History of religious studies can be considered as an independent academic topic. Independent from the single religions with their own worldviews. This interesting book is written by Eric Sharpe, former professor of religious studies at the University of Sydney. Here it's treated a fascinating topic: the way the religions have been approached by different scholars along the modern and contemporary age.
The history of comparative religion is traced in detail from its beginnings in the nineteenth century, since the pioneeristic works of the first modern anthropologists: Tylor, Lang, Robertson Smith, Frazer and also Malinowsky. Sharpe's book shows how these different scholars treated the religious phenomenon in their anthropological research, and how everyone contributed with different interpretations.
After the anthropological conception of religion, Sharpe focuses the attention on the american psychologists of religion (Starbuck, Leuba, W. James) and shows how much their importance must be considered in relation to the cultural crisis of the period which anticipated the First World War, when the evolutionary approach was seriously called into question. In the most relativistic approach to religions, so proposed by american psychologists, Sharpe spots the most important contribute of the United States to the study of the topic: "Men of the the scholarly status of W. D. Whitney, James Freeman Clarke and George Foot Moore were the equals of the their european counterparts, but nevertheless there was very little they could do to make a distinctively american contribution to the comparative study of religion. It would have been very strange, however, had the dynamic and cosmopolitan New World been in the long run content to remain just a cultural extension of Europe. Some distinctively American area of study had to be created sooner or later; and in the event, that area was the psychology of religion, the opening up of which took place in the years around the turn of the century. There are still those for whom the psychology of religion has always been, and remains, a typical 'auxiliary science', somewhere on the fringe of the study of religion (...)".
After the interesting interpretation proposed by the author about anthropogical and psychological contribute to the study of religion, we find the relevance that Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung earned on the religious studies, whose relevance is then destined to grow after the second world war.
Then, here we read about the tensions between comparative religion and theology, whose perpectives look very hard to be accorded to each other.
The part on the phenomenology of religion deserves a special attention. The milestone of this discipline was the publication in 1933 of the dutch scholar Gerardus Van der Leuuw, and since the appearance of his work, the term "phenomenology of religion" has gradually acquired a certain vogue, and indeed "now occupies in a few quarters the kind of position once held by the older term 'comparative religion'". Anyway, the term "phenenology of religion" had been already coined by another dutch scholar, Chantepie de la Saussaye, in a work published in 1887. But Chantepie introduced the term without offering any philosophical justification for its use, apart from making the general observation that the task of the discipline is "to investigate both the essence and the empirical, visible manifestation of religion". So Sharpe recognizes that the phenomenology of religion, in its earliest form, "was meant to be no more than a systematic counterpart to the history of religion, an elementary method of cross-cultural comparison of the constitutent elements of religious belief and practice, as opposed to their treatment in cultural isolation and chronological sequence". Sharpe remarks the distinction between the later and more philosophical method, which acquired the same name, and the former Chantepie's proposal, naming this one as "descriptive phenomenology". Here we find out that the most influent contribute to the development of the discipline has to connected to the figure of Nathan Soderblom, who influenced Friedrich Heiler and also Gerardus Van der Leeuw. Like Soderblom, Van der Leeuw was professor of History of Religion at University of Groningen, and devoted his inaugural lecture to a discussion on the relationship between comparative religion and Christian theology. During his lifelong teaching, he stressed that the phenenology of religion is something more than pure history; according to his perspective, "when the phenomenologist ceases to understand the material under his hand, his work is at an end, but when the historian ceases to understand, he can still go on recording and cataloguing for the sake of others". But the revelation is a moment that remains inaccessible to phenomenologist's analysis. And this author claimed so the "we can never understand God's utterance by mean of any purely intellectual capacity: what we can understand is only our own answer".
Sharpe's book is a very interesting reading, and it's recommended to everyone who's interested in history of religions - as well as in the methodology of historical and cultural studies.