Friedrich Max Müller – The Father of the Scientific Study of Religion

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Friedrich Max Müller. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Friedrich Max Müller (1832-1930), born in Germany, was a Sanskritist by profession. During his career he edited a translation of the Rig Veda and taught comparative philology. Muller is a significant figure in the discipline of religious studies because he is considered as a chief founder of the scientific study of religion.

Müller’s Historical Context

Müller engaged in a study of religious texts during a period in which many powerful social and cultural forces were active. These included Romanticism, theological liberalism, hyper orthodoxy, and German nationalism. There were also new discoveries of other territories such as India being made by Europeans which meant that British imperialism and colonialism were too active forces at the time. Müller tried to make sense of these and his own mystical piety by putting them into one seamless story, which, at times, can be seen reflected in his theories about and views on religion. Müller was also concerned with spiritual decline happening in his day, particularly because of the rise of secularism, as well as industrial and technological advancements which were taking people away from religious sensibility and a reverence for nature.

Some view Muller as a positive-skeptic. He was ‘positive’ in the sense that he was not concerned with debunking or demythologizing sacred texts. He also hoped to use his curiosity and questioning as avenues to deepen his own spirituality. He was a ‘skeptic’ because his beliefs and goals did not cohere with the teachings and beliefs of the Church, and he did not treat the Bible in the revered way most Christians did.

A Scientific Approach to the Study of Religion

Müller was aware of biblical scholarship at the time, but unlike many others he viewed all the world’s religious texts as equally sacred. His literary interests and pursuits were further aided by the fact that he had access to a great number of texts due to new discoveries of the literatures of religious traditions previously unknown the the West. Although Müller appreciated all religious texts, he still yet viewed the Bible as the best example of a sacred text. This, however, led him to engage sacred texts with a scientific historical method of inquiry with the hope of discovering a common mind about the sacred texts of the world’s religions. Müller’s hope to discover a common mind about religion was done with the goal that scholars could one day engage the facts of religion without being influenced by or dependent upon confessional commitments. This was arguably his greatest contribution to what would become the scientific study of religion. According to scholar of religion Ivain Strenski, it was Müller’s “open, critical approach to religious scripture remains a lasting legacy of his work in the study of religion” (1). Müller’s approach, as he himself explained, was in examining religion by “relying on nothing but historical facts and in following reasons as far as it will take us… and never pretending that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable” (2).

A Threat to the Church

Müller was viewed by many others in his day as a ‘theological liberal’ and therefore a threat to the religious establishment. He appreciated religious and sacred texts not only as revelations but also as human creations shaped by historical processes, “rather than solely as visitations from eternity” (3). Müller explained,

“I had been at a German university, and the historical study of Christianity was to me familiar as the study of Roman history… [it] left with me the firm conviction that old and New Testament were historical books, and to be treated according to the same critical principles as any ancient book” (4)

Müller thought that if the Bible could be looked at as being a historical document, and therefore fit to be judged by normal historical and empirical standards of scholarship, then why can’t the same approach be applied to any other religious scripture? He believed that all religious texts should be subject to critical textual and historical examination. He believed that even though these texts claimed to be divine (or revealed) scripts they were still yet authored by human hands, owned by humans, and transmitted by humans. Müller also, to the discomfort of many, attempted to expand Christianity beyond the “orthodox.” He felt that orthodoxy was constricting, and closed the path of progressive religion. He rejected biblical literalism and wrote that “belief that these books had been verbally communicated by the Deity, simply because it was recorded in these sacred books, was to me a standpoint long left behind” (5).

Müller wished to expand this limited and constrictive notion of religion through wisdom he could obtain from other religions. This led to the writing of The Sacred Books of the East, a large 50-volume set of English translations of religious scriptures which, given its negative reception, threatened Müller’s career. The Anglican ecclesiastical establishment, which held a dominant presence within Oxford at the time, policed the works produced by its community, and were unhappy that Müller was willing to treat Christianity and the Bible as equal to the other religions and religious texts of the world. It was particularly offensive to those who held to Christian exceptionalism and who believed that the Christians religion was superior to others (particularly those new religions discovered as a result of European expansion into previously unknown territories). Thus, the Church, offended at Müller’s comparing the Bible with “pagan” cults and their texts, blocked the inclusion of the Bible in his collection of sacred texts. Müller was still allowed to publish his work but with the omission of the Bible.

Interest in Indian Beliefs and Mythology

Müller popularized the study of mythology in his book Essays in Comparative mythology (1856) which proved to be the first serious, disciplined study of the subject. The study of mythology soon became the primary means of access to the religion of the earliest peoples when theorists begun assuming that by probing into the realm of mythology they would discover the origins of religious awareness within early human beings.

Müller had a keen interest in Indian beliefs and mythologies, and his interests in Indian mythologies were largely aided by Sir William Jones (1746-1794) who, through collecting manuscripts while as a British jurist posted in India in the late 18th century, brought the West new knowledge of India and its people and their beliefs. Jones also argued that through comparisons of Sanskrit to Latin, Greek, and English that there must be some historical link between the East and the West. It was likely because of Müller’s interest in philosophical Romanticism that he was inspired to study Indian religions and Hindu mythology. He saw Romantic sentiments captured in the archaic Vedas for they often expressed mystical religion, spirituality, and the love of nature and of native land. Müller took it upon himself to master Sanskrit which was also helped by the fact that Oxford had the only complete set of Sanskrit manuscripts of the Rig Veda. He soon argued that through an analysis of language and words one could study religion through languages for traces of its ancient formation. Müller further argued that that the earliest humans were not polytheists, as Hume suggested, but devotees of a mystical, monistic unity who contemplated the “Infinite.”

Religion as the Apprehension of the “Infinite”

Although Müller engaged Hegelian and neo-Kantian philosophy during his career he was primarily influenced by the philosophical views of the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854). For example, Müller’s concept that the infinite was present in all finite things evidenced the influence Schelling’s views had on his own. Schelling’s philosophy also inspired Müller’s engagement with the nature of religion and religious philosophy. At the time the Muller was active, the study of religion had no conscious sense of self, so to speak. It did not have an ongoing tradition, and its emergence as a field of study was propelled by his work Introduction to the Science of Religion (1873).

Müller attempted to illustrate how the distinction between the finite and infinite was perceived. Religion evolved through stages with different forms and modes of apprehension through which it was comprehended. He believed that the earliest conceptions of deity were personifications of natural phenomena. Natural objects (like the son, moon, wind, thunder etc.) gave the earliest human beings an intuition of deity and the invisible reality beyond the physical world. These aspects of reality, which represented the infinite, were deified and described in a personified way. Thus, religion, he stated, was the “mental faculty which, independent, nay in spite of, senses and reason, enables man to apprehend the infinite under different names and varying disguises” (5). Müller further stated that “we can hear in all religions the groaning of the spirit, a struggle, to the inconceivable, to utter the unutterable, a longing after the infinite, a love of God” (7).

Müller believed that one wouldn’t find a highly developed concept of the infinite expressed in the earliest moments of individual and/or collective religious experiences. Rather, the notion of the infinite developed gradually into a concept that was then subjected to reason and reflection. Muller posited the notion of “pure religion” which was the simplest apprehension of the infinite and advocated for a return to the simplicity of the original vision.

What Value Does Müller Have for Students and Scholars of Religion?

As is clear, Müller had a huge influence in propelling forth the academic study of religion. But what value does his work still have today? His value for contemporary students and scholars of religion is found in his critical scientific approach to studying religions. He showed that religions could be studied by seeking after their historical origins. Müller is also credited with the development of the idea that their are families and types of religions (Abrahamic, Indic, Geco-Roman etc) just as their are families and types of languages (Indo-European, Altaic, Semitic etc.). The result is that this promoted a comparative study of religion which today is an important point of inquiry for scholars to study religions in relation to each other, comparing them and contrasting their differences with great skill.

References

1. Strenski, I. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. p. 34.

2. Muller, M. 1901. My autobiography: a fragment. p. 355-356.

3. Strenski, I. 2015. Ibid. p. 33

4. Muller, M. 1901. Ibid. p. 288.

5. Muller, M. 1901. Ibid. p. 288.

6. Stone, J. 2016. The Essential Max Müller: On Language, Mythology, and Religion. p. 114.

7. 1878. The Pamphlet Mission for Freedom, Fellowship and Character in Religion, Volume 1. p. 247.

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