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  • Writer's pictureWalter

The Future of Past Religion: Hans G. Kippenberg

As researchers of religion, our assignments engage material from scholars or historians of the field as part of an implicit task of any study. While we explore what they have to say about religion, we also recognize a trace of the authors’ idiosyncrasies embedded into their writings. There are personal experiences, revelations, and reflections projected into their work. However, this pseudo-bias means that their reflections bring past religion into a significant take that is relevant today, else the past religion will remain in the past as something useless in the modern world. In short, hermeneutics have meaning when they can be applied in contemporary frameworks.

In the introduction of his book Discovering Religious History in the Modern Age, Hans G. Kippenberg writes: “I want to make the early scholars of religion something they too seldom are: classical theorists of a modern age in which past religion still has a future.”[1] Using Kippenberg’s examination, this essay examines what the author believes is the future of past religion according to the classical theorists of modern age, (i.e. Émile Durkheim and Max Weber). In other words, to assess what is in Kippenberg’s book regarding his view that religion has a future or, better yet, if there is something from past religion that is relevant today. To accomplish this task, I selected two particular scholars from Kippenberg’s list, Durkheim and Weber, and how they evaluate and categorize past religion.

Kippenberg's book encapsulates an analytical examination of the studies of comparative religion “emerging within the academic field in the second half of the 19th Century”[2] but offering more than the mere discoveries of tribal religions that in the end resound foreign, unknown, or something from prehistory that does not echo in today’s culture. To get a better picture of what Kippenberg tackles, we must look at historical discoveries of past religions as geological discoveries where each new layer found brings new theories of new beginnings. Kippenberg undertakes his studies by understanding that “modern society does have a religious history to the same degree it has a political, social, and economic history”[3] embedded into it. In those fields of studies, the category of religion grew as such to respond to personal questions and problems that needed to be solved, and as religion cannot be reducible (like the subject of culture), it needs its own field of study. Religion shifted from meaning and its term per se and from 1850 to the 1920s, the term religion has changed; something happened within those 70 years that opened up new concepts and ways of defining its meaning and categorizations. Simply put, “religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study”[4] and the development of it has gone through “the same process of forming hypotheses and disproving them as in other sciences.”[5]

Kippenberg is not far from reality when he underlines that “it is difficult for anyone who talks of religion to avoid being considered a theologian,”[6] however, that seems to be his point as he is looking for what is useful today from those past scholars of religion. Kippenberg’s aim does not include offering his own definition of religion or to pinpoint errors, limitations, or misinterpretations from other researchers. Instead, he draws attention to the ways past ideas are interconnected as well as to trace how the idea of religion changed overtime. More so, if we reflect that the category of religion is considered to be just as protected as the freedom of culture, we can agree that the paradigm shift has to do with a question of classification and how that hierarchical classification developed in society. One can deduce that Kippenberg concentrates on “the experience of modernization and how we project its effects into to the past to judge those experiences under a moral assessment.”[7] Two scholars I selected from Kippenberg’s list are contemporaries of each other, Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, whom I deem to be bastions in the field of sociology for significant reasons. The former stresses that religion provides collective representations that are shared and manifest through ritual; the latter sees religion as a vehicle of resolving the issue of meaning where there is purpose behind it, which can include responding to a higher entity.

In search of the sources of morality and collective society, Durkheim’s early reflections show how important and central the role of religion is in social life and his “sociology hit upon the history of religion deeply involved in the formation of ancient city communities beyond the ecclesiastical domain.”[8] Nevertheless, what I find fascinating, and surprisingly still contemporary, is that Durkheim’s defence of individualism does not jeopardize his position on the collective. In simple terms, when he refers to individuality, he does not address the atomistic view of the self, hence “not to be confused with egotism”[9] or the egotistic cult of the self, but as an obligatory morality. The sociologist argues that “the historical argument of individualism was older than the Enlightenment and went back to Christianity” ... “where the individual[s] made the sovereign judge of his [their] own acts.”[10] One way of describing the nexus between the individual and the collective is by addressing his evaluation on totemism: “the religions of the simplest people as an entree into the unknown world of the collective.”[11] Durkheim finds a shift in how society is organized and that totemism has compelling consequences in every area of sociology since “totemism is the origin of many institutions.”[12] Again, as a sociologist, Durkheim was exclusively interested in the outcomes religion produced in society, facts stemming from religion (the beliefs connected with acts), or questioning “if religion was defined merely as belief or a religious experience,”[13] which leads him to conclude that “religion was not produced and maintained by the individual, but by the collective.”[14] Why is totemism crucial in Durkheim’s work? Because his studies on the subject revived “the experiences of the individual in and with collective assemblies”[15] (i.e. communions, rituals, mass, transubstantiation). He focused on this collective dimension in a human, but their existence was expressed by Durkheim in a dualistic way, which we first heard from Emmanuel Kant; that is, “as body (individual, egotistical creature) and soul (moral, social, reasonable creature).”[16] In matters of individualism, many social philosophers have shared a common argument, that the development of individualism and disenchantment is a social decay. However, Durkheim did not seem so pessimistic as he “viewed this behaviour as changes that produce the basis of a new kind of social integration” ... “other beliefs and practices assume less and less religious a character the individual becomes the object of a sort of religion.”[17] According to the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, the crisis of meaning, the existential sorrow of a disenchanted life, the impression of loss of freedom or loss of soul (mixed with sense capitalistic blame) seem to be new to each generation in history. However, and just as Max Weber researched, “capitalism needed the support of an internal power."[18]

Max Weber’s work on the assumption of capitalism and its emancipation that impacted religion has a different conclusion. He examined the history of religion in order “to explain why economic actors broke with tradition”[19]while criticizing historical materialism, which resulted from a different perspective of historical progress. Weber’s extensive studies revealed how the so-called great world religions (i.e. Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and even Judaism) were “all close related to the subject of economic ethic.”[20] Under his observations one can see that Weber was not only interested in ethics and economics within Protestantism but in all religions, “as long as if they were socially established and supported by classes,”[21] and their impact on the course of economic development. In short, Weber digs deeply into the history of religion to explain why economic actors broke with tradition. By using the history, he demonstrated how ideas become effective forces in history.”[22] Again, historical materialism is not part of the decay in society that brings disenchantment, and is simply part of a different view of historical evolution.

According to Weber, the loss of the “enchantment” that gives life meaning and purpose is due to the relationship, or conflict, between religious history with intellectualism. Simply put, “as intellectualism suppresses belief and mysticism, the experiences become disenchanted”[23] as the magic seems to fade out and key components in life no longer signify anything. As this feeling grows, there is also a growing demand for something meaningful and significant. Those demands include responses to freedom, tradition, and purpose in life. With modernity and rationality, life appears meaningless where freedom and disenchantment are synonymous. With that said, Kippenberg stresses that by “giving modernization itself a place in the history of religions—as working ethos, intellectualism, individualism, rejection of tradition, and so forth—the scholars of religion restored to religions their right to exist in modern culture independent of their claims to faith.”[24] So, does the experience of the modern individual liberation, the loss of self-evident truths, the radical examination of traditions, or the reflections of contemporary human practices bring new beliefs? Durkheim stresses that “the traditional positive religions could make claim to truth, but only after critical examination” or better yet, “by giving modernization a place in the history of religions, the scholars of religions restored to religions their right to coexist in modern culture.”[25]


Kippenberg, Hans G. Discovering Religious History in the Modern Age. Translated by Barbara Harshaw. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002 [1997].

[1] Hans G. Kippenberg, Discovering Religious History in the Modern Age, translated by Barbara Harshaw (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002 [1997]), xiv. [2] Kippenberg, Discovering, vii. [3] Ibid., xiv. [4] Ibid., 187. [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid., xiii. [7] Ibid., 189-191. [8] Ibid., 141-142. [9] Ibid., 145. [10] Ibid. [11] Ibid., 149. [12] Ibid., 150. [13] Ibid., 149. [14] Ibid. [15] Ibid., 151. [16] Ibid., 152. [17] Ibid., 143. [18] Ibid., 159. [19] Ibid., 159. [20] Ibid., 161. [21] Ibid., 162. [22] Ibid., 159. [23] Ibid., 169. [24] Ibid., 193. [25] Ibid.

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