Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Study of Religions

At Mirror of Justice, Marc DeGirolami has (yet again) an insightful post in which he writes of
“an essay by journalist Nathan Schneider [….] [that endeavors] to explain why religious studies is an important and useful field for the problems of our day. The strangest and most anachronistic argument…is that religious studies came into its own as an academic discipline pretty much as of 1963 with the US Supreme Court’s decision in Abington v. Schempp.
In Schempp, the issue was the constitutionality of daily devotional readings from the Bible in public schools. The Court held that the practice violated both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses. In dicta, Justice Clark (writing for the majority) also said this:
‘In addition, it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.’ (374 U.S. at 225)
What that has to do with the origins of the discipline of religious studies is mysterious to me. To be sure, the study of religion as a distinct discipline is of comparatively recent vintage. But it was going on at least a century or more before Justice Clark got around to writing the Schempp majority. Eminent and learned writers like Schleiermacher, and then later Troeltsch, Durkheim, Weber, and many others were writing about religion qua religion extensively. One might object that these are not American writers, but one could then point to Harvard comparative religion professor Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s magisterial The Meaning and End of Religion, first published in 1962, which paved the way for much of the religious studies scholarship that exists today (Smith was Canadian, but lived and wrote in the United States for a large part of his career). Or one could point to Mircea Eliade’s wonderful, The Sacred and the Profane (first published 1957). If people of Eliade’s and Smith’s stature had already by 1962 made a career of the study of religion, it suggests that religious studies was already a mature field of academic inquiry by the time Schempp rolled around. Even the structuralist cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss did his influential work in Tristes Tropiques before 1963. And we haven’t even talked about William James yet, writing way back when it was Holmes’s court and Justice Clark was barely born.
The other odd feature about relying on the Schempp dictum as a kind of foundational moment for the field of religious studies is that it assumes that academics take their cues about what is worth studying from the Supreme Court. That isn’t even true in law any more, let alone in other disciplines. The premise is that non-legal academics actually know about Supreme Court dicta, and that they care enough about it to fashion their scholarly pursuits in conformity with what the Court thinks is worth studying.
That seems to me to get things backwards. The Supreme Court is generally (and rightly) a follower, not a leader. It does not shape the culture, but instead perceives the social trends and tendencies of the culture and attempts to conform itself to them. That was the thesis of the historical jurisprudents of the early 20th century, and it strikes me as exactly right in this and many other circumstances in religion clause law.
If Justice Clark’s dicta demonstrates anything, it isn’t that all of a sudden the Court decided that it ought to provide intellectual room for religious studies scholars the world round by brilliantly conceiving the distinction between teaching religion as true and teaching about religion in academic fashion. It’s that the Court finally got around to perceiving, and recognizing in law, a distinction which was all around it in the academic customs and cultural mores of society that already existed.”
*       *       *
I’m in whole-hearted agreement with virtually everything Marc says above. I’d simply like to fill out his story of the intellectual antecedents and origins of the field in which I was trained, namely, “Religious Studies,” a discipline that is also known by other names: History of Religions, Comparative Study of Religions, Study of Religions, Comparative Philosophy….
Historical accounts of this disciplinary field of intellectual inquiry often go back, most importantly, to the pioneering research of Max Müller, in particular, his Introduction to the Science of Religion (1873). Prior to Müller in the late eighteenth century, translations of classic religious texts from what we now term “Hinduism,” as well as the publication of Bopp’s comparative grammar of the Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Persian and Germanic languages in 1816, helped set the stage for the “scientific” study of religions (the meaning of the term Wissenschaft blurring the boundaries between what we think of as science today and the humanities).
The cultural climate for such studies in this country was created, as Eric J. Sharpe has noted, “by little groups of freethinkers, Unitarians, Transcendentalists and romantics” (they had an impact abroad as well). French and German historians would help to ground their more speculative, idiosyncratic, non-contextual and non-historical musings. Cross-disciplinary cognitive battles, raiding, and trading brought the study of folklore, mythology, phenomenology, and sociology more explicitly into the mix in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century. During the latter part of this period, works by the likes of van Gennep, Durkheim, and Frazer came into prominence (with categories like ‘sacred’ and ‘profane,’ totemism, taboo).
In this country, William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), was extremely significant in sowing seeds for the nascent discipline, as was Evelyn Underhill’s somewhat unwieldy but trailblazing study, Mysticism (1911). While in Europe, the academic field, recognized in the first instance as the “history of religions” received official recognition first in Switzerland (1877), in Holland soon thereafter, and then in France and Germany. The discipline developed comparatively late in the United States, although the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 had a lasting influence, in large measure owing to the impact of Swami Vivekananda’s appearance and lectures. Works in psychology by Jung and Freud of course were not long in making their impact across the pond (the former’s influence conspicuous in Eliade’s writings). The Eranos conferences (beginning in 1933) and subsequent publications have to be given some pride of place, for they reveal a “roll of honour of comparative religion, including as [they do]” Martin Buber, Joseph Campbell, Jean Daniélou, Mircea Eliade, Friedrich Heller, C.G. Jung, C.A.F. Rhys Davids, Gershom Scholem, D.T. Suzuki, Paul Tillich, Guiseppe Tucci, R.C. Zaehner, and Heinrich Zimmer! One book that might be singled out for its enormous influence on the discipline both here and abroad prior to those produced by such seminal figures as Mircea Eliade and W. Cantwell Smith, is Rudolf Otto’s Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy, 1917, translated into English in 1923).
I find myself extremely fortunate to have trained under some of the crème de la crème of the second generation of pioneers in our field: Raimundo Panikkar, Gerald James Larson, and Ninian Smart (alas, only Larson is still with us) (those associated with Harvard and the University of Chicago would cite others). By way of reiterating Marc’s conclusion, I can assure readers that in the field’s own narrative accounts of its history, Supreme Court cases are not to be heard.
References and Further Reading:
  • Clarke, J.J. Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter Between Asian and Western Thought. London: Routledge, 1997.
  • Cottingham, John. The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Flood, Gavin. Beyond Phenomenology: Rethinking the Study of Religion. London: Cassell, 1999.
  • Kellenberger, James. The Cognitivity of Religion: Three Perspectives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985.
  • Kitagawa, Joseph M. The History of Religions: Understanding Human Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Larson, Gerald James and Eliot Deutsch, eds. Interpreting Across Boundaries: New Essays in Comparative Philosophy. Princeton, NL: Princeton University Press, 1988.
  • McEvilley, Thomas. The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. New York: Allworth Press, 2002.
  • Panikkar, Raimundo. Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics: Cross-Cultural Studies. New York: Paulist Press, 1979.
  • Rudolph, Kurt. Historical Fundamentals and the Study of Religions. New York: Macmillan, 1985.
  • Sharpe, Eric J. Comparative Religion: A History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975.
  • Smart, Ninian. The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge: Some Methodological Questions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
  • Smart, Ninian. The Philosophy of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
  • Smart, Ninian. Religion and the Western Mind. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987.
  • Smart, Ninian (Oliver Leaman, ed.). World Philosophies. London: Routledge, 2nd ed., 2008.
  • Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Image: My late teacher, mentor, and friend, Ninian Smart, a brilliant doyen in the comparative study of religious worldviews.

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