For anyone interested in the growing American awareness of other religions, the Seminary’s archives is a veritable gold mine.
One finds from India, for instance, a set of colorful “native” illustrations of the
celebrated exploits of the god Vishnu’s ten earthly avatars. These were commissioned for the society by Gordon Hall of Bombay, not a Princetonian but a faithful correspondent nevertheless. To supplement these firsthand missionary testimonials from the edges, the society’s members pooled their (probably meager) resources for the purchase of scholarly works that today would be the envy of any self-respecting theological library. Asiatick Researches, for instance, a journal founded by Sir William Jones of Calcutta, the great patron of British Orientalism, is nowadays found in the Seminary’s Rare Books Collection because the society scraped together enough money to subscribe to it for the duration of its existence.
Amazingly, heavy tomes like these were actually read (borrowing records from the society’s library still exist), not to add academic weight to a term paper—the history of religions had no place in the Seminary’s curriculum until a later era—but rather, it would seem, out of sheer excitement about the action on the edges between religions. Among the readers, after all, were more than a few who became, in modest ways, participants in the most significant change in modern Christian history, the shift in the center of Christianity from the Western to the non-Western world.
Even though undifferentiated from mission and apologetics, it was nonetheless in this way that the history of religions emerged in the Seminary as the discrete discipline it has now become. Although relegated to the edges of the official curriculum in these early years, a recognizable facsimile was always unofficially much nearer the center than would appear to have been the case.
Where attitudes toward, and not merely awareness of, other religions are concerned, it would be naïve and historically uncritical to overlook the deep-going differences between yesterday’s seminarians and today’s. If students of the Society of Inquiry cannot be dismissed as parochial yokels, neither were they likely to have empathized with the religions then being encountered on the edges of their world. Their compulsions were otherwise
than merely to broaden the horizon and contents of intellectual awareness; their pursuits had a definite purpose, to engage other religions in the world “out there” in the endeavor of missions. The encounter they anticipated would have been agonistic, marked by a spirit of contrariety, moderated neither by dialogue nor reciprocity. And to think of the Christianity they hoped to transplant in the world overseas as eventually freeing itself from the normative standards of Western Christendom would hardly have been imaginable.
Even among those who were sent, few would have returned theologically humbled or invigorated by their encounter with the living, empirical realities of other religions. A case in point would be that of Archibald Alexander Hodge (son of Charles Hodge), whose tenure in Allahabad (on the Ganges) appears to have left his theological self-understanding as unchallenged as it was before he ventured forth from Princeton’s hallowed precincts.
While in my experience of Princeton Seminary thus far, there are few in this community who wouldn’t cringe at hearing the beloved Professor A. A. Hodge, veteran of mission, admonish students to themselves go out as missionaries because to stay at home would be tantamount to the “murders of [non-Christian] souls” (from an undated address to a graduating class), the reason for cringing isn’t the idiom only but the theology itself—a matter too complex to enter into here. Despite, then, a certain continuity of ethos, of being predisposed toward the edges where the action most worth watching occurs, the discontinuities run deep. More than anything, between the past and the present lies a different sense of where the edges really are, that these are no longer somewhere else but here where we are.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but with the demise of Christendom (always anyway a self-deceiving myth) and especially the influx into America of new immigrant communities, international boundaries no longer need to be crossed to encounter other religions as vital, empirical realities. At this writing,
The New York Times carries on its front page news of a Vaishnava temple erected by the Hindu community in our neighboring state to the north. A seminarian today doesn’t need to pester a Gordon Hall in India with an inquiry about Vishnu’s avatars—their images can be seen firsthand and their stories heard in American accents. To be sure, further examples from other religions could be readily adduced. The cumulative effect upon those who care, who share the Princeton ethos, must surely be this, that the action most worth watching isn’t only “out there” but here as well.
If the meeting between religions in our own backyard is to be free of pointless frictions and meaningless incongruities, it would be well for the history of religions to be less on the edges of a seminarian’s course enrollments and nearer the center. Not only would that be a neighborly response to today’s pluralized America, it would also be a way of observing the commandment not to bear “false witness”—misrepresentation of other religions being a fault to which too many Christians, ourselves not excluded, are too easily inured.
Richard F. Young joined the PTS faculty in 2000 as the Elmer K. and Ethel R. Timby Associate Professor of the History of Religions. He came to Princeton from a position on the Faculty of International Studies at Meiji Gakuin University in Japan, where he had been a professor of South Asian studies since 1993. He first went to Japan in 1981 to teach in the Department of English at Aoyama Gakuin Women’s Junior College in Tokyo, and in 1985 joined the faculty at Meiji Gakuin under the auspices of the Global Mission Unit of the Presbyterian Church (USA). In the mid-1980s he worked in both Sri Lanka and India with the denomination.
History of Exchange
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