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Martin Mulsow

Tuesday, August 25, 11:30 a.m. | Helios
Global Intellectual History and the Dynamics of Religion

Martin Mulsow

There are currently strong efforts to develop a global intellectual history, which is no longer centered on Europe. The lecture will discuss how this altered understanding of intellectual history will affect our conception of a dynamics of religion. It will focus on the early modern period and will give several examples. One such example concerns the relationship between language, religion and the “consensus gentium” that all peoples believe in a God. From the second half of the 17th century there was a veritable competition to discover and penetrate new languages and scripts; at some stage the Biblical number of seventy-two languages was dropped as the realization set in that there were far more idioms than the number posited in the Bible. This competition was closely linked to the business of missionizing: for if one wanted to bring ‘heathen’ people into contact with Christianity, then it was necessary to understand their language in order to translate the Christian message into it. In the reverse direction the missionaries supplied the linguists with their material. What was one to say, however, if difficulties arose in translating ‘Our Father’? If the word “God” could not be translated because the culture in question had no corresponding word in their vocabulary? Heated discussions about the alleged atheism of the “Hottentots” or of some American Indians began. They stirred interest about what was really the mode of thinking among these peoples – but at the same time they fueled criticism of religion in Europe and contributed to the process of secularization.