A Privileged Place? Christianity in the Development of Religion Studies


During the development of the study of religion from the time of the Enlightenment onwards, Christianity has often, although certainly not always, enjoyed a privileged position as a number of theorists, often Christians and Christian theologians themselves, saw their religion as superior to the other world’s religious traditions. Some saw Christianity as a fulfillment of man’s religious instinct or as a more fully developed form of prior religious traditions. Some saw Christianity and Jesus Christ as the superior standard against which other traditions were to be contrasted and negated. It is important to acknowledge this aspect of the development of this discipline as it is a part of its history. Christianity has indeed been a formative force; scholar Walter Capps articulates,

“The tendency from the beginning in Western scholarship was to make Christianity the favored religion. Though one can find serious criticisms of Christian orthodoxy, these hardly translate into arguments that any other religions are profounder and more articulate expressions of the natural human religious spirit than one could find in that religious tradition and that most powerfully lent formation to Western culture. It would be difficult indeed for an advocate of religion to direct the analysis toward any other conclusion, for the paradigm was established to bring reciprocity and compatibility to the relationship between faith and reason as persons of Judeo-Christian persuasions understood it. Thus, the chronicle gives evidence of repeated efforts to support the claim that Christianity enjoys premier status among the religious traditions of the world — a claim that was bolstered by the theological conviction that belief in Jesus Christ is necessary to salvation” (1).

Several theorists are worth mentioning, although there were many others too. We will also conclude this entry with a brief reflection. Allen Menzies (1845-1916), professor of biblical criticism at the University of St. Andrews, provided a description and history of religion in the hope to establish a strong intellectual foundation for comparative religion. In his History of Religion: A Sketch of Primitive Religious Beliefs and Practices, and of the Origin and Character of the Great Systems (1895), he claims that religion requires time to develop. It begins with tribal animism and develops into a national religion, then to individual religion, and finally to universal religion. However, in this development chronicle (with developmental and evolutionary chronicles being a great interest to formative theorists) he claimed that the Christian religion is the highest form of institutional religion because it encompasses all the previous developments. To Menzies, Jesus Christ was “the living embodiment of the true religion” (2). However, he further stated that Christianity is not the final stage in the series of the development of religion but that it would also eventually lead to a universal religion within which all human beings are accorded a rightful place.

J. A. MacCulloch (1868-1950) authored a text called Comparative Theology (1902) in which he contended that Christianity is the universal religion to which all others pointed. On his view, other religious traditions were most fully articulated in the Christian religion and so he set out to look for signs and evidences within them to that effect. He held that pagan religions evidence a form of monotheism that found fuller expression later on and that Roman and Scandinavian religions provided “glimpses of the Saviour” (3). One need not speculate too hard on who this saviour is. He also stated that there is the “communion of the saints” expressed in Vedic and Persian religions, and that all these religions find their full expression in the Christian religion.

The Dutch theologian Hendrik Kraemer (1888-1965) stated in no uncertain terms that “for me, the measure of what is true and what is real, and this not only in a religious context, is Jesus Christ, the Truth Himself” and that “Only Christianity is the one true religion” (4). He disagreed with the idea of Natural Religion that attempted to authenticate religion by grounding it within a legitimate mode of human experience instead of in the supernatural or in divine revelation. It is Christ who stood in as the only reliable standard of judgment and who constituted the “absolute rule by which all religions, including Christianity, must be judged.” He therefore judged other religious traditions on the basis of their ability to make Christ known, which essentially rendered his religion as the one against which all others are contrasted and negated. Other religious traditions are subordinate to the degree to which they reflect the ideal of Christian beliefs and Jesus Christ. Christianity is the ideal towards which other religious traditions are progressing and to which devotees of other religious must be converted if they wish to experience salvation.

Archbishop of the Church of Sweden, theologian, and historian Nathan Soderblom (1886-1931) was of the view that “There is a living God and I can prove it by the history of religions” (5). This was consonant with his purpose to “make history understood in a religious sense, that is, to make men learn to see in the whole of history, in a prophetic way, God’s miracle, his revelation” (6). His work treated with primacy the scriptures of the Christian religion for biblical revelation is the source of truth. In his book The Nature of Revelation (1933), Soderblom wanted to establish the legitimacy of divine revelation and to protect the uniqueness of Christianity as being “the full completion of a special revelation from God.” Having attempted to flesh out the entire universal history of religious experience, Soderblom argued that the development of religious understanding was complementary with the truths of divine revelation inherent within Christianity. Such revelation has existed throughout the history of human religious awareness although it is ultimately Christianity that is “the highest” of these and “more congruous with the cravings of higher human intellect and human aspiration.” This he believed is supported through the likes of general revelation, humanity’s perpetual search for God, and special revelation as pointing to God’s search for humans. Whereas other religions have human beings seeking God, Christianity has God seeking human beings.

The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) privileged the Christian religion in his attempt to defend it against critics of his day in his On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (1799). Schleiermacher famously located religion’s basis in “the feeling of absolute dependence” (7). The person’s sense of fragility and finiteness in the world is what leads him to religion and the desire to be absorbed by something or someone greater. To Schleiermacher, Christianity is the most perfect form of religion and is what fulfills the “consciousness of being absolutely dependent, or, which is the thing, of being in relationship to God.”

Reflections and Remarks

There are a few remarks one might make in response to privileging specific religious traditions within one’s academic work on religion. It is important to acknowledge that some of these theorists were attempting to defend religion in the face of growing skepticism that had emerged in and after the Enlightenment period. There was a tendency for theorists, some of them Christians, to locate religion’s legitimacy in human experience and the empirical world rather than in the supernatural or transcendent. Supernatural explanations were unwelcome to many thinkers, which proved a threat to religious beliefs which emphasized divine revelation, in particular Christianity. And of course one would be in his right to defend his worldview should he deem it necessary.

But the academic study of religion has evolved significantly since these times and is now a fully secular, scientific discipline taught in many leading universities today. In light of this, what might one make of these religious commitments given the accepted conditions of contemporary religion studies? A first observation would be that not all scholars of religion are Christian and given that some of these classical and formative theorists presented strong Christian convictions in their work, such would no doubt be objected to by those who do not share these commitments. Other scholars come from different religious backgrounds and will view their own religious figures and scriptures as the true expression of authentic religious sensibility, or they might not view any figure or text in such a way, or they might leave such commitments at the door when they wear the mantle of a scholar. In fact, as a secular discipline, the scholar’s own religious convictions or lack thereof are irrelevant and should play absolutely no role in his or her research process, data acquisition, data dissemination, and conclusions. One reason for this, of many, is that it is best to avoid standing on the toes of others given that religion is, as scholar Rita Gross explains, a “controversial subject about which people really have strong opinions, employing empathy is the only pedagogically appropriate method” (8). Gross further rightly states that “The academy is not the place for proselytizing for any specific religion or religious position. Full and fair strengths and weaknesses of all positions studied can and should be expected” (9).

Empathy, a development from the early phenomenology of religion, is indeed the appropriate method. Empathy is simply to treat one’s subject material, whether that be religious beliefs, practices, individuals, or communities, on its own terms and to avoid making value judgments concerning it. One way of doing this is to adopt an insider’s approach by entering into the mind of the religious individual, group, or community. For the modern scholar, it is therefore far from desirable to offend others, especially one’s own research group and participants, by openly viewing other religions as inferior to one’s own. In fact, many scholars of religion are particularly conscientious about this given the discipline’s colonial history during which ideologically driven scholars, Christians, secularists, and skeptics included, proposed notions of cultural, racial, and religious superiority over the beliefs of the newly discovered “savage tribes”, “primitives”, and “uncivilized” peoples. Such terminology and ideology is inextricably linked to conditions of power and exploitation, hence deliberate attempts to avoid it and the spawning of the post-colonial study of religion.

Are scholars allowed to have their own religious convictions? Of course, but to be a modern scholar within a secular discipline geared towards producing accurate knowledge on religion is to learn to master the skill of temporarily dropping or “bracketing” one’s own worldview commitments, values, and preconceptions as much as possible (10). Although it is in the scholar’s right to hold to the superiority of his or her own worldview within his/her private capacity, it remains inappropriate for this to reflect in academic work, a point often missed in the formative phases of this discipline.


1. Capps, Walter. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 270.

2. Menzies, Allan. 1895. History of Religion: A Sketch of Primitive Religious Beliefs and Practices, and of the Origin and Character of the Great Systems. New York: C. Scribner’s sons. p. 415.

3. MacCulloch, John Arnott. 1902. Comparative Theology. London: Methuen. p. 172.

4. Kraemer, Hendrik. 1962. Why Christianity of All Religions? Louisville: Westminster Press. p. 16.

5. World’s Student Christian Federation. 1911. Report of the Conference, Volume 9. p. 56

6. World’s Student Christian Federation. 1911. Ibid. p. 72.

7. Schleiermacher, Friedrich. 1893. On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. England: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Company, Limited. p. 106.

8. Gross, Rita. 1996. Feminism and Religion: An Introduction. Boston: Beacon Press. p. 10

9. Gross, Rita. 1996. Ibid. p. 12.

10. Gross, Rita. 1996. Ibid. p. 10.

One comment

  1. Broad base reflection but there is an assumption that Christianity is actually practised. Modern Christianity as practised by Catholic, Protestant is based on traditions that exist from a range of pagan sources, we just have to examine the use of the Pagan phallic symbol of the Cross, condemned in the bible, how about Christmas based on a Roman Festival that the rulers didn’t want to give up. So many of the saints are linked to mythology.
    Therefore, Christianity has enjoyed a favoured status because it is a mongrel. Those who follow the bible and Jesus own teachings are criticised by the Christian establishment, branded as fundamentalist or irrational.
    I enjoyed the article but would ask if you examined Christianity as practised and preached by the Jesus and the Disciples or Christianity based on the rise of the Roman Church and State control of the political system.
    Thanks you for the interesting content

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