“The Invention of World Religions” | an Evening with Prof. Tomoko Masuzawa


Where does the phrase “world religions” come from? Nearly 20 years ago, Prof. Tomoko Masuzawa’s book The Invention of World Religions (U. Chicago Press, 2005) set out to trace the trajectory of the concept in modern religious studies and comparative theology to its late-19th and early-20th century roots. Ever since, the book has played a major role in shaping debates within and beyond the field of religious studies. Here at the Burke Library, we and the Religion Department at Columbia hosted a panel celebrating the legacy of this groundbreaking work.


From left: Gaurika Mehta, Prof. Matthew Engelke, Prof. Aziza Shanazarova, and Prof. Tomoko Masuzawa in the Burke Library Main Reading Room


The Main Reading Room of the Burke Library, filled to capacity

Prof. Matthew Engelke — having recently become the department Chair — kicked off a discussion among a four-person panel, which also included Prof. Aziza Shanazarova and PhD candidate Gaurika Mehta as well as Prof. Masuzawa herself. Following remarks from each of the panelists, they engaged in a lively conversation, and took questions from attendees. (The Reading Room, by the way, was filled to capacity — expecting somewhere between 20-40 guests, we ended up filling over 70 seats!)

Prof. Masuzawa graced us with several anecdotes from conducting research in the Burke Library, years ago, while doing research for the book. (Archival materials from collections such as the World Council of Churches Records and Ecumenical World Conferences Photos comprise a drop in the large archival bucket informing the history of the idea of “world religions.”) When Prof. Masuzawa was here doing research, she learned of the existence of the Pettee Classification System used to this day in the “Union Stacks” section of the library. This classification system was developed by Union librarian Julia Pettee in 1911, specifically for use in theological libraries. With call number headings from A to Z, mostly representing books in religion, theology, and philosophy, the letter O denotes books in the field of world religions(!) making the system itself an important artifact in the history she traced.

We were enthusiastic and proud to partner with the Religion Department in another engaging and enlivening discussion event, and look forward to more collaborations in the future. -CB







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