Influential German Christian scholar of religion who held a position at the University of Chicago from 1945 to 1955.
Wach asked important questions about the study of religion.
- Are researchers able to understand the essence of a belief system that they, themselves, don’t believe nor participate in?
- Do researchers simply articulate some kind of marketable fiction that has little bearing on the intricacies of what really happens in the religious lives of so many unique individuals?
- Conversely, are researchers able to discern a common thread among apparent differences in religious phenomena?
For Wach that common thread among humanity is the tendency toward religion, itself.
Theodore M. Ludwig further notes that
Wach repeatedly takes up the question of the “objectivity” of the interpreter, whether one who is not a committed believer can understand a religion, whether historical distance helps or hinders understanding, and the like. His position is argued at length: the scholar can by “bracketing” his or her own views enter into understanding of another religion, sometimes presenting it even more completely and accurately than believers can. But there must be, Wach argues, an empathy or sensitivity for religion on the part of the scholar, otherwise there can be no understanding.
Theodore M. Ludwig, “Review: Joachim Wach’s Voice Speaks Again” in History of Religions, Vol. 29, No. 3, Feb., 1990: 289-291, p. 291.
Wach is extremely interested in religious experience. As such he defines the term Ultimate Reality in terms of a personal experience, an approach not unlike that found in Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy.
Although it wouldn’t be politically correct to do so today, Wach differentiates religious from magical experience.
Religious experience is a continuous (with intermittences) response to a “powerful, comprehensive, shattering, and profound” experience of Ultimate Reality that must simultaneously involve the hierarchical elements of intellect, affect and volition, and which leads to definite and imperative action.
By way of contrast, Wach says that magical experience is a mere series of “unconnected thrills,” this perhaps paralleling Sri Aurobindo’s notion of ‘vitalistic’ energy which, for Aurobindo, stands definitely lower on the ‘quality scale,’ if you will, of interior experience.
Wach’s definition of action seems quite forward thinking in that it includes acts of contemplation, a perspective that we’re just getting glimmerings of today in our so-called enlightened age.
In differentiating contemplation from slothful indifference, Wach notes William James’ Christian pragmatism: “Our practice is the only sure evidence even to ourselves, that we are genuinely Christians” (Joachim Wach, The Comparative Study of Religions, Joseph M. Kitagawa ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958: 31-35).
One must ask, however, if even the so-called indifferent sloth is, in fact, doing some form of spiritual labor, if perhaps unwittingly.
This notion of different types of work, visible and invisible, echoes the Greek pre-Socratic Heraclitus’ conviction that
Even sleepers and dreamers are workers and collaborators in what goes on in the universe.
Heraclitus in Philip Wheelwright ed., The Presocratics, Indianapolis: Odyssey Press, 1982, p. 79.
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