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American Academy of Religion

Oxford University Press


[Humanistic and Scientific Knowledge of Religion: Their Social Context and Contrast]: Comment
Author(s): Kurt H. Wolff
Source: Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Jun., 1970), pp. 173-175
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1461174
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173

COMMENT
open mind; not everybody will therefore
have even an initial chance truly to understand and really to penetrate beyond the
shining surface of things religious to their
essential core. Only he will have that
chance, and only he should engage in this
pursuit, who has rid himself of the prevailing pan-mechanicism,andthis is to say,
of the prevailing prejudices, of our epoch.

If I may be permitted a somewhat pungent formulation, I would say that the


first and foremost pre-condition for successful work in the field of religious
studies is a revolutionary act. That way
lies the great difficulty, the great challenge, and also the great promise of the
science to which we are devoting our
lives.

Commentby
KURTH. WOLFF
Departmentof Sociology

BrandeisUniversity
The title of ProfessorStark'spaper,
What can we infer from these theses
as it appearsin the programsof boththe about the subject matter suggested by the
AmericanAcademyof Religionand the title of Professor Stark's paper? I can
Society for the ScientificStudy of Reli- only be tentative. The title distinguishes
gion, is "Humanistic and Scientific or contrasts humanistic and scientific
Knowledge of Religion: Their Social knowledge of religion. Does Professor
ContextandContrast."
Stark mean to say that if knowledge of
Beforewe can relateProfessorStark's religion is humanistic it is not scientific,
paperto its title, we must review what and if it is scientific it is not humanistic?
I take to be its majortheses: (1) The On the basis of what I know of Professor
core of religionis mysteryif not mysti- Stark's work, I should rather think that
cism. (2) In line with, or becauseof, he distinguishes between (1) knowledge
the fact that the contemporaryUnited of true religion, the essence or core of
Stateshas as its "supremeguidingvalue" religion --and such knowledge is not
"controlof the physicaluniverse,""re- only scientific but also humanistic- and
ligion is sure to be regardedas merelya (2) knowledge of "the shining surface"
marginal--one might almost go so far of religion - and such knowledge may be
as to say almostan illegitimatephenome- scientific but is not humanistic.The social
non." (3) By contrast,"the socialform context of the first kind of knowledge is
of life which we call community is Gemeinschaft;of the second, by contrast,
favorableto the development,andthere- Gesellschaft.Yet some persons can liberate
fore also the appreciation,of religious themselves from the restrictions of Gesellphenomena."(4) Only he "who has rid schaftand by a revolutionary act gain not
himself of the prevailingpan-mechani- just scientific but scientific-humanistic
cism" of our society will have the knowledge of religion.
andreallyto
If this reading is even approximately
"chancetrulyto understand
penetratebeyond the shiningsurfaceof correct, it raises a number of questions.
things religiousto their essentialcore." The first question concerns the distinction
Thus, "the first and foremostpre-condi- between the two kinds of knowledge of
tion for successfulwork in the field of religion. Apparently, it is not just a
religiousstudiesis a revolutionaryact." matter of knowledge of core vs. surface,
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174

KURT H. WOLFF

because this would refer to a difference


in subject matter or depth only and hence
would not warrant the contrast between
"humanistic" and "scientific." What is
rather involved, or also involved, I think,
is a distinction, not just of knowledge,
but also of attitude or approach,such that
the humanistic attitude is commensurate
with religion or adequate to it, while the
merely scientific one is not. And what
makes the approach to religion an adequate one? Presumably the recognition
that the core of religion is mystery, possibly the "breakthroughto the true religious idea of God as the Absolutely
Other." That is to say, what makes the
approachto religion an adequateapproach
is not only a specific conception of religion but, more likely than not, a specific
religious belief. The question such a view
raises concerns, first, the grounds on
which a humanistic knowledge of this
kind can be argued to be scientific and,
second, the grounds - the same or different ones - on which it can be argued to
be humanistic.
Another question concerns the relations
between the social contexts of the knowledge of religion. Gemeinschaftis favorable to humanistic, Gesellschaft,at best,
to merely scientific knowledge of it. The
humanistic knowledge, we saw or inferred in the absence of evidence to the
contrary, is superior to purely scientific
knowledge, and this suggests that Gemeinschaftis superiorto Gesellschaft.Yet, some
persons who live in a Gesellschaftcan by
"a revolutionary act" acquire humanistic
knowledge of religion. Professor Stark
does not discuss the nature of this act,
but I can hardly think it amiss to suppose
that it refers to a religious experience, an
experience of religion in its core, perhaps the experience of "God as the
Absolutely Other." Yet what is the relation between such an act or experience
and the society in which it occurs?
Does it in any way contribute to making this society less of an association

and more of a community? If so, how?


If not, does it have any social significance, or is it simply good in itself?
If the latter, it is surely nothing to belittle, but it is not so surely germane,
much less relevant, to the topic of Professor Stark's paper.
Contrary to what Professor Stark appears to hold, his conception of religion
is not absolute but relative, that is, selective. It has no room for religion as a
social institution or for the social functions of religion, which may be unifying
or divisive, inspiring or stultifying, refining or bestializing; nor for the social contexts that favor this social function rather
than that. Consistent with such a selective conception of religion is the selectivity that characterizesProfessor Stark's
understanding of the two social contexts, community and association, with
reference to which he discusses the
mysteriumtremendum.More particularly,
in regard to community, selectivity takes
the form of romanticization; in regard to
association, that of impatience, hostility,
contempt.
Professor Stark also has failed to argue
some of his methodological practices.
Thus, the only clue he gives to the
ascertainment of a society's "values" is
the money it spends on their pursuit. The
question whether this is a justifiableprocedure is not raised, aside from the fact
that the concept of value remains unanalyzed. But above all, society is treated
as if it were homogeneous and, furthermore, identical with its government or
the powers that be. Surely, Professor
Stark must be aware that there is opposition, it seems increasing opposition, to
the "supreme guiding value," "the control of the universe" and, we shouldn't
forget it, of quite particular parts of it
such as, for our own "association,"
Vietnam, Latin America, and the moon,
among others. Professor Stark condemns
the one-sided view of man as creator,
which must be supplemented by that of

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175

COMMENT
man as created, as creature. But it seems
to me that his own view of man as
creator is one-sided, ignoring, for instance, the tragedy in Icarus, Prometheus,
Faustus. Thus if, as Professor Stark
claims, a painful shortcoming of modern
man is "his impotent way of dealing
with tragedy and death," Professor
Stark's failure to show an awareness of
such tragedy in the idea of man the
creator might suggest that he more
nearly exhibits than analyzes this shortcoming - and this itself is not far from
tragedy.
Community is conscious of the past,
society is not. Professor Stark treats
these two propositions as self-evident, and
the second also as lamentable. Being selfevident, they call for no explaining or
demonstrating. But this strikes me as
hardly a sociologist's procedure; and if
there is any connection between being

religious and being charitable and compassionate, rather than withdrawing into
contemplation of the mysterious, then
this is not the attitude of a religious
person either. Really, Professor Stark
writes as if there were no protest, no
rebellion - and conspicuously by priests
and ministers and rabbis, too- no discontent, no feeling of impotence, no confusion, no unhappiness, no longing, no
despair, nor, for that matter, any effort
to understand by careful analyses where
we are, how we got here, how we might
get out of our misery. In my own understanding of scientific and humanistic
knowledge, of society, history, sociology,
religion, even in my absurdly small
understandingof "God as the Absolutely
Other," I reluctantly come to the painful
conclusion that Professor Stark's paper
has little that is scientific, humanistic, or
religious.

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