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The Invention of World Religions

“The question is whether the world religions discourse can be in any way enlisted,

and trusted on the side of historical scholarship.” –Tomoko Masuzawa

Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions provides a wide, historical spectrum of research on the construction of the religious paradigm that emerges from nineteenth-century scholars. Masuzawa presents the difficult task of unveiling theological discourses embedded in scholarly work to show patterns through which those scholars struggled to step outside their hierarchical position of their Christian faith. Furthermore, hierarchical views are also denoted within their classification of other religions, not to mention at times pejorative, stereotypical, and political. Masuzawa underlines that there is a theological legacy from the genealogy of categorization of religion inherited from its nineteenth-century scholars, as well as a Eurocentric position and absolutistic view that comes with it. Additionally, the essentialization of religion, meaning Christianity, evolves around those classifications. She also assesses the shift in the view of the universal principle of “world unity [that] ultimately prevails as a direct extension of European Christianity,”[1] or Christendom, associated with the difficult historical momentum “Europe confronted at that time along with its imperial subject-position.”[2] It is imperative to note that Masuzawa’s proposition does not intent to put the entire genealogy of world religions discourse on trial. On the contrary, she offers a deep analysis of the scientific efficacy of the world religions discourse to examine it and to foster questions that may arise, which is utterly different. This essay articulates a close reading of The Invention of World Religions and follows Masuzawa’s argument regarding the Christian-European hegemonic position, the emergence of the science of religion and its categorization from philology, and the pluralistic discourse from scholars she chooses to draw evidences of the assumptions inside the categorization of world religion. While Masuzawa does not provide a unifying conclusion, because a “historical narrative does not come to an end,”[3] she stresses that an examination of the embedded assumptions from the nineteenth century of the discursive language of world religions is crucial to recognise that inheritance in today’s academic field. However, she does not try to reveal a conclusive explanation of the origins of the catalogue of world religions, but “to bring a certain logic or persuasions that are covered over by and at the same time still operative in our present-day discourse.”[4] Masuzawa claims that a comprehensive understanding of how scholarly studies from nineteen-century intellectuals were formed will provide a compelling frame of reference for today’s academic fields.

The notion of world religion acquired an “objective reality, by means of various systems of classifications,”[5] from nineteenth-century scholars. The defined demarcations within categories, frequently challenged among academics, appear aligned behind “the European-West Christendom analysis,”[6] which increased the already inherent notion of East and West as a binary classification. Masuzawa observes the hidden logic, often silent, behind the classificatory systems where “its intent of differentiation has not changed much”[7] since it started to develop. Additionally, the observations of sources she presents, as well as the books she cites, exemplify binary perceptions: East versus West, Christianity versus the rest; though a tertiary group may be acknowledged (i.e. preliterate), where they are “categorized as minor due to lack of history.”[8] This system of categorization is yet reflected in contemporary academic bibliography, although there is not much of “ideological separation between the theological discourse of traditional Christendom and the world religions discourse of today’s multicultural world.”[9]

On the first subject at hand, the hegemonic and universal discourse of Christian supremacy (the religion of Europe), Masuzawa relies on one of the leading and world-renowned theologians of that time, Ernest Troeltsch, in order to provide an overview of the shift of Christianity’s ruling position into the new discourse of religions of world. Troeltsch’s example showcases how theologians like him struggled with “the problem of Euro-Christian dominion under the condition of religious pluralism and [questioned] how much longer Europe might assume the subject position when the world was no longer a matter of cosmological imaginary.”[10] But Masuzawa goes further and argues that these changes could not escape the despair of historicity, or the conditional frame of historical events of the nineteenth-century setting. There is then the emergence of historical science, or history of science where Masuzawa observes that comparative religion and “history of religion was becoming part of a new type of discourse about religion.”[11] The new descriptions were sustained by philological, archeological, and anthropological research in juxtaposition to evangelical interests. The historicity and its contingent link to culture, tradition, and inheritance play a crucial element that welded Christian presuppositions within the history of Europe. In other words, Masuzawa finds the role of history significant by quoting Troeltsch when he acknowledges that:

All our thoughts and feeling are impregnated with Christian motives and Christian presuppositions; conversely, our whole Christianity is indissolubly bound up with elements of the ancient and modern civilizations of Europe. From being a Jewish sect, Christianity has become the religion of all Europe. It stands or falls with European civilization.[12]

This sort of manifesto is also disclosed in many other writers from the nineteenth-and-early-twentieth century, says Masuzawa, as they draw reasons for which Christianity is glued to the historical accounts of Europe, while acknowledging that claims of universality come as a result of that long historical evolution. Moreso, Troeltsch proclaims that “the primary claim to validity is that only through it we have become what we are.”[13] Masuzawa observes that the rationale behind this historical fusion between Christianity and the historical domain of Europe seems to offer nothing new, but rather that “the notion of Christendom qua Europe constitutes a well-bounded totality.”[14] In sum, it puts into question the validity of other-than-Christian circles of faith or cultural groups as the theologians’ claims provides and assumes a monolithic description of the old continent while Masuzawa questions the status of European Jews. Furthermore, non-European Christians, or non-Christian Europeans are not part of Troeltsch’s apologetic equation. However, Masuzawa admits that, while the theologian’s position is problematic, he “does acknowledge that other religions are legitimate as their truth claims in principle are measured by the same yardstick as the one applied to Euro-Christianity.”[15]

A further subject Masuzawa observes from nineteenth-century scientific scholars entails the emergence of science of religion as a result of philological innovations. She considers the position of Friedrich Max Müller, reputedly considered a key founding figure in the legacy of the science of religion, to underline development of philology that paved the path to the science of religion as well as the mapping of “divisions grounded on genealogical classification of religion after the science of language.”[16] Masuzawa recognises Müller as the most instrumental figure in bringing a new classificatory regime to the science of religion and as an authoritative scholar who “established classificatory norms very close to today’s list of world religions”[17] and her view of Müller’s list of major religions remains as the closest to what we have today. However, while his “tripartite division of religions,”[18] plus eight individual religions as most important religions is based on a philological classification system, the classification rested on another division: world religions and the rest. The latter is “called primitive religions as they essentially classify based on literacy;”[19] and that distinction still remains nowadays. In other words, because philology essentially is, and more commonly defined as, the study of literary texts as well as oral and written records where philologists can assert the veracity of their authenticity and their original form, without either a sacred book, or even dead letters, the whole exercise of “the philologists ascribes the valorization of book religions”[20] where canonical texts prevail. In sum, Müller’s view of the science of religion purely advocates a close “study of venerated texts”[21] and “the science of language.”[22] Masuzawa asserts that, despite appearances, Muller did not endorse the classificatory logic developed by philology or its rationale for characterizing individual religions,”[23] where at the same time other nineteenth-century contemporary scholars of the field failed to resolve the question of the division between religion as such and science and rationality. This, stressed Masuzawa, indicates “the complexity of concerns and contestations over the spiritual legacy of Europe”[24] and in the end, an activity as intellectual and academic as philology that is intertwined with such a large social and political processes, must be contextualized and analyzed accordingly.” [25]

Ultimately, Masuzawa observes that the focus rests on the legacy of the scholarly world from the nineteenth-century academic intellectuals, and to what extent their studies brought up, beyond a “comprehensive analysis of the logic of categorising religions, the reconstruction of the classificatory logic from a handful of philologists.”[26] To that extent is that the discourse of world religions came into being as a response to the particular predicament that confounded European Christianity at the end of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, Masuzawa claims that what is at stake is “far more fundamental than problem of line between academic science on one side and dogmatic theology on the other,”[27] or the border violations between historical science and theology. In the end the remaining question lies in whether “the world religions discourse can be in any way enlisted, and trusted,”[28] on the side of historical scholarship.

What Masuzawa’s books leaves out, and she confesses that is out of practical necessity, is the participation of the non-West in the production of the world religions categories, which suggests such participation existed. None of this, however, implies that the formation of “the final categorization of world religions resulted from a unilateral creative projection by European scholars.”[29]


Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

[1] Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) 13. [2] Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions, 327. [3] Ibid., 309. [4] Ibid., xiv. [5] Ibid., 2. [6] Ibid., 3. [7] Ibid., 4. [8] Ibid., 11. [9] Ibid., 327. [10] Ibid., 309. [11] Ibid., 310. [12] Ibid., 320-321. [13] Ibid. [14] Ibid., 322. [15] Ibid., 323. [16] Ibid., 26. [17] Ibid., 207. [18] Aryan, Semitic, and Turanian as a result of comparative philology and later comparative religion. [19] Masuzawa, 212. [20] Ibid., 213. [21] Ibid., 216. [22] Ibid., 221. [23] Ibid., 255. [24] Ibid., 256. [25] Ibid., 264. [26] Ibid., 307. [27] Ibid., 326. [28] Ibid. [29] Ibid., 264.

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