Tag Archives: Protestantism

Drudgery Divine

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity by Jonathan Z Smith.

Jonathan Z Smith Drudgery Divine

This fairly slim book consists of five lecture texts:

˙ “On the Origin of Origins” begins the discussion, using the Jefferson-Adams correspondence on religious topics as a point of departure. It also orients around the writings of Priestly and Dupuis, and pinpoints the question of Christian origins in “Protestant anti-Catholic apologetics.”

˙ “On Comparison” is a largely methodological piece, that incisively outlines the gambits of uniqueness and genealogy that have served the agendas of Protestant polemic and Christian supremacism in previous work on the topic.

˙ “On Comparing Words” discusses the philological arguments to date, and their subservience to theological efforts. Quite happily for me, Smith chose to use the term mysterion for illustrative purposes throughout this section. Among other things, I learned about the ancient Greek pun attributed by Athenaios to Dionysos Tyrannos: mysterion = mus terein, “mouseholes!” (p. 56 n)

˙ “On Comparing Stories” has a quick survey of “pagan Christs” literature, before focusing in on Frazer’s ‘dying and rising’ god motif, and its application to Christianity in the work of Pfleiderer; then a discussion of the problems of data for historically-oriented comparisons.

˙ “On Comparing Settings” applies all of the foregoing to the question of comparing early Christianities (note the significant plural!) to other religions of antiquity, also bringing in Smith’s locative/utopian distinction. Smith’s confessed appreciation for and dependence on the Christian origins work of Burton Mack is clearest in this section.

Smith writes, “The Protestant hegemony over the enterprise of comparing the religions of Late Antiquity and early Christianities has been an affair of mythic conception and ritual practice from the outset.” Aleister Crowley’s Gospel According to St. Bernard Shaw (a.k.a. Jesus sub figura 888) still deserves that same valuation, despite its opposition to the Protestant hegemony, as he was fighting fire with fire. It was not “a thorough revaluation of the purposes of comparison” in service to “the scholarly imagination of religion,” as Smith would prefer. But Crowley’s tack adds an additional dimension to the history of the enterprise, and for those who wish to soldier on in the mythic and ritual battlefields, Smith’s book is a stone that will sharpen any sword that can hold the edge. [via]


Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans by R Laurence Moore.

R Laurence Moore Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans

The clumsy-sounding “Americans” of Moore’s title is intended to highlight the issue of like-it-or-not pluralism that pervades the book; there is no unitary America on the plane of religion. He characterizes ecumenism as a Protestant appetite, and emphasizes the recurrent usefulness of religious particularism and dissent. In many respects, he provides a historical and philosophical structure to comprehend the “supply-side” assertions of Stark and Finke’s later Churching of America, while transcending their focus on the statistically predominant Protestant institutions of American religious history. He also places himself in opposition to the expansive insider paradigm advanced in Robert Bellah’s theory of American civil religion, which Moore describes as “inexplicable” in its attractions, absent the ecumenical motive developed by Protestants and imposed by misreading onto Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew. (pp. ix, 18-19) In fact, Moore points out adroitly enough that “Civil religion…like more ordinary religions, may have split Americans into separate camps as often as it has brought them together.” (p. 202)

While apologizing for an apparent lack of narrative development or thematic unity in his relatively short book, Moore maintains throughout a consistent perspective highlighting the essential nature of the outsider position in American religion, to the point where a reader may suspect that to be genuinely religious in the US requires being an outsider of one sort or another. Reading the book provokes the question: who are “religious outsiders” in America? Moore starts with a clear-cut instance; in their origins and early history at least, Mormons were a tiny minority undoubtedly cast as deviant and progressively alienated from the national establishment. But his next two chapters, on Catholics and Jews respectively, implicitly demarcate all non-Protestant religions as “outsider.” And in his essay on “The Protestant Majority as a Lost Generation—A Look at Fundamentalism,” he depicts the numerical bulk of Protestants adopting or being cast into the position of outsiders for much of the twentieth century. Ultimately, the pluralism described and advocated by Moore is a circumstance binding on all Americans, and an ideal held by few, if any. In such a situation, a conscious embrace of “outsider” status offers both a measure of authenticity and tactical advantage. Religions can preserve their truth claims while excusing a lack of universal acknowledgement (thus Protestant fundamentalists). Even more importantly, they can reify social and cultural niches that provide their adherents with places in a nation that has never been a utopia.

Moore’s introduction is reminiscent of the introduction to Ahlstrom’s Religious History of the American People, providing a wide-angle review of the historiography of American religion, though in Moore’s case with particular and critical reference to the idea of religious diversity. He observes that histories—whether because of the providential theology of the 19th century or the denominational theories of the 20th—have typically gotten their facts wrong because they trained their attention on the “mainline” groups that embraced insider status and promoted tolerance, even while outsider and intolerant groups did as much or more to define the overall picture of American religious life. Moore later also deploys Ahlstrom’s category of harmonialism, without collapsing occultism and the general run of non-Abrahamic religion into it as Ahlstrom had done; the effect is that he situates Christian Science among Judah’s “Metaphysical Movements,” although he uses Ahlstrom’s term. (p. 116)

The book’s essays are divided into two groups, of which the first concerns itself with “ethnicity and American identity” in the context of outsider religions. In one chapter, Moore casts the development of Mormonism as the crafting of a novel ethnicity. In another, he reviews the “Americanizing” controversy within 19th-century Catholicism. He explains “non-Americanizers” as participants in a conscious strategy by which ethnicity could be used to maintain Catholic ties while adapting immigrants to American society, and presents them as antagonists of the premise that Catholicism was inherently anti-American. The chapter on Judaism describes not only the novelty of the American experience for Jews who found themselves promoted from an object of extraordinary prejudice in Europe to an “ordinary minority” in America, but also the extent to which Jews were able to turn around and become a vanguard in the representation of America to itself through both entertainment media and social justice organizing. By emphasizing ethnicity in these religious identities, Moore brings notions of difference from their peripheries to their centers.

In the second large division of the text, Moore treats “religions for average Americans” under the title “the Progressive’s Despair.” His “average Americans” include Christian Scientists, pre-millenialists, Fundamentalists, and African-Americans. In the first three cases, he soundly makes the case for their ordinariness alongside their “outsider” status, refusing to stigmatize them on the latter account. In the final case, he documents the exceptional nature of Black Christianity in both cultivating and undermining the sense of social autonomy among African-Americans.

While I understand that Moore’s thesis requires him to cultivate sympathy for the religious groups about which he writes, I think he tends to cut too much slack for Biblical inerrancy, e.g. when he characterizes it as “the notion…that the Bible means what it says.” (p. 169) The dilemmas regarding popular hermeneutics of scripture didn’t begin with higher criticism or theological modernism. No text is self-interpreting, and the Bible is less transparent than most. In fact, I think it is rather easier to defend the intellectual integrity of denying biological evolution than that of denying reading.

Another terminological quirk is Moore’s repeated invocation of the “Moral Majority,” which must have seemed like something more than a decade-long political coalition in 1986. (Falwell’s attempted resurrection of a grouping under that banner in 2003 made little progress before his 2007 demise.) Still, Moore’s analysis of Fundamentalism’s persistence after Scopes—as contrasted with the illusion of its reconstitution by Billy Graham—is a sound one, and he puts his finger on the political dilemma that confronted both Fundamentalists and their sectarian pre-millenialist cousins at the close of the 20th century. Their relationship to “Caesar” is necessarily different than the one shown in the gospels, but what should it be?

In the postscript, I was struck by the following remark: “If Americans are now more religiously tolerant than they were in the nineteenth century, it is not because they are collectively more high-minded but because they care less about religion.” (p. 205)

My disagreement with the final clause of the apodosis preoccupied me for minutes, until I realized that I rejected the protasis. And it seems that Moore may as well, if we attend to his final suspension of judgment on whether “consensus as a myth” will continue to be supportable in the future of American religions. (p. 210) I strongly concur that the “invented oppositions” (p. 46) in which our pluralism is rooted are what nourish its religious dynamism. [via]


The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America by J Stillson Judah.

J Stillson Judah The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America

Writing in the 1990s, Wouter Hanegraaff refers to this book as a “standard work” on the topic, and notes that Judah coined the term “metaphysical movements.” (See Judah, p. 7) The volume treats a set of “religious philosophies” in the United States, beginning in the 1840s, and progressing up until the date that the book was written. Although Judah provided no evidence for the claim, he asserted that these religions were growing in popularity at the time of his writing. (p. 12) He characterized these metaphysical movements by family resemblance, with a set of fifteen chief features, including: gnostic anthropology, divine monism, pragmatism, psychological interpretation, optimism, mental or spiritual healing, and preferring “principles” to creed. Even when explicitly Christian, these groups tended to view Jesus as a teacher, rather than as the unique human incarnation of God.

Judah’s first chapter is devoted to inventorying some aspects of the germinal milieu of the American metaphysical movements. Besides the transcendentalist school and its effects, which he remarks as their foremost precedent and influence, he observes the importance of American religious pluralism, revivalism, deism, Swedenborgianism, Puritan utilitarianism, and occultism (i.e. hermeticism and kabbalah). He then goes on to provide historical sketches, with representations of doctrines and practices, for each of the following metaphysical movements: Spiritualism (with its various institutions and sects), Theosophy “and its allies” (i.e. the Arcane School and the Astara Foundation), New Thought (with the precedent teachings of Quimby and Evans, and the progeny of the Divine Science Church and the Church of Religious Science), the Unity School of Christianity, and Christian Science. A closing chapter treats the effect of the metaphysical movements on Protestantism, especially through the avenue of notions of health and mental healing.

Judah repeatedly cites Frank Podmore’s history of Spiritualism, Charles J. Ryan on Theosophy, Horatio Dresser on New Thought, and several secondary sources on Christian Science. For all of the movements surveyed, he makes extensive use of their own doctrinal literature, and in several cases he has interviewed key leaders or their families. Perhaps it is significant that no secondary sources appear in different sections of the book, since Judah appears to have been the first to tie these various groups and teachings into a coherent tradition.

Judah’s theory of religion is partly formulated in his closing chapter, where he insists that all religions can be analyzed in terms of three chief components: mental/philosophical, conative (relating to aspiration and conduct), and emotional. He insists that the conative component, the religious will as such, must be powered by an emotional experience, and he suggests that the historical transformations in American religion have resulted from the waxing and waning of emphasis on emotional experience. He points to the metaphysical movements as offering an orientation to the religious experiences of the individual during periods when mainline Protestantism has become abstracted into concerns about social justice. (pp. 291-2)

A significant part of Judah’s methodology in The Metaphysical Movements might be best characterized as comparative theology, even though that term has not been in vogue since the mid-20th century. He consistently attends to comparing the theological elements in the various metaphysical movements against each other, and against an implicitly normative mainline American Protestantism. But he has no evident chip on his shoulder, and his foreword includes an accounting of his own past engagements in the study and practice of Theosophy, yoga, New Thought, Spiritualism, and other “metaphysical” systems. The frankness of this passage shows a sort of scholarly reflexivity that is admirable in the early and mid-1960’s when Judah was writing. He cautions that any seemingly negative evaluations of the religions in his book “should be considered as constructive criticism offered in the same spirit in which the writer has also criticized the Protestant churches.” (p. 9) He does in the end refrain from offering either praise or condemnation of the metaphysical movements as a whole, but he opines that there would be ample justification for different parties to view them as revolutionary, restorative, or subversive of more customary institutional religions in America. [via]


Esotericism and the Academy

Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture by Wouter J Hanegraaff, from Cambridge University Press, previously only available as a 2012 hardcover, is due to release as a paperback tomorrow, March 6th, 2014.

Wouter J Hanegraaff Esotericism and the Academy from Cambridge University Press

“Academics tend to look on ‘esoteric’, ‘occult’ or ‘magical’ beliefs with contempt, but are usually ignorant about the religious and philosophical traditions to which these terms refer, or their relevance to intellectual history. Wouter Hanegraaff tells the neglected story of how intellectuals since the Renaissance have tried to come to terms with a cluster of ‘pagan’ ideas from late antiquity that challenged the foundations of biblical religion and Greek rationality. Expelled from the academy on the basis of Protestant and Enlightenment polemics, these traditions have come to be perceived as the Other by which academics define their identity to the present day. Hanegraaff grounds his discussion in a meticulous study of primary and secondary sources, taking the reader on an exciting intellectual voyage from the fifteenth century to the present day and asking what implications the forgotten history of exclusion has for established textbook narratives of religion, philosophy and science.” [via]