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Historical Approaches

Historical Approaches

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson explains how historical methods are used in the study of religion.

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Hello, and welcome to this tutorial on historical approaches to the study of religion. In the last session, we focused on the phenomenology of religion. And we learned that phenomenology is mostly concerned with the experience of consciousness, specifically that it wants to investigate how and in what forms religious phenomenon manifest in individual and collective consciousness.

We noted that the ultimate questions of religion could be bracketed and put to the side to better focus on the process of experience itself. And it was distinguished from the historical approach to religion in that it didn't attempt to answer the unanswerable.

And we noted that the questions of truth and falsity and the content-based issues that religion surrounds itself with were left for the historians to address. So how do they do that? And how did the historical approach begin? Well, that's our question and our objective today.

So studying religions as they have emerged flourished and changed throughout time has been a preoccupation for millennia, in early times, in times before Christ, in the Middle Ages, and in our modern times. But for this tutorial, I want to emphasize the 18th and 19th centuries as being pivotal moments in the establishment of religious studies or historical studies of religion.

So during the Enlightenment in Europe, and during and after the French Revolution of 1789, human reason was given special priority. And it was applied to many academic disciplines, applied to these disciplines with a new confidence and a new strength.

Surely reason was dominant in the Middle Ages as well, but it was coupled with faith. It was coupled with faith in a way that wasn't a threat to religion. With the breakdown of the monarchies in the 18th century, religion also became dispersed, and Europe began a rapid course of secularization or modernization, having a non-religious orientation.

And in this enlightened context, religion was now looked at through the lens of science and reason. And the challenge for many thinkers during this emerging modernity was to make sense of this relationship between reason and faith, a new relationship.

So the subjective truths of religious experience and romantic political ideals, of freedom and individuality, converged with new ideas and methods in science that could now explain some of the mysteries of the material world. Many took on the task of using this science as a new method of detached observation of the world to explain it and to present new information, new material, to the world as knowledge.

So under the umbrella of science, there were new historical approaches to the study of religion. This was appealing to many because the observer could be impartial and refrain from judging the material.

Religious events and phenomena in history were studied through the social and physical sciences, philology, or language-based text analysis, to verify the presence of religious ideas and verify their changes over time and consistency over time or not. And similarly, to observe the religious beliefs and practices and behaviors as they changed over time.

And during the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, there was a thriving interest in religions of the world. With exploration and colonization in full gear mostly due to industrialization, Europeans were encountering cultures and languages and religious traditions that they hadn't experienced before as directly.

So translation of religious texts and materials, therefore, became an industry as well and was applied to this modern quest for understanding. So as I said earlier, the challenge was to make new sense of the world given a revamped science, the now questionable place of religion in people's lives, and the shifting political economic reality, and the interaction of all of these things.

So where is religion again? Well, let's look at Christianity in Europe. It was being looked at and compared with other religions that were being encountered in the world, the Eastern Taoic religions primarily.

And these comparisons could be made objectively using the tools of the scientific method and detached observation. And this is significant because both believers and non-believers could adhere to the supposed objectivity of the approach.

And this gives a modern study of the Bible new vitality that continues to inform our understanding of Christianity in the world today, and not only as it developed in Europe, but as it has interfaced and exchanged with the world at large, socially, ideologically, scientifically. And there are many, many texts available on the history of Christianity and the overall and in-depth history of Christianity.

So now let's do a quick recap and review to understand what was said. The scientific historical approach to studying religion has been around for a long time, but became a modern discipline during the 18th century at the time of the European Enlightenment.

The goal for many was to newly understand the relationship between faith and reason in this new context of modernity. And the tools of science were, therefore, applied to religion as well because one could now study, observe, and report impartially, objectively, and without bias. This was particularly appealing for Europeans as they tried to understand the place of Christianity in a rapidly changing world now in close relation to other religions throughout the globe.

So that's our tutorial on the historical approaches to religion. We'll see you next time. Thank you.

Terms to Know
Historical-critical Study of the Bible

An approach that subjects the Bible to questions regarding its historical truth, internal coherence, and textual accuracy.