Religions as subjects and products of historical narrative
Why do these problems matter? Indeed, why does studying the history of religion itself matter? On a global scale, the concept of religion and the selforganization of social groups as religions have proved to be highly successful formats for individuals to use in establishing themselves as agents on the national or international stage. This proliferation of a Western concept of religion (as a parasite construct riding on the back of national identity) has brought with it the construction (or continuous cultivation) of an interpretive account of such groups and their history, whether this is done with the goal of creating boundaries by pointing to old feuds and differences, or of forging alliances on the basis of a common ancestry (‘Abrahamic religions’ is the key notion here). For scholars of religious history, the potency of religious histories in international relations today brings with it the urgent challenge of renewing and revising the manner in which the historiography of religion is approached. The identities or the ‘containers' called religions exist in contradiction to the ambiguity and ambivalences which obtain in the field of religion. They must not be allowed to obscure the existence and historical significance of the common processes, functions, and forms of religious life which occurred on a trans-religious level in all the areas of the world that were home to multiple (or, rather, indistinct) religious identities and practices of the sort which tend to be played down by terms such as ‘cultural trait’, ‘folk religion’, ‘traditional elite behaviour’, or ‘individual idiosyncrasy’. The concept of ‘lived religion’ offers a possible alternative that is particularly useful for those dead ancient religious practices that one tends to conceptualize as fixed systems of symbols instead of ‘religion in the making’.
The stereotyping of the concept of religions itself is one important and problematic consequence of a widespread approach to the history of religion. The essentializing of religions even had the effect of leading to some general reservations against History of Religion when it came to the application of concepts of religion on a global scale (McCutcheon 1997; Masuzawa 2005; Abeysekara 2011; but cf. Riesebrodt 2010).
In the 19th century, academic study of the history of religion was characterized by a general trend towards historical research. History of Religion became the dominant variant of the Study of Religion (Religionswissenschaft, sciences religieuses). From the end of the 19th century onwards, historical accounts in the form of handbooks and lexica abounded. The explanatory power of a genetic narrative - assessing relationships of origins, influence, and chronological transitions - was highly valued. For historicism, the histor-icization of religion seemed to be a matter of absolute necessity. Even critics of historicism looked for ways to remedy this approach in history, such that history had to be overcome by history, as Ernst Troeltsch postulated. Apart from the more theologically or philosophically minded scholars who worked towards systematic accounts of religion, many historians of religion proceeded without further methodological ado. Philologists subjected transmitted texts to historical-critical analysis and used marginal or new-found texts in order to interpret canonical ones. However, these canonical texts - precisely those texts that are most closely attached to the identities of religious communities - remain the standard in the historical study of religions, as do traditional forms of periodization and master narratives.
The boundaries construed in religious narratives - the exclusion of 'heretics’ in Christianity, the genealogy and limiting of 'schools’ in Buddhism -were accepted and reproduced. For the study of Christian thoughts and groups, for instance, by the beginning of the 20th century the same Ernst Troeltsch had described a replacement of the term ‘Church' with the term 'Christianity’ against the backdrop of the multiplication of post-Reformation churches. Now, the plural 'Christianities’ is occasionally conceded in Church history (Smith 1994; Auffarth 2003) but is seldom actually put to use as a heuristic or descriptive device. Global histories of Christianity have recently been attempted, studying its diffusion from a post-colonial perspective instead of pure Missionsgeschichte (Chidester 2004). But globalization is effectively treated as if it is something 'in addition’, sequencing new chapters onto the religious history of different regions and continents (cf. Fuchs, Linkenbach, and Reinhard 2015). Impulses from the history of mentalities or social history have been considered as histories of piety or ritual, but are typically treated within the narrower boundaries of confessionally organized histories. Only recently have minority positions been reconstructed on a larger historical scale. The embedded history of Western esotericism is one important example (Faivre and Rhone 2000; Hanegraaf 1996; Stuckrad 2005). Such a clearly delineated approach is definitively superior to isolated treatments of ‘paganism’, even if termed a 'world religion’ (thus York 2003). The approach of Martin Mulsow to reconstructing the networks and consequential intellectual seedbeds of early modern clandestine religious thought offers another example (Mulsow 2012).
Have alternatives been developed? Some studies on the scale of countries or larger regions do exist but approaches which investigate the range and functions of religious practices and thoughts in a particular region rather than the various religious traditions of that region are rare. For Europe, the problem of a history of religion in Europe or history of (specifically) European religion became a matter of discussion approximately two decades ago, with the focus frequently turning to the characteristics of (central) European church-state relationships and to the secularization hypothesis (see Gladigow 2002; Kip-penberg, Riipke, and Stuckrad 2009). Religious interaction in the Ancient Near East has been intensively studied since the end of the 19th century by the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule but this study has remained focused on developments leading to or interacting with early Christianity. Here, however,
Historiography of religion 129 theoretical discussions about the conceptualization of groups which gradually differentiated themselves from each other ('parting of the ways’, Boyarin 2004; Burrus et al. 2006; Dunning 2009), intellectual religion with and without a basis in local groups (Gnosticism, Hermetism, Rüpke 2016), the notion of religion, and the role of public law in institutionalizing religions and marginalizing heretics (Noethlichs 1986, 2001; Rüpke 2011) have been very intensive. Indeed, they may serve well as starting points for establishing new paradigms, as 1 have tried to show in my Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion, which will be critically reviewed in the following chapter (see also Rüpke 2014a). As they stand right now, however, these studies still proceed from the separate identities promoted by the ancient historiographers, although scholars increasingly admit close and complex relationships between religions.