Reading the last chapter of Lydia Maria Child’s The Progress of Religious Ideas I came across this passage that seemed timely during our election season:
Little or no progress toward truth is usually made, because passages of ancient books are taken up hundreds of years after they were written, and are used in a sense altogether foreign from the original intention, in order to sustain some opinion, or tradition of the then present time. And the human mind is not free to pursue even this distorting process; but colleges of supervisors are appointed to instruct the young in what light everything ought to be viewed. One college covers the eyes of all its students with red spectacles, so that every object seems on fire. Another insists that blue spectacles are the only proper medium; consequently its pupils maintain that all creation is ghastly pale. Whereupon red spectacles rush to battle with blue spectacles, to prove that the whole landscape is flame-coloured. If one who uses his natural eyesight comes between them, and says, ever so gently: “Nay, my friends, you are both mistaken. The meadows are of an emerald green, and the sunshine is golden,” he is rudely shoved aside, as an heretic, or an infidel. One party calls out to him: “Did you ever look at the landscape through red spectacles?” Another shouts: “Did you ever examine it by the only right method, which is through blue spectacles?” And if he cannot answer in the affirmative, they both vociferate: “Then you had better keep silence; for you are altogether incapable of forming a correct opinion on the subject.”
Child is describing religious controversy during her lifetime. But it seems to me red and blue spectacles are easy to find in the fall of an election year.
I’m in the midst of the metaphysical chunk of my dissertation. In these two chapters I examine how American writers in the middle of the nineteenth century looked to India for sources to build religious alternatives to orthodox Protestantism. Thoreau, Emerson, Blavatzky, all the usual suspects are there.
Today I’m working on the writings of Lydia Maria Child. I was trying to track down a copy of her essay from The Atlantic “Resemblances Between the Buddhist and Roman Catholic Religions” and I found it here. It was odd to read an article from 1870 as a 21st century webpage complete with sidebar ads. Scrolling down the page, I was surprised to find a comment on the article from 8 months ago. User hans_hassler decided he must correct Child’s argument that there is a resemblance between Buddhism and Catholicism. It is the only comment hans_hassler has made on The Atlantic website.
This is a fascinating situation. I’m not sure what to make of it.
I like what Per D. Smith tweeted about it:
Maybe we all need mediums on retainer. There is an odd spiritualist feel to all of this. When 19th century spiritualists channeled the dead there was a moment of chronological discord. The past and present overlapped at the table. As I sit at my desk and stare at hans_hassler reprimanding Lydia Maria Child I get a small inkling of that desire for spirits, for knowledge, and for the bridge between past and present.
And I can’t help but wonder if she can read it.
UPDATE- Yoni Appelbaum makes a great point:
I’ve made it to the Transcendentalists! The chapter on Unitarian and evangelical ideas about Hinduism is done and passed along to The Adviser. Now, I’m changing gears. The chapters I’ve written so far were exercises in uncovering. Only a couple previous studies had looked at the materials and so my basic work was to dig up representations and descriptions of Hinduism in sources and relate them to the larger context of American culture during the period. For example, only a couple of people have written about Rammohun Roy’s impact in the West and only Carl T. Jackson has really considered how he impacted America. So I had a lot of space to dive deep into the sources and make my arguments about the significance of Rammohun Roy for the history Hinduism in America and the history of American religious cultures.
But now I’m writing about Transcendentalists. There are a lot of books about Transcendentalists. I’ve also caught up with the narrative. Most histories of religion in America argue that the Transcendentalists were the first Americans to show interest in Asian religions–Arthur Christy’s The Orient in American Transcendentalism (1932) did the most to cement that claim. So, there’s a lot of secondary literature on Asian religions, and especially Hinduism, in Transcendentalist thought. That’s the list of call numbers I took with me to the library this week on the left. Now my challenge shifts. It’s not about digging up stuff no one’s found, it’s about finding a new angle on the stuff we already know about. I find this much harder and much less exciting.
The question of how American’s construct the category “religion” has emerged as a consistent theme in the early chapters of this project and I think it might be my way to cut a path through the underbrush of the Transcendentalist rainforest. Most of the research on Asian religions and Transcendentalism take “religion” for granted. (BTW, there’s a whole discussion of when we should or should not take this term for granted in our writing. But that’s a whole different post.) There are these religions in Asia and these folks in America “discover” these religions and somehow these religions influences their thinking and writing. But why did Thoreau or Emerson or Alcott recognize the Bhagavad Gita or the Laws of Menu as religious? I think John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America, which I’ve started but not yet finished, will be helpful on this point. Secularism makes “religion” as a category possible. It sets the horizons for a “religion” that is a chosen, believed, and, most importantly, can be categorized, be borrowed from, and influence people. All talk of Asian religions “influencing” the Transcendentalists gives agency to religion. Religion does stuff. It’s a virus. Or maybe a smoke monster. The clearest expression of this is Lydia Maria Child’s Progress of Religious Ideas, Through Successive Ages. Compare Child’s title with Hannah Adams’ A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan and Christian, Ancient and Modern. Religion progresses for Child. It has movement. Adams’ certainly has a progressive view of religion in her dictionary, as I argue in my chapter about it. But that movement, that agency, is more pronounced by 1855 when Child writes. This thing, religion, that was invented in the 18th century has gotten more power, more agency–maybe?
So the challenge for me–my way toward a fresh take on Transcendentalism and Hinduism–is to trace the invention of religion as this viral, smoke monstery, agent through Transcendentalist encounters with Hindu religious culture. Now, let’s just hope no one in the stack of books beside me has done that already.