Meaning: Inter-Disciplinary Studies in the Philosophy of "Understanding" (University of Toronto Press) are intended to build up an encyclopedia of that name. Its editors, Tibor Horvath and John F. Perry, describe its purpose as publishing
studies dealing with those facts, things, ideas, axioms, persons and values which people throughout history have considered ultimate (i.e., that to which the human mind reduces and relates everything and that which one does not reduce and relate to anything else) or as horizons (i.e., world views in the light of which humans understand whatever they understand) or as supreme value (i.e., for which someone would sacrifice everything and which one would not lose for anything). [The hope is that t]he analytical and critical description of all that the human mind ever thought about the ultimate reality and meaning of human existence is expected to initiate systematic and structural studies of the most universal dynamics that have driven human consciousness from its dawn until the present day.
Edward I. Bailey
P. Tillich, Ultimate Concern (London: SCM, 1965)
J. M. Yinger, The Scientific Study of Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1973)
T. H. Zock, A Psychology of Ultimate Concern (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1990).
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