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Hans Joachim Höhn {*}

Renaissance of Religion

Clarifications to a Disputed Topic


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 2006/12, P. 605-608
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    What is the story behind the so much-evoked Renaissance of Religion? A catalogue of themes of the Herder Korrespondenz, which we published on the occasion of our sixtieth anniversary, is dedicated to that question. But we discussed the topic also among colleagues whom we had invited at the end of Octobers to a small anniversary celebration to Freiburg. The Cologne theologian and philosopher of religion Hans-Joachim Höhn gave a remarkable impulse to this discussion round, which we document here for the conclusion of our anniversary issue for this year.


A good heading should hold a thesis - at best: a good thesis. But the title put first to the following considerations about the relationship of religion and society formulates (only) a 'through pass' thesis. Not less than the Renaissance of religion is stated. Of course, a good thesis for the description of the social condition of religion and of the religious imprint on the present time should certainly be presented more carefully. For it belongs to the signs of our time that we live under the sign of a large "as well as". You can no longer take a view without following the legitimacy of the opposite standpoint. You will see no trend without noticing at the same time tendencies that go into the opposite direction - no thesis without anti-thesis.

Indeed, also in matters of religion on the stage of modern societies at present two plays are performed at the same time. The one deals with the secularization of society, the other with the return of religion in a secular society, i.e. at this and that side of the established churches and denominations. Not a succession of processes of leave-taking and return of religion can be diagnosed but their merging, their simultaneousness.

The heading "Renaissance of Religion" seems to want to have nothing to do with it. It seems to ignore that there are in many Western societies long since "post-religious" conditions. Here religion is no longer a metaphysical binder of the social strata. It is no longer a collective depot of sense of life. It has had its time as reference agency for questions about the origin of the world. But this too is only one half of the truth.

The talk about renaissance of religion holds more than the other half of the truth. It is by no means so non-dialectical as it sounds at first listening. The one who speaks of "revival" presupposes at least a temporary loss of vital functions. He who uses the image of "re-birth" or "resurrection" must not conceal the preceding death. The end comes always before the beginning - also before the return or new beginning.



For the discussion on the agenda about a possible, real or only alleged comeback of religion there are at hand three impulse questions which do not separate the post-secular from the post-religious, and which do not allow to think a beginning without an end:
To which places does religion return after its death? Where can we visit the "empty graves" of religion?
As what does religion return? What is revived on it? And how much of it is re-born?
Does the Renaissance of Religion rank among those resurrections by which one returns to a life in which one will catch one's death a second time?

Religion has for quite some time been leaving the tomb which certain theories on religion erected for it, after they had prognosticated the total disappearing of religion due to secularization. The more modern the modern ages become the more dispensable and superfluous religion should become. In the meantime one is about to revise that secular basic assumption. In October 2001 Jürgen Habermas gave his speech, made by him on occasion of the 'Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the heading "Faith and Knowledge". There he introduced for his diagnosis of our time the term "post-secular society", and gave a descriptive and at the same time prognostic note to it.

Against all expectations of a non-religious future Habermas states the findings of a society which must adjust itself to a continued existence of religious communities in an increasingly secularized environment. He does not limit this continued existence to matters of folklore, but considers it also as of political and social-ethical importance, by pointing out that - despite numerous waves of demythologization and secularization - religious teachings can be an important "pre-political" resource for a liberal society. In his Political Philosophy Habermas turned away with these theses from the secularization theorem of the modern age, a turn that can be noticed in sociology of religion already for some years.


Modern Societies Can No Longer Be Sure Of Being Secular

The assumption to regard the increasing insignificance of religion in Western Europe as rule of modernization proved to be untenable on a worldwide scale. Perhaps Europe is even the exception and not the rule. World-wide there are reactions to the occidental rationalism, which use thereby all achievements of modern High Tech. The expectation that the scientific-technologic progress will lead via demythologization of world views to the irrelevance of religions for the forms and contents of cultural self communication, did not become true.

Religion therefore returns - into the theories about society and culture, which no longer see in its disappearance the inevitable end of the modern course of things. But how and in which forms, to which extent does religion return into the empirical knowledge? Where and as what does it return after its end as collective guarantor of moral, and as possibility to legitimate political authority?

Where a return of religion into culture and society happens religion does not return to its traditional places, and does also not perform its old functions again. Hence the fact that modern societies can no longer be sure of their secular character is not due to the strengthening of the established religious institutions. It is rather the presence of religiousness within a secular world that constitutes the cultural permanence of the religious reality. Though it is a presence that owes itself to the de-construction of religious traditions. The religious element can socially be found in secular "updates" of religious clichés, friendly and hostile takeovers of religious meaning- and interpretation samples and in secular affairs religiously encoded again:
Advertisement uses incessantly religious quotations, and alloys within the context "cult marketing" lots of products with life-style and sense of life. The organizers of large sporty events borrow for their opening ceremonies liturgical competence. Football can even become the 'Religiosum'. Cinema gets the classical myths of enchantment and liberation (Sleeping Beauty) in always new film scripts.

The thing that is re-animated here of religion and arises again is the religious style, i.e. those aesthetic layouts and means of style which have a certain aura and associative strength towards religion. But in those packing are no contents with which concrete religious statements are connected, as the cover versions of Gregorian Choral of the music stations VIVA and MTV show. One puts one's trust in the aesthetic and therapeutic side effects of the religious matter, and lets the main things become the secondary matter. One cares for health by healthy food and serves dishes from Saint Hildegard's recipe book. But by this her mystical knowledge of salvation is completely detached from its creation-theological background.



That trend is in correlation to the current ways of individual demand for religion. The post-secular spirituality is just as experience-oriented as subject-centred. One is interested in ways of religious experiences so far as they get processes going which take as theme one's own Ego and which confirm it. Rites and rituals are only to that extent important as they cause certain effects in the subject: feelings, tendencies, ecstasy, dismay, shock, trance ... are felt by the subject as liberating, healing, comforting or uplifting. Here spirituality manifests itself beyond dogma and moral. One wants to experience, to feel the things in which one believes. Hence the things reborn and revived in religion are aesthetics and sensuality, are its atmospheric and emotional sphere.


By Feelings and Tendencies the Subject Learns Also What Happens in the World

The special attractiveness of aesthetics and 'atmosphere' is proved also by the church mega-events of the last two years. At the World Youth Day in August 2005 in Cologne the stereotyped questions of the journalists came soon to a standstill. They had been after Pope-critical statements, and wanted to know from the young people how they held it with condoms and papal infallibility. They misjudged that the motives for taking part lay beyond dogma and moral. The same applies to the days around the death of the old Pope and the election and introduction of the new one. The media took up eagerly and hasty the strong images which the Catholic Church offered them: the staging of spirituality beyond dogma and moral. They were replaced by the medium of aesthetics, by the experience of a special atmosphere, and the sharing of deep feelings.

The journalists quickly switched between the two large events. "How is the mood?" - No question was to be heard more frequently on St Peter's Place in the last days of John Paul II than that after the atmosphere and the state of the people. First its frequent repetition seemed to point to a journalistic makeshift reaction in view of missing new facts, numbers, data which one could have passed on. For apart from the increasing stream of people to St Peter's Place nothing of real news value happened. That's why the media made do with describing emotions: devotion, mourning ... But together with the "mood" they seized something else which refers most likely to the religious moment of those days. If there was a special "spirit" which shaped those days of the Pope's public dying and its message, then it had to do with the people's "getting into the right mood" before St Peter's. They let a 'sound-board' emerge at the place for something from which they had a presentiment that it could touch them.

It is no coincidence that also at the World Youth Day in Cologne the "mood" there and then turned the scales for its success. This aesthetic category makes clear a frequently misjudged condition also for religious experiences. Feelings and moods disclose not only the (inner) state of someone; they also "reveal" to the subject what happens in his/her world. How someone is "tuned" decides also to a large extent on the things that go down well with him/her, and how s/he goes down with others. Only by a certain mood the truth will dawn on human reason, only if I am internally touched I will recognize in reality. Where dissonances are it becomes noticeable that something crucial is missing.

Discrepancies show 'ex negativo' what is missing and what fits. The example music shows how important that circumstance is. Only where people agree with each other and get themselves in the right mood the event comes into being, becomes a true, a real event. Each musician has to tune his/her instrument before s/he can play on it, and before the instrument becomes his/her "voice" and that of the composer. It is not enough to play a score down in a virtuoso manner. A detuned instrument then produces only noise.



Likewise a 'sound-board' is needed and a public that has no less to be tuned than instruments and orchestras so that "all is right". In similar way also religious experiences are dependent on special arrangements, on a special atmosphere, so that the things which people lack can come into being and fit into the blanks of their existence. Here too all depends on whether one is brought into the "right mood".

Moods are by no means uncontrollable; on the contrary, they can be awakened and changed. Certainly, there is also the danger of manipulation and projection in it. But because of that danger to make the categories "mood" and "atmosphere" the subject of religion-critical reflections alone would mean to fade out a constellation that can religious phenomena make as well as it can unmake them. Moods are the (inter-)subjective counterpart of things which can only be felt, and which only in feeling become real and true.

Moods open an entrance to the presence of that reality which draws a trace through the feeling of man. It is that reality which goes not into our head but hits our heart. But for it conditions are needed to which people are able to resonate - just that are the atmospheres of aesthetics and religious experience. But atmospheres do only exist trans- and inter-subjective. That's why religiously open-minded people of these days are also looking for community experiences. As individualists they are at the same time individuals in need of love and affection. They lean willingly also on tradition and let themselves be touched by it. But they reserve themselves the right to determine proximity and distance from tradition.


Each Religion is in itself an Aesthetic Phenomenon

Before that background it becomes also clear why the "new" demand for religion is often found beyond moral and dogmatic interpretations of religious traditions and is instead of it interested in aesthetic "performance" as it is practised e.g. in rites and rituals. Here, so it seems, you can earliest atmospherically experience what religion is able to do: to be medium for the frontier traffic between immanence and transcendence, to make present the "beyond", to represent through the senses that reality which is inaccessible for our senses, to become aware - passed on by our senses - of the immediate reality.

Every religion is in itself an aesthetic phenomenon. First an observer will always notice its appearance in rites and rituals; only much later s/he will discover behind it religious teachings or moral. Rites and rituals too have their place "beyond" dogma and moral and follow a different logic. Moral demands that acts follow, so that a conviction can become practice. A ritual is already in itself an "action", that means it already realizes the sphere in which it works. Dogmatic theology is the conceptual reflection on insights and experiences by which people have been "moved". A ritual performs emotion. In the ritual one can let oneself be moved through one's senses from things about which otherwise is talked in 'conceptual distance'. A ritual tells not (only) something, but awards something. Not the succession of information and reception, but the simultaneity of these aspects, their one into another in a "performance" is characteristic for religious rituals and makes them attractive.


A Returning Need of Religion

In times in which always an end is followed by a beginning a new start too will be followed by a new end. No attempt at resuscitation is successful in the long run. You come back into a life in which you soon have death before your eyes again. Does the renaissance of Religion too rank among those resurrections which do not last long? Differently asked, are the outlined forms and formats of a return of religion only other and new forms of its secularization?

Sceptics and critics doubt whether the church mega-events of the last years are more than just a flash in the pan. Many youth (and adults) at the margin of the World Youth Day felt certainly a longing after religion - and left it soon at that. The Catholic Day 2006 was no longer able to develop a special attractiveness for them. Hence not religion seems to make a comeback; it is rather only about the temporary return of needs for religion. Religion at most returns as longing for religion. People are obviously not grasped by religion but they reach for something that they regard as something religious. They feel a vacuum and would like to see it filled up. Does the "post-secular" interest in religion not go beyond that? How constant and lasting is the return of religion into society?

This question is also to be put to the established churches and denominations. Often the trend towards religion goes past them. The reason for it needs not only be that other suppliers position themselves better on the market of world views. The crucial question is to what extent the church Christianity is in general able to respond to an interest in religion "beyond" dogma and moral. Or are the churches - in view of the longing after religion - only overcome by a longing after themselves? This can - in the trend of the time - be set on stage quite effectively aesthetically by means of a liturgy which stands however in the service of dogma and moral. But dogma and moral is not the first thing that 'religious' searchers miss and that can fill their blanks. Where with the representatives of the religious establishment the renaissance of religion produces only the longing after oneself, there it is already at the end. At least it does not impart the readiness to set out - if it does not even spoil it.


    {*} Hans Joachim Höhn (born in 1957) is since 1991 professor of systematic theology at the Philosophical Faculty of the Cologne University. In 1984 Höhn gained his doctorate in Freiburg; in 1989 habilitation and venia legendi for the subject Christian sociology. In spring 2007 the Publishing House Schöningh will publish "Postsäkular. Gesellschaft im Umbruch - Religion im Wandel".


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