Bruce Lincoln, Professor of the History of Religions in the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, has conveniently laid out thirteen theses35 for any historian of religion to follow in order to fulfill the duty of a historian. The historian must keep to the methods of historical research even when examining religions. Here are some of Lincoln’s points, in his own words,
– History, in the sharpest possible contrast, is that discourse which speaks of things temporal and terrestrial in a human and fallible voice, while staking its claim to authority on rigorous critical practice. To practice history of religions in a fashion consistent with the discipline’s claim of title is to insist on discussing the temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions of those discourses, practices, and institutions that characteristically represent themselves as eternal, transcendent, spiritual, and divine. The first of these is “Who speaks here?“, i.e., what person, group, or institution is responsible for a text, whatever its putative or apparent author. Beyond that, “To what audience? In what immediate and broader context? Through what system of mediations? With what interests?“ And further, “Of what would the speaker(s) persuade the audience? What are the consequences if this project of persuasion should happen to succeed? Who wins what, and how much? Who, conversely, loses?“ Reverence is a religious, and not a scholarly virtue. When good manners and good conscience cannot be reconciled, the demands of the latter ought to prevail.
– Many who would not think of insulating their own or their parents‘ religion against critical inquiry still afford such protection to other people’s faiths, via a stance of cultural relativism. One can appreciate their good intentions, while recognizing a certain displaced defensiveness, as well as the guilty conscience of western imperialism.
– Beyond the question of motives and intentions, cultural relativism is predicated on the dubious–not to say, fetishistic–construction of “cultures“ as if they were stable and discrete groups of people defined by the stable and discrete values, symbols, and practices they share. Insofar as this model stresses the continuity and integration of timeless groups, whose internal tensions and conflicts, turbulence and incoherence, permeability and malleability are largely erased, it risks becoming a religious and not a historic narrative: the story of a transcendent ideal threatened by debasing forces of change.
– Although critical inquiry has become commonplace in other disciplines, it still offends many students of religion, who denounce it as “reductionism“. This charge is meant to silence critique. The failure to treat religion “as religion“–that is, the refusal to ratify its claim of transcendent nature and sacrosanct status–may be regarded as heresy and sacrilege by those who construct themselves as religious, but it is the starting point for those who construct themselves as historians.
– When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood, suspends one’s interest in the temporal and contingent, or fails to distinguish between “truths“, “truth-claims“, and “regimes of truth“, one has ceased to function as historian or scholar. In that moment, a variety of roles are available: some perfectly respectable (amanuensis, collector, friend and advocate), and some less appealing (cheerleader, voyeur, retailer of import goods). None, however, should be confused with “scholarship“.
Finally there are those who tell me that even though historians maybe right in exposing history hitherto repressed or simply denied, this was not the right historical moment to express it, at this time of a war on terror when we are trying to convince Muslims round the world that we are not at war with them but those who have a perverted interpretation of the great religion of Islam.
Sir Isaiah Berlin once described an ideologue as somebody who is prepared to suppress what he suspects to be true. Sir Isaiah then concluded that from that disposition to suppress the truth has flowed much of the evil of this and other centuries. The first duty of the intellectual is to tell the truth .By suppressing the truth , however honourable the motive, we are only engendering an even greater evil.
We are all beholden to all historians for helping us to see more clearly, and more honestly past events that have such an important bearing on present travails. In the words of Albert Schweitzer,
“Truth has no special time of its own. Its hour is now, always, and indeed then most truly when it seems most unsuitable to actual circumstances“.36
I shall end Part One with a joke, concerning those theologians that Van Harvey calls, “dialectical theologians“, that is those who tried to come to some sort of accommodation with critical inquiry and the historical methodology which put so much “knowledge“ in doubt.
Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich are taking a break together, fishing on Lake Geneva. They are having a lovely time, smoking their pipes and chatting idly. It’s hot and they are getting thirsty. So Barth stands up, steps out of the boat, and walks across the water to the shore, where he gets some beers and then returns to the boat. But the drinks don’t last long. So Barth says to Tillich: “Your turn, Paul.“ Tillich gets up, steps out of the boat, walks across the water, and fetches some more beers. It is really hot now, and the drinks are soon finished. Bultmann is beginning to sweat profusely, so finally Barth tells him: “Come on, Rudolf, it’s your turn now.“ With a slight tremor in his knees, Bultmann gets up, steps out of the boat-and sinks like a stone. Fortunately he manages to swim to the surface; he drags himself back into the boat and sulks at the far end. Tillich turns to Barth and says: “Do you think we should have told him where the stepping stones are?“ Barth looks at him in astonishment and replies: “What stones?“