Philologist Friedrich Max Müller’s Theory of Religion

Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900) was a Sanskrit scholar and philologist, and specialist in comparative religion and mythology often considered the founder of the science of religion. He was integral to the development of religious studies as an academic discipline.

Müller’s life was academic. He enrolled at the University of Leipzig to study languages, psychology, and anthropology before deciding to make Sanskrit his specialization. He obtained his Ph.D. for his thesis On the Third Book of Spinoza’s Ethics, De Affectibus (1843) and worked in the areas of comparative philology and philosophy, and then Sanskrit and comparative religion before moving to England where in 1850 he became a deputy professor of modern European languages. 

In England Müller was fortunate to have access to materials that enabled him to translate Vedic texts. In 1868 he became a professor of comparative philology at Oxford. Arguably Müller’s most highlighted work is The Sacred Books of the East (1879-1910) which offered translations of Vedic hymns, Buddhist texts, and more. Besides The Sacred Books of the East, Müller authored important works in the science of religion such as his Chips from a German Workshop (1867), Essays on the Science of Religion (1869), and Introduction to the Science of Religion (1870).

Critical Approach to Religion

Müller was a Christian who embraced the faith in which he was brought up, but few would say he was Christian in any orthodox sense. His theological opponents alleged his ideas to be averse to the Christian religion and to any notion of a personal God. 

Further, Müller claimed that the Christian Bible could be approached critically as any other ancient book,

“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” (1).

He also states that a science of religion will be the first to “assign to Christianity its right place among the religions of the world” (2). These views, of course, did not gel well with those who believed the Bible to be superior to any other book and considered it inappropriate to view it alongside other religious texts as an equal.

Müller did not offer any apologetic for Christianity and neither was he an enemy of the faith. He can be viewed as a positive-skeptic (3). He was “positive” in the sense of not being concerned with debunking or demythologizing sacred texts and he hoped to use his curiosity and questioning as avenues to deepen his own spirituality. He was a “skeptic” in the sense of his beliefs and goals not cohering with the teachings and beliefs of the Church, and he did not treat the Bible in the revered way most Christians did.

The Infinite and Mythology

Müller believed that at the core of religion is a consciousness of the Infinite. Human beings have a deeply religious nature and their ideas of the transcendent emerged from observation and contemplation of objects, such as the sun, ocean, mountains, and so on. From this contemplation of nature, human beings derived knowledge of the Infinite. The earliest conceptions of deity were personifications of natural phenomena that gave the earliest human beings an intuition of deity and 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” (4). 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” (5).

Müller maintained that mythology, “the bane of the ancient world”, is a “disease of language” (6). Tracing the original meaning of the names of gods (Zeus, Pyrrha, Eos, Hecate, etc.), Müller noticed how they were initially references to natural phenomena but were then soon given a “more substantial existence” in the form of a “divine personality never contemplated by their original inventors.” For example, Eos was a name of the dawn before she became a goddess and Zeus “originally meant the bright heaven” before becoming a supreme god. 

Insights on Language

Müller wanted to understand the meaning behind modern European words as he considered this essential for comprehending how contemporary people understand religious ideas (7).

He noticed that the English word “divinity” is seemingly similar to its equivalent in other languages such as in the French divinité and Spanish divinidad. Müller wanted to explain these similarities and considered the possibility that “divinity” might originate in some other language that passed the term on to these languages. Müller thought that if he could get at the root of a word, it could offer insight into the way the most ancient people thought about concepts.

Müller traces the word “God” to deva in Sanskrit, which is again similar to the Latin divus. This similarity suggests that at the root of both European and Indian languages is a common idea of what “God” means. Müller theorized that another language must lie behind Sanskrit and Latin. He called this root language “Indo-European”. 

When he searched for the root term of “God” and “divinity” he discovered the word div. From this tiny word are the other terms “divinity” and “deva” derived. Div simply means “to shine” indicating belief in a radiant, high god the Indo-Europeans worshiped. This idea of “God” was then passed down through languages and to other peoples. This is why the Vedas, in which are contained some of the oldest scriptures in the world, are often addressed to the sun. The little term div from a more ancient Indo-European language came to have a bearing on the religious language and concepts of Indians.

Müller believed he had discovered an Indo-European mentality transmitted in language and that continued to live on in modern Western people (8). Modern people continue to understand “divinity” and “God” similarly to how ancient Indo-Europeans did. The Indo-Europeans believed in a radiant, high god, who was often thought of as a father and male. Many Westerners today share a similar conception of what God is.

A Science of Religion

In Müller’s view, one needs to extend his knowledge of religion. As he stated, “He who knows one [religion], knows none”. He maintained that one needs to ask critical questions. When it comes to sacred texts, one is to ask,

“When was it written? Where? and by whom? Was the author an eye-witness, or does he only relate what he has heard from others? And if the latter, were his authorities at least contemporaneous with the events which they relate, and were they under the sway of party feeling or any other disturbing influence? Was the whole book written at once, or does it contain portions of an earlier date; and if so, is it possible for us to separate these earlier documents from the body of the book?” (9)

Studying sacred texts will yield significant insight including being able to “distinguish in each religion between what is really ancient and what is comparatively modern; between what was the doctrine of the founders and their immediate disciples, and what were the afterthoughts and, generally, the corruptions of later ages” (10).

It is arguably Müller’s stressing the need to attain a broader knowledge of religions combined with asking critical questions that make him stand out in the historical development of contemporary religious studies. Müller wants to justify studying religion as a science and argues that a scientific study of religion comes to the “advantage of a comparative study of religions”, especially when considering other religions district from one’s own (11). Müller does not want to describe the religions of “barbarous nations” as defective, as many others did. Rather, he maintains that even the supposedly “degraded jargons [and religions] contain the ruins of former greatness and beauty”. Religion is generally sacred and in its perfect and imperfect forms deserves the highest respect.

A science of religion is can uncover the greatness of religion. As a comparative study, the science of religion should, rather than looking only for points of difference as do missionaries, pursue common ground between faiths because one could “learn something from those whom we are so ready to teach” (12). At the very least, one will profit from such an engagement,

“And even to us at home, a wider view of the religious life of the world may teach many a useful lesson. Immense as is the difference between our own and all other religions of the world – and few can know that difference who have not honestly examined the foundations of their own as well as of other religions… while watching their appearance in different countries, and their treatment under varying circumstances, we shall be able, I believe, to profit ourselves, both by the errors which others committed before us, and by the truth which they discovered” (13).

Second, a science of religion serves to expand human knowledge. It is no good one having a strong faith but lacking knowledge of other religions: “There are thousands of people whose faith is such that it could move mountains, and who yet, if they were asked what religion really is, would remain silent, or would speak of outward tokens rather than of the inward” (14). As was noted earlier regarding Müller’s position, to know one religion is to know none.

Müller realized that a science of religion will engender strong objections, especially from the religious. Religion is immensely important to those who embrace it. It is “inseparable” and “something unique” that “cannot be compared to anything else, or replaced by anything else” (15). One’s own religion is like his language in that although it shares similarities to others of its type, it stands unique and alone. Müller remarks,

“I know that I shall have to meet determined antagonists who will deny the possibility of a scientific treatment of religions as they denied the possibility of a scientific treatment of languages. I foresee even a far more serious conflict with familiar prejudices and deep-rooted convictions…The very title of the Science of Religion will jar, I know, on the ears of many persons, and a comparison of all the religions of the world, in which none can claim a privileged position, will no doubt seem to many dangerous and reprehensible” (16).

Further: “In these our days it is almost impossible to speak of religion without giving offence either on the right or on the left. With some, religion seems too sacred a subject for scientific treatment” (17).

Müller maintains that truth matters and that personal sensitivities should not obstruct its pursuit. Neither does Müller deny that major changes might occur in one’s religious outlook. That a science of religion “will change many of the views commonly held about the origin, the character, the growth, and decay of the religions of the world, I do not deny” (18).

He maintains that the religious should not fear a scientific study of religion. They should not fear treating their own cherished faith “in a truly historical spirit, in the same spirit in which we treat the history of other religions, such as Brahmanism, Buddhism, or Mohammedanism” (19). Such a treatment need not be merciful but one that encounters “the severest tests and trials…” (20). He who fears a critical examination of religion, including of his faith, is “a man of little faith…”

But Müller maintains that to understand “fully the position of Christianity in the history of the world” one needs to place it among the world’s religions and compare it to them (21). The science of religion, as Müller defines it, is not a deliberate attack on any particular faith but is rather “impartial” in its “scientific comparison of all, or at all events, of the most important, religions of mankind” (22).

Further Reflections 

Müller’s must have been an exciting time for interested scholars studying previously unknown religious traditions and manuscripts as colonial expansion encountered new territories. One can imagine the wealth of new information on religions the researcher must have learned by studying these texts. But there was a downside too. The Church of England threatened to censor Müller’s work and end his career. They did not receive lightly his willingness to place the Bible alongside the scriptures of other religions. He dare not compare Christianity to other inferior religions, his opponents charged. Likely many conservative Christians, biblical literalists, and those embracing Christian exceptionalism today will object to Müller’s approach along these same lines.

Müller’s value to the scientific study of religion lies partly in his critical approach. He approached all sacred, religious texts in the same fashion. One could approach them as historical documents that were put together by human beings and shaped by historical processes. This is a non-confessional approach that scholars of religion appreciate today. It is but one reason “we should revere Müller as one of the founders of the study of religion. His open, critical approach to religious scripture remains a lasting legacy of his work in the study of religion” (23). 

Some questions do emerge. For instance, regarding what religions and religious texts one decides to study comparatively. Müller encouraged the comparative approach, but the selection of religions and texts we decide to study involves a value judgment. What exactly is this judgment? Perhaps the comparativist scholar considers some religions to be more authentic than others and deserving of comparison. In such a case, certain religions, or a specific religion, will conform to a perceived ideal more so than others and can lead the scholar to privilege some religions at the expense of others. 

References

1. Max Müller, Friedrich. 2020. My Autobiography. Norderstedt: BoD – Books on Demand. p. 152.

2. Max Müller, Friedrich. 2013. Chips From A German Workshop – Volume I Essays on the Science of Religion. Archive Classics. p. 26.

3. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 34. 

4. Max Müller, Friedrich. 2020. Thoughts on Life and Religion. Norderstedt: BoD – Books on Demand. p. 84.

5. Max Müller, Friedrich. 2020. Ibid. p. 84.

6. Max Müller, Friedrich. 2013. Lectures on The Science of Language. Archive Classics. p. 17-18 (ebook)

7. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. p. 36.

8. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. p. 37.

9. Friedrich Max Müller quoted in Waardenburg, Jacques. 2017. Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion: Aims, Methods, and Theories of Research. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG. p. 92. 

10. Friedrich Max Müller quoted in Waardenburg, Jacques. 2017. Ibid. p. 92. 

11. Max Müller, Friedrich. 2013. Ibid. p. 26. 

12. Friedrich Max Müller quoted in Waardenburg, Jacques. 2017. Ibid. p. 87.

13. Friedrich Max Müller quoted in Waardenburg, Jacques. 2017. Ibid. p. 85.

14. Friedrich Max Müller quoted in Waardenburg, Jacques. 2017. Ibid. p. 91.

15. Max Müller, Friedrich. 2013. Ibid. p. 32.

16. Friedrich Max Müller quoted in Waardenburg, Jacques. 2017. Ibid. p. 87.

17. Friedrich Max Müller quoted in Waardenburg, Jacques. 2017. Ibid. p. 87.

18. Friedrich Max Müller quoted in Waardenburg, Jacques. 2017. Ibid. p. 91.

19. Max Müller, Friedrich. 2013. Ibid. p. 26. 

20. Max Müller, Friedrich. 2013. Ibid. p. 27. 

21. Friedrich Max Müller quoted in Waardenburg, Jacques. 2017. Ibid. p. 87.

22. Friedrich Max Müller quoted in Waardenburg, Jacques. 2017. Ibid. p. 93. 

23. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. p. 34

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