Brian Stanley on Robert A. Yelle’s The Language of Disenchantment
Is the world becoming more secular? Debate on this persisting question shows no sign of abating. The global resurgence of conservative religion serves as a case in point: observers increasingly view the European retreat from institutional Christianity as an aberration rather than a normative trajectory for the role of religion in the contemporary world. This change in perspective raises a new set of questions. Scholars ask, for instance, in what sense, if at all, has the spread of western modernity to non-western societies involved a transmission of secularization?
Robert Yelle’s highly creative The Language of Disenchantment addresses this important question by focusing on British colonial discourse in India. The book is shaped by the triangulation of three interpretive themes.
First, Yelle amplifies Max Weber’s thesis that secularization should be understood not so much as a repudiation of religion per se, but rather as the proliferation of a particular form of religion. That form is embodied in the Protestant determination to disenchant the world by denuding it of miracles, mystery, and magic.
In expounding this theme, Yelle directly challenges modern secularists who claim that modernity represents the triumph of rationality over religious superstition and of supposedly neutral, value-free judgment over prejudice. On the contrary, he maintains, secularist discourse derives from a particular, Protestant form of religiosity that set out to protect the uniqueness and otherness of the Creator by stripping the creation of all subsidiary or mediating sources of supernatural power.
Viewed from this perspective, Friedrich Max Müller, the founding father of the modern academic study of religion, displayed characteristically Protestant traits when he argued that Hindu mythology turned nomina (mere names for the natural forces created by the one Supreme Being) into numina (spirits or demons). According to Müller, this degeneration of primitive monotheism into polytheism resulted from a disease of linguistic evolution. If so, comparative philology and the reform of Hindu religious language was thought to point the way back to a recovery of monotheism. “These conclusions,” Yelle provocatively suggests, “afford scant comfort to the view that religious studies is now scientific, and has transcended its theological past.”
Most contemporary religious studies specialists will likely bristle at the claim that their discipline represents a radical form of Protestantism. Even so, the questions raised by this first and most ambitious of Yelle’s interpretive claims should not detract from his primary goal: to expose the British colonial agenda in India as a sustained Protestant onslaught against a religion that gave a central place to ritual, and hence privileged status to the ritual specialists of the Brahmin class in Indian society.
Yelle maintains in his second main argument that Protestant critiques of Hinduism in nineteenth-century India followed the well-trodden pathways of anti-Catholic invective against priestcraft, meaningless ritual, and the verbal idolatry of ascribing efficacious power to the repetition of sacred words in liturgy. Yelle’s contention here is undeniable and not in itself original. Yet he develops this theme in stimulating—if not always entirely persuasive—directions.
For one, he nuances his claims by connecting this theme to the well-known debate between Orientalists and Anglicists. On the Orientialist side, William Carey of the Serampore Baptist mission believed that Sanskrit could be disenchanted and made fit for evangelistic purposes, just as classical Greek had been in New Testament times. Carey’s ambitious project of translating the Bible into Indian languages sought to recreate in India the effects of the vernacular Bible in promoting godly reform in sixteenth-century Europe.
In contrast, the Church of Scotland pioneer Alexander Duff judged Indian languages incapable of transmitting Christian truth given their suffusion with idolatrous categories. Based on these assumptions, he insisted on English-based education and advocated the transliteration of all Indian languages into a common Roman alphabet. Duff and some of his missionary successors noted that the Roman alphabet had supplied the linguistic cement binding the peoples of Europe into a single Christendom, and hoped that it could play a similar role in India. This argument, reflective of Catholic theological principles, was also advanced in 1859 by George Uglow Pope, the High Anglican missionary and Tamil scholar, who urged the introduction of a single Roman alphabet as being “one step from Babel towards Pentecost.”
Yelle pays significant attention to the juxtaposition of the Tower of Babel and Pentecost by figures such as Pope. He draws a connection with those who have occasionally advocated the chimerical notion of introducing a universal Indian language throughout the subcontinent. Yelle struggles to make his case. Very few missionaries bought into such an idea. Most followed Carey in urging multiple biblical translations, as the account of the Day of Pentecost in fact implies: Pentecost did not reverse Babel by seeking to restore a single human language, but rather sanctified and endorsed linguistic (and therefore cultural) diversity. Moreover, Yelle’s characterization of the Anglicist position as a more Catholic-friendly reform effort also poses problems. Orientalists and Anglicists almost always conducted their arguments in what can only be described as a Protestant context. Duff, for example, employed anti-Catholic motifs against Brahminical Hinduism while embracing quasi-Catholic notions of a new English-medium Christendom in India.
While Yelle’s initial exploration of the parallel between anti-Catholic and anti-Hindu rhetoric falls short, his subsequent exposition of the topic is compelling. Protestants attacked Hindu mantras using the same invective that they had long deployed against Catholic Ave Marias or Paternosters, repudiating any idea that the mere repetition of certain words could carry sacramental efficacy. Such practices constituted a linguistic form of idolatry, according to Protestants, who appealed instead to the once-given word of Scripture, citing Christ’s injunction in Matthew 6:7 not to use “vain repetitions, as the heathen do.” As it happens, “vain repetitions” was in fact a debatably partisan Protestant translation of the Greek battalogēsēte (“empty babblings”), first adopted by the second edition of the Geneva Bible in 1560, and continued by the King James Version of 1611. William Carey’s Bengali translation of the New Testament in 1801 rendered the phrase as pratimāpūjakerā (idol-worshippers), while later translations made the polytheistic implication clearer still by using devapūjakerā (god-worshippers).
Yelle convincingly delineates the anti-Catholic nature of Protestant discourse on Hinduism. Yet his account founders in one respect: he notes in passing that Abbé Dubois in his classic text Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies also characterized Hindu mantras as a form of magical incantation or conjuring. But Yelle otherwise almost entirely ignores Catholic responses to Hinduism. In fact, attacks on heathen idolatry were not peculiarly Protestant but formed part of Catholic missionary discourse from the sixteenth century onwards. Christian formulations of Hinduism in nineteenth-century India assumed a predominantly Protestant form in large part because Catholic missions took most of the century to recover from the Vatican’s suppression of the Jesuit order and the disasters inflicted by the French Revolution.
The third and final argument advanced by Yelle focuses on the British colonial attempt to dismember Dharmaśāstra, the ancient Sanskritic body of law that embraced both religious ritual and civil matters. They did so by abstracting ceremonial laws from civil laws, incorporating the latter into an Indian civil code. The British assumed that laws pertaining to religious ritual had no place in the legal framework of a modern state, and Yelle argues convincingly that these assumptions stemmed directly from Christian ideas. In particular, he highlights Christian rhetoric regarding the freedom associated with the gospel message in the New Testament that superseded the ceremonial laws in the Old Testament; he also stresses Christians’ three-fold division between natural (or moral) law, civil (or judicial) law, and ceremonial (or ritual) law. Yelle attributes this three-part typology to St. Paul, but in fact it developed after the biblical period. It is most widely associated with Reformed (Calvinistic) Protestantism—a point that would have strengthened Yelle’s case.
In actual practice, the supposed separability of religious and civil law came into sharp and controversial focus on matters relating to caste. Most missionaries rightly regarded issues surrounding the caste system as a matter of ritual or religious law that had no place in the new dispensation of the Christian church. Colonial administrators, on the other hand, regarded these issues as purely civil matters that could be reflected in civil law codes.
Yelle has written a fascinating, if also controversial, book, one that has important things to say to a wide number of disciplines. He provides insightful commentary on everything from religious studies, to Indian religious, colonial, and legal history, to the history of Christian missions and Christian-Hindu relations, not to mention biblical interpretation. The Language of Disenchantment highlights the intimate relationship between Protestantism and secularizing reforms in British colonial India. Its author demonstrates the extraordinary durability and extensive geographical reach of the sixteenth-century European debates regarding ritual, “magic,” and liturgical language.