In the Great Beyond
The American psychologist of religion William James talked about an "oceanic feeling" that is at the heart of religious experience. According to James, when everything comes together, oneself, everyone else, the world, and divinity, it is like the feeling that we get when we stare out at the infinite reach of the ocean: it is a little frightening, but it also awe-inspiring and exhilarating. As human beings we seem to seek out this kind of experience.
The purpose of the study of religion is not to produce religious states of mind. And yet studying religion allows access to concepts that almost inevitably lead to the intellectual parallel to James' "oceanic feeling." For example, reflecting on concepts of divinity—the multitude of gods in the Hindu tradition, the revealed God of Christianity, the gods of the earth in indigenous traditions, and so many other forms—is one of the deepest and most remarkable forms of academic inquiry. Other concepts and traditions open onto a similar depth: the seemingly infinite "hyper-text" of Jewish and Hindu scripture, or the Buddhist concepts of nirvana, or emptiness, to name just a few. The study of religion brings to the forefront ideas that are outside of normal expectation and everyday concern. Intellectually, they open a great, sometimes overwhelming beyond.
It is difficult for most scholars to know exactly what religious people experience in their most profound moments. By opening a window onto remarkable concepts and ideas, however, the religious studies department it is one of the places in the modern university where intellectual wonder thrives.