Friday, June 4, 2010

Dispatches from the Historical Society, Day 2: Christian Identities in Modern Germany

Randall J. Stephens

This Friday session, which I chaired, took place after lunch, when bellies were full and eyes were heavy. Attendees trickled in until we had a good number. The presenters engaged us on historical-theological change and continuity in Modern Germany.

Ryan Glomsrud (Harvard University) asked: How do we summarize and describe the context of theologians and philosophers? What counts as appropriate contextualization for a theologian a cultural critic, or a moral philosopher, like Karl Barth? How do we concretize some of these ideas with social and theological context?

In Glomsrud's view, Pietism is the forgotten religious context for 19th century religion and Weimar Germany. Glomsrud challenges the abstract categories--imminent, gnostic, transcendent--used to describe theologians and public intellectuals.

Pietists organized themselves around projects--youth conferences and the like. Barth launched his career in this world. Journals attached to the Pietist 19th century movement served as the bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries. Glomsrud finds a continuity in this model from one century to the next. And he asks historians to think about how this continuity might reshape what we think of the tumultuous changes of the 20th century.

Late 19th-century ecumenism certainly drew on new sentiments in Europe. Thomas Albert Howard (Gordon College) focused on the return of religious history in the ecumenical and confessional age. His paper “Christian Unity in a Secular and Confessional Age: Ignaz von Döllinger, Vatican I, and the Bonn Reunion Conferences of 1874 and 1875,” answered questions about why these conferences took place, what occured at them, and what they tell us about the era. The theological consensus fell apart, commented Howard, when Catholics questioned the participation of Anglicans. The center could not hold.

So what does this tell us about the era? Howard noted the severe limits of thinking of the 19th century as a second confessional age. But also it was no secular age either. Ecumenism was limited for a variety of reasons. Still, the legacy of the Bonn conferences lived on into the 20th century.

Nicholas Brooks (University of Virginia) began with a quote, "Paul has become fashionable again." Perhaps that is in response to the postsecular age or to his reimagining/reevaluation by Gary Wills and others.

Brooks's paper “Interpreting St. Paul for the New Germany: Martin Heidegger and Karl Barth, 1920-22,” considered the views of Barth and Heidegger on Paul. Those views, said Brooks, revealed a very specific pattern in 20th century thought and marked a break with the previous century. Where Glomsrud saw continuity, Brooks saw discontinuity. In Brooks's words: "Barth's and Heidegger's readings of Paul might be situated in the history of Paul-interpretation, and how in invoking Paul's writings, Barth and Heidegger in similar ways signaled their divergence from the intellectual and cultural heritage of the nineteenth century while providing footing for the beginning of a new era in Weimar and European culture more broadly."

Heidegger viewed Paul as an existential type that took on greater relevance in the 20th century. Paul's religion was not the religion of Jesus, thought Heidegger.

The Paul the Heidegger and Barth offered was different from the liberal version, argued Brooks. Paul's religion does not look to a unified whole, Heidegger thought. Real religion presents the world in a kind of radical chaos. It is mutable. Barth and Heidegger launched very different projects using Paul. Heidegger takes a very serious vision of finitude. Barth conceives of God as wholly other and takes on a "post-metaphysical" outlook. The work of both Barth and Heidegger on Paul had special resonance for Westerners in mid-century.

Tal Howard used Freud's term "the return of the repressed" to speak about the trouble in intellectual history with regard to religion. Each of the panelists was thinking through how theologians, divines, and philosophers reenvisioned faith or belief in a supposedly increasingly secular era. Religion has returned, though, and religious studies and religious history is strong. (See the theme for the 2011 AHA!) And these papers were great examples of the strength of the field.

Posted Soon: Videos from two other sessions. The Internet connection here is as slow as Christmas.

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