Bernstein Faculty Seminar

The Bernstein Faculty Seminar brings a distinguished historian to campus each year to present a seminar to department faculty.
The Bernstein Faculty Seminar was established by Roger Berle in memory of his beloved friends and neighbors, Dr. and Mrs. Bernstein.

2023-2024 Bernstein Faculty Seminar

“Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) as a Scholar of Comparative Religion"

Many histories of the study of religion associate the beginning of the scholarly study of religion with the Protestant Reformation and subsequent changes in Europe that ushered in views of religions in the plural, or of naturalized religious feelings or experiences. Perhaps because of the missionary imperative to conversion, historians have generally identified figures based in Europe like Jean Bodin (1530-1596) and other theorists of the emerging secular state, or Deists like Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), who both embraced the idea there was a common substratum of true religion underlying various creeds, as the earliest comparativists. These writers were synthesizers of missionary descriptions, and adapted key missionary distinctions and arguments into their writing. Reading Matteo Ricci’s 1603 tract Tianzhu shiyi 天主實義 (The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven) in the context of these European developments shows how the exclusion of missionary writings obscures certain aspects of the nascent comparative project. First, Ricci’s emphasis on a shared rational basis for Christianity and Confucianism (while disparaging Buddhism and Confucianism as idolatries) was consonant with European notions of vera religio and set the stage for some Enlightenment views of China as living example of a natural religion. Second, along with José de Acosta’s (1540-1600) Historia natural y moral de las Indias (The Natural and Moral History of the Indies), Ricci’s writing shows how Jesuits abroad projected their social identity onto a literate, ruling class, ultimately rejecting the idea that all Chinese (or all Incas) were idolaters. Finally, a close reading of Ricci’s comparative analysis of Confucianism and Christianity shows a continuity between Jesuit arguments for Christian superiority and 19th century self-proclaimed scientific approaches to comparative religion, for example in the work of E.B. Tylor (1832-1917). The intention of this experiment is not to argue for an alternative genealogy, but rather to focus on how the past constructions of genealogies may have obscured implicit arguments of superiority based on class, race and religion in the comparative study of religion.


​​​​​​​Mark A. Csikszentmihalyi, Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Eliaser Chair of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley

Date and Time

Wednesday, November 1, 2023 at 5:00 pm
Adams Common Room, Adams 111

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