Religious Specialists Research Paper

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‘Religious specialists’ is a generic term referring to select individuals or a category of individuals within different world faiths who undertake a particular responsibility for religious functions such as teaching, contemplation, transmission of scriptures, leadership, pastoral care, or ritual, on behalf of the religious community they serve. The nomenclature used to describe religious specialists differs according to the various religious traditions, but the idea of prophets, teachers, a priesthood and/or contemplative monastic orders is common to many world religions. Most religious specialists either will have inherited their role or will have responded to a sense of Divine calling to a particular and often strict way of life and adherence to religious disciplines.

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1. The Scope Of Different Religious Specialists

A community of people who share a particular ontological understanding of the world have often been inspired by prophets or religious teachers who have acted as intermediaries between the Divine and earthly realms. The prophetic role has often involved receiving revelations, and acting as an exemplar of these revelations. As religious communities grow in size numerically and geographically, and become increasingly complex, a need arises for individuals with particular knowledge and authority to oversee the religious belief and practice of the group. The need for a range of different religious specialists may become apparent, e.g., to regulate religious activities, to preserve and recite scriptures, or to lead worship, and in time, a hierarchy of different specialists with a specific authority and leadership may emerge. Access to particularly significant holy sites and shrines, or sacred texts, may be limited in some traditions to religious specialists only. In many ways, prophets are the direct opposite of priests, since the former are often a force for change in society, challenging existing practices and beliefs, while the latter serve as representatives of a religious community and seek to maintain existing practices. Charismatic religious specialists in some ways stand between prophets and priests, since they are often the source of new ideas and practices, but within existing frameworks of community and belief.

In the major monotheistic religions of the world today, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there is a range of religious functionaries. Despite the common link between these three faiths, there are some significant differences in the various types of religious specialists that have emerged in each. In Judaism, a rabbi does not, strictly speaking, have a priestly role, but rather a responsibility for teaching and spiritual guidance. Historically, alongside the Hebrew prophets, were sages or wise men whose writings comprise, among others, the Book of Proverbs.

In Christianity, there are two principal avenues for professional religious activity, namely pietistic contemplative, and priestly. Amid the diversity of Christian traditions, the Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican denominations in particular have a history of contemplative monastic orders for both men and women. These orders have often been inspired by the examples of saints such as St. Francis of Assisi, and members of these religious communities aspire to follow the exceptional qualities of their founders. Other religious specialists in Christianity include priests or clergy whose role often combines a range of functions, such as pastoral care, leading worship, and teaching, generally focused around a church or place of worship.

In Islam, there is no such priestly equivalent, but there is nevertheless a range of religious specialists. An imam may be regarded primarily as a ritual specialist with particular responsibility for leading congregational prayers in a mosque. The title also has honorific connotations, perhaps in denoting the leader of a particular community or group. Among Shi’ite Muslims, the term imam has yet another meaning as an intercessor between Allah and humanity. The framework for Islamic life and conduct, individually and communally, is shaped by the Shari’ah, or Islamic law. Scholars with a particular knowledge of Islamic law and teachings, known collectively as ulema (singular alim) assist with the development of Islamic thought, while muftis are legal functionaries empowered to make fatwas or legal rulings. In the Sufi or mystical tradition of Islam, the spiritual leader of a community is often known as a sheikh.

Even between the three major monotheistic traditions, there is a clear diversity in the type and remit of different religious specialists.

Indian religions, especially Hinduism and Sikhism, share the concept of a guru or teacher. Sikhism is founded upon the teachings of 10 successive Punjabi gurus during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while in Hinduism, the term guru has a more generic connotation as a religious teacher who gives personal instruction to devotees. Brahmans are at the top of the Hindu caste system, and as religious professionals their role principally involves the transmission of sacred Sanskrit texts and the performance of priestly sacrificial rituals.

The monastic life is perhaps the defining feature of religious specialists in the many traditions of Buddhism, whether Tibetan, Zen, Theravadin, or Japanese. Not surprisingly, therefore, many of the titles associated with Buddhist religious functionaries relate to the hierarchy of the monastic order. With Buddhism becoming increasingly popular in the West, different titles such as Ajahn, Bhikkhu, Roshi, Lama, and Rinpoche are becoming more widely known and understood.

In traditional societies and communities, shamans are religious specialists with the supernatural power to contact the spirit world during ecstatic trance states, often induced through dance, intoxicants, drumming, or chanting. They are not priests, nor medicine men, but are said to have the ability to foresee and predict the future, to quell the forces of the spirit world, and undertake extreme privations without feeling pain.

Despite the wide variations among religions in terms of religious functionaries and their various roles, there are some common sociological features of professional or specialist religious activity.

2. Becoming A Religious Specialist

Those who dedicate either all or part of their lives to religious work are often regarded as having a vocation rather than a job. Social scientists are not so concerned with the theological or supernatural implications of vocation, but rather with visible and measurable aspects of professional religious life, such as recruitment and training. In his study of American Catholic clergy, Fichter notes that ‘the ecclesiastical vocation is not only a supernatural calling, a state of life and social status. It is also a specialised social role through which the manifold functions of the Church are performed. Obviously then, he (the priest) is engaged in a full-time profession or occupation which can be submitted to sociological comparison and analysis’ (Fichter 1961).

2.1 Recruitment And Training

Personal connections and example often have a bearing on recruitment to professional religious life. This partially explains why vocations often cluster in families and kinship groups. In some world religions, religious roles are inherited through a lineage of teachers or leaders. Entering professional religious service is a lifelong commitment in many instances, while in others an individual may through tradition or personal choice undertake to become a religious specialist for only a short period of time. A good example of the latter can be found in the Theravadin Buddhist tradition where it is common for young boys of school age to be ordained as monks for a limited period during their youth.

Most religious traditions have well-established and well-known expectations and qualifications for people interested in becoming religious functionaries, either in terms of knowledge or ethical conduct. As a step towards learning to become a religious specialist, it is common to undergo a period of isolation, training, and/or renouncing of worldly attachments. In both Buddhism and Christianity, those wishing to become monks or nuns often undertake a trial period of training as novices prior to ordination. In religious traditions where scholarly knowledge is a particular feature of professional religious activity, new recruits will often undertake an extensive period of specialist training to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills. Therefore, theological colleges or seminaries are common to the monotheistic traditions. Training institutions may be geographically isolated, or may be fully integrated into local communities, but the shift towards the latter as the locus for professional religious development is becoming more evident. This is partly due to the closing of the gap between lay communities and religious professionals, and the concern that communities have for specialists who are relevant and effective in modern societies.

2.2 Ordination And Other Rites Into Professional Religious Life

Having successfully completed the necessary training period, whatever form that may take, some form of ceremony, initiation, consecration, vow-taking, or ordination into the religious profession is common. A number of symbolic actions or practices may take place, most of which have the function of setting apart the new religious specialist from the lay community. For example, the wearing of religious garb, such as a monastic habit or robe, or the marking of the body in some way, serves both ecological and structural purposes in ‘locating’ the individual within a community of fellow specialists. At the same time, a new name or religious title may be taken, and in some religious traditions, kinship terminology may be prevalent, such as ‘Brother’ or ‘Sister.’ These actions and rituals are part of the process of transformation into a socially recognized religious specialist.

3. Religious Specialists—Some Sociological Characteristics

Despite becoming socially recognized religious adepts, in many traditions it is common for religious specialists to have a spiritual guide or teacher. This is a reflection of the life-long commitment that individuals make to their vocation, and the pursuit of spiritual development and perfection. The balance between, or combination of, self-centered and socially-centered spirituality and action will depend upon the characteristics of the professional role. Often there is no such thing as ‘retirement’ for religious professionals; they may retire from active functions certainly, but the nature of their calling entails a continuation of the religious role until death.

3.1 Status And Prestige

Most religious professionals share the social status of the group to which they belong. For example, the prestige and social standing of religious specialists in immigrant minority groups tends to rise or fall as a reflection of the upward or downward mobility of the migrant group. However, religious specialists who have subsidiary secular functions, such as social work or healthcare, may acquire recognition and status through these roles, rather than in their primary religious capacity. In some senses, religious specialists are classless individuals since generally they do not acquire status through earning nor, in the case of celibates, through favourable marriages. This does not mean, however, that they lack the possibility of status, since they can acquire other forms of recognition and prestige such as authority and other attributes of stature and power.

3.2 Professional Qualities And Hierarchies

Religious specialists can be considered as ‘professionals’ on a number of grounds. They are involved in a nonstandard product—religion. They undertake tasks and services that often cannot be repeated exactly, their work involves personal commitment and dedication, and they are required to have a broad knowledge of a specialized field and have authority both inside and outside the religious community. As specialists, they are often aspiring to personal development and improvement, and generally they share solidarity with other religious professionals. Like most professional groups, religious specialists, particularly in community contexts, are part of a hierarchical structure. Age, length of service, or the responsibilities particular to a role or office often determine hierarchy. The specialists who also have a leadership function face particular challenges in securing conformity, maintaining authority, and religious management of internal and external goals. The most senior members of the hierarchy generally have responsibilities that extend beyond the immediate community to a wide geographical area.

3.3 The Proliferation Of Religious Specialists

In modern secular societies there has been a proliferation of work specialization. The study of careers in themselves has become a further branch of knowledge and expertise. The religious professional is yet another specialized career, and within it, there are further specialist activities, such as teaching, missionary work, or care of the sick. For example, some clergy within the Christian church feel called to chaplaincy roles often requiring a particular concern for groups of people in some way set apart from the rest of society, e.g., through imprisonment or hospitalization. The world of chaplaincy has in turn become more complex as society has become more fragmented and ‘full-time personnel of the Church have been carried along on a wave of extra-ecclesiastical professionalism’ (Fichter 1961).

In most cases, religious specialists are regarded as having a positive influence upon religious communities and society, in as much as their example and ministry inspires action and behavior that is socially beneficial. Most religious specialists are associated with having outstanding personal qualities of kindness, patience, tolerance, concern, holiness, devotion, sensitivity, intelligence, and wisdom. However, amid the proliferation of new religious groups and sects—most requiring leadership—some religious specialists have been so idealized, sometimes through their deliberate flouting of conventional norms and the employment of bizarre rituals, that their humanity and fallibility may be denied, and they are followed with un-questioning loyalty by groups of believers. The dangers of such an attitude have been manifest through the ages in collective acts of destructive or unconventional behavior inspired by the religious specialist or leader. There is sometimes a fine line between being a holy fool and a saint.

3.4 Religious Specialists And Gender

In most world religions, authority and power has been the preserve of men and most religious specialists in history have been male. In some world religions, nearly all formally recognized religious professionals are still men, and in these cases the situation does not seem likely to change in the immediate future. However, in other religious traditions and denominations, women increasingly are taking on roles as public religious professionals, through ordination, particularly in the lower strata of the religious hierarchy. Some of the exceptions to this historical bias towards male religious specialists are the monastic traditions of Buddhism and Christianity where separate orders for women have long been in existence and women have gained credit for their virtuoso religiosity. In various religious traditions over the course of history, individual women have been respected for their wisdom and devotion, such as the Muslim saint and mystic Rabi’a of Basra (d. 801), and in some instances they have, informally, been the teachers of men. But rarely has this led to their admission into the select community of male religious specialists or scholars. Women have through time often done a great deal of unseen religious work, particularly in prayer and in the care of the sick. The increasingly professional and public role of women in religious life is a reflection of changing social attitudes and the senior roles that some women have achieved in other realms of public life.

4. Religious Specialists In The Contemporary World

The role of religious specialists today is carried out in social settings marked by a greater global awareness, increasing religious diversity, and pressures from within and outside the religious community. The impact of these pressures are manifold and have affected different religious traditions and religious professionals, collectively and individually, in various ways. It is beyond the scope of this research paper to examine these in detail, but some distinctive features of being a religious professional in modern society can be highlighted.

4.1 Religious Leadership In Minority Contexts

Historically, religious communities and faiths were often separated from each other through geographical distance, but the advent of modern communications has brought traditions together on a new and unprecedented scale. Most large cities around the globe will have a community of believers associated with the major religious traditions. In these contexts, religious specialists face the challenge of maintaining authority in a situation where religious professionals from other faith traditions also claim authenticity and authority.

There is evidence to show that over time religious specialists serving diaspora communities are often influenced by the dominant professional roles of the religious majority. For example, many of the rabbis serving Britain’s well-established Jewish community have long-since expanded their primary teaching and education role, and they have a far greater involvement in pastoral care than historically and traditionally they once might. The idea of a ‘Jewish chaplain’ serving on a prison or hospital chaplaincy team is now commonplace. Even amongst religious communities with a much shorter history in Britain, there is evidence that the roles of religious professionals are changing. The largely ritual responsibilities of Muslim imams, based in mosques, is beginning to change as they too become more involved in public religious affairs, community support, and pastoral care in public institutions. In this respect, the gradual combining of pastoral care with teaching and leadership of rituals indicates the influence of the dominant professional roles of the religious majority, namely the established Church of England.

4.2 Religious vs. Secular Professionals

Through an ongoing process of social differentiation, many of the functions of the religious professional have been usurped by other, nonreligious professionals or by the state. The marginality that religious professionals may face as a consequence, particularly in modern industrial societies, can and does have an impact on future recruitment and vocation. One of the consequences of the decline in the numbers of religious professionals (in some societies and religious traditions), has been an inevitable need for ordinary, lay members of religious communities to become more actively involved in tasks that were formally part of the priestly role.

A good example of how the remit of religious professionals has changed can be seen in the post-Second World War period, particularly in the West, with the dramatic expansion of interest in holistic and alternative therapies with counseling and psychotherapy part of a new industry of self-development. As Davie (1994) notes this has had two effects, namely, ‘in usurping some of the traditional functions of a pastor and, secondly, in obliging that pastor—if he wishes to keep on terms—to acquire skills (including an extensive vocabulary) of a novel and essentially unreligious nature.’ The curriculum for those undertaking theological training will now almost certainly require study of counseling, bereavement care, and other forms of pastoral care in order to be able to keep abreast of secular professionals working in the fields of therapy and self-development.


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