During discussions about my response to the BASR/EASR conference, David Robertson (PhD student here in Edinburgh and co-founder of the Religious Studies Project) rightly pointed out to me that there is a difference between historical methods and historical manifestations of religion. My concern is primarily with the latter – the lack of focus on the past, and particularly the distant past. I have always been happy with the idea that Religious Studies can be done using a variety of methods – historical, sociological, anthropological and so on – though I would like to see the balance between them maintained. It is the apparent lack of interest in what I see as important formative periods in religious history that worries me.
As David pointed out, historical methods can be used to study new religious movements too. This raises the question: does a text-historian need to be studying old texts in order to be a text-historian?!
Though I do not intend to answer this question, simply posing it reveals a little more about my concerns. When I describe myself as a text-historian I mean someone who studies the past largely through the texts that form our primary evidence for that time and region. In other words there are not many other sources – though (text-)historians such as myself do also make use of epigraphy, archaeology and art, for example. Seen like this, two related issues come to the fore:
Firstly, lack of interest in the distant past is related to lack of interest in – or competence in – ancient languages. In my own context of course that means Sanskrit and Pali, which are both falling from their already fragile position in the Academy. Accessing the texts requires minimally a working knowledge of the language(s) and preferably an ability to also read a variety of scripts. There are few places in the UK now where such skills are taught. Secondly, even without the language barrier, trying to access a culture that is far removed in time and for which we have only fragmentary evidence is in itself a massive challenge, and a very different challenge from studying the recent past, for which there is more documentary evidence in a variety of forms.
So while I will continue to enjoy reading and hearing about people’s research on the recent past and present, I do hope enough members of the next generation of scholars will have access not only to a general training in historical methods, but also to the specific skills required to study the religious lives of people long dead.