When Eric Sharpe sought to trace the history of Religious Studies in his book Comparative Religion: A History (1975) he identified Friedrich Max Müller as the key figure in the development of the field. The “science of religion” he argued, began with Müller’s insight: “He who knows one, knows none” (Sharpe 1975:31). After lauding Müller’s achievements he observed that Müller: “recruited an entire generation of scholars to his cause, as editors, translators, and commentators …” (Sharpe 1975:45) thus firmly establishing the study of religion, as distinct from theology, in the Western academic tradition.
Sharpe then comments on the tensions between the academic study of religion and theology using conflicts between Religionsgeschichte and theology in Germany as his main example. Although he acknowledges that at the time there were “over fifty chairs of Oriental studies in Germany” he laments that “there was no chair of comparative religion (under any name)”.
Then he singles out Adolf Harnack’s address "Die Aufgabe der theologischen Fakultäten und die allgemeine Religionsgeschichte" (1901) as indicative of the narrowly confessional attitude of theologians towards the study of religion (Sharpe 1975:126-127). Although Sharpe notes Harnack’s concern that the comparative study of religion would likely lead to an “unhealthy dilettantism” he merely notes objections to this view without exploring Harnack’s argument in any detail.
Yet, as Hans Rollmann has pointed out, Harnack’s criticisms were far more profound and well based than Sharpe acknowledges (Klostermaier and Hurtado 1991:85-103). Contrary to the impression created by Sharpe it was not Harnack’s intention to discourage the study of world religions. Rather, he believed that they needed to be studied in their entirety. That meant a thorough knowledge of such things as the languages involved as well as their historical and social contexts (Harnack 1901).
What Harnack objected to was the study of religion as “comparative religion” within a faculty of theology. If we want to paraphrase his argument then one might say: “the study of religion is too important to be left to theologians.”
Unfortunately, this message was lost on most Anglo-Saxon scholars, because in response to Müller’s dictum, Harnack made the clever but ultimately unfortunate rhetorical quip that “Anyone who does not know this religion, knows no religion, and anyone who knows Christianity, its history and development, knows all religions” (Harnack 1901). Good rhetoric can sometimes backfire and backfire it did. Instead of asking why a liberal thinker like Harnack would object to comparative religion Harnack’s argument was subsequently dismissed as an example of theological bias.
Harnack, Adolf: Die Aufgabe der theologischen Fakultäten und die allgemeine Religionsgeschichte. In: Reden und Aufsätze. Zweiter Band, Erste Abteilung. Berliner Universität König Friedrich Wilhelms III gehalten in der Aula derselben am 3 Aug., 3rd edition, Gießen 1901.
Klostermaier, Klaus K./Hurtado, Larry W.: Religious Studies. Issues, Prospects, and Proposals, Atlanta/Georgia 1991.
Sharpe, Eric J.: Comparative Religion. A History, London, 1975.
For a fuller discussion of this issue see: Irving Hexham, A Specter is Haunting Religious Studies: Harnack Dilettantism, and Inter-Disciplinary Smoke and Mirrors, Berliner Beiträge zur Missionsgeschichte, Volume 11, Issue 1, 2008, pp. 7-37.