Friday, November 11, 2011

Interfaith Relations and Genuine Multiculturalism: 2011 vs. 1723

It is all too easy to dismiss our modern gestures of religious pluralism as just that: empty and often automatic if not altogether cynical gestures. Want to show you are a good person and inoculate yourself against all criticism without having to think (or even acknowledge what you yourself believe)? Hold an "interfaith" service, of the sort that we saw here and all over the country on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Much easier to invite your Muslim and Jewish neighbors to a one-off politically correct lovefest than to take the trouble to get to know their actual beliefs and engage in real and sustained dialogue.

We are entitled to an ounce of skepticism or cynicism today because those gestures are cost-free and thought-free. That was not always the case. It is good to remind ourselves that even these hollow or pro forma acts are far preferable to what came before (and, for that matter, still exists in all too many places and minds).

The two illustrations of Jewish holidays that I used in a recent post are a case in point. They come from a book published in London in 1780: William Hurd's immensely influential, A New Universal History of the Religious Rites, Ceremonies, and Customs of the Whole World: or, a complete and impartial view of all the religions in the various nations of the universe.

They did not attract our attention precisely because they were neutral or positive in tone. The figures depicted therein look like, well, "ordinary" Europeans. They are not caricatures. Their activities are rendered realistically and without satirical or hostile intent. However, therein lies a tale.

Hurd basically ripped off the illustrations from a famous and pioneering predecessor, the nine-volume Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde (1723-1743) by Jean Frederic Bernard and engraver Bernard Picart. (That's one reason that I was able to afford these engravings. The originals by Picart are much more sought-after and thus a good deal more pricey.) In their recent provocative study of that work—The Book That Changed Europe...(Harvard, 2010)—Lynn Hunt, Margaret Jacob, and Wijnand Mijnhart describe Hurd as "The English hack" who produced "a clever plagiarism" because "almost all his plates were crude copies of original Picart engravings" while "The text told a completely different story": the victory of Protestantism and the basic denigration of other beliefs and traditions, from the antiquated Jews, Greeks, and Romans, to the irredeemably superstitious savages. (pp. 306-7)

It was a far cry from the radical original, which, they argue, "made readers . . . see religion in a new way":
Despite being the work of two French Protestant refugees who had fled to Holland, the book attempted to accurately depict even Catholic customs, and it gave more favorable and extended attention to Islam than anyone had before. Picart and Bernard devoted so much space to the “idolatrous peoples” of the New World, Asia and Africa because they sought in comparison of the world’s religions fresh evidence for new universalist arguments about the origins and development of religion. They themselves were more interested in what religions had in common – and perhaps even in an heretical religious syncretism – than in how they differed.
Peter N. Miller recently wrote a nice review of this study as well as a complementary one, Guy Stroumsa's A New Science: The Discovery of Religion in the Age of Reason (Harvard again), for the New Republic. (Because the piece is behind a paywall, I'll quote the relevant passages.) There, he analyzes the authors' research agendas and conclusions in the context of both cultural history and the history of the book.  The authors persuasively argue that the Picart volume “helped create the field of the comparative history of religion." Miller does not disagree:
By approaching the book as a world in itself, and then leading out from it back into the wider world, they make a strong argument for the significance of this work and its makers. Contextualization and celebration do not always go hand in hand, and while the larger claim—changing the world—does not always come off, it is incontrovertible that the process in which this book participated, if not the book itself, did indeed change the world. For this book represents, in microcosm, nothing less than our scholarly generation’s answer to the old question, “What is Enlightenment?” . . . .
Toleration is central to this new vision of enlightenment. Its motto is not “dare to know” so much as “dare to allow others to know in their own way.” And so we are told that Religious Ceremonies of the World “marked a major turning point in European attitudes toward religious belief and hence the sacred. It sowed the radical idea that religions could be compared on equal terms, and therefore that all religions were equally worthy of respect—and criticism.” The importance of religion in our current world, and the presence in it, or absence from it, of toleration, is what on some level makes works such as this, or Jonathan Israel’s series of mega-tomes on the Enlightenment, monuments to our own concerns. Not only did Religious Ceremonies win a wide readership—and make a lot of money for Bernard the printer—but it also, according to Hunt, Jacob, and Mijnhardt, “helped create the field of the comparative history of religion, and to this day its engravings still appear in museum exhibits as documentation for religious customs.”
At the same time, he finds in Stroumsa's book "a useful corrective" to the ghost of the old "secularization thesis" in the work of Hunt, et al.:
By focusing on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century antiquarian scholarship on religion, which swiftly moved to incorporate the latest ethnographic data on the principle that going far away in space helped one go back far away in time, he shows that Picart and Bernard were in fact the end point of a much longer transition. And this was a transition spearheaded by the Casaubons of European scholarship, the “dead from the waist down” researchers who wrested all sorts of obscure details from the claws of ever-ravenous time. To understand Picart, Stroumsa implies, we need to understand the revolution in Renaissance philology and comparatism. And Stroumsa makes the point that the philological comparison comes before the comparison between manners and mores, and that the sequence is necessary.
The specific way in which Religious Ceremonies of the World functioned as an agent of change was by focusing on rituals—and hence depiction becomes not only possible, but desirable. If everyone has some ritual for birth or death or marriage, then religion appears as a universal phenomenon, and a given religion but a local manifestation of it. Comparison could work to diminish feelings of uniqueness and superiority. Toleration, we are told, followed from this.
He thus concludes by praising Hunt, et al. for providing a new "model of how historians may read images." (one wonders: Is he familiar with Lynn Hunt's earlier work on the French Revolution and similar endeavors?).
The view of its authors is that the engravings are linked to the text, “but they are not just auxiliaries to it.” Hunt and her colleagues are very good at reading Picart to show the subtlety involved in how he chose the image to give to readers. His approach is essentially to “Europeanize” the natives. Even where the text went down arcane byroads, the images stayed focused on the high road: birth, marriage, death, and processions. Thus, in the section on Islam, twenty-two of the twenty-six folio-page engravings illustrate customs and religious ceremonies, even though they cover only 47 of the 291 pages. In this way the images shifted the discussion from a question of truth revealed to a select few to an issue of wider comparative practices.
Why are the images so necessary? If we compare this book to the seventeenth-century literature discussed by Stroumsa, the answer becomes clear. The same project of popularization that moves away from a learned language (Latin) and audience (professors) makes the use of images desirable: they offer a direct connection to the imagination. The broader social process that gave birth to what people today call the “public sphere,” “civil society,” or “commercial society” broadened the reading public, and gave a new meaning to “society.” Publishing was a huge engine of this development. New literary genres such as travel writing, biography, and the novel, and new kinds of books, especially illustrated ones, were essential means of communication.
Here is the illustration from the introduction to the Bernard-Picart book (from my collection; this one, I was able to acquire). It depicts members of four religions worshiping the divine, each in his way. From left: the Jew (with prayer book and what is presumably  a Torah scroll; though none could ever be read in that manner), the Catholic priest before an altar, the "Mohammedan" (shoes removed and holding prayer beads in an attitude of worship), and the "Idolater" praying to the sun and nature. The engraving, by F. Morelon la Cave, lacks Picart's vaunted accuracy but is faithful to his respectful spirit.

If it is good to recognize that many of our multicultural and interfaith activities are less than profound, it is likewise good to remind ourselves of the predecessors who helped to make even such slight gestures cost-free rather than life-threatening. Not least, it is worth realizing that those pioneers of the eighteenth century still just may have something to teach us in the twenty-first.


the web site devoted to the book by Hunt, Jacob, and Mijnhart, which includes explanatory material, bibliography, illustrations, and a digital reproduction of the early editions in Dutch, French, English, and German.

• the electronic, searchable Dutch text, from the Digital Library of Dutch Literature

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