The Invention of World Religions
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The Invention of World Religions

Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism

Tomoko Masuzawa

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eBook - ePub

The Invention of World Religions

Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism

Tomoko Masuzawa

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Über dieses Buch

The idea of "world religions" expresses a vague commitment to multiculturalism. Not merely a descriptive concept, "world religions" is actually a particular ethos, a pluralist ideology, a logic of classification, and a form of knowledge that has shaped the study of religion and infiltrated ordinary language.In this ambitious study, Tomoko Masuzawa examines the emergence of "world religions" in modern European thought. Devoting particular attention to the relation between the comparative study of language and the nascent science of religion, she demonstrates how new classifications of language and race caused Buddhism and Islam to gain special significance, as these religions came to be seen in opposing terms-Aryan on one hand and Semitic on the other. Masuzawa also explores the complex relation of "world religions" to Protestant theology, from the hierarchical ordering of religions typical of the Christian supremacists of the nineteenth century to the aspirations of early twentieth-century theologian Ernst Troeltsch, who embraced the pluralist logic of "world religions" and by so doing sought to reclaim the universalist destiny of European modernity.

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“The Religions of the World” before “World Religions”

The historical domain that is the principal concern of this book, in chronological terms, roughly coincides with the “long” nineteenth century, or the period spanning the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, up to the outbreak of the First World War. As noted in the introduction, this time in European history is characterized—among very many other things, to be sure—by pronounced uncertainty, volatility, and multiplicity in the ways in which religions were identified and categorized. The task at hand is to demarcate this domain provisionally by marking its outer limits, as it were, and this task will be approached from several directions. The chapter begins in section 1 with a snapshot of what came immediately after this period, then moves back in time in section 2 to offer a rough sketch of what preceded it, and concludes in section 3 with a brief look at a few examples dating from the first half of the nineteenth century that testify to the erosion—thus adumbrating the eventual collapse—of the previous, long regnant system of classification.

1. “World Religions” in the Age of World Wars

We begin with a glance at the moment when the term “world religions” in the English language came to be commonly used in more or less the same sense—and for more or less the same purpose—that we employ it today. Because there was a visible increase in the publication of books on this general topic, one might make a preliminary judgment that the 1920s and early 1930s mark something of a watershed. As we shall see, this is also the period when something closely resembling today’s world religions courses began to appear in college curricula in North America.
Considering that the period in question came in the wake of one devastating world war and coincided with an uneasy calm before another, it may seem unsurprising that the literature from those years on any topic should be fraught with a heightened sense of crisis. Yet why should the study of religion and the topic of “the religions of the world” be particularly tied to this period of crisis? Arguably, the earliest instance in which the first global war was rendered in print specifically as a religious crisis may be Stanley A. Cook’s The Study of Religions. In the preface, dated September 1914, the author states:
This book was prepared and written in the conviction that there was an impending crisis in religious thought. The finishing touches to the last proofs were given at the beginning of a war which will mark an epoch in history. While it had not been doubtful that a very distinctive stage in the development of thought was at hand, this war will have a significance, which one can hardly conceive, for ideas and ideals, for conceptions of humanity, righteousness, culture, and progress, and for religious, ethical, and related problems of life and thought.1
Whether his pronouncement should be judged as truly prescient or merely as an early appearance of a clichĂ©, the intuition expressed by this author seems to have endured for decades thereafter. In the meantime, the sentiment only gained strength that the study of religions (in the plural) was an especial exigency of modernity, that is, modernity as an experience fraught with novelty and violence. Two of the earliest books bearing “world religions” in their titles—with “religions” again in the plural2—share this sentiment, as the nearly identical titles themselves make obvious: one is called Modern Tendencies in World Religions (1933), and the other, Modern Trends in World-Religions (1934). The prevailing mood of these books is that the whole world is undergoing a profound transformation utterly unlike any other in history. At the same time, it is also implied that an adequate appreciation and comprehension of this transformation is possible only from a widely panoramic, indeed imperially global, perspective. The opening paragraph of the first volume announces:
One who is awake to what is happening in the big world outside his own limited section of it finds tangible evidence every day in his newspaper that humanity everywhere is amove. Here political revolution, there economic upheaval, yonder an intellectual awakening! Something interesting seems to be happening anywhere he turns his attention. “How fares religion amid all this change?” is a question that must occur many times to one who is interested in the faiths of mankind.3
As the author goes on to qualify, his point here is not that religion had never changed in earlier times but rather that the nature and the magnitude of change occurring in the present era is unprecedented.4 This sentiment is echoed exactly by the opening paragraph of the other volume:
Change has always been characteristic of living religions. For religion is not an abstraction. It has vital significance only as it is deeply rooted in the moving processes of folk life
. But in all past ages the drift of religions into new forms has been relatively slow and dignified. It was a process of modernizing a traditional heritage rather than a radical reorientation. Today the great historic religions are compelled to come to terms with revolutionary forces unknown to any earlier era
. It may be that religions of the world are in this generation passing through the greatest transformation of all time. The age-old search of men for a satisfying life-fulfillment 
 is now assuming a new embodiment so strikingly different from the old as to appear to the shocked eyes of the orthodox, if not an abandonment of religion, at least a betrayal of the fundamentals. However religion may be defined it could not now remain static and still continue to be a vital phase of culture. Only dead religions, safely remote from the turbulent stream of human living, could escape change in this age of altered thought-forms, enlarged desires, new hopes, and novel problems.5
The prose of both these texts is vibrant with the pulse of the present. There is a feeling of great urgency as religions everywhere are said to face unprecedented radical challenges from without. We witness here the great religions of the world precipitously rising to the field of common discourse as something eminently alive, that is, as “living” religions, very much present among us, if not in our own immediate neighborhood then elsewhere in the very same world we live in.6 And if the living religious traditions are thus multiple, what ushers them all to the common moment of great crisis is one and the same: modernity. In short, what makes “world religions” imaginable and palpable as an objective reality is something like a new sensibility of global awareness, a sense of immediacy of the far and wide world.
What gave particular urgency to this new perception of the increasingly global reality was that the news coming from afar was on balance not very good; certainly by the 1930s there was a growing sense of an impending, or perhaps already unfolding catastrophe. Indeed, a few years earlier, in 1929, a book entitled Christianity and Some Living Religions of the East was issued, which opened with an even more pronounced tone of alarm:
It has become a platitude to say that the earth is now a very small place. Secure and speedy means of communication, the cable and the wireless, have taken from distance much of its meaning. Our newspapers bring to our breakfast table the news of the whole world. Not only are we at once informed of the events of other lands; we are ourselves dependent on them. A failure of the monsoon in India reacts on the prosperity of Lancashire. A crime committed in Sarajevo involved in the miseries of a world-war peoples who before had not even heard of that remote Bosnian town. The success of the young Turks brought Europe once again to the brink of conflict, whilst the civil strife in China has been watched with anxiety by many in Europe who rightly saw in it the possibilities of fresh international disaster. Without peace there can be no security, and peace depends not on one nation but on all. We cannot, if we would, restrict our interests to our own country for the events of any country are the concern of all.7
Here, again, a precipitous plunge into uncanny awareness of the global is the opening move of a world religions text. In fact, all three of these books seem to persuade their readers at the outset that one should want to acquire, and acquire quickly, a sweeping knowledge of the multiplicity of religions in the world because a new techno-geopolitics was unfolding dramatically before one’s eyes, and it was vitally necessary to come to terms with this strangely brave new world, indeed with a brand new sense of the world itself. The new vision of the world was a necessary consequence of violent globalization in the form of colonialism and the explosive expansion of so-called free trade, as these were the principal means through which the West had become connected, inextricably linked with the whole world. At the same time, in this novel state of global connectedness, the West suddenly found itself to be not so much in masterly control as perilously vulnerable, as it found its own state of well-being inexorably dependent on unseen and unknown realities as remote as a village halfway across the planet. In order to avert real dangers that lurked everywhere, far-reaching attention was urgent, gathering of global intelligence essential.8
It may be said, therefore, that in the decades following the First World War, world religions discourse unseated an earlier obsession with primitive, prehistoric, or rudimentary religions. Not only did the surging interest in the immediate present supplant the search for the distant, possibly irrecoverable, moment of the origin of religion, there also was a new, or renewed, appreciation of the fact that the time-honored great religions of the world had already gone through many processes of radical transformation, even if the past transformations had been “relatively slow and dignified” by comparison. Of utmost interest now were each tradition’s resiliency, adaptability, and sheer vitality for survival and growth in the face of the rising tide of modernization and increasing global competition.
In contrast to the great world religions, each with its own history, primitive religions lacked interest at this time because, supposedly, primitive religions had experienced little historical transformation. The following statement from the introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of History may be cited as a prototype of this line of thought. After a brief discussion concerning the total absence of political constitution, the presence of cannibalism, and other curious features of the African continent, Hegel concludes:
At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it—that is in its northern part—belong to the Asiatic or European World. Carthage displayed there an important transitionary phase of civilization; but, as a Phoenician colony, it belongs to Asia. Egypt will be considered in reference to the passage of the human mind from its Eastern to its Western phase, but it does not belong to the African Spirit. What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.9
Clearly, a tacit understanding among those who felt themselves to be riding the crest of the historical wave was that primitive peoples of Africa and elsewhere—brittle and unmalleable remnants of the past as they were, hitherto untouched and untested by time—were doomed to extinction in the near future, whether this process was to be through actual obliteration of the population or through irreversible assimilation into another, more developed mode of existence, whether this anticipated outcome was to be celebrated or lamented.10 Primitive religions thus abdicated their place of prominence in the study of religion and gave way to the great historical religions of the world.11 Henceforth cultic practices that were not part of the world historical movement came to be treated primarily in a cognate field specializing in the study of the prehistoric and the primitive called “anthropology of religion.”12
This new arrangement notwithstanding, “primitive religion,” though somewhat demoted, did not disappear entirely from the new mapping. To the extent that the world religions discourse aspired to embody the impartial principle of global coverage, many historians of religion were reluctant to endorse a summary dismissal of the minor and the inchoate, and hence they sought and found a way to accommodate the little traditions of tribal societies in the new epistemic regime. When these minority traditions came to be included in the scope of world religions, it was under a generic rubric, now named “primal,” “tribal,” “indigenous,” or “preliterate” religions, distinguished from, but still kept adjacent to, ancient and prehistoric religions. We see this arrangement succinctly expressed by Jack Finegan in The Archaeology of World Religions (1952):
There are many living religions in the world today. In addition to the more prominent systems of belief and practice cherished by groups which have long recorded histories of political or numerical importance, there are the numerous forms of faith found among preliterate peoples in various parts of the earth. If the latter may be dealt with collectively under the heading of “primitivism” the major religions of the present world are at least twelve.13
One may reasonably ask why, in the case of preliterate peoples alone, their “faith” can be “dealt with collectively” as a generic type, whereas all other “forms of faith” are treated individually as historically unique and specific traditions.14 The convention of summarily treating “primitivism,” under whatever name, is now more or less routine, such that an explicit justification for this peculiar arrangement is not to be found unless one looks into some early-twentieth-century texts. In a book published in 1904, John Arnott MacCulloch (1868–1950), for instance, blithely opines that “the aspects of savage religion do not vary greatly wherever it is found,” and on that ground, he suggests, a general treatment of them as a type would “ensure a better acquaintance with religion at a low level than a separate account of each savage race would do.”15 As we shall see, this handling of “primitivism” is analogous to the way an older system of classifying religions dealt...