The aim of this contribution is to reflect on the notion of innovation in the human and social sciences in general and the comparative study of religion and religions in particular. Religion here refers to the generic category (genus) and religions to the species of the genus. The sociologist Emile Durkheim's definition of religion is adapted by foregrounding not only the function of sacred beliefs and practices to unify a group of adherents, but also by emphasising its conflictual potential to create and maintain asymmetrical power relations of colonialism, class, gender and race.
The article addresses the fundamental question not only of the meaning of innovation, but also of ways in which we may produce new knowledge in a field that studies human beings and religion as a powerful force in our world.
The thesis is that our best hope for producing innovative insights in the humanities and religious studies lies in experimenting with the application of theorised key concepts to specific case studies by way of comparison. It is argued that cross-cultural key concepts need to be constructed and used with a critical awareness of the genealogy of the concepts, and that the comparison of case studies must be done in a disciplined and systematic way that locates each example within its specific historical and geographic context.
The argument crosses disciplinary boundaries by taking examples from ancient Greek linguistics, historical Jesus and early Christian research, Greek mythology, and comparative religious studies to defend the thesis and to show how the thesis works in practice. The contribution to the production of innovative knowledge in religious studies from a South African perspective and location is emphasised in the article.
The following case studies and prominent scholars are selected to argue and illustrate the thesis on ways to produce innovative research in the humanities and religious studies:
(1) In the case of ancient Greek linguistics the creation and application of new linguistic concepts and theories by Johannes Louw and Eugene Nida resulted in a dictionary of semantic domains which had a huge impact on new translations of the New Testament. Not only did they create the semantic categories of objects, events and abstracts, but also showed how the transformation of events into kernel sentences could result in a dynamic-equivalent translation of Greek clauses that consist of a staggering number of nomina actionis. The fact that this method has been criticised for losing stylistic emphases and metaphors of the source text, and arguments for a direct translation that recovers these aspects, do not negate the validity of the thesis on innovation, but rather confirm it.
(2) In historical Jesus and Pauline research, John Dominic Crossan's combination in his early work of historical-critical and literary approaches to analysing the historical Jesus' parables yielded new insights in viewing them as paradoxes, while his later foregrounding of social-anthropological concepts, particularly class, in collaboration with an archaeologist to interpret the historical Jesus and Paul, resulted in a new interpretation of these founders of Christianity. If in his early work Crossan viewed Jesus as a mystic poet who by means of metaphorical paradoxes shocked the expectations of the established world, in his later work he came to see the historical Jesus in rural Galilean villages and Paul in Roman cities as initiating a movement that empowered people to share and care for each other versus an oppressing and exploitative Roman empire.
(3) In the case of Greek mythology and early Christianity, the Paris School's social-anthropological analysis of ancient Greek myths shed new light on the social role of these constructs within ancient Greek society, while Burton Mack's sociological analysis and critique of early Christian myths disclosed them as dangerous social constructs with a pernicious legacy. A comparison of Crossan’s and Mack’s assessments of the Christian legacy is called for, entailing profound ethical judgments.
(4) In comparative religious studies, Jonathan Z. Smith and David Chidester have explicitly reflected on and used theorised key concepts such as religion and comparison. They have explicitly drawn our attention to the potential of creating and applying analytical concepts to case studies in a comparative way in order to produce innovative knowledge about religion and religions. The point is illustrated by comparing examples of religious nationalism, indigeneity, materiality and sacred space from a South African historical perspective (i.e. within colonial and post-colonial, apartheid and post-apartheid contexts), emphasising throughout the imperative to consider the ethical import of these analyses.
In conclusion, the need for analytical, second-order concepts that do not fully coincide with first-order insider terms is emphasised to make innovative knowledge possible. It is, as Jonathan Z. Smith argues, precisely the gap between map and territory that creates a space for thinking and the possibility of new insights in the humanities and comparative religious studies – lest we become parrots repeating word for word the language and terms of those whom we study.
Keywords: comparison; innovation; religious studies; theorised concepts