James Freeman Clarke and the Post-Protestant Metaphysical Roots of Comparative Religion in America

Ten Great Religions

I came across this on page 1 of James Freeman Clarke’s Ten Great Religions (1871):

[The present work] is an attempt to compare the great religions of the world with each other. When completed, this comparison ought to show what each is, what it contains, wherein it resembles the others, wherein it differs from the others; its origin and development, its place in universal history; its positive and negative qualities, its truths and errors, and its influence, past, present, or future, on the welfare of mankind. For everything becomes more clear by comparison. We can never understand the nature of a phenomenon when we contemplate it by itself, as well as when we look at it in its relations to the phenomena of the same kind.

It is remarkable to me that I have rarely seen James Freeman Clarke mentioned in histories of comparative religion or religious studies. He gets three mentions in Eric Sharpe’s Comparative Religion: A History. Tomoko Masuzawa gives him two pages in her book The Invention of World Religions. But both Sharpe and Masuzawa put the American Clarke into a story that is mostly about European approaches to comparative religion. Clarke’s place as a Unitarian minister and his location within the history of liberal religion in America is neglected. Within American religious history, Clarke comes up in discussions of mysticism and Asian religions. Leigh Eric Schmidt highlights Clarke’s interest in universal mystical experience in Restless Souls and Catherine Albanese briefly analyzes Clarke’s representation of Hindu religions in Ten Great Religions in her book A Republic of Mind and Spirit.  There are two Clarkes, the comparativist who imagines a universal religion based in Christianity and a metaphysical interested in the mystical East, depending on the history you are telling.

I am sympathetic with the story of Clarke as a metaphysical. I am approaching him in the same vein as Albanese. I have the benefit of a narrower project than hers that will allow me to really dig into Clarke’s representation of “Brahmanism.” Yet, I can’t escape the nagging feeling that there is another story to tell about Clarke and other 19th century liberal (post)Protestants interested in world religions that unites the comparativist narrative with the metaphysical one. In the rush to throw off the bonds of comparative theology–indeed any kind of theology–I think the academic study of religion in America may have misplaced its history. Perhaps we owe more to Clarke than we do to Max Mueller.

 

Shut Up and Start Writing

Time for final check in. We’ve done this for six weeks now and I hope it’s been helpful. It seems that most of us are interested in keeping this going so here’s what I’m thinking. Let’s keep this going as a sort of writing support group. We’ll keep checking in with our goals for the week and reporting what we did the previous week but I’ll stop numbering each week.

This group has been really helpful in forcing me to be thoughtful about planning out my work. Sure I didn’t always hit my goals, but I was approaching my work much more strategically. I also liked the chance to reflect back on my work week that these posts give and the great feedback and encouragement you fellow writers give. Thanks so much for your participation and great comments every week!

I spent a lot of time reading through sources and taking a lot of notes. I wrote a couple hundred words a day but most of my work went into my moleskine not my computer. Until today. All that note taking paid off and I tore off 1100 solid words today. That made me happy.

For next week, I want to keep going at about 1000 words a day average. I want 5000 more by the end of the week. I’ve put in the time and thought in the past couple of weeks, now it’s time to crank it out. I need to get this chapter and a separate 10000 word encyclopedia article done by the end of the month.

Along with your check in and goals for the week I would love to hear from y’all about what this group has done help you and any suggestions for changes as we take this into the fall. What do y’all think about this group overall?

On the Anniversary of Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ and Its Place in American Religious History

First Edition of 'Walden' from the Emory Manuscripts and Rare Books Library

First Edition of ‘Walden’ from the Emory Manuscripts and Rare Books Library via the MARBL Facebook page.

Today marks the 158th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Right now I am knee deep in Transcendentalists, Thoreau included, as I wade through my chapter on Transcendentalist representations of Hinduism. The combination of today’s anniversary and my current writing work got me thinking about how Henry David Thoreau fits into American religious history.

Right now I’m working to put Thoreau into the proper place as one of America’s earliest Orientalists. Thoreau studied and appreciated Hindu religious texts, among other Asian traditions, and found them inspirational for his spiritual thought and literary prose. But he also took a view of “the East” and “the Orient” that imagined it as an essentially spiritual place. As New England industrialized around him, Thoreau looked to the Orient as a counterbalance–a place of spiritual contemplation and ancient truth to offset America’s material industry and progressive zeal. He hoped for a fusion of East and West in his writing, in his religious thought, and in America’s future. This hybrid vision emerges at the end of the chapter titled “The Pond in Winter.” Thoreau observes ice harvesters taking ice from the pond that would be packed in sawdust and shipped from New England to India. This connection between cold New England and balmy Calcutta sparks a vision:

Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides, makes the periplus of Hanno, and, floating by Ternate and Tidore and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, melts in the tropic gales of the Indian seas, and is landed in ports of which Alexander only heard the names.

I want to put Thoreau up as one of the first American Orientalists, with all the baggage that comes with such a title, and analyze the politics and power relations at work in the Orient as he imagined it. But what is his larger place in American religious history? What is the place of Walden?For some Thoreau is the first American yogin. Though that really depends on what you mean by yoga and how much you take Thoreau’s claims at face value. In Restless Souls, Leigh Eric Schmidt argued that Thoreau is part of a tradition of solitude within American liberal religion. When he took to the woods “to live life deliberately” he took part in a larger Western tradition of hermitage and solitude that has continued in his wake–my colleague Brian Campbell is writing his dissertation on this hermitage tradition. Thoreau is also invoked in contemporary talk about “spirituality.” His iconoclasm and belief in individual and intuitive religious experience are often cited as the forerunner to the “spiritual but not religious” of today. Thoreau and Walden are also key to ideas about the relationship between religion and nature. Thoreau found his own sacred meaning in the landscapes around him, as the quote above highlights. These various examples show how Thoreau has become a multivalent icon of religious liberalism and individual spirituality. We’ve reached a point where his face can be deployed to demand you work for peace, disobey, or simplify. Thoreau’s meaning is as slippery as “spirituality.” His face is a blank slate on which we scrawl our own spiritual visions.

What do you see as the significance of Thoreau and Walden for American religious history?

Shut Up and Start Writing Week 6: The Home Stretch

We have hit the home stretch. Much like a runner in the Olympics, it is time to hit our “kick” and sprint to the finish. This is the last week of our summer writing group so let’s get as much as we can out of it.

As far as last week, I did not get the 3000 words that I wanted but I did write everyday. I’ll take that. I’m trying to balance the “the best dissertation is a done dissertation” with my own desire that it be a really really high quality piece of work. Perhaps the perfect is the enemy of the good, but I’m worried I’ll end up with the mediocre instead.

For this final week I want to keep the daily pomodoro of writing going and I still want to shoot for 3000 words. I had hoped to finish this chapter by now or at least be close but that’s not going to happen. I want it done but not rushed, so I’m shooting for an August 31st completion and hoping I end up done early so I can pat myself on the back.

How was everyone’s week? I’ll post one final post next weekend so we can reflect on the whole writing group and what we got done. Also, be thinking if you want to no continue this into the fall in some form or another.

Should we compare American Atheism and American Christianity?: An Impromptu Twitter Discussion

The following conversation emerged on Twitter between myself and Per D. Smith, a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University. Check out Per’s great stuff over at irritually. Per specializes in studying irreligion and so I sent him a link to a CNN article and, well, click on the storify link and you can see what ensued.

[View the story “Atheism, Humanism, Prosperity Gospel, and the Mainline” on Storify]

The question I’m left with is this: Is there a force within American society/culture that is shaping atheists and Christians in similar ways such that evangelicals look like New Atheists and old school humanists look like the mainline? What could it be? How could we find it? Is it the market? Politics? What?

What do yall think?