A New Science: The Discovery of Religion in the Age of Reason
Guy Stroumsa’s new book is not so much about religion, or even the study of religion, as it is about the history of the comparative study of religion since the Enlightenment. More specifically, Stroumsa bases his research on the primary sources of the published works of the missionaries and scholars who were involved firsthand with observations of different religions from the Renaissance and Reformation. As the thesis runs, the three main historical catalysts that led to the intellectual study of religion by way of comparison were: 1)ethnological curiosity due to the expanding European empires, 2) the Reformation, which itself demanded a comparison between its own proponents and Catholicism with respective views of religion, and 3) the inauguration of philological interests and studies.
The comparative nature of the study of religion as a phenomenon, which Stroumsa rightly exposes as a new science, was spawned by the adventuresome spirit of exploration and colonization exhibited by the Christianized Europeans in the Americas and Asia. Stroumsa makes the claim that initial efforts at comparative religious studies were performed by intellectual Catholic missionaries in the New World, specifically those from Spain. The comparative studyof these New World religions found its legitimacy in studies of the Non-Christian religions of the Old World, such as those rooted in the Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Roman mythologies. Furthermore, there were ongoing realizations of religious differences from the contemporary representatives from Judaism and Islam in Europe at the time of these religious studies coming from the New World. The intellectual side of Catholicism was far more accepting of this new field of study, claims Stroumsa, than were the Protestants, who chose to insist on the severe rupture of disparate cultures and religions. The Catholic missionaries looked intensely for commonalities that could bridge the gaps and make conversion to Christianity more likely.
Though vastly different from today’s academic scholars of comparative religion, the missionaries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries performed the first work of ethnology and cultural anthropology for the purpose of religious mission. The evolution of the comparative study of religions began with missionaries’ (of sorts) heartfelt desire to understand a people and their beliefs in order that they may hear the gospel in a palpable way. It changed to a study of religions by way of comparison as an academic venture that is an end in and of itself. Establishing itself as a freestanding academic discipline based upon factual components, it achieved the designation as a science. The research goal of this new science was the expansion of knowledge about world religions and not the salvation of pagans.
Stroumsa tackles a variety of religions that became objects of this initially religious, then quasi-religious and later academic, study. Both Islam and Judaism were heavily studied, of course, primarily due to the accessibility of these religions in Europe and their obvious intersections with Christianity. European religious studies then grew larger than these Abrahamic religions to include pagan myths that are reflected in or by biblical stories—or vice versa—as argued by and among the founders of this science. Included in these comparisons are samples from the ancient Near East, Egypt, ancient Greece, Rome, Asia, and the Americas.
By way of the book’s literary quality, Stroumsa seems to overcompensate for his lackluster English writing style by his generous—and generally untranslated—use of French, German, and Latin. As I will state in conclusion, I truly believe this tendency works in favor of the book’s ultimate consequence.
As an Evangelical, there were a few things that I would contest in his thesis. For example he states, “thanks to American ‘idolatry’… modern students of religion learned to free themselves of theological blinkers and, in the practice of scholarship, put the idea of truth inside brackets” (24). This view makes several assumptions about any student with authentic orthodox Christian convictions working in this field: 1) personal, vested interest in religion restricts serious scholasticism in this academic field; 2) belief in a universal truth is untenable, and 3)competing versions of truth are equally legitimized by this comparative religious study without an objective standard. This attitude is characteristic and prevails throughout the work.
In the end, what I believe Stroumsa has successfully accomplished in this study of comparative religion is to create a genuine hunger for the primary sources he introduces and exposits. A New Science works to defer the reader to original sources that Stroumsa himself consults. Yet if the reader is interested in comparative religion only marginally or does not know where to go to find the history of this study, A New Science is a good place to start.