An Old Science

Guy G. Stroumsa, A New Science: The Discovery of Religion in the Age of Reason. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011. 240 pp. $36.50.

By Mordechai Levy-Eichel


It is good to ask large questions. To take a stab at answering them, scholars often have to take into account not only the topics they already have a position on, but also a host of other related points which they may have previously avoided (sometimes for good reasons, and sometimes not for such good reasons).  To his credit, in his recent publication, the scholar of ancient religion Guy Stroumsa (professor emeritus of comparative religion, Hebrew University, and Professor of the study of the Abrahamic religions, Oxford University) asks a very large and provocative question, indeed: When and why was the modern discipline of religious studies, or in Stroumsa’s words, “the modern science of religion,” born? The term science is not meant to echo the mathematical and empirical work of the contemporaneous scientific revolution of early modern Europe, but also to highlight the connection with attempts like Giambattista Vico’s La Scienza Nuova [The New Science] to comparatively study society and religion. Ambitiously, Stroumsa’s book is an “epistemological reflection on the very roots of the modern study of religion” written through a historical lens.

The problem with asking large questions, however, is that it too often allows one to describe forces and movements from such a high vantage point that one can easily miss the elements that make any particular landscape unique. Although Stoumsa’s book is full of detailed studies and the examination of individual works, the very breadth of his coverage, and the swiftness with which he jumps from idea to idea and across centuries leave one skeptical of whether his sources quite so easily and clearly lend themselves to the conclusions he seems to have arrived at nearly effortlessly. Stroumsa’s book is the work of a lumper, not a splitter, to employ the terms popularized the historian J.H. Hexter. Whereas splitters focus on quirks and exceptions, lumpers note connections, similarities, and parallels perhaps a little more frequently than may be warranted. Despite his attempt to substantiate his argument through several individual case studies, the relative neglect of the biographical and intimate in these chapters themselves lead to Stroumsa diminishing the power of his own argument. While religion can and should be analyzed socially, and prosopographically, and exegetically, experiences of it are so idiosyncratic that such approaches by themselves are hardly sufficient.

*A New Science is composed of six chapters, plus an introduction and an epilogue.  As the author notes at the end, while most of the chapters are based on previously published articles, they have been “significantly revised and expanded” for publication here. And while the epilogue ends on a whimper as the investigations of Stroumsa’s early moderns are discounted by their 19th century successors, his introduction begins with a bang. Stroumsa spiritedly contends that there were three particular changes in early modern Europe whose “joint effects” permitted “the formation of a new kind of intellectual curiositas and the birth of comparative religion.” First, there was the impact of the “Great Discoveries…of the Americas and then South and East Asia”; second, a “ new interest in antiquity and the growth of modern philology”; third, the end of the Wars of Religion, whose violence and divisions “had cast doubt on the validity of Christianity itself.” These three changes together, in Stroumsa’s schema, provided the “impetus for the new science.”

Above all Stroumsa seeks to challenge two mainstream assumptions. The first assumption is that the modern discipline of religious studies was the product of the 19th century:

Comparative religion is too often perceived as having been born, like other comparative sciences, in the second half of the 19th century, under the influence of biology…[s]uch a perception must be strongly qualified. The real breakthrough in comparing cultures and religions and the most significant passage from the medieval worldview…to modern approaches, stems from the seventeenth-century transformation of discourse on religion.

The second assumption Stroumsa takes issue with is a bit more subtle, but perhaps is an even more important note to hit these days given the influence of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Said’s work, fairly or not, has been taken by many to reveal the fundamentally imperialistic nature of much inquiry into and representation of the “Orient.” Stroumsa does not seek to dismiss Said’s arguments, but rather to add a neglected element to our portrait of our intellectual forebears. “What Said did not see, and what too many forget or fail to remark, is that for scholars to invest so much energy throughout their lives in the study of difficult languages, abstruse mythologies, and odd literatures, they must be inspired by intense intellectual curiosity. Such intellectual curiosity goes a long way toward transforming traditional patterns of thought.” Given certain recent historical trends, most especially the emphasis on material history, and on networks and connections among past actors and thinkers (both usually salutary and revealing developments, I hasten to add), this highlighting of individual curiositas stands out. Curiosity, passion, anger, and love are also historical factors, even if they are more often invoked by poets than by historians. As Anthony Grafton, a historian of early modern Europe sagely, severely, and playfully put it:

Becoming a humanist, let us remember, is not just signing up for a job. It certainly does not open the way to power or wealth: scholar has never rhymed with dollar. To become a trained humanist, rather, is to join a tradition, which has usually been embattled, while parents scream “No, for God’s sake go to law school!” (That is what Petrarch’s father said to him, thereby inaugurating a great tradition.) In the old days, a professor did not receive a job offer, but a “call”–as ministers and rabbis did. To enter this tradition, you have always needed intellectual ability and technical skills, but even more you need conviction and passion and determination.

Lest we moderns too quickly think of curiosity as a nearly unalloyed good, the impulse has not always been seen in a favorable light. It was widely considered “a form of aimless erudition” in the middle ages (according to the historian Edward Peters) and was a sin (that he himself was eminently guilty of) according to St. Augustine in his Confessions. In short, Stroumsa is drawing attention not only to the historically underappreciated quality of inquisitiveness, of the primal sense of questioning that motivated much of the writings Stroumsa examines, but also to the amalgam of motives that go into the composition of anybody’s curiositas.

The subsequent chapters, marked by the Stroumsa’s verve and erudition—the sheer range and span of primary and secondary works cited is one of the chief attractions of this volume—make for much slower going, however. Full of darting insights and novel connections, the reader of the volume can easily get lost in the details of each of the studies. The book is therefore best not read from cover to cover, but rather as a resource to dip into for those curious about anything from the early modern transformation of the traditional category of idolatry (chapter 4) to the development of civil religion (chapter 7). Otherwise, even the reader familiar with the period will likely get dizzy joining Stroumsa as he zips along the early modern intellectual autobahn.

The underlying theme Stroumsa bring up again and again are the fresh comparisons early modern (mostly Christian) scholars found themselves both driven and forced to make: between themselves and Jews, and Muslims, and Buddhists, and Zoroastrians, and early Christians; between themselves and Indians, and Chinese, and early Romans; and perhaps most explosively, between each other as Europe divided itself between Catholic and Protestant sects who criticized, condemned, and occasionally collaborated with each other. Whether travelling by sea, or wallowing in ancient texts with fresh scholarly techniques, historical and cross-cultural comparison was the animating feature of the development of the new discipline of religious studies.


Perhaps the most interesting and stark omission in Stroumsa’s volume is much about the actual new science of this period, or as we usually call it these days, the scientific revolution. More often than we might like to admit most of us usually think in terms of a short and powerful story about the creation of the modern world. Whereas during the medieval period the world was pious, uncritical, and ignorant, today the (western) world is irreligious, critical, and always producing more knowledge. The largest impetus for this change was the advent of modern science, and one of the most radical consequences of it has been the decline of religion and the rise of secularism. The frankly Christian historian Sir Herbert Butterfield, who himself was largely responsible for the dissemination of the term “the scientific revolution” in his The Origins of Modern Science 1300-1800, declared that this change

overturned the authority in science not only of the middle ages but of the ancient world—since it ended not only in the eclipse of scholastic philosophy but in the destruction of Aristotelian physics—it outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements within the system of medieval Christendom. Since it changed the character of men’s habitual mental operations even in the conduct of the non-material sciences, while transforming the whole diagram of the physical universe and the very texture of human life itself, it looms so large as the real origin of the modern world and of the modern mentality that our customary periodisation of European history has become an anachronism and an encumbrance.

Fundamentally, Stroumsa is trying to provide part of an alternative narrative to this widespread notion that natural science has been an acid slowly corroding religious habits and institutions since the end of the middle ages, as if the only choice is to be modern and materialistic, or medieval and religious. Modernity sometimes seems to be characterized by nothing so much as people declaring how alienated they are from their roots, religious or otherwise.  What is interesting therefore is how little of a sense of internal personal angst comes out in of the personal sketches of the polymaths who populate the volume, how little the supposed absence of god marks them. Now this may simply be a consequence on the fact that biographical details are primarily used as garnish in his volume, not as the objects themselves of consideration. We know from the non-scholarly polemics, including letters, memoirs, and autobiographies, there was no shortage of self-reflection, Leon Modena’s own autobiography Chaye Yehuda [Life of Judah], being one of most accessible of the genre today, complete with multiple introductions in a modern—and translated—edition. While it is the force of comparison, historical and cross-cultural, which Stroumsa is so intent on pushing as the decisive element of the modern study of religion, it is especially interesting how the Sturm und Drang of much modern religious writing is absent from Stroumsa’s narrative. What does this imply? One is tempted to answer, a little too quickly, that Stroumsa’s subjects were still living in a religious world, and that’s that…yet that really just begs the question. Stroumsa is implicitly arguing that the science of religion, the comparative and critical discipline of religious studies, did not lead to the diminishment of devotion and reverence for their own traditions among the practitioners of this new science, despite the iconoclastic sheen to the modern academic study of religion. Rather such research, inquiry, and comparison was itself a novel way engaging both with their own customs and rituals and those of others for many of these early modern intellectuals. The modern turn to the comparative study of religion may be new, but it is hardly necessarily in conflict with older habits. One could say, that despite the prescribed liturgy, there are many ways to pray.





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