On Teaching History of Religions

Essays in the History of Religions
by Joachim Wach

On Teaching History of Religions

The 60th birthday of the great Dutch historian of religion whom this volume is to honor seems a suitable occasion to reflect upon the most adequate and effective way to teach the subject to which he has made such outstanding contributions. There is, of course, not one way or one method which, once developed, could be handed down from one generation of teachers to the other. The approach will have to be adapted to the special needs and demands of each successive generation. The motivation which led the students of, say, 1880 to take up the study of the history of religions was not the same as that causing novices to investigate it around 1900 or 1920. That is to say that not only the incentives to the study of the history of religions have varied in the last century -- the first of its existence as "Wissenschaft" -- but that ideas as to the aim and scope, the nature and the method of this discipline also have been changing. The history of studies in our fields has been competently traced by E. Lehmann, E. Hardy, Jordan, H. Pinard de la Boullaye and G. Mensching, but these efforts cover only the first three periods since Max Mueller established. the comparative study of religion as an academic discipline, his own endeavors marking the past epoch, those of his immediate successors (C. P. Tiele) the second, the "religionsgeschichtliche Schule" the third. I think it is possible to discern the beginnings of a fourth period in some works published since the first world war. Though R. Reitzenstein and R. Otto, W. Bousset and N. Soderblom were contemporaries, it seems to this writer that with Soderblom and especially with R. Otto a new phase in the development of our studies began. One of the exponents and leaders of this new "school" has been G. van der Leeuw.

During the first period which was marked by the somewhat sensational rise of "comparative" studies, the interest which prompted people to enter this field was, besides philological inclinations, the fascination of the exotic -- a heritage from the romantics -- to which were added during the second epoch folkloristic, archaeological and philosophical interests. While Max Muller’s and Tiele’s views of religion were determined by the teachings of German idealistic philosophy and its speculative interpretation of Christian theology, these influences had greatly diminished with the advent of the third generation. The latter concentrated upon historical and philological tasks and showed, generally speaking, not much interest in normative and systematic questions. The relativistic temper dominated. Theology was to be replaced by history of religions. Laymen and scholars were intrigued by the search for "parallels" and environmental factors by which the rise and development of Christianity could be "explained." A great change came with the first post-war period. The generation which filled the auditoria in the early twenties of this century was not satisfied to hear what had been and what could be believed, but asked what it ought to believe. Systematic ("dogmatic") theology attracted many. Philosophy, hitherto preoccupied with epistemological and historical research seemed to promise new answers to "weltanschauliche" questions. The transition may be indicated by the names of Rickert and Husserl for the older, Scheler and Heidegger for the younger generation, with Dilthey and Troeltsch reflecting the change within the development of their own thought. Even while the tremendous harvest which a century of historically oriented scholarship had made possible was being gathered, the crisis of historicism, which Troeltsch was the first to analyze on a monumental scale, became manifest.

Soon voices were heard which advocated the elimination of the superfluous "ballast" which the painstaking work of philologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, orientalists, and historians had accumulated, in favour of a simplified "credo," spontaneously formulated or derived from tradition to the exclusion of everything else. What is the use of history of religions? they ask. Attacks such as these often serve good purposes. They force a reconsideration and reconception of the nature, function and method of the discipline thus challenged. The fourth period witnesses numerous attempts to answer these questions though it cannot be denied that in some quarters little has changed in the pursuit of studies in our field since the turn of the century. This is not the place to examine critically the programs which have been suggested or the nature of the relationship of our own work to that in other fields. (Cf. my article on The Place of the History of Religions in the Study of Theology in the Journal of Religion, 1948.)

However, some basic points which are playing a part in this discussion need mentioning. It has been said that relativism is the inevitable consequence of a study of non-Christian religions. This impression was caused by the exaggerated enthusiasm of some representatives of the "religionsgeschichtliche Schule," voiced in a period in which the ultraliberal orientation of many Protestant theologians had weakened the religious conviction of many Christians. To-day we see that, far from endangering a well-grounded faith, Christian or otherwise, an acquaintance with other religions has a beneficial influence. First, it helps to overcome the fanaticism, narrowness and provincialism for which there is no room in the One World in which we have to live with others. Furthermore, a deepened understanding of certain elements in our own faith is frequently the result of studies in myths and forms of worship, and certain neglected emphases in our own teachings and practices can be corrected. It is significant that interpreters, both of the Old and the New Testaments, have been able to determine much more clearly and precisely the "Eigenart" of these documents and their views of God, world, and men on the basis of studies in the religions of the ancient Near East than could be done before the discoveries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Cf. the recent Symposium on the Intellectual Adventure of Man, Chicago, 1946 and R. Bultmann, Das Urchristentum im Rahmen der antiken Religionen, Basel, 1949.)

But there are other objections to the work of the historian of religions. He chases a chimera, so it is said, because even if it should be deemed desirable, it is not possible to penetrate beyond the amassing of facts and data, into the "secrets" of primitive or oriental religions. Thinking and feeling of the peoples of so distant times and places are too different from our own, it is argued, to allow a real understanding. One has to be a member of a Buddhist samgha to understand Buddhism. A real hermeneutical problem is raised with this objection, but one to which there is a solution. First of all it has to be said that, even if a real understanding should be impossible, a good acquaintance with the teachings and practices of a religious group already marks a great step beyond the prejudices born of ignorance which have so frequently tended to poison the relations between members of different religious communities. It is, moreover, the presupposition for successful missionary work. But actually the situation is not as hopeless as sceptics are wont to believe. There are degrees of understanding. (cf. J. Wach, Das Verstehen, Tübingen, 1926-32). What is meant by "membership" in the samgha? Religious groups are not -- or certainly not in all cases are they -- "clubs" in which membership depends on the regular payment of dues and similar external marks. The more it is the spirit which forms the "marks" of "belonging," the less important becomes the sociological factor. It could be asked if Snouck Hurgronje or Louis Massignon have understood Islam less than an ignorant villager of the Dutch East Indies or of Northern Africa. "Knowledge" in the sense of acquaintance with data, of course, is not enough. An "affinity" which is difficult to analyze is necessary to enter into and comprehend the relationship between the data which represent the structure of a cult. Moreover, the "ethos" which prevails in a religious community has to be sensed, a process in which careful induction and sympathetic intuition have to be combined. The enormous progress which has been made in the understanding of foreign religions in the past century and a half proves that even if a total comprehension should be unobtainable a great deal of insight into their nature can be won.

There is, at least, one more doubt in the minds of those who are disinclined or reluctant to admit that some good can come out of the study of the history of religions. Some would question the identity and unity of the far-flung studies which together make up the work in our field. This unity is, indeed, difficult to conceive as long as only single data are seen -- be they philological, archaeological, anthropological, historical or sociological. In order to relate these data and to interpret them as expressions of religious experiences, some notions of the nature of this experience are necessary. In other words the narrowly historical quest has to be supplemented by a systematic (phenomenological) one.

It is not possible in this context to develop a theory of religious experience and of its theoretical, practical and sociological expressions. Suffice it to say with regard to the special topic of this paper that certain requirements for teaching the history of religions to-day follow from the brief analysis of the situation which we have essayed here.

1. Instruction in our field must be integral. The student is entitled to expect some orientation as to the purpose which the accumulation of facts throughout his apprenticeship is meant to serve. If he does not ask fundamental questions as to the meaning of his pursuits by himself, he must be made to see the larger contexts in which each detail, small or important, can and must be placed to become meaningful. The interrelationship of all forms of knowledge must become just as visible as the functional unity of life and of civilization.

2. Instruction in our field must be competent. No enthusiasm or loyalty can be allowed to replace thorough training and discipline, especially in the methods of philological and historical research. The student must be led to the sources. However, this is only one part of the equipment. The other consists in an acquaintance with the nature of religious experience, an acquaintance which, after all, is the indispensable prerequisite for the work of the historian of religion.

3. Instruction in our field can be fruitful only if it is dictated by an existential concern. The study of religion presupposes congeniality. The general hermeneutical rule that some likeness is necessary for all understanding has to be applied to the special case. There is nothing more painful than the helpless attempt at the interpretation of religious documents or monuments by one who does not know what "awe" is or to whom these testimonies to man’s search for communion with ultimate reality are just the dead records of the experience of "sick-minded" or backward people.

4. Instruction in our field must be selective. The enormous amount of material accumulated during the last century and a half of careful research can not and should not be "covered" in our teaching. Choices have to be made. The typological method will prove very useful in the attempt to include a variety of representative forms of expressions of religious experience to the student. Though a very intimate knowledge of one or the other religion based on thorough knowledge of the sources is the "admission-ticket" to the workroom of the historian of religions, provincialism and the false perspective resulting from it are dangers which he can only avoid by reference to and comparison with typologically different expressions of religious experience.

5. Instruction in our field must be balanced. The history of our discipline is replete with examples of leading scholars and schools preoccupied with one or the other form of expression of religious experience: theoretical or practical, myth or cultus, rational or mystical piety, individual or collective religion. It is easily understandable that, because one or the other form of expression will show a greater development within one historical religion, the "expert" in these religions will tend to absolutize the structure of this form of devotion. Here the historian must look to the phenomenologist (in van der Leeuw’s sense) or to the student of systematic Religionswissenschaft for help.

6. Instruction in our field must be imaginative. This is not to say that we are advocating a flight away from the facts into the realm of the fantastic but rather a reminder to the teacher to be aware of the gap that has to be constantly bridged between the ways of thinking and feeling of our own age and climate and those of peoples removed from us in space and time. Psychology, anthropology and sociology will be of great assistance here, the more so because recent developments in these fields, tending toward integration of these intimately related pursuits, promise the creation of a study of man to which the investigation of his religious life has to add an important, nay a decisive dimension.

Finally, a practical problem to which attention has to be given is that of levels of instruction. Different conditions prevailing in different countries make different solutions necessary. Nearly all European teaching is graduate instruction while in the United States the division between undergraduate and graduate work is marked. In Europe the academic teacher is expected to do both research and teaching, and there can be no doubt that this combination is very healthy and has good effects on the quality of both research and instruction. The same demand is made in the United States for the teacher on the graduate level but not necessarily for those entrusted with the teaching of undergraduates. Whereas previously the existing law prevented any instruction in religion at least in State colleges, recently more and more institutions of higher learning have begun to introduce such courses. In most cases some teaching in the Bible, in Christian ethics and (or) in comparative religion has been instituted. Because in different States of the Union and in different institutions different courses have been adapted and the whole development is of rather recent origin, it is, as yet, not possible to get a clear over-all picture of the situation. Some of the programs provide courses dealing with the religious "Umwelt" of the Bible; general surveys of primitive, higher and highest religions; typological treatment of varieties of religious experience; presentation of the major living world religions, of the life and teaching of outstanding religious leaders, etcetera. An added difficulty is the difference in the denominational background of the students in many institutions of higher learning in the United States. The less the teacher in the field can be expected to do research himself, the more important becomes the question of adequate text-books. It is characteristic of the difficulties prevailing that though the number of manuals of the history of religions is legion, the main American standardwork, G. F. Moore’s treatise, is over 25 years old and has been reprinted only recently. French, German, Dutch, Scandinavian, and Swiss handbooks are much more up to date. Yet, in most of these manuals little more than a juxtaposition of treatments of different non-Christian religions is to be found. The task of tracing "developments," of discerning types of structure and attitudes, of raising the problem of value and truth is left to the philosopher. Here some integration is necessary; fundamental epistemological and even metaphysical problems will have to be introduced to overcome the atomization of knowledge, the heritage of the positivistic age.

Even the most cursory introductory course must reflect some of the theological, philosophical, anthropological and sociological discussions which are carried on to-day. It is well-known that introductory courses are especially difficult to teach, and those in our field are no exception to this rule. They are best entrusted to the most experienced, not to the least experienced of the faculty. The ideal procedure would be to continue the introductory course by a three-term sequence, the first of which would be given over to a presentation of so-called primitive religions, the second and third dedicated to the religions of the West and of the East, or of the higher and highest (world) religions respectively. But if enough time is not available, a basic course could be worked out on a typological basis in which one primitive cult, one of the ancient religions of the Near East and the two great competitors of Christianity -- Islam and Buddhism -- could be dealt with. Added courses or alternatives would treat great religious leaders or some basic idea, institution or phenomenon on a comparative basis. All these topics would be of interest to the student who desires a general education, whatever his subject of concentration. (This includes students in the sciences, too.)

For those specializing in our field and working toward a degree, especially a higher degree, the situation is, of course, different. Here alternative programs will have to be provided which must do justice to the special schooling and interests of candidates, e.g. philological, theological or philosophical training. There will have to be a common core of work, of course, but opportunities must be provided and requirements formulated so as to allow and to foster necessary and fruitful specialization. Whereas no special linguistic preparation will be expected of the undergraduate desiring some orientation in the field, the graduate student or anyone desirous to specialize in the study of the history of religions, even if he does not intend to do research himself, but wants to devote himself to teaching on a middle or higher level, must prove competence in dealing with the material. It will depend again upon the nature of his work, whether this competence should be merely passive (that is, consisting in the ability to check a translation etc.) or active (that is, enabling him to do creative researchwork himself). Again it ought to be said that linguistic preparation is just one presupposition. For a competent handling of subjects which pertain to the domain of psychology, sociology of religion etc., a solid grounding in methodology and, generally, an acquaintance with the results of scholarship in the respective field has to be expected. It is, after all, a significant fact that some of the major contributions to the study of the history of religions has been made and still is being made by scholars who cannot be called "specialists" in our field. To sum up: it is not just a question of extending the limits of what is to be known and assimilated, but of realizing that, in order to focus the subject matter of our studies correctly, we have to reconceive its nature in the light of the best of all available thought and information.

In this respect G. van der Leeuw has set an example for which his contemporaries owe him much gratitude.