World History, World Religions: Shape and Context in Contemporary Classifications

By William Acres.

Published by Journal of the World Universities Forum

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Scholars of religion and historians recognize the intrinsic relationship between cognate disciplines. Yet History’s narrative, sometimes referred to as the ‘western project’, does not readily admit its own pretexts with respect to the nature of religion and religious categories. The field called ‘World History’ is, by comparison, a relatively new one. How that particular subdiscipline informs our conception of global or world systems is of interest when a pattern of order and understanding of issues and events must conform to a narrative or series of narrative. ‘World religions’, on the other hand, has only recently embarked on a sustained investigation of its own pretextual construction as post-imperial and rather vague in its import because the terms ‘religion’ and ‘world’ were defined largely on the basis of European classification. The universalist’s idea was that these ‘Weltreligionen’ possessed characteristics which elevated them beyond the ethnic and national levels. By examining these enlarged constructions a few analytical observations on the embedding of various kinds of received ideas can be attempted. The apparent difference between the classifications--one which puts national and ethnic within broader conceptions (history) and one which posits those entities as lesser (world religions) – asks for closer examination of what is being attempted from ‘our’ view. Both positions arise, it seems, from the academies of the west. Nonetheless, when the disciplinary birth of both modern history and world religions are examined together, there are several fruitful points of departure for scholars and students. These might be addressed as ‘mapping’ strategies, not of territory but of the dominant thought patterns which both seek to impose analysis at the same time being extremely conscious of the map as a creation, rather than an objective reality. This paper looks at definitions, territories and classifications in the following way:
1) the axes of European identity as changing;
2) the challenge of renewed religiosity in re-drawing and re-visiting abandoned maps;
3) the challenge of understanding what ‘world’ means for these disciplines as the two first points are in flux.

Keywords: World History, World Religions, Comparativism, Nation, Empire, Mapping, Interdisciplinary

Journal of the World Universities Forum, Volume 3, Issue 6, pp.73-92. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 704.384KB).

Dr. William Acres

Professor, Centre for International and Comparative Studies, Theology, History, Huron University College/The University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada

Acres has edited a volume of essays on religion in Canada called ‘Religion Unbound’, currently under consideration. In addition to several published articles on world religions as a theory and interdisciplinary pedagogy, he is currently editing “Exploring Religion: A Reader” for Oxford University Press, forthcoming July, 2010. He is particularly interested in the intellectual and political origins of comparative and classificatory methods in the ‘west’ beginning in the early modern period (1550-1700), both as mapping tools, but also as part of a larger knowledge network of translation, interpretation, and ‘world’ strategies. He holds a PhD in History from Cambridge University and has several research and teaching awards.

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