Comity and Grace of Method: Essays in Honor of Edmund Perry

Comity and Grace of Method: Essays in Honor of Edmund Perry

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A work that at once celebrates and extends the formidable contributions of the late Edmund Perry to the study of religions, this comprehensive collection brings together three generations of distinguished scholars to consider the history, theory, and applications of the comparative method in religious study. Both the title and the content of this volume reflect Perry's conviction that the comparative religionist is morally bound to contribute to a comity of religions-the voluntary and courteous recognition of the dignity and truth present in all religions. Following the general framework advocated by Perry for this pursuit, the volume reveals the strengths of such a framework-and of Perry's lifelong interest in theory and method—for religious understanding,
The essays in the first section-"Theory and Method in the History and Study of Religion"-clarify the role of scientific, phenomenological, and comparative approaches within the history of the study of religion; collectively, they represent a multifaceted statement about recurring and subtle problems in the field. In the second section-"Theories and Methods in Application"-the authors move from overarching theoretical concerns to the application of these methods in specific religious traditions, Western and Eastern. The third section demonstrates the effectiveness of these theories and methods as guidelines for promoting global inter-religious comity.
More than a fitting tribute to a revered and highly influential scholar, this book gives even those who knew nothing of Perry and his work much to learn from and ponder about the study of religion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810118911
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 03/26/2003
Edition description: 1
Pages: 392
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Thomas Ryba is Theologian in Residence at the St. Thomas Aquinas Center of Purdue University and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy and Adjunct Professor of Jewish Studies at Purdue University. He is also the author of The Essence of Phenomenology and Its Meaning for the Scientific Study of Religion (Peter Lang, 1991) and over thirty other articles on religious studies or theology.
George D. Bond is a professor in the Department of Religion at Northwestern University and the recipient of a Charles Deering McCormick Professorship of Teaching Excellence. He is the author of The Buddhist Revival in Sri Lanka (University of South Carolina Press, 1988) and The Word of the Buddha (Colombo, 1982), and is co-author/editor, with Richard Kieckhefer, of Sainthood: Its Manifestations in World Religions (University of California Press, 1990). Currently he is working on a book about contemporary lay Buddhist movements in Sri Lanka.
Herman Tull is an independent scholar residing in Princeton, New Jersey, who has taught at both Rutgers University and Princeton University. He is the author of The Vedic Origins of Karma (SUNY Press, 1989), and articles on Vedic religion, Indian literature, and the study of Indian religion.

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Essays in Honor of Edmund F. Perry

Copyright © 2004

Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-1891-1


Ivan Strenski

Original Phenomenology of Religion: A Theology of Natural Religion

IT IS WIDELY BELIEVED THAT WE OWE THE EXISTENCE OF THE Phenomenology of religion to Gerardus Van der Leeuw and through him ultimately to Husserl. Now, while it is true that it is to Van der Leeuw that we surely owe the vision of modern phenomenology of religion, this really amounts to a kind of updating and revision (partly by way of W. Brede Kristensen) of the work of nineteenth-century Dutch theologians cum scientists of religion, Cornelis P. Tiele and especially Pierre Daniel Chantepie de la Saussaye. Despite van der Leeuw's eager attempts to cloak his work in the heavy folds of Edmund Husserl's supposedly scientific philosophy, it is untrue that van der Leeuw owes the seminal inspiration of his work to Husserlian phenomenology. 1 Although van der Leeuw attempted to adapt Husserlian notions to the study of religion, Husserlian philosophy is mostly window dressing to van der Leeuw's work, at best a very superficial application of Husserlian neologisms to a project with different sources of inspiration. Husserl does not provide the ultimate rationale, nor, short of a few methodological slogans, does Husserl provide the guidelines for doing phenomenology of religion. Instead, van der Leeuw and classic phenomenology of religion are grounded in the pioneering religious studies tradition of the Netherlands. This tradition in turn arose out of the generous liberalism of certain segments of Dutch religious thought, in particular out of the tendencies among Arminians and Remonstrants to a doctrine of religion-as-such. Classic phenomenology of religion in turn rests on this doctrine of religion-as-such.


The theorists of religion-as-such held that religion was a reality of two levels. On the first level, "religion" was equated with the religions, the many different ethnically and historically evolved and diverse religious groupings. On a more profound level, "religion" was what lay behind these different special religions. This was religion-as-such, pure and unformed by the movement of historical development or decline. This was religion in its essence. Religion-as-such was a fact of nature, a fact of our fundamental human capacities-and something that accounted for the human ability to respond to particular religions.

Since it was itself a thing of nature, religion-as-such could be perceived like other essentials of nature. Depending upon one's tastes in philosophy of science-ranging from positivist or empiricist to realist and constructivist-the method for understanding the natural world, and thus religion as natural, varied. In order to understand religion-at the positivist or empiricist end of the spectrum-all we need do is look. When we do so, what some of us see is the many-many conflicting religions. Were a science of religion to be constructed from such materials alone, it would result in a kind of encyclopedia in flatly descriptive or historicist studies of religion. Cornelis P. Tiele referred to this kind of study of religion as eventuating in a "morphology," a survey of religion in its many forms and historical appearances. Although Tiele begins his study of religion with this kind of inquiry, it only represents a strategic level of an inquiry with more far-reaching goals.


In his theory of science then, Tiele was surprisingly modern-even in the way he uses his critique of positivism to open the door to theology as, for example, Eliade does. Well in advance of the recent critiques of empiricist and positivist theories of science by the likes of Kuhn and Feyerabend, Tiele had already opposed a positivist reading of science well before the turn of the century. Applied to the human sciences, such as the critical history he had learned early in his education, Tiele doubted the sufficiency of this historicist history pioneered and practiced by the Germans. While it remained true that historical research "purges Christianity of accidents and gets us closer to 'the Eternal,'" the truth about religion was more than a matter of eliminating historical distortion and error. Tiele and his generation spoke of this desire to get beyond critical history as a matter of making the study of religion "philosophical" and indeed "ontological," that is to say, one that sought to explain facts and not simply to chronicle them. Here is where Tiele's phenomenology makes its entry.

A first step on the way to such a nonpositivist science of religion was Tiele's program of morphology. This was, in its own way, a kind of phenomenology of religion, but relieved of the heavy baggage of German philosophical language that Van der Leeuw felt compelled to drag through the history of religions.

Tiele's conception of phenomenology flew in the face of positivist canons of historiography in at least three ways. It was, first, evolutionist and, second, concerned with classifications of religions, based upon their place in the evolutionary scheme. Tiele described his morphology as showing "constant changes of form resulting from an ever-progressing evolution." Tiele thus affronted positivism in a way analogous to, but not the same as, some of his more progressive contemporaries. The Durkheimians, for instance, argued for the existence of so-called typical facts, and of course in our own time, Lévi-Strauss has claimed access to what lies below the chronological surface flow of data of the many "religions." He did so in order to classify and rank the religions according to his a priori evolutionary scheme. Third, below the flux of the many religions, and below even the genera of his morphology, Tiele sought to grasp "la religion," religion-as-such. The morphology of the first volume of the Elements prepared the way for the second volume and its "ontology" of religion-as-such, in which one treated the "permanent elements within what is changing, the unalterable element in the transient and ever-altering forms."

Tiele ranged beyond empiricism and moved to the antipositivist end of the epistemological spectrum, assuming that in order to understand religion we need to get beneath the surface appearances of the religions and divine the underlying structures of essential religion-religion-as-such. Once we had plumbed the rock bottom of essential religion, our job was simply to lay out its "constituents," as he calls them-in effect to catalogue its defining features in what Tiele called an "ontology" of religion. For Tiele, the constituents of religion-as-such were emotion, conception, sentiment, or-to put it otherwise-an emotional consciousness of being in the power of God, to whom we are attracted and whom we adore. Should we be surprised that the features of this catalogue show a strange resemblance to the main tenets of a standard nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism?

The inspiration of phenomenology of religion was thus theological in origin, and largely, I believe, theological in execution. At its operative level, the works of Tiele are no less theological than those coming from others similarly born, reared, and (for most of their lives) employed in institutions primarily devoted to the propagation of Christian doctrine, however liberal such doctrine may have been.

I should immediately qualify this observation about the theological origins of phenomenology of religion by saying two things. First, despite the theological genesis of phenomenology of religion, without some such overstatement, the study of religion might never have been born. It would certainly not have been sponsored with as much vigor and openness by the more conservative elements of the Jewish and Christian traditions. We thus all owe a great deal to these generous spirited and well-meaning Protestant liberals who, in effect, invented the study of religion, even if we need not go along with the theological agenda inspiring them. Second, despite these original theological agenda, at another level, the intentions of the founders of phenomenology of religion, especially Tiele, were, as Don Wiebe has argued recently, scientific. My quarrel with Don Wiebe is that he has not appreciated how deep and subtle was the theology embedded in the original efforts of Tiele and company. Wiebe does not seem to understand that for Tiele and others of his ilk, the terms "religion" and "science" mean different things than Wiebe's early-twenty-first-century mind imagines. Don Wiebe does not grasp the significance of shifts in meaning between their time and ours because Wiebe does not take seriously the historical particularity of terms like "religion." He and some of my other longtime friends in the theory trade look on texts as sets of arguments alone, imagining that they can read these hundred-year-old texts as if they had been written yesterday and thus assuming-without attention to the sociological and historical contexts of the time-a constant meaning behind key terms. What I have to say in the present discussion is as much a reassertion of the theoretical thrust of my first book, Four Theories of Myth, as it is a historical analysis of the origins of Dutch phenomenology of religion. To wit: theoretical notions are at the same time historically conditioned notions, which means that given sufficient shifts in historical ground, the meanings of theoretical notions will likewise shift. There is, of course, no guarantee of this meaning shift, since like any other them or other, their past experience may or may not be like ours. Circumstances will dictate the outcome. But given the other differences in the world since Tiele and Chantepie wrote, we might well feel that the burden of proof rests with those who would assume, like Don Wiebe, that Van der Leeuw and Chantepie de la Saussaye are just like us when it comes to terms like "religion" and "science." Well, are they? Tiele and others of his ilk were still in the thrall, as I have suggested, of what I should like to call "the discourse on religion-as-such." They felt that what they said about religion was inscribed in the human heart and in the evolution of the species. It did not require making a leap of faith or pledge of loyalty to something revealed by God.

Such a theological position, shared by liberals like Tiele, made it intellectually possible to talk about religion as an object of scientific intellectual inquiry while granting it special privileges. As an objective and natural feature of human nature, religion was subject to study like other objects of nature, but it was better than these objects. Religion was a natural feature of human nature because Tiele and his sort felt that, revelation aside, all human beings, by dint of their creature-hood, had in some way been touched by divinity and endowed with the natural capacity for orientation toward God. Thus, even though many religions were departures from religion-as-such, they nonetheless participated in its value. Lacking the splendid glory of religion-as-such, the religions still basked in a dim reflected glory. Tiele's way of putting this relation was couched in the highly revealing language of the body:

[W]hile I hold that the content of doctrine and the forms of worship are by no means matters of indifference in religion, I can no more admit that they pertain to the essence of religion than I can regard my body as pertaining to the essence of my human nature, or suppose that the loss of one of my limbs or organs would really impair my personality or true humanity.

This theologically derived stance entailed a whole series of methodological positions, many of which are still stock-in-trade for many students of religion. It is behind assumptions that, for instance, religion is spiritual and necessarily good, intensely private, and absolutely autonomous from material and social conditions, as well as universally human. Let me turn to Tiele to see how they are articulated in his thought.


Born in Leiden in 1830, Tiele moved to the capital for his training in theology at the University of Amsterdam and at the Remonstrant seminary. Tiele was ordained into the ministry in 1853 and remained a pastor in the Remonstrant church until 1873. While a pastor, Tiele studied world religions and ancient languages to the point that he was able to become professor of the history of religions at the Rotterdam Remonstrant seminary in 1873. In 1877, he became professor of the history and philosophy of religions at Leiden, in which post he remained until his death in 1902.

Tiele's original training was shaped by two Leiden professors of theology, who led the so-called liberal modern theology movement in Holland: J. H. Scholten and Kuenen. Among other things, these "modern theologians" sponsored the new German methods of the critical or scientific study of the bible in Holland. But beyond applying the critical spirit to religious documents, these modern theologians sought to promote a certain religious worldview similar in most respects to classical deism. Scholten's views were so liberal as to be scarcely distinguishable from unitarianism: he rejected Calvinist predestination; Jesus was not to be worshipped; human nature contained an innate knowledge of God and was holy in itself. Reminiscent of Schleiermacher, Scholten held that religion was thus a "natural fact and spontaneous tendency of human nature," not something "superadded" as the partisans of revelation held. He also taught that human beings contained within themselves "the germ of a spiritual development, the objective ideal of which is God Himself." By contemplating the natural world, people could come to see and know God as he expressed himself in and through his creation. Thus, for Tiele and those like him, scientific activity led to spiritual vision; science and religion were complementary, not opposed. But, of course, theology subsumed science. A student of Tiele's, Albert Réville, the founder of the French École Pratique des Hautes Études, Fifth Section, sums up these sentiments eloquently:

In virtue of his religious consciousness, man directly feels God, and even if he were to be the subject of a perpetual evolution, would never be able to avoid feeling Him. If we are able to admit the validity of this double method of finding God in nature and in the soul, I think that we may watch with perfect serenity all the progress, all the discoveries, all the transformations of science. If we open our eyes to the universe, God is there; and if we close them to look into out own nature, God is with us still.

Given this sense of God immanent in nature, Tiele felt justified in referring to the study of religion as a "science of religion." Although a partisan of this so-called science of religion, Tiele had a particular view of science-and a far cry from anything I think Don Wiebe would likely underwrite-as well as a particular view of the nature of religion, of the relation of theology to science and to the science of religions.


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Table of Contents

Introduction, Thomas Ryba

Part One: Theory and Method in the History of the Study of Religion

Part Two: Theories and Methods in Application

A. Western Religions

B. Eastern Religions

Part Three: Theory, Method and Inter-Religious Dialogue

A. The Buddhist-Christian Dialogue

B. The Jewish-Christian Dialogue

C. Global Perspectives

Bibliography of Edmund F. Perry's Works, Thomas Ryba and Patrick Sleeth

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