Thursday, 30 December 2010

Ninian Smart and the origins of Religious Studies

The issues raised by Adolf Harnack came to the fore again in the 1960’s with the development of religious studies as a newly formed academic discipline. For example, Ninian Smart founded Britain’s first department of Religious Studies full of hope in 1967. A year later, in 1968, he delivered his inaugural address in which he attempted to articulate his vision for the field by outlining both its scope and the methods he thought most appropriate for studying religion and religions.

Smart began by locating his new department in a historic and disciplinary context akin to both anthropology and history. The study of religion, he argued, requires that scholars describe religion in its historical and what he called its “structural” forms. By, historical he meant its many manifestations through history. By structural forms he meant its social manifestations as observed by anthropologists and sociologists. To perform these tasks Smart further argued “the study of religion must be comparative” (Smart 1968:3-4). That is one must study religions not simply one particular religion.

His next point was that to study religion involved understanding the discourse of religious people and texts. As a result “It follows, therefore, that the logic of the study of religion itself impels one towards taking the philosophy of religion seriously” (Smart 1968:6). Smart then made the shrewd comment that “the understanding of others, whether in the past of one’s own tradition or other cultures, requires self-understanding”. This he rightly observed is because “the observer is not wholly detached” (Smart 1968:6). Therefore, he correctly noted that without appreciating the logic involved in studying religions the exercise becomes meaningless.

More to follow next week.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Adolf Harnack's criticism of Religious Studies

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.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

The Clash of Civilizations Revisited

Yesterday, Wednesday, 15 December, the German talk show host Sandra Maischberger interviewed former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who is now in his 90's, on German Television for North America (DWTV). Unfortunately, the interview is only available in German. For those who understand German it is available at:

During the interview the topic came around to the question of religion and contemporary social issues. To my surprise Schmidt, who is a member of the German socialist, SDP, endorsed the Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). Interestingly, Schmidt did not see this as a religious issue. Rather, he argued it was social and cultural.

Nevertheless, here in North American the left have lambasted Huntington for his “right wing” views. Schmidt’s endorsement appears to mark a change, at least in the way Europeans, and particularly Germans, are thinking about these issues. Perhaps, we should all take a second look at Huntington.