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The historiographical construction of religious traditions

The ability of a person or group to narrate their past is one of the most important tools available to them for defining their identity. This holds true for individuals, as they locate themselves in genealogies or depict their personal development in conversion narratives, as much as it does for groups and nations, which bolster their coherence and claims through the telling of collective or national histories. As recent research has stressed, religious groups use similar tools too. In many regions and epochs, religious organizations or membership concepts are lacking or appear only in a rudimentary state, the character of orthodoxy and heresy is contested, religious practices and beliefs are hybrid or widely shared (such as phenomena of ‘civil religion'). Against this background, the definition and the delineation of the subject of a history is of paramount importance. A history of religion of the people living in the Netherlands must necessarily differ from a history of Christianity in the Netherlands, and much more so from the history of the religious groups based on the confession of Dordrecht (1632, Mennonites). Similarly, a history of Christendom is very different from a history of religion in the West, and much more so from a history of the one and holy Church. It is by the very narrating of origins, of conflicts, of exclusions and alliances that the identity of the narratives’ subjects, their characteristics and boundaries, are defined. This is as crucial in separating believers and non-believers as it is in redressing the balance between religion as a collective enterprise (‘religions’) and religion as an individual practice (‘spirituality’). If such approaches seem typical of emic historical narratives, a closer look betrays the reality that etic, scientific historiography usually follows these frameworks and divisions too. By changing the perspective from the ‘representation’ of religious traditions to their ‘construction’, 1 aim to inquire into the contexts and strategies of the historiography of religion. 1 try to make plausible the claim that even ‘modern’ historicist historiography is far less critical with regard to emic narratives than it claims to be. 1 will start with a few remarks on history and memory in general and will then go on to address the general field of history and religion. before concluding with some questions about historiography in History of Religion.

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