History and religion

While the rise of nationalist narratives and the overturning of colonial views by postcolonial rejections of such narratives receive ever more interest, religion is still largely absent from these studies. Admittedly, in a range of very different research traditions, religion is acknowledged as a major factor for the construction of identities in the course of history. However, studies concerned with the historicization of religion and religious historiography are only slowly coming to the fore (Otto, Rau, and Riipke 2015; Riipke 2018).

Understandably, religious convictions contribute enormously to the conceptualization and narration of the past by their adherents and the cultures to which they belong, a past that is predefined by god(s), repeats itself, is a time of trial, or the like. As others interpret and identify themselves as a ‘city’ or ‘nation’ through their past, the same instrument is also used by religious communities. Contemporary historical practices (to use a term that does not restrict history to narrative) or later historiography might construe in this way ‘confessions’, as we know them for early modern Europe,4 or ‘religions’. This implies the creation of boundaries as well as the stressing of differences, a point to which 1 will return. But is this all that characterizes religious historiography?

Through its criticism of existing narratives History is opposed to mere memory. From early on. History introduced contingency into traditional narrative sequences in order to question the established truths of others. The introduction of competition into the legitimizing repository of the past is a powerful instrument, but it is a risky one to deploy. Thus, some epochs and some areas are more prone to historiography than others. And this is where the historicizing of religion comes into play. In general, religion does not appear to be a very likely candidate for historicizing. Meta-historical claims, gods out of time and immune to change, and traditional authority in a Weberian sense seem to be the hallmarks of religion. Frequently, myths tell stories of a distant past that establish norms that are binding - not despite the fact that this past is another age, categorically different from today, but based on this fact.

By and large, we might say that views on religion are dominated by claims about the eternity of divine beings and the traditional character of religious practices. The traditional character of religion is, therefore, paradoxically very historical when construing a place for itself beyond history. There is an important consequence to this. Even if a religious group does not explicitly historicize itself, it does narrate history. And religions typically tell not only local history but also world and cosmic history, implying pervasive orientations - even for any ‘secular’ sort of historical narrative.

There can be a great deal of variation in the strategies used in narratives that originate in the context of religious groups or institutions and include superhuman powers (gods) as relevant agents. They might concentrate on a founding phase or try to integrate as much of the history remembered by a society as they can. Thus, mythology and history are not opposites but variants of historical narratives, although they may include very different temporal indicators. In scriptural societies, canonization is a frequent instrument used to stabilize narrative (as doctrinal) solutions.

At this point. 1 must introduce a caveat: it is not groups who write histories but single persons. Michel de Certeau, to whom 1 have already referred earlier in this volume, has pointed out the very individual character of producers of historiographical writing, as well as their subversive power, strategic moves, and complex relationship with their audience (Certeau 1988). The order to write a history is usually self-imposed, not given by an institution. These authors are as much engaged in creating, redefining, and instrumentalizing groups as they are in serving them.

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