Civilizational Studies and Religious Studies: Affinities and Contrasts
RSP Lecture on the Occasion of the 20th Anniversary of CEU and the CEU History Department
Speaker: Johann Arnason, La Trobe University, Melbourne / Charles University, Prague
Topic: Comparative History of Civilizations
Johann P. Arnason is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at La Trobe University, Melbourne, where he taught from 1975 to 2003, and visiting professor at the Faculty of Human Studies, Charles University, Prague. He has been visiting professor in Paris and Leipzig, and a fellow of the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Studies in Uppsala. His research interests centre on historical sociology, with particular emphasis on the comparative analysis of civilizations. Publications include Civilizations in Dispute (2003) Axial Civilizations and World History (co-edited with S.N.Eisenstadt and Björn Wittrock, 2004), The Roman Empire in Context: Historical and Comparative Perspectives (edited with Kurt Raaflaub, 2010).
Civilizational studies and religious studies: Affinities and contrasts
Critics of the comparative civilizational approach have sometimes suggested that it is little more than a new label for comparative religious studies. This is a misunderstanding, but the objection merits more serious discussion than has hitherto been attempted. For all those who work with the paradigm of civilizations in the plural, religious traditions or forms of life are among the key defining characteristics, but they are never seen as identical with civilizational patterns. They are approached from a specific angle, and with a view to their interaction with other components. To start with, it is important to note the distinction between religion as an institution among others, and as a “meta-institution”, i.e. an overall framework for socio-cultural life. This is a Durkheimian theme, revived by S.N. Eisenstadt, but much remains to be done to develop it. The meta-institutional dimension of religion must further be analyzed in relation to the political sphere; the religio-political nexus should be seen as a prime expression of what Eisenstadt calls the civilizational dimension of human societies, i.e. the intertwining of world articulations and institutional patterns. The historical forms of the religio-political complex vary in regard to their compatibility with the development of other civilizational aspects, whose development may not determine the profile of a particular civilization, but can be of far-reaching importance for its impact on later history (e.g. the development of political thought and philosophical reflection in Ancient Greece). Finally, the capacity of the religio-political nexus to function as a latent formative framework, despite the decline or apparent demise of its explicit versions, must be taken into account; it is important for the understanding of secular religions and their role in the making of modernity.