(°1984) is invited lecturer in religious studies at Ghent University. Her research focuses on the history of the academic study of religion in 19th and 20th century Europe. She obtained her PhD from Ghent University (2012) with a dissertation on the ideas of the Belgian historian of religions Franz Cumont and the French Catholic priest and historian of religions Alfred Loisy within the context of the modernist crisis in the Catholic Church. Specializing in the study of scientific correspondence, she has been carrying out research on the making of history of religions as an academic discipline, and on scientific networks in knowledge production on ancient religions. She co-authored and co-edited “Mon cher Mithra.” La Correspondance entre Franz Cumont et Alfred Loisy, Mémoires de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (Paris, 2019) with Corinne Bonnet & Danny Praet. She also authored Alfred Loisy and the Making of History of Religions (De Gruyter, 2020), which received the 2020 Jan Gillis Award of the Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts for its original contribution to the history of science.
The spirit of progress and its changing faces.
The academic study of Judaism and dynamics of religious resilience in late 19th and early 20th century Europe
In the late 19th and early 20th century, evolutionary theories on the history of religions strongly dominated the academic study of religion. Modern scholarship of our 19th century predecessors has conclusively shown that the young discipline of ‘history of religions’ (also ‘science of religion’) developed at the interface of liberalizing Christian beliefs and secular historical-comparative methodology. In and through their purportedly strictly historical inquiries into the dynamics between the transformative forces and the timeless essence of religion(s), many scholars developed strategies to cope with the personal religious challenges posed by modernity. The result was that (modernized forms of) Christianity retained the dominant position in the history of religions, at the top spot of the evolutionary ladder.
But what about the position of Judaism in these grand narratives? Much in contrast to the well-investigated role of Christianity, both as object of inquiry and as hermeneutical horizon, that of Judaism has received much less scholarly attention. Was Judaism – ancient and modern – seen as able to absorb the evolutionary forces that allegedly ruled and shaped the history of religions? And to what extent did the young discipline of history of religions reflect, or even enforce specific religious ideas on Judaism and its potential for modernization among its Jewish, Christian, and freethinking representatives? With the drastic rise of antisemitic sentiment in our period of concern, intersecting social attitudes towards Jews are a point of constant vigilance when trying to answer these questions.
In this lecture we take our departure from the fiery 19th century controversy over the origins of Purim to offer more general considerations about the intimate proximities between the contemporary academic historiography of Judaism and ongoing religious transformations in European society. In the late 1890s James G. Frazer claimed that traces of primitive human sacrifices survived in modern Purim celebrations. The debate over Frazer’s ‘discovery’ mobilized leading scholars of religion across Europe, including, e.g., Franz Cumont, Salomon Reinach, Theodor Nöldeke, and Alfred Loisy, who left behind an exceptionally well-preserved corpus of private correspondence on the matter. A careful analysis of their letters and publications unveils that Frazer’s speculations not only catalyzed the trial of the comparative method. Writing the history of Judaism’s struggle with its ‘primitive instincts’ forced all of these scholars to come to terms with their own, often conflicting religious agendas and intricately intertwined social-cultural biases.