Wednesday, September 27, 2017


The world religions MOOCs experiment seems to be working, filling our "Theorizing Religion" room with lots of fresh, specific knowledge about religious traditions in their complexity and diversity. But what about the theory part? To make room for the MOOCs, I've folded what would have been two weeks of reading early classic texts into two "lecturettes," where a mini-lecture from me and a single excerpt from each text distributed in class is supposed to make do as we glance at Hume's Natural History of Religion (1757), Schleiermacher's Speeches on Religion (1799) and Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity (1841) over two Wednesday classes interleaved with the students' MOOC reports. Did today's Hume-in-an-hour-plus-a-first-taste-of-Schleiermacher work? It might have, and might do so even better next time round. I left out a lot of what I usually try to cover, but will need to trim even more, I fear. In exchange, we get the clarity which caricature forces.
Hume, as I presented him today, shared with other empiricists the idea that the mind is an empty slate, filled only with contingent and finite experiences; we induce generalizations from these impressions, ideally drawn by sympathy to collate them with those of others, but never arrive at the certainty we think we need and are capable of. Come religion, we find that it's more varied and less universal than ideas of a religious sense require; in fact, it's a secondary effect as human nature - the same everywhere - ignorantly encounters an uncertain world, producing different religious formations in different times and places; all these formations seem to fit within an endless swinging back and forth between monotheism and polytheism, hard to choose among as the former seems more rational but the latter brings out humanity's better qualities; the growth of knowledge might seem to promise respite from religion but passional human nature isn't going to change; it's best to practice a sort of skepticism, weaning oneself and one's society from the fallacious idea that we need and are capable of religious knowledge - in part through a judiciously plotted "natural history" of "religion."
(Whew!) We only just got a taste of Schleiermacher's attempt to coopt and go beyond enlightenment critiques like Hume's. I had students read a few pages of the Speeches to give them a rest from me (we'd started with a cold read of the preface to Natural History of Religion, so they'd have a little sense of what actually reading an eighteenth century text might feel like), then boiled our German Romantic down to "chemistry" - the argument that "metaphysics" and "morals" have essences, as clarified by the enlightenment, but "religion" turns out to have one too, one contrasting but complementary. I'll start next week's theory class (which finishes Schleiermacher and turns to Feuerbach) by seeing if anyone can imagine how Hume could reply to Schleiermacher's essence argument (didn't we show it's not universal?), and how Hume-Schleiermacher parallels the contrast we started our class with between Jonathan Z. Smith and Caputo. Much more world religion will happen between now and then, though - let's hope it spills over!

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