Category Archives: History of Religion

On Religion and Power (Thal and Brown)

Sarah Thal Rearranging the Landscape of the Gods is a superb microhistory of religion and politics in Japan from 1573 to the first quarter of the 20th century: taking a shrine at Mount Zozu (now Mount Kotohira) in Shikoku as a case study, Thal provides us with further elements to discuss whether religion can be separated from culture (the way we conceptualized the “economy” as a separate realm from society before spring break) and to question Western assumptions and cathegories when historians deal with non-Western religious phenomena. Religion in Japan is representative of this problem, for there are so many “intellectual and ritual frameworks – esoteric Buddhism, shugendo, kami worhship, Suika Shinto, and folk practices” (Thal 129) that demand an intensive intellectual preparation from both the historian and her readers. In so doing, Thal also reminds the historical contingency and human agency behind the production of devotional and cultural spaces: thus, the landscape and the gods have a changing identity and a non-static biography, as we have read in Davis’s Lives of Indian Images.

Thal’s analysis of the concept of “gods” in the introduction is pertinent for other types of historical craft, as we can find that most concepts, beliefs and practices are particular and spatially located, changing frequently in meaning and scope, and coexisting in association with other powerful concepts. Thus, the challenge of the historian is to be cautious not to misleadingly apply her own concepts and assumptions to particular phenomena of the time and place she studies. In Thal’s book, the religious sphere is a variable that embeds political, social and cultural changes, thus making the case for studying several historical actors, for it is “not only priests but also politicians, pilgrims, entrepreneurs and officials” (p. 9) that intervened in the belief and symbolic systems and the identities of gods in the shrine at Mount Zozu. However, studying religious figures such as the holy man in the Eastern Roman Empire might in itself be fruitful, for as Brown says “in studying both the most admired and the most detested figures in any society, we can see, as seldom through other evidence, the nature of the average man’s expectations and hopes for himself” (Brown 81).

Thal is not afraid of exploring the material aspects of the relative success of the Konpira cult: she explores how priests acted to gain the favor of rulers, sponsors and the broad public. Thus, the shrine and the temple appear as economic institutions, a god would “become both resource and benefactor” (Thal 73) and priests behaved as a special kind of entrepreneurs, not only mediating the experience of the powerful and the laymen with the sacred, but also searching for the material means that allowed the perpetuation and expansion of power of their own organizations. An example of this can be seen with the change in dedication of the sanctuary from Konpira to Kotohira, to better accommodate the expectations of the Nativist movement during the Meiji restoration: hence, Thal shows the tensions, the dislocations and conflicts of interest that do not appear in other narratives of the period centered on the economic development of late 19th century Japan.

Henceforth, to study the spread of religions through time, a historian must also explore the “reputation of the new religion[s] for effective support of the ruler[s]” (Thal 42), this is, the political bargaining process through which members of a cult broadened their followers’ base or ultimately sought the survival of their belief systems and institutions. Members of a cult are powerful, arbitrating and mediating social conflicts in “small, fissile communities” (Brown 89) where other political figures are absent or distant or where the “majesty of community” has not asserted its preeminence over the individual that can claim an immediate relationship with the divine.

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On Religion (Scholem and Fulton)

“Symbols are produced and nourished by historical and social experience […] Symbols express in human speech that which is properly inexpressible” (Scholem 23, 27)
Apologies for the late posting. I debated a lot between writing a personal or an academic response to the readings, but Scholem and Fulton have made me reflect a lot on my own views of religion. Thus, the reader should be warned of the emotional and biographical biases in my comment, admitting that historical works provide not only factual information but also affect the emotional state of their readers.
Gershom Scholem’s Sabbatai Sevi is a masterly account of the Sabbatian messianic movement in the 17th century. I must acknowledge that before reading this book I had not known of the existence of Sabbatai Sevi, nor had I questioned how Jewish communities of the Diaspora interacted with each other: Scholem’s work clarifies both mystical aspects of Kabbalism and Messianism, and guides the reader through a massive amount of sources from disparate locations in Europe and the Near East to narrate both the life and times of Sabbatai Sevi, the Messiah that ultimately converted to Islam as well as the spread and strength of the “symbol-language of [Sabbatai’s] believers” (Scholem 928) in what can be considered almost a global history of the rise and demise of Sabbatian messianism.
Rachel Fulton’s article explores the experiential effects of a collection of prayers copied out by archbishop Anselm for Matilda, countess of Tuscany. Fulton advances the notion of religious writings and artifacts as tools, thus approachable as technologies in themselves. Particularly interesting is her exercise in historical imagination through the use of a “hypothetical nun” (Fulton 724). I would like to know what my colleagues think of this device that resembles the economic models of Allen and Hopkins.
In reading the selected pages of Scholem’s book, I reflected of my own religious experience(s). Having been in a Catholic school for 9 years without being baptized, I became an agnostic when I was 15 years old, almost at the same time that I became fascinated by the Tree of Life Kabalistic tradition. When I was 24 years old, motivated by a long interest in the historical figure of the Buddha and his teachings, I converted to Buddhism. As a practicing Buddhist I hold a system of beliefs that sometimes collides frontally with Western society. I often wonder how my own acceptance of impermanence and interconnectedness impacts my own historical thinking. This is a personal question that can be further generalized: how does religion and religious experiences affect the craft of the historian? Could a study such as Sabbatai Sevi been written by a non-Jew author?
Scholem not only writes the history of Sevi as he can reconstruct it but also describes the creation of a myth. For “mythology inevitably appears wherever reality is apprehended in symbolic forms” (Scholem 23), the historical figure of Sabbatai Sevi also turned into a legend present “in the memory of the Jewish people” (Scholem 929) but not in the conventional knowledge that a non-Jew Western reader might have on the history of Judaism, raising the question of how selective the memory and knowledge of religions other than our own belief system are.
My own readings of canonical and interpretative texts of Buddhist schools have made me wonder to what extent religious exegesis is similar to scholar’s literary criticism. In so doing, another question arises: how dependent is religious history to written sources? How can we account for the difficulty “to reproduce another’s experience, particularly an experience both temporally and spatially distinct from our own” (Fulton 722)? Is religion “an ineffable experience […] or the end product of the practice of a particular skill (Fulton 707) that can be subject to scholarly inquiry?