Donald S. SWENSON, Society, Spirituality and the Sacred: A Social Scientific Introduction. Second Edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009, ISBN 978 0 8020 9680 7
Reviewed by Richard Rymarz, St Joseph's College, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada T6G 2J5

This new, revised edition provides an overview of a social scientific view of religion, usefully summarizing a wide range of leading academic views. As well it stakes out a particular theoretical position, stressing the importance of routinization and the sacred in the study of religion. In this edition there is also much new material including chapters on women and religion and new religious movements. In addition previous sections on Islam, indigenous religion and postmodernism have been significantly expanded.

Swenson examines the impact of religion on people through a variety of conceptual lens most notably O’Dea’s theory on the dilemma’s faced when religion becomes institutionalized. In this theory the institutionalization of religion brings with it a number of distinctive and well characterized dilemmas. Dilemmas such as that over interpretation versus dogmatism or conversion versus coercion establish the central dynamism of religion and provide both a focus but also an ongoing daunting challenge for many religious groups in contemporary culture. Swenson offers his own elaboration of this theory by using O’Dea’s categorization as a basis for understanding the significance of the routinization of charisma. From this the central thesis of the book emerges, namely, that experience of the sacred on many levels is a unique and universal phenomenon. Furthermore, world views are critical in analysing religion and understanding how the routinization of religious experience makes a difference in people’s lives.

Beginning with definitions that form the basis of a social scientific study of religion the book then examines both personal experiences of the sacred before discussing religious experience in social and institutional terms. Swenson’s conceptualization of the sacred, following Durkheim, sees it as a fundamental aspect of religion. He then defines religion in terms of a middle ground between the anthropological view which sees it as a universal, bounded phenomenon and the fatalistic view which does not allow any formal definition. For Swenson, religion has substantive, functional and formal aspects. The substantive element encompasses the experiential encounter with the sacred. The functional provides a uniform system of beliefs somewhat akin to a worldview and the formal relates to the underlying symbols, in a Geertzian sense, that establish enduring moods and motivations.

Having stated this threefold understanding of religion, subsequent chapters broadly examine religion in both social and personal contexts. In personal terms, perhaps over one third of North Americans report some type of either mystical or psychic experience. These remain, nonetheless, experiences that must be interpreted within a particular social context - a point made strongly with the example of Martin Luther. Indeed in Swenson’s view religious experience, even of virtuosos, is inextricably linked to the structural features of particular religions. Having dealt with the substantial conceptual issues that underlie his approach, the question of religious experience and the interface between experience and social institutions, the body of the book is devoted to a careful exanimation of O’Dea’s foundational dilemmas. Using the dilemma of interpretation and mixed motives as a framework, for instance, Swenson provides a perceptive analysis of the role of women as religious leaders. He concludes that, with few exceptions, the lack of women in leadership within religious groups across history and cultures is a clear indication that the routinization of religious experience is closely associated with masculinisation which makes the place of women problematic.

Swenson’s final chapter addresses the issue of the place of religion in contemporary culture through the prism of both secularization and postmodernity. He accepts the basic premise of postmodernity as a significant culture change that came to the fore in the late twentieth century. In this milieu Swenson sees a significant role for religion. It can provide, albeit in a fragmented and decentralized manner, a riposte to the central tent of postmodernity, namely, the ubiquity of meaningless. He makes useful distinctions between the United States and Canada, which will certainly please those especially interested in the Canadian context. As a basic principle Swenson argues that when the sacred is manifested in the secular a tension arises. This is particularly acute in countries where organized, historical religious groups have lost any pervasive influence to shape religious experience through the process of routinization. In this situation a dialectic emerges between secularization and sacralisation. The later referring to the process where social institutions in contemporary culture become increasingly influenced by sacred symbols. As well, there is an accompanying acknowledgement of the sacred as an important part of peoples’ consciousness. Both secularization and sacralisation need to be approached with particular regional, cultural and historical contexts in mind. To illustrate, Swenson provides a useful commentary on the impact of secularization on Islam. He points out that this is played out in a variety of contexts ranging from the active believers of the madrasas’, to cultural Muslims in the West to the secular Islam of the cultural elites in Turkey.

As an undergraduates text in the sociology of religion this book requires some effort. It does, however, strike a nice balance between a standard review of theory and a work that advances an argument which is then tested against contemporary developments. - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books