Religion and Innovation

Antagonists or Partners?

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Donald A. Yerxa
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , December
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the introduction to this volume, Donald A. Yerxa admits that while no general theory of religion and innovation emerges from this volume, it does show that the concept of innovation extends beyond the business and scientific worlds and provides a useful tool in investigating the cultural role of religion (7). The authors in this volume agree that there can be no essentialist definitions of either religion or innovation. However, they still employ both terms and provide evidence that in certain cases religion and innovation can be partners. Consequently religion does not inevitably function, as has often been thought, as an inhibitor of change and guardian of tradition.

Part 1 provides a case study of pre-Columbian societies to support the idea that changes in religion and spiritual life antedate or accompany the social and economic changes that lead to culture and civilization.

John Rick describes the innovations in the Peruvian ceremonial site of Chavin de Huántar between 1200 and 500 BCE that included monumental and cut stone architecture, the manipulation of light and sound, the use of psychoactive drugs, and hydraulic technologies that may have enabled some cults to survive at the expense of others when increasing inequality had to be justified. Arthur A. Joyce and Sarah B. Barber argue that religion was a central factor in the political changes that occurred during the later Formative period (400 BCE-300 CE) in two communities in southern Mexico—the Rio Verde Valley and the Valley of Oaxaca. They contend that religious conservatism may have impeded political centralization in the Rio Verde Valley, while religious innovations may have produced the opposite effect in the Valley of Oaxaca. Timothy Pauketat and Susan Alt explore the American city of Cahokia (near present-day St. Louis), claiming that, as a system of social relationships, religion was a fundamental factor in the rise of this Mississippian urban center in the twelfth century CE.

Part 2 deals with the complex interactions between religion and innovations in the West during the early modern and modern periods in terms of secularization, naturalism, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and Christian transnationalism. In “The First Enlightenment: the Patristic Roots of Religious Freedom” Timothy Samuel Shah rejects the view that Christianity impeded political and religious freedom, an idea held by John Rawls along with many others, arguing instead that innovative ideas about individual freedom appear in the writings of early Greek and Latin Church fathers. These ideas became a source for the eighteenth century Enlightenment theories. Peter Harrison analyzes the secularization theses of August Comte and Max Weber, in conjunction with the “nostalgic” secularization history provided by Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor and Brad S. Gregory to show how the perspectives of these scholars shape their narratives in significantly different ways. In the following chapter Harrison challenges the idea that scientific naturalism and religion were incompatible, arguing instead that scientific naturalism was itself rooted in religion.

The Anglican Enlightenment is the subject of William Bulman and Robert Ingrams’s essay, in which they show that while ostensibly against innovation, Anglican theologians inadvertently fostered intellectual and political innovation. Thomas Albert Howard demonstrates that two nineteenth century commemorations of Luther’s Reformation—one in 1817, the second in 1883—actually allowed the celebrants to inject nineteenth century notions of liberalism and nationalism into their evaluations of the Reformation. David Hempton and Hugh McLeaod investigate whether American Christians responded to secularization in more innovative ways than European Christians. They conclude that they did, but this fails to fully explain why Americans are more religious than their European counterparts. Dana Robert concludes part 2 by investigating the ways in which missionary Protestantism fostered social innovation and democratic ideas in the early twentieth century in Japan, South Africa, and Lebanon.

Part 3 investigates contemporary topics involving religion, innovation, and progress. Wilfred McClay offers the provocative argument that science cannot resolve the Western guilt that comes with progress. He contends that in order for this to happen some sort of religious notion of sin and absolution needs to be restored. Rebecca Samuel Shah’s chapter studies Dalit women in Bangladore and finds that certain religious practices and beliefs can help them cope with their situation in innovative ways, especially when it comes to alleviating their own poverty. Philip Bess is highly critical of modern urban design and planning. He takes up the argument first proposed by Daniel Burnham in his 1909 Plan of Chicago and suggests that people who live in cities would be better served by a combination of classical urban humanism and the social teachings of the Catholic church. In the final chapter J. Benjamin Hurlbut sees Transhumanism as a force for innovation and progress, sidestepping organized religion entirely. Adam Kepler concludes the volume by emphasizing the fact that religion has not and will not disappear as a result of increasing secularism. It will simply combine with science and technology in new and innovative ways.

To say that in regard to innovation religion is Janus-faced may offer little that is new, but the individual case studies in this edited volume add to the already rich discussion of instances where religious ideas and practices have fostered innovation in culture at large.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Allison P. Coudert holds the Paul A. and Marie Castelfranco Chair in the History of Christianity at the University of California, Davis.

Date of Review: 
March 15, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Donald A. Yerxa is Professor of History Emeritus at Eastern Nazarene Colleg. He was Senior Editor of Historically Speaking and is Editor of Fides et Historia.


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