That Big Idea by Graeme Hunter

That Big Idea

Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept
by Brent Nongbri
Yale University Press, 2015
(275 pages, $25.00, paperback)

reviewed by Graeme Hunter

It may surprise readers of Touchstone to learn that Jesus had no religion. Neither the practices of the Jews, which it was his custom to observe, nor the Way, by which he perfected those practices, was religious. In fact, there was no religion anywhere to be found prior to the Renaissance. Medieval Christians before and after the Great Schism were without religion, as were indeed all peoples of all continents of the globe. This, at least, is the exciting way of putting the thesis of Brent Nongbri's interesting book. The details are a little less exciting, but still very interesting.

Nongbri provides an accessible account of a difficulty that has long been familiar to historians wishing to explain the patterns of reverence, worship, and pious behavior that they encounter in ancient writings, art, and artifacts. It seems natural, perhaps inevitable, to use the word "religion" to signify such matters and tie them together. The difficulty is that the ancient peoples we study seem to have no word like it—none, that is, with the meaning we attach to our word, "religion." Not even—especially not!—the Latin religio, from which our word comes. What Latin writers meant by the term only partly overlaps with what we mean by "religion."

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Graeme Hunter is a contributing editor to Touchstone and Research Professor of Philosophy at Dominican University College in Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate).

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