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Church, theology, and the liberal nation-state

Research project How should one understand the interrelationship between church, Christian theology and the liberal nation-state.

The emergence of the liberal nation-state has decisively shaped modern theology. This project focuses on how this development has been met in German and American twentieth century theology. Germany is interesting because of its deeply ambiguous relationship to the liberal nation-state until 1945, and its intense debate about liberalism and the nation-state. The USA is atypical as nation-state, but it is the paradigm of the liberal nation-state. The form of my investigation is historical, but the purpose is systematic, and I try to analyze these theological traditions as forms of social practice in interaction with their ecclesial, social, political, and cultural contexts.

Project overview

Project period:

2008-01-14 2009-12-31

Funding

Finansår , 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020

huvudman: Arne Rasmusson, finansiar: Wennergren Center, y2003: , y2004: , y2005: , y2006: , y2007: , y2008: , y2009: , y2010: , y2011: , y2012: , y2013: , y2014: , y2015: , y2016: , y2017: , y2018: , y2019: , y2020: ,

huvudman: Arne Rasmusson, finansiar: Frikyrkliga forskningsrådet, y2003: , y2004: , y2005: , y2006: , y2007: , y2008: , y2009: , y2010: , y2011: , y2012: , y2013: , y2014: , y2015: , y2016: , y2017: , y2018: , y2019: , y2020: ,

huvudman: Arne Rasmusson, finansiar: Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, y2003: , y2004: , y2005: , y2006: , y2007: , y2008: , y2009: , y2010: , y2011: , y2012: , y2013: , y2014: , y2015: , y2016: , y2017: , y2018: , y2019: , y2020: ,

huvudman: Arne Rasmusson, finansiar: Center for Theological Inquiry, Princeton, USA, y2003: , y2004: , y2005: , y2006: , y2007: , y2008: , y2009: , y2010: , y2011: , y2012: , y2013: , y2014: , y2015: , y2016: , y2017: , y2018: , y2019: , y2020: ,

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious studies

Project description

Since 1997 I have been working on a larger research project called “Church, Theology, and the Liberal Nation-State”, in which I deal with twentieth century Protestant theology in Germany and America. In 1997-98 I spent 10 months as Visiting Research Scholar at Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C., U.S.A. The project was funded by The Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation January 1999-December 2002 (haftime). From January to November 2002 I worked full time on the project as a Residential Member of Center for Theological Inquiry, Princeton, N.J., U.S.A. I am still working on it and is continuing to publishing articles.

The emergence of the modern nation-state in general, and the liberal nation-state in particular, has decisively shaped modern theology. However, until recently the nation-state has been a rather neglected subject in theology as well as in the social sciences. Its existence has simply been taken for granted as a relatively unproblematic background. That has now changed. The so-called “globalization” process, the crisis of the welfare state (in the post-World War II period the primary source of legitimation for the nation-state), the developments in former Eastern Europe and Soviet Union, and increasing “multi-culturalism” in many Western nations, have made the nation-state more problematic and therefore more visible. The nation-state has thus become a center of interest in the social sciences and in history. There has been much less work on the nation-state in recent theology, although the interest is growing.

One of the most influential studies from the side of theology is an article by William T. Cavanaugh, “‘A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House’: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State”. Like Cavanaugh I want to point to the correlation between the modern privatized understanding of relig­ion and the emergence of the modern state’s claim to absolute sovereignty. In order to make people into Germans or French or Swedes, for whom their own nation-state is sovereign and their own nationality is primary, other particular and traditional identities and loyal­ties – for example, to region, kin, estate or church - had to be made secondary to the state. The centralization of power in the absolutist state, with its struggle against the public power of the church, was a necessary step in the formation of modern nation-states. As Ernst Troeltsch, one of the central figures in the story I tell, writes: Absolutism fused the peoples into nations and imbued them with this feeling for the state. But by levelling the old social structure based on states, and by radiating a secular and rationalistic spirit, absolutism ended by pulverizing the peoples into individuals.

This intimate connection between the su­premacy of the nation-state and the autonomy of the individual demonstrates also the close relationship between liberal theory and the emergence of the nation-state. By reducing the person to an abstract individual in the name of freedom, liberal philosophy gave legitimacy to the struggle of the state against alternative loyalties and especially the church. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman writes: “Man as such” was, of course, a code name for a human being subordinated to, and moved by, one power only – the legislating power of the state; while the emancipation that had to be performed so that “the essence” could shine in all its pristine purity stood for the destruction or neutralization of all pouvoirs intermédiaires – “particularizing” powers sabotaging the job the “universalizing” power of the modern state strove to perform.

If the state is to have supremacy, then “religion” must be privatized. Cavanaugh has tried to show how the modern concept of religion as a sort of universal human impulse is an outgrowth of this process. When religion becomes universal in this way, it also becomes separated from its particular existence in the church and is made into something inner. Its social and institutional forms are increasingly seen as particular external expressions of a universally present inner reality. Later another change occurs: religion comes increasingly to be seen as a system of beliefs. In this process, Protestantism especially changed its self-understanding from a socio-theological practice that could not be distinguished from its bodily and social manifestation in the church to a set of basically private and subjective convictions and experiences which belongs to individuals.

Modern theology and theological ethics is deeply formed by this development. In my project I investigate twentieth century German and American theology. Germany is interesting because of its deeply ambiguous relationship to the liberal nation-state until 1945, and its intense debate about liberalism and the nation-state. The USA is atypical as nation-state, but it is the paradigm of the liberal nation-state. The respective fates of Germany and the USA during the twentieth century have, of course, been deeply interconnected. So also German and American theology.

The form of my investigation is historical, but the purpose is systematic. I have chosen a few theologians to study as representatives of different theological traditions (in a loose MacIntyrean sense), and I try to analyze these theological traditions as forms of social practice in interaction with their ecclesial, social, political, and cultural contexts. My starting point is Ernst Troeltsch’s liberal and nationalistic Protestantism. He is ideal to begin with because historically, sociologically, and theologically he describes the issues I deal with in a better and clearer way than most other theologians. The categories he used have shaped much of twentieth century theology and ethics, both in Germany and in USA. One of the main aims of the project, however, is to show the deeply problematical nature of his description and of the categories he used and to demonstrate how these categories have distorted theology’s reading of reality.

Twentieth century history has led to a series of deep epistemological crises for German church life and theology (the periods 1918, 1933-45, were, of course, the most significant) and I try through some important exemplary cases to show how German theology has attempted to deal with these crises. On the side of Protestant liberalism I study the politically intensely antiliberal theology of Emmanuel Hirsch and the attempt to restore and continue the “unfinished liberal projects” of Troeltsch and Hirsch in the circle around Trutz Rendtorff.

There is, of course, another alternative, the tradition of Barthian theology and the Confessing church. In Barth’s theology the union between nation-state and church is broken, nation and state are relativised, the independence of the church is maintained, and a Trinitarian understanding of the politics of the church is developed. I also follow up what happens with this tradition through a discussion of the contemporary Lutheran theologian Wolfgang Huber (more influenced by Bonhoeffer and than Barth), now bishop in Berlin. Huber is an example of a theological defense of the liberal tradition (in a “social democratic” form) that goes beyond the nation-state in his developments of the tradition of human rights and a planetary ethics and in his discussions of how to deal with increasing multiculturalism. Although he is not a Barthian, I think he is also an example of the fate of the “Barthian” tradition in German theology. In the absence of a church and a church practice that could sustain the sort of ecclesial politics Barth assumed, one increasingly bases one’s theology on different social movements and ideological developments.

The discussion of these two traditions leads me into a historiographical controversy in current German theology, because the attempt – surprising for many – to rehabilitate Hirsch’s liberal theology (not his politics) correlates with a certain delegitimation of the Confessing Church and with attempts to show (1) the basically apolitical, or anti-liberal (or even fascistic) character of Barth’s theology which contributed to the weakness of the Weimar democracy; and/or (2) that Barth’s theology was only one moment in liberal Protestantism. My way of telling this story is very different, and is therefore also a contribution to a German debate.

Troeltsch is also very important for American Protestant theology. The tradition from Reinhold Niebuhr to Max Stackhouse is deeply Troeltschian. I start however with Walter Rauschenbusch, who is also influenced by Troeltsch, though not to the same degree. All of them have in common that the USA as a national project is in the center of their work. But the national context (the USA instead of Germany) makes a great deal of difference. Of contemporary theologians I use Stackhouse as an important example of an attempt to deal with globalization and the emergence of what he describes as a cosmopolitan civilization in which human rights plays a central role.

There is also in the USA an alternative theological tradition, represented in my study by John Howard Yoder. He can at the same time be seen in part as taking up and transforming the Barthian tradition. In fact, I try to argue that in some respects he furnishes Barth’s theology with the ecclesiology necessary to avoid ending up where the Barthian tradition has ended up in Germany. I suppose it is obvious that my own sympathies lie basically with the broad Barth-Yoder -trajectory, although my position is developed further in critical dialog with alternative traditions and contemporary moral, political, and social theory.

The investigation of these traditions is guided by questions like 1) how do they describe (theologically, historically, and sociologically) the emergence and the development of the liberal nation-states (and especially Germany and the USA) and their relations to church and theology; 2) how are the institutions and languages of liberal democracy and their relationships to the church understood; 3) how do their different theological “idioms” shape their analyses; and 4) how are these analyses and theological “idioms” related to different ecclesiologies and church practices.

To summarize, I think my investigation is a contribution on several levels:

1) By dealing with the relationships between church, theology and the liberal nation-state, I deal head-on with one of the main factors that has shaped modern church life and theology. I thus try to offer a substantive contribution to a Christian reading of modern society and to many of the issues that are central in the current debate. The project is therefore also a contribution to the dialog between theology and social theory and the social sciences. One of the more distinctive characteristics of my current and previous research is precisely my extensive, theologically informed, critical use of contemporary social theory and science.

2) Because the liberal nation-state has been so important for the nature of the modern ethical project and therefore also for theological ethics, my project is also a contribution to the ongoing discussion of how to do Christian ethics in our contemporary context.

3) Through my focus on the relationship between Protestant theology and the liberal nation-state and through the comparison between Germany and America, my project throws new light on the developments of German and American theology and ethics. My research therefore also contributes to the ongoing debate between the (quite different) theologies represented by people like Barth and Yoder, on the one side, and, say, Niebuhr, Stackhouse, and Rendtorff, on the other.