Varieties of Religious Invention: Founders and Their Functions in History

Varieties of Religious Invention: Founders and Their Functions in History

Varieties of Religious Invention: Founders and Their Functions in History

Varieties of Religious Invention: Founders and Their Functions in History

Synopsis

At the origins of the major religious traditions one typically finds a seminal figure. Names such as Jesus, Muhammad, Confucius, and Moses are well known, yet their status as "founders" has not gone uncontested. Does Paul deserve the credit for founding Christianity? Is Laozi the father of Daoism, or should that title belong to Zhuangzi? What is at stake, if anything, in debates about the historical Buddha? What assumptions are implicit in the claim that Hinduism is a religion without a founder? The essays in Varieties of Religious Invention do not attempt to settle these perennial arguments. Rather, they consider the subtexts of such debates as an exercise in comparative religion: Who engages in them? To whom do they matter, and when? To what extent are origins thought to define the essence of a religion? When is development in a religious tradition perceived as deviation from its roots? In what ways do arguments about founders serve as proxies for broader cultural, theological, political, or ideological questions? What do they reveal about the ways in which the past is remembered and authority negotiated? Surveying the landscape shaped by these questions within each tradition, the authors provide insights and novel perspectives about the individual religions, and about the study of world religions more generally.

Excerpt

The study of religion generally or of particular religious traditions may be undertaken with any number of different aims and interests and operate in accordance with a variety of ideological assumptions and methodological principles. These factors influence the focus of any such investigation. One might approach the subject with special attention to doctrine, written texts, social organization, or ritual practice. Less orthodox is the literary approach taken by Gore Vidal in Creation, a sweeping historical novel that follows the travels of a fictional Persian diplomat in the fifth century BCE who narrates in first person his encounters with Confucius, Laozi, Mahavira, and the Buddha. The protagonist also crosses paths with a young Socrates and, for good measure, claims Zoroaster as his grandfather. Vidal has to play fast and loose with the chronology to fit these luminaries into the life span of a single character. Scholars are well aware of his many shortcomings as a would-be historian of philosophy and religion, but a subtler point may escape notice. That Vidal makes the effort to include them in what he intends as a meditation on comparative religion—to be sure, a tendentious and highly imaginative one—is an indication of the hold such figures have on the popular imagination.

Perhaps the most common approach to the study of religion is a historical one that focuses on origins. And at the origins of the world’s religions, one typically finds—or looks for—an originator. Because origins are

1. Gore Vidal, Creation (New York: Random House, 1981).

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