This is the first volume of two, beginning with introductory methodological comments and taking the account through polytheism, dualism, monolatria, etc., up to the monotheism of the Deuteronomist and the major Hebrew prophets. The second volume, which is not reviewed here (Religione e Religioni: Il Monoteismo, 2001), treats modern Jewish, Christian, and Moslem concepts of God. The author, Jesuit and founder of the Istituto di Scienze Religiose at the Pontifical Gregorian University, has authored six other major volumes in Italian. Despite his 74 years, he is likely to turn up in any part of the world teaching the expansive course that is reflected in these, his most recent two volumes.
Magnani argues for a truly interdisciplinary study of religion. Demonstrating the faults of more limited approaches, such as overviews of religious traditions from a merely literary point of view or the imposition of models taken from cultural anthropology and sociology, he brings insights to bear from philosophical phenomenology, history, theology, and archaeology, as well as from literary studies, cultural anthropology, and sociology. He is a master of the relevant literatures from all these fields, and his critical readings in them alone make the volume an instructive and valuable read.
Ch. I argues that an understanding of the ultimate referent of religion, analogous to an object, requires an aesthetic, an openness to diverse modes of thought. Every religion is sui generis because every religious anthropology is specific to a given historical trajectory. He points to the procrustean nature of much 19th and 20th century traditions of scholarship. Ch. II clarifies the concept of monotheism, distinguishing it from pantheism, panentheism, monolatria, and henotheism. Significantly, his overview of Hindu traditions finds that genuine monotheism is not to be found in them. Ch. III gives an account of polytheism. Magnani points out that classical polytheism develops at times not into monotheism but henotheism (e.g., Amenhotep IV's cult) or may develop from or into emanation models such as those of the Hellenistic philosophers. He engages in a skirmish here and at several other junctures in the volume against a cultural evolutionist view that would insist upon a progression from polytheism to monotheism. Ch. IV examines the sketchy historical material on Persian and Mesopotamian dualist religions. Chapters V through IX sift through the enormous literature on the Hebrew Bible and Hebrew religion. Because later scholars rely on earlier ones for what they themselves do not specialize in, many assertions, such as monotheism emerging from polytheism, that were never justified by evidence remain in the literature for decades. Magnani has performed the valuable task of surveying as much evidence as could be gathered and evaluating the received literature with it. He finds some of the earliest traditions in the Biblical materials genuinely monotheist, with major literary consolidations of a full monotheism in the writings of the Deuteronomist, the major prophets, and such followers of the latter as Deuteroisaiah.
Frequently, Magnani criticizes what he terms "sociological reductionism." Reading such a critique is not comfortable to a reviewer such as this one, who took up the sociological study of religion over three decades ago, but it must be conceded that the critique is justified. What he criticizes is not really the work of sociologists, but rather of sociologizing scholars in religious studies who sometimes substitute models taken from sociological theory for evidence. I myself have criticized such a practice in the sociological study of the early Christian movement. I have long believed that true social scientists would be much more reticent about making grand explanatory claims than some of our sociologizing colleagues among the religionists have been. So I recommend that sociologists give Magnani a hearing in this regard.
A model that Magnani appears to use in his own analyses is that of a religious individual having a religious experience, an insight in the phenomenological (or even Lonagerian) sense. That individual, a religious genius so to speak, articulates what becomes the origin of a religious tradition, possibly in literary form. Such a model parallels Max Weber's concept of charisma, but it is more phenomenologically sensitive and demands an attentiveness to the meaning structures prevalent in the originary experience. Sociological readers should think of Alfred Schutz when considering such an approach, or perhaps more recently Andrew Weigert. The person or persons under the scholar's scrutiny are the teachers of the scholars, not vice-versa.
There are some differences in the use of the expression "reductionism" that readers should be cognizant of. When social scientists use the term, it usually refers to denying emergent dynamics and explaining them away as "nothing but" the workings of constituent elements. Thus, the liquidity of H2O at room temperature would be ignored and only the respective properties of hydrogen and oxygen affirmed. Similarly, social institutions would be explained away by psychological desires or even biological drives, as in sociobiology. Magnani is using "reductionism" to refer to something somewhat different, the denial of the role of something such as a religious experience or insight, and the exclusive resort to some other ideologically preferred explanation, such as the political utility of monotheism to a centralizing kingdom.
Finally, I would like to point to the hermeneutic problem inherent in interpretive endeavors such as religious studies, especially as pursued by Magnani. The chapters of the volume(s) are defined by intellectual categories that fit the perspective of religious westerners. Jews, Christians, and Moslems think with such categories when they theologize, but such could not be the case with pre-columbian South Americans, pre-European contact Pacific islanders, people steeped in South Asian traditions, in oriental traditions, or even western atheists. The entire study pursued by Magnani would develop quite differently if pursued from one of these other perspectives. This does not make any of these others "right" and Magnani's "wrong." It is rather to specify the kind of achievement that Magnani has wrought for our benefit.