Religious Knowledge and Social Adaptability in the Face of Modernity

Knowledge has long garnered the attention of historians, although their explicit focus has been primarily on science, scholarship, and professional or technical expertise. For a long time, a progress-obsessed notion of society’s inexorable scientification underlay this research interest. Processes of descientification or tendencies to marginalize knowledge received little attention. This lack of attention was also apparent for those forms of knowledge that guided practical and moral behavior or that were considered religious.[1]

As long as scholars viewed religion and religiosity as the antipode to a modernity defined by rationality and secularism, knowledge as an analytical lens did not appear to offer any insights for the history of religion. The reverse was also true. At most, there were histories of theology and of the scientification processes that had helped bring about the Enlightenment and Haskalah in Christianity and Judaism respectively.

Recently, however, a changed understanding of knowledge as an object of historical research has taken shape.[2] After cultural history called into question the supposed dichotomy of high culture and popular culture, a broader understanding of knowledge and its social, political, and cultural relevance emerged. The history of knowledge is now interested in formal and informal knowledge, written and orally transmitted knowledge, not to mention the material manifestations of knowledge.

If “knowledge” only exists as a singular, noncount noun in standard English usage, there have always been “knowledges” in the plural, often contested, involving overlapping domains and cultures. Knowledge is interesting not just in terms of its dominant forms but also because of its diversity and the people who transmit and circulate it. Key historiographical questions include how, when, and why a specific kind of knowledge emerged or disappeared and how different kinds of knowledge correlated to one another.

There is no historiographical consensus on how to define knowledge, but it is generally recognized that it is a product of human activity and therefore genuinely historical. Accordingly, the history of knowledge explores what contemporaries themselves understood as knowledge in contrast to other possibly hegemonic interpretations of what constituted it. Of course, the contemporaries’ judgments in this regard were always fluid and linked to specific interests. At the same time, knowledge or knowing has always been seen as possessing qualities that differ from other modes of grasping the world such as believing and feeling. To a great extent, knowledge is about evidence, frequently rationality and objective truth too.

The boundaries between knowing and other forms of apprehending the world are nonetheless fluid. If understandings of what constitutes evidence change across temporal, spatial, and cultural contexts, then knowledge as such changes too. Consequently, the relationships of knowledge to nonknowledge and faith are more complex than the automatic contrasts in scholarship and everyday language suggest. Knowledge and nonknowledge as well as knowledge and faith should not automatically be contrasted but instead analyzed in their dialectical relationships, in their entanglements, and above all in the diversity of perceptions that attach to them.

This fruitful historiographical reorientation toward those aspects of knowledge based on experience, tradition, and religion owes much to colonial and imperial history, on the one hand, and to the corresponding turn to transnational and global history, on the other hand. These perspectives have uncovered, for instance, how knowledge was translated and transmitted—or blocked—from many locations via many channels in many directions. They show how different contents, concepts, and orders of knowledge encountered each other, competed, or converged. They reveal how transnational networks played a role in the conveyance of knowledge, not to mention in the formation and circulation of new knowledge.

The broadening scholarly appreciation of what constitutes knowledge makes knowledge an interesting and productive analytical lens for examining its purported opposite, religion. We might, for example, join the perspectives of knowledge history, cultural history, and even education history to understand religion and sociocultural change on the cusp of modernity in ways that transcend common notions of “religious knowledge” as a contradiction in terms inherently at odds with modernity. We might find that religion in some cases helped foster innovation in the face of modernity, thereby strengthening its adherents’ resilience, that is, their ability to adapt in creative ways to deep sociocultural changes and thus thrive.[3]

Woodbine Brotherhood Synagogue, 612 Washington Ave., Woodbine, Cape May County, NJ, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, survey no. HABS NJ-866, no. 2 of 15 for this synagogue. For a contemporary report on the Wobine community, see H. L. Sabsovich, “New Jersey’s Colony of Russian Jews,” New Jersey Review of Charities and Corrections 1, no. 2 (March 1902): 29–32.

Modernity undoubtedly brought with it changes sweeping and explosive enough to threaten the cohesion and survival of religiously defined groups. These challenges included, for example, changes in the relationship of religion and religious authorities to state and society; far-reaching processes of individualization, social differentiation, and pluralization; and the formation of new orders of knowledge based on generalization, systemization, rationality, and criticism. Consequently, the issue of resilience strategies and potentialities in the modern era—both in the West and in colonial contexts—promises to be particularly interesting.[4]

After all, if constancy was more typical of religion and religious practices than of other ways of comprehending and interacting with the world, contemporaries’ understanding of religion and faith—like their apprehension of knowledge—was nonetheless historically contingent. This combination of durability and changeability makes the role of religion for specific social groups in times of great change particularly fascinating because we can ask how its adherents used it to help orient themselves in relation to the past, present, and future as well as vis-à-vis the greater society around them. The history of knowledge is especially well placed to take up the interpretive challenge of religion’s role in the development of modernity.

It can help us to answer a number of questions: How did different religious groups react to the deep changes in social structures, knowledge orders, and cultural practices? How did these groups attempt to shape such changes? What strategies were successful? Which failed? In what ways did religious knowledge comprise a reference point during these cultural confrontations in various parts of the world? How significant were experiential knowledge and the ability to fall back on supposedly familiar cultural capital in the form of traditions and knowledge? How did this capital influence religious semantics and practices?

Such questions can bring us closer to the overarching problem of whether and how religion or appeals to religious traditions became what we can productively call “resilience resources” for diverse social groups—tools for coping and adapting—and thereby contributed to societal innovation. For the issue is no longer just persistence but also, and most importantly, the adaptability and the potential for renewal of the religious in the modern era.

Translated by Mark R. Stoneman

Simone Lässig is Director of the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC

  1. I presented earlier versions of these thoughts at two conference panels: “Dynamiken religiösen Wissens: Resilienzstrategien und Innovationspotenziale im Angesicht der Moderne,” Glaubensfragen, 2016 Deutscher Historiker Tag, Hamburg, September 21, 2016,–2016/wissenschaftliches-programm/konferenztage/21-september–2016.html; and “The Dynamics of Religious Knowledge: Resilience and Innovation in the Face of Modernity,” 131st Annual Meeting of the AHA, Denver, CO, January 6, 2017. See also Kerstin von der Krone, “Religious Knowledge in Historical Perspective,” History of Knowledge, January 26, 2017,  ↩
  2. See Simone Lässig, “The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the Historical Research Agenda,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 59 (Fall 2016): 29–58,  ↩
  3. See the project Innovation through Tradition? Jewish Educational Media and Cultural Transformation in the Face of Modernity, GHI, Washington, DC,  ↩
  4. On the nexus between religion and resilience in the medieval and early modern periods, see DFG-Forschergruppe 2539: Resilienz—Gesellschaftliche Umbruchphasen im Dialog zwischen Mediävistik und Soziologie, Trier,; and Graduiertenkolleg 1662: Religiöses Wissen im vormodernen Europa (800–1800), Tübingen,  ↩
Suggested citation: Simone Lässig, “Religious Knowledge and Social Adaptability in the Face of Modernity,” History of Knowledge, July 21, 2017,