This article is both an introduction to a collection of papers that critically discuss and evaluate the volume The Legacy, Life and Work of Geo Widengren and the Study of the History of Religions after World War II, which I edited and published with Brill in 2021, as well as an opportunity for me to think with and about the Swedish historian of religions, Geo Widengren (1907–1996). Widengren was the holder of the chair in the History of Religions and Psychology of Religions at Uppsala University between 1940 and 1973.
Geo Widengren (1907–1996), holder of the chair in the History of Religions and Psychology of Religions at Uppsala University between 1940 and 1973, is a remarkable scholar in the field of religious studies. Even so he is not well-known today, and his books and articles are no longer read by scholars in the field. Together with other Swedish scholars, such as Nathan Söderblom (1866–1931, on whom see, for instance, Lange 2011) and Tor Andræ (1885–1947, on whom see, for instance, Widengren 1947), he established the scientific study of the History of Religions in Sweden and made a significant contribution to the field in Europe and North America. For instance, his importance for the establishment of the International Association for the Study of the History of Religions (I.A.S.H.R, now abbreviated to the International Association for the History of Religions, IAHR) and its journal NVMEN should not be underestimated (see, for instance, Jensen and Fujiwara 2021; Casadio 2016). His knowledge of languages and historical periods was astonishing, and it is hard to find his equal today. To put it in his own words, the current generation of scholars (i.e., those who followed his retirement in 1973) are frankly speaking “lazy” when it comes to learning languages and the craftsmanship of philology (Widengren 1989: 67). Leaving this harsh comment aside, in the edited volume The Legacy, Life and Work of Geo Widengren and the Study of the History of Religions after World War II, which I edited and published with Brill (2021), a few Swedish, Nordic, and international scholars were invited to analyze and critically examine his legacy. Besides writing the history of the academic study of the History of Religion, the overarching aim was to ask whether we can learn something from the past? And in what ways is the study of the History of Religion different today from past periods? Can Widengren serve as a stepping-stone to discussing how the subject matter and the discipline have changed over time?
The articles included in this special section of Method and Theory for the Study of Religions were all presented at the European Association for the Study of Religion’s conference held at University College Cork, Ireland, from 27 June to 1 July 2022. The contributors all took part in a round-table discussion that aimed to scrutinize and discuss my edited publication mentioned above. Those who participated in the round-table were not only asked to evaluate the benefits and shortcomings of the book critically, they were also invited to think critically with or against Widengren. Those who participated in the round-table were Professor Michael Stausberg (University of Bergen1), Professor Ingvild Sælid Gilhus (University of Bergen) and Professor Jeppe Sinding Jensen (Aarhus University).
Before we turn to the apt and well-delivered critical comments of my distinguished colleagues, I would like to point out one aspect I find very curious about Widengren and his time, though it is not unique. In most academic branches of the Humanities, one can argue that the research ideal is still the enlightened genius working in solitude to solve a large problem that is ultimately presented in a hefty monograph published with a distinguished publisher. Even acknowledging the seminar – which is very much a collaborative enterprise – it is still primarily by reading books, studying difficult languages, and if we are lucky possibly acquiring some students or even doctoral candidates to walk in our footsteps that we become established and influential scholars of religion. This ideal is, of course, an ideal type that, among other things, leaves aside the ethnographic and anthropological approaches that are also found within the Humanities. Moreover, it is arguably very different from how scientific progress is made within the natural sciences or even social sciences. Even when the critical observer reacts and stresses that working in a laboratory can also be conducted by a single individual and argues that much has changed since the height of Widengren’s career, which is correct, I nevertheless argue that the old research ideal of the isolated genius is still strong within in the Humanities. For instance, in my current position as Deputy Dean at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Gothenburg, this is the case when comparing bibliometric patterns within the university. When co-written articles are the main or only way of publishing research data in fields in the natural sciences, medicine, or even social sciences, most but not all Humanities scholars are still defending the monograph and the single-authored article or chapter. Although there is nothing wrong with that, there is also room for discussing the implications of this ideal.
In one of his last published texts, “From Mana to High God: Some Metho‑ dological Problems in Phenomenology of Religion,” which was included in the proceedings of an international seminar, Storia delle idee: problemi e prospettive, edited by Massimo L. Bianchi (Rome 1989), Widengren touches upon some of these aspects. Following his standard procedure when criticizing other scholars, he laments that: “No scholar can master more than a couple of religions” (Widengren 1989: 57). While most scholars suffer from this weakness, i.e., that they have to rely on research conducted by other scholars, Widengren implicitly argues that he has avoided the problem of “Sed nihil ab omni parte beatum est” (roughly translated as “but there is nothing that is blessed in every respect”) because his inferences are based on “my [Widengren’s] own various publications and my own collections of data” (Widengren 1989: 57). Even though it is true that his textbook on the phenomenology of religions (first published in Swedish in 1945 as Religionens värld and later translated into German, Spanish and Italian) was very much based on his own research, he also “stood on the shoulders of giants,” to paraphrase the famous quote from Sir Isaac Newton (see, for instance, Bird 2016: 544).
For instance, one result from my own research on Widengren is to suggest that he should be analysed as a member of a group of scholars, making it hard to label him as an isolated genius. On that note, I have been influenced by the Dutch scholar of religions, Willem Hofstee, who writes:
The history of the science of religion is to a considerable extent the history of groups. What I refer to is groups of friends, discussion partners, close-knit circles that in some respects seem to have the characteristics of social movements. (HOFSTEE 2000: 176)
For Widengren, his “group of friends” were primarily scholars who were associated with him in the establishment of IAHR, NVMEN, and the so-called “Myth and Ritual School” in the UK. Among these groups we find scholars like Raffaele Pettazoni (1883–1959), Jouco C. Bleeker (1898–1983), Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) and George Dumézil (1898–1986). There is no doubt that to be among these scholars and to be viewed as equally important to them demonstrates Widengren’s importance and impact on the development of the History of Religions as an academic discipline after the Second World War. However, this indirect independence of a select number of scholars, who are frequently quoted by Widengren, is also a potential problem, as it may leave aside conclusions or contrasting interpretations that are not supported by Widengren or his academic friends. Instead of testing his (often) bold hypotheses and his search for patterns in the history of religions, Widengren seldom paid attention to scholars who either disagreed with him or criticized him. One striking example is the heavy criticism directed at Widengren by the Finnish anthropologist and historian of religions Rafael Karsten (1879–1956; on his criticisms of Widengren, see Gothóni and Larsson 2021). For Karsten, Widengren was trapped in an evolutionary way of thinking, and given his emphasis on so-called High Gods as the beginning of all religions (cf. Larsson 2019a), he was even looked upon as a theologian defending monotheism. This criticism was most likely based on the notion that Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954) and his ideas about a so-called Ur-monotheism were important for several scholars at the University of Uppsala. His influence is indicated especially by the fact that Schmidt had delivered the Olaus Petri lecture in Uppsala in 1936. This lecture was later published and translated into Swedish (Schmidt 1936), and we know that Widengren attended it (Widengren 1947: 199). But for a critic like Karsten this connection was not beneficial for Uppsala. Writing about the alleged influence of theology in Uppsala, he notes sarcastically:
Nearly all movements and scholars have their own fixed ideas and special favourite dogmas, which are often difficult to combat. This seems to be especially characteristic amongst theologians who study religions. In their studies, they assume certain dogmatic presumptions, for one thing because they have grave difficulties in liberating themselves from their inclination to apply theological viewpoints to questions that explicitly concern historians of religion. When the current [chair of] the History of Religion, as in the case in Sweden, is in the Faculty of Theology, it is an outdated arrangement that does not at all redound to the study of religion. (KARSTEN 1947: 132; translation taken from GOTHÓNI and LARSSON 2021: 209)
For Karsten, who was a strong defender of animistic explanations as well as the “positive sciences of [empirical] experience” and a strong critic of the theologically and confessionally motivated study of religions, Widengren was at best pretentious. This criticism must have been especially hard for Widengren to take, as he had tried to break with his academic predecessors, Tor Andræ and Nathan Söderblom. Unlike them, Widengren strongly believed that confessional or personal religious beliefs should be left out of academic study (cf. Hjärpe 2021). But this was not the only criticism delivered by Karsten: contrary to his own self-appraisal, Widengren was not able to read sources in Russian or Finnish – crucial for those who wanted to say anything substantial about Finnish-Ugric and other north Asian peoples – nor did he pay any attention to scientific studies published in Spanish or Portuguese, argues Karsten (see Karsten 1947).
Without going into Karsten’s criticisms in any more detail (see Gothóni and Larsson 2021 for a more elaborate presentation), and leaving aside his rather childish criticisms (e.g., “I know more languages than you do”), it is certainly true that Widengren often dismissed, ridiculed, or ignored those who criticized him. Even though it is easy to understand this response – it is still very much part of academia, it is most likely also part of our DNA, and all humans suffer from confirmation bias (e.g., Mercier and Sperber 2019: Ch. 18) – it is not productive or academic enough to advance our general knowledge.
Keeping this criticism in mind, one should remember that it is not at all easy to come to a simple conclusion about scientific progress and what progress entails. As Alexander Bird (2016) argues, scientific progress has at least three different goals: 1) solving scientific problems; 2) increasing proximity to the truth; and 3) the accumulation of knowledge. However, the very notion of scientific progress is also closely related to what Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996) calls paradigm shifts (Kuhn 1962). Without going into any details or philosophical discussions about progress, truth or knowledge – three vast fields of inquiry in the philosophy of science – it is interesting to suggest that the natural sciences, medicine and partly also the social sciences are more inclined to stress that the scientific enterprise should strive for progress and to better our knowledge of the world, while the arts (in which humanistic studies are often included) do not, according to Bird (2016: 545). Progress is therefore not as important for humanists who strive for an understanding of the world rather than an explanation for it. This is, of course, an ideal-type division separating the sciences that are based on either a nomothetic or idiographic outlook. However, with advances in the study of religions, this boundary is not easy to uphold: for good or ill, the boundaries between the sciences have become much more floating and open to discussion. While some scholars of religions might find this development disturbing, I for one embrace this opportunity (cf., for instance, Larsson 2019b; 2020).
However, let me return to Widengren and his text from the symposium in Rome. In it, it is interesting to see how he criticizes his contemporary scholars for being over-interested in methodological questions. For example, when discussing Science of Religion: Studies in Methodology, a book edited by the Finnish scholar Lauri Honko (1932–2002) published in 1979, which contained some of the papers presented at the IAHR conference held in Turko/Åbo in 1973, Widengren stresses this point and adds:
Actually one is rather tempted to ask whether to the contributors the methodology is more important than the results one tries to attain to thanks to a special method. (WIDENGREN 1989: 67)
Leaving aside the fact that it is difficult to understand why Widengren is upset by the growing interest in methodological questions, it is easy to argue that his own research too had been guided by an implicit “special method”. To put it differently, Widengren seldom if ever presented his own starting points or criteria for comparisons or explained why he included certain sources while excluding others, or how he relates to earlier studies or conclusions that contradict his own suggestions or interpretations. Throughout his career, Widengren was criticized for using predefined patterns and for using his typologies without paying critical attention to data that do not support his own predefined interests in topics like sacred kingship and High Gods (see, for instance, Mowinckel 1946). For instance, in his review of Religionens värld, Sigmund Mowinckel (1884–1965) explicitly states that some of Widengren’s conclusions and readings were “largely determined by the author’s personal interests and studies,” as a result of which they were not as objective as Widengren claimed (Mowinckel 1946: 181–2; my translation). So, when discussing Honko’s edited volume, it is fair to argue that Widengren was not particularly interested in questions of concerning theory or method (cf., Hjärpe 2021). For Widengren, theory and method are most often (if not always) restricted to comparative phenomenology or philology (see, for instance, Widengren 1968; 1971). While I must admit that I think Widengren is correct when he writes that many contemporary scholars suffer from “their lack of philological knowledge” (Widengren 1989: 67), I disagree with his conclusion that this lack is the sole explanation for their lengthy discussions about methods.
After Widengren retired from his chair in Uppsala in 1973, it became more and more obvious that his emphasis on the comparative and typological form of phenomenology that he defended throughout his career had become obsolete. Contrary to his own self-perception, Widengren had few followers, and his magnum opus Religionens värld was no longer used as a “manual for my students at Uppsala University” (Widengren 1989: 57). While the world had moved on, Widengren was basically putting forward the same arguments that he had done since the 1940s. Painful though it may be, this is a gentle reminder that it is very easy to fall in love with our own cherished ideas. I would therefore recommend that fellow scholars of religions pay close attention to advances in theoretical and methodological discussions. However, besides upholding a critical approach to novel theories and methods, we also need to pay attention to the highly important field of the philosophy of science, i.e., to how knowledge is produced and what we mean when we claim to know something. While it is very easy to be critical of a giant like Widengren, we must be humble and live with the gloomy likelihood that most of us will just fade out into oblivion. Thus, it is only by receiving critical attention, or even harsh comments, that we shall know whether we have been relevant or not, and from this point of view I would like to argue that Widengren is a very important scholar who deserves serious attention.
1 Thinking Critically with Widengren
As the holder of the chair in the History of Religions and Psychology of Religions at Uppsala University between 1940 and 1973, and with over two hundred publications in Swedish, German, French, Italian and Spanish, including some translations into Persian and Arabic (Casadio and Larsson 2021), and his engagement in setting up both the IAHR and its journal NVMEN (Jensen and Fujiwara 2021), it would be difficult to claim that Widengren was not an important scholar within the study of religions. However, when pondering over his legacy today, it is easy to find examples of things that have fallen to pieces as well as been improved over the years. For one thing, the comparative and systematic philological study of languages (at least in Sweden) has declined in importance within the study of religions, and this has had the effect that older epochs have been given less attention since the 1970s and onwards (on this development see, for instance, Thomassen 1999). Since the mid-1990s, the focus has predominantly been on the contemporary period and so-called lived religion, i.e., not on written texts, but on religious practices (e.g., rituals, materiality, food, and clothes) and the life of so-called ordinary believers (cf., for an assessment and literature review of the study of “lived religion” and “everyday religion,” for instance, McGuire 2008; Ammerman 2016). This is something that could be lamented, and I think that Widengren is partly right when he criticizes my own generation for being somewhat “lazy” when it comes to the comparative and philological study of languages. But compared to the height of Widengren’s career, most scholars within the study of religions have also taken gigantic steps when it comes to theory, method, and ethical evaluations. For example, today it is not possible to write a scientific work resembling the studies conducted by Widengren, and it is no longer possible for one person to have command over just one research field (e.g., Gnosticism, “Iranian religions,” etc.). This is, of course, something we can regret, but the times have changed, and most so-called world religions are present in our own society today, which allows their followers to respond if they disagree with our findings and conclusions. This should, of course, not be taken as an excuse for avoiding controversial topics or making inferences that are not shared with members of the religious communities that we study (cf. Larsson 2012). But the contemporary situation is quite different from the time when giants like Widengren walked the earth, and today religion has become a very politicized topic, not the least when it comes to my own field of specialty, namely the study of Islam (cf. Hughes 2015).
However, one thing I think we should pay more attention to is the boldness of Widengren’s hypotheses. Even though it is often easy to criticize his explanations and his search for patterns, I believe that this ambition shows that Widengren had the determination to come up with summaries and theories that explain a certain development or period. Even though Widengren most likely did not think of his work as involving any kind of theory or the production of hypotheses, I think it is fair to read some of his suggestions and conclusions as nothing but theories and hypotheses. However, as shown by several contributors to The Legacy, Life and Work of Geo Widengren and the Study of the History of Religions after World War II, it is often easy to criticize this ambition, and his conclusions seldom, if ever survive today. Importantly, however, Widengren wanted to show that the study of religions, and more specifically the History of Religions, was important and had made significant contribution to the sciences. Instead of being stuck in an endless process of collecting more data or applying the latest theory, Widengren wanted to explain the larger picture and to show how religious ideas were formed and developed over time. At least for me, this is an important legacy to remember for the future.
If scholars of religions cease producing explanations, we will have a slim chance of making our own field interesting and generally relevant within the sciences. When Widengren retired from his chair in Uppsala in 1973, the humanities and arts, but partly also the social sciences, were for good reasons transformed by what has been called the linguistic turn (a phrase often associated with Rorty 1967), and criticism of comparative phenomenology changed the foundations of the History of Religions as a discipline (McCutcheon 2001). Jeppe Sinding Jensen puts it aptly when he writes about these changes and how they have influenced the contemporary study of religions:
Few scholars in the human sciences favour essences and foundations these days. The word is out that all things are specific, local, contingent, accidental and so forth. No longer is philosophy a “mirror of nature”, there are no “grand narratives”, and no “God’s Eye view”. The only view we have is “from nowhere” and, thus, all things are relative, if indeed, they do exist at all. This “Spirit of the Age” also relates to the study of things religious – they are specific, local etc. So specific may the specificities be that they are not really comparable to anything else. But then, how do we know that they are not comparable or that they are really specific – if they are not comparable? (JENSEN 1999–2000)
While there are several good reasons for these changes, the downside is that the study of religions is running the risk of becoming an obsolete and fragmented field divided into an infinite number of subdisciplines that have serious problems in showing why they are relevant. For me, at least – and on this point, I think that Widengren would reluctantly agree – it is necessary to develop larger research groups that contradict and remedy some of the problems I have identified when it comes to the idea that scholars are isolated geniuses or shaped by the uncritical biases that can easily develop among a group of friends (cf., Hofestee 2000). To put it differently, we must be bold and come up with larger and more general theories and explanations for why humans have a capacity to think with something we call “religion” (keeping in mind that religion is not a stand-alone category (see Fitzgerald 2017)) and that the “things” we label as religious ideas or practices are also part of us as humans, i.e., they can be naturally explained (see, for instance, Martin and Wiebe 2019 and Jensen in this special section of MTSR). However, to be able to raise such questions and reestablish the study of religions as a fundamental and key component within the sciences, it is also necessary to study the history of the discipline. If we do not know our past and the scientific underpinnings that guided our supervisors and predecessors, we will most likely be less successful in pointing out new questions and fields that deserve to be researched, analysed, and explained. As the contributors to this special section of Method and Theory for the Study of Religions convincingly show (and as you are about to discover when you continue to read the contributions by Stausberg, Gilhus, and Jensen), there is more work to be done. As Gilhus correctly asks, what about the female students, researchers and professors who were active in the formative years of the study of religions? What kinds of gendered structures were at play in Uppsala during Widengren’s time? How do we decide whether a particular scholar had an impact? To answer this question, we need to pay more attention to bibliometrics and to processes related to the employment of new staff members, peer-review evaluations, reviews and debates published in journals, as well as the work of examination committees. What, for instance, is the legacy of Widengren in the Persian- and Arabic-speaking worlds? Another question that deserves critical research is the role and function of the educational environment and the seminar (i.e., the pedagogical milieu) in the universities during the times of scholars like Widengren. No matter whether we focus on Widengren or on some other scholar in the past, these questions are important, at least if you ask Stausberg, Gilhus, Jensen and myself.
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( , and Gothóni, René Larsson, Göran ). 2021 The reception and criticism of Geo Widengren in the Nordic countries: The debate over the origin of religion. In: , ed., The Legacy, Life and Work of Geo Widengren and the Study of the History of Religions after World War Göran Larsson II, pp. 197– 217. Leiden & Boston: Brill.
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( Hjärpe, Jan ). 2021 Tor Andræ and Geo Widengren: Perspectives and purposes of the study of the history of religions. In: , ed., The Legacy, Life and Work of Geo Widengren and the Study of the History of Religions after World War Göran Larsson II, pp. 238– 248. Leiden & Boston: Brill.
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( Hofstee, Willem ). 2000 Phenomenology of religion versus anthropology of religion? The “Groningen School” 1920–1990. In: , ed., Man, Meaning and Mystery: 100 Years of History of Religions in Norway. The Heritage of W. Brede Kristensen, pp. Sigurd Hjelde 173– 190. Leiden: Brill.
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( , and Jensen, Tim Satoko Fujiwara ). 2021 Professor Geo Widengren,. In: IAHRVice-President 1950–1960; IAHRPresident 1960–1970, IAHRHonorary Life Member 1996 , ed., The Legacy, Life and Work of Geo Widengren and the Study of the History of Religions after World War Göran Larsson II, pp. 50– 70. Leiden and Boston: Brill.
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( Larsson, Göran ). 2020 Between a rock and a hard place: Analysing the reception of and debate over the building block approach. In: , eds., Building Blocks of Religion: Critical Applications and Future Prospects, pp. , Göran Larsson and Jonas Svensson Andreas Nordin 26– 38. Sheffield: Equinox.
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( Widengren, Geo ). 1989 From mana to high god. Some methodological problems in phenomenology of religion. In: , ed., Storia delle idee: Problemi e prospettive, pp. Massimo L. Bianchi 55– 68. Seminario internazionale Roma, 29–31 ottobre 1987. Rome: Edizioni dell’Ateneo.
Stausberg was not present in Cork, but a draft version of his text was read by Professor Einar Thomassen from the University of Bergen.