Phenomenology, Fieldwork and Folk Religion
This chapter was triggered by discussion of phenomenology of religion with Japanese students on the Comparative International Studies programme at Bath College of Higher Education (subsequently Bath Spa University College). When the time came for examination revision in Study of Religions, we dutifully went over various points concerning phenomenology – epoche, eidetic vision, Smart’s dimensions and so on. I told the students they would have to be prepared to discuss the pros and cons of phenomenology, and this produced some interesting reactions. One student was perplexed, as she could only think of positive things to say of phenomenology. Another, however, put forward the old accusation that phenomenology was merely descriptive. Descriptive – yes; merely descriptive – no. I am not for a moment suggesting
that there is no need or place for analysis in the study of religious traditions. I am, however, suggesting that it is necessary to remember that description, in the sense of accurate, judgement-free reporting, is invaluable in the study of religions. Analysis without phenomenological ﬁeldwork can be suspect at best, dangerous at worst. Unless we check our analyses against what is actually happening in the ﬁeld, we risk perpetuating false assumptions and blatant inaccuracies. The need I perceive for phenomenological ﬁeldwork stems from my own
particular area of interest, which is popular or folk religion, by which I mean what people actually do, say, think, believe in the name of religion. Another way of putting it might be to say that I am interested in the Little Tradition, but the Little Tradition does not exist in isolation from the Great Tradition and vice versa, so that is not how I would normally choose to put it. These are not terms with which I feel particularly comfortable. Having read Religious Studies at Lancaster University and Folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland,1 I am happier with the term folk religion. Don Yoder (1974a, p. 14) deﬁnes folk religion as ‘the totality of all those views and practices of religion that exist among the people apart from and alongside the strictly
theological and liturgical forms of the ofﬁcial religion’. Obviously, where appropriate, ‘theological and liturgical’ could be replaced by philosophical and ritual. I am, of course, aware that the term ‘folk religion’ can and has been used in a
variety of ways, and that is why I am careful to nail my colours very speciﬁcally to Yoder’s mast. In his article ‘The Folk Religion of the English People’, for example, Edward Bailey (1989) comments on the use of the term folk religion among Church of England clergy since the 1970s, citing John Hapgood’s 1983 deﬁnition of it as
While rejecting this as too narrow a view of what folk religion is, it is only fair to point out that Yoder’s deﬁnition is itself based on the German term ‘religiose Volkskunde’, which he translates as ‘the folk-cultural dimension of religion, or the religious dimension of folk culture’ (1974a, p. 14). This term was originally coined in 1901 by a German Lutheran minister, Paul Drews, whose concern was to investigate religious folklife so that young ministers were better equipped to deal with rural congregations whose conception of Christianity was often radically different from the clergy’s ofﬁcial version. In Drews’ case, the term folk religion came from ‘an attempt, within organised religion, to narrow the understanding gap between pulpit and pew’ (Yoder 1974a, p. 3). There might still be a need to narrow the understanding gap between the Study of Religions and the religions studied. I would like to suggest that accounts of religion which do not take into
account folk religion risk telling less than the whole story, and that phenomenological ﬁeldwork is often the only means of gathering such information. I have certainly found this to be the case in my own ﬁeldwork experiences.