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Unfinished Mourning

Schnädelbach's Criticism of Religion as a Challenge of Christianity


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 7/2009, P. 364-368
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Herbert Schnädelbach's criticism of religion exactly expresses the feelings of all those who know about the calamity of the modern age and about its uncertainties. They nevertheless neither go over to the irrational zone of new religious enthusiasm of freely vagabonding spiritual sense seekers nor do they aestheticize the tradition; they remain in solidarity with the modern age.


Religion is also a topic in the developed modern age. The modernization processes observable at all levels of social life have not silenced people's yearning for religious orientation, quite the contrary. In defiance of religio-sociological forecasts this seems to have to do with the modern age itself, with its "awareness of life". There is an immense gain in freedom [Freiheitsräumen], which hardly anyone wants to miss again in the modernized societies. Historically, we finally have the individual freedom to give our life a self-determined character.

The increasingly visible shady side of this gain in freedom paradoxically takes on the form of a feeling of compulsion. Whether you like it or not, it seems that you now have to deal entrepreneurially with yourself - it is necessary to make something out of the freedom (see Ulrich Bröckling, Das unternehmerische Selbst. Soziologie einer Subjektivierungsform, Frankfurt 2007 [The Entrepreneurial Self. Sociology of a Form of Subjectification]. Traditional life-worlds have become insecure, also relics of them cannot obscure this; and the new categorical imperative reads, Be your own entrepreneur.

This imperative that certainly applies to individualized societies is of course accompanied by the oppressive feeling that it is not alone left to me to assess how a successful entrepreneurial dealing with me is constituted. Quite the reverse, it is socially defined what it means to deal successfully with oneself: namely to be creative and economically self-sufficient; on the one hand, you have for the entire future to cope mercilessly with your life, but on the other hand, you are driven by the bad feeling to be only a small cog in the machine and only in a limited way "master in your own house" (Sigmund Freud). This ambivalent feeling of modern life, however, is the current breeding ground for the various providers of religion.

This characteristic feature of the modern age, namely that you are time and again to invent yourself anew, has the effect of producing religion - or more carefully: makes receptive to the providers of religion. It seems as if a profanity that is trimmed to self-success and has lost the natural relationship with tradition makes unexpectedly hungry for religion.



Against this background it is not surprising that a large part of the religious offers popular in society can be identified as products of the modern age. They emerge analogously to the social demands on the modernized subjects regarding their formation.


The Unfinished Project of Modernity

The noble church tone [Kirchenton] with which one recently often insists on tradition can also easily be identified as a modern phenomenon. Individuals who are feeling insecure are looking for stabilization of their identity in a tradition that is defying the supposedly modern heresies of formlessness. That the evoked tradition has also not fallen from the sky does here no longer matter. Quoting Friedrich Wilhelm Graf, "Discipline of thought [Denkzucht], where is your sting?" one would like to reason with the new tradition-Conservatives. A little consciousness of history would do well in order to become aware also of the contingence of one's own understanding of true tradition.

But the one who once is convinced that he is able to free himself from the uncertainties of modernity and to banish its strategies into the poison cabinet (strategies that are to make people feel unsure in the interest of a realistic and sensitive use of freedom) will hardly want to admit that he still is in the midst of this risky modernity. He will also hardly be able to admit it. Not only in medicine, there are placebo effects.

The articles and essays on the phenomenon of religion of the philosopher Herbert Schnädelbach, now published as book, are in this context a boon for the soul. At least for those who know about the plight of the modern age and its uncertainties and who nevertheless neither go over to the irrational zone of new religious enthusiasm of freely vagabonding spiritual sense seekers nor to those who aestheticize the tradition; they want to remain in solidarity with the modern age (Religion in der modernen Welt, Frankfurt 2009).

In the last few years Schnädelbach has like Jürgen Habermas time and again made important contributions to this topic. Both take admittedly quite different ways through the project of modernity. The two are, however, united by the view that this project of modernity cannot be completed in principle and that the concept of the modern age does at least not only mean circumscribing an epoch of history but rather a way of thinking that stands by the principle Enlightenment. But why should the modern age be an unfinished project, even a project that cannot be completed?

Modernity is an unfinished project, because the one who is banking on reason faces the constant challenge to be always anew sceptical about the terminology by which he makes himself understood. The modern insight reads: We have only interpretations - and thus the result of our interpretation of reality with which we are satisfied is subjected in principle to the risk of falsification. This is a crux.

However, there is no convincing argument against the conjecture that there are good reasons to bank on reason, provided of course that one wants at all to look for communicable reasons for one's own positions, or saying it in a more traditional way, provided that one wants to be free and therefore to bring reason in one's self-orientation. And this is also true for that self-orientation in which a human being orients towards a last reason - the religious one.

In the last few years Schnädelbach has repeatedly, partly with an enormous public impact, clearly interfered in the current discourse upon religion. The article in "Die Zeit" of 2000 was a bombshell - programmatically titled "Der Fluch des Christentums: Die sieben Geburtsfehler einer alt gewordenen Weltreligion. Eine kulturelle Bilanz nach 2000 Jahren" [The Curse of Christianity: The seven birth defects of an old universal religion. A cultural balance after 2000 years]. The article was refreshing for the soul of those who had always seen the root of every disparagement of human beings and of intolerance in the monotheistic religions, but an annoyance for all those two wanted to celebrate two thousand years Christianity. The responses accordingly differed from emphatical consent to outrageous rejection.

In his present afterword Schnädelbach again points to the fact that he at that time had not wanted to write a "criticism of the religion in general" or even an "atheistic pamphlet" against Christianity, but rather a "historical balance of its effects on culture". Schnädelbach above all holds the disastrous alliance of the idea of original sin with the theology on atonement with its corresponding consequences for people against Christianity. And rightly so, one can only say. Until today, so Schnädelbach, nobody was able to explain him in what "the blessing of the bloody theology on the expiatory sacrifice consists" (175).

With it the philosopher sums the cultural unease up that has been smouldering for decades and, to mention a present-day example, also represents the theologically contentious issue as regards the awarding and then the withdrawing again of the Hessian State Award to the writer and Islamic scholar Navid Kermani (see this journal, 325ff.). Is it really believable that god was in need of an expiatory sacrifice in order to become reconciled with humanity that had fallen in sin? Is not some contempt of humanity in the belief in a God who generously reprieves some people, although they are sinners like all, and who eternally damns others precisely because they are sinful?



Whether this "logic of terror" (Kurt Flasch) actually corresponds to the Christian faith, this question is not to be dealt with here. But this interpretation of the "salvation" history of its Saviour God corresponds to its history of effect. Equality in the sin, but by no means equality as regards God's grace! The suspicion of God's arbitrariness emerged not only in the nominalism of the 14th century, which wanted to give intellectually - against the metaphysical levelling of God's freedom - new weight to it, but developed in the wake of Augustine's thinking.

In this way, namely looking at Christianity from Augustine's perspective, you can understand what Hans Blumenberg summed up in the concise formula of "human self-assertion". Only humane indignation remained against this arbitrariness of God. According to Schnädelbach it was therefore necessary to invent different ethos against this God. The equality of human dignity, the idea of a "non-relative natural law", which does no longer know any difference between pagans and baptized, could also "only gain acceptance as a secular one" (156).


Suffering from God as Christianity's Passion [Glutkern]

It must be left open whether the basic impulse of the Christian faith, the event of Incarnation, or more cautiously, the belief in the Incarnation did absolutely include the idea of equality and whether its history of effect was in many issues the history of distortion. It is possible to think a conception of Christian faith that does not entangle God in a fatal double predestination. And simply to deny the humanizing power of the Christian faith would be historical nonsense, even if one may hardly want to concede it as other religious traditions a unique character [Alleinstellungsmerkmal]. But what has become generally established as Christianity was, with regard to God, of a peculiar ambivalence. The God of this Christianity focused on sin. The God who exclusively regarded man as sinful knew no sensitivity to the needs of His creation.

Schnädelbach is sensitive to this injury history. This Christianity is deeply suspect to him who was brought up as Christian. The religious enthusiasts of the present, however, are equally suspicious to him: the rash religious enthusiasts and those who think they can speak of an all-embracing sense because there is sense at all in the finite beings. That's why for Schnädelbach the Berlin philosopher Volker Gerhardt becomes the main philosophical antipode of the present.

Gerhardt does not refer back to revelation but to experience of the world. Since we always already assume sense, only he can doubt "God's reality who does not believe in himself" (quoted from Schnädelbach, 70). Gerhardt insinuates that sense could only be experienced if absolute sense, too, existed. According to him in every concrete experience of sense man is therefore connected with the source of the universe, which is in itself meaningful.

Against such a defence of religion that leads to a "very general, self-satisfied worldly piety, to a liberal 'cosmo-theismus' in which revelation and its possible irritations occur only in subjectivist dilution" Schnädelbach claims, though he admittedly does not argue theologically, what Johann Baptist Metz called a speaking of God that is sensitive to theodicy. According to Schnädelbach not an abstract religiosity "that is no longer accessible to issues of theodicy is to worry the truly pious minds" (70).

Not a consent to the world that is based on seemingly necessary rational reasons and which has as its drawback that non-believers are to be pathologized as foolish, but a suffering from that God who wants to be merciful and just and has just for that reason massive disappointment ready, constitutes the fire [Glutkern] of a religion worthy of this name. At any rate, it is the fire of that religion which admittedly claims the name of a God who has promised to be the future especially of those who are victimized and deprived of their rights. In the face of the suffering, because the course of history seems to be unstoppable, that religion takes this God severely to task, asking 'Where is God?'

It is difficult to decide whether a religion of worldly piety [Weltfrömmigkeit] does still know at all a God who is able to act. Doubts are appropriate. At any rate, Schnädelbach religiously thinks too much in the way of the Bible, one can also say he is too much interested in Job's questions than that such a religion of worldly piety would be enough for him. It is better to be without hope than to let oneself be comforted by a consolation that is none. Even this is still biblical.

"Der fromme Atheist" (80) [The Devout Atheist] is the title of a book of Schnädelbach - for religious people perhaps one of his most powerful texts of the last few years. According to it the devout atheist does not belong to the merry in the land. His crux is "that he can do nothing else but religiously take the lost thing seriously" (81). A reminder of religious seriousness is given here. The nursery rhyme about the God who has counted the "little stars" is still lingering on, making itself the centre of the memory. But it makes melancholy, because it seems that it does not redeem its truth of a perspective on reality that has not been narrowed in a privatistic way.

In the attitude of religious protest Schnädelbach relentlessly stands by the fire of the Christian traditions. No cosy [weichgespülte] security religion, no aestheticizing toning down can replace what once has been believed as the basic promise of the Christian faith.

The devout atheist was not among those who for good money yearly went to a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion and already knew in advance when they will weep with emotion: "When I am to depart this life" and "It is finished!" - as concert in the Berlin Philharmonic.



According to Schnädelbach, something does here not go together for the devout atheists (80f.). Instead of simply to content oneself aesthetically or conceptually-monistically to reconcile oneself with the world and its course, by declaring it to be the unfolding of the One Divine that includes and preserves everything, the devout atheists experienced something completely different: "a mixture of sadness and rage at the fact that all this is not true" (80).


Faith has an Immense Potential for Disappointment

Here no loud pubescent atheism presents itself, which thinks that it had to send buses with atheism advertising through the country, and in this way to beat the drum for a joyful godlessness of the world (see this issue, 329 f.). Heinrich Heine's enlightenment may still be advisable for some regions in this world in which still politics is made by unenlightened hermeneutics and divine imperatives in one's hand-baggage. But not in this country! In the European modernity the phenomenon of religious policy is of secondary importance. Schnädelbach's diagnosis, "Our culture is therefore not only post-Christian but also post-atheist" (123) opposes an atheism that thinks it had to label buses in order to make people happy.

Schnädelbach therefore calls for standards. Of course, you can be religious, if you do not need to believe for it. But measured by the frustration potential of the devout biblical call, "Ask and you shall be given" the practical atheism has long since taken effect in everyday life. Instead of relying on God, people believe in the regulatory mechanisms of the welfare state and in the technological and medical achievements of the modern world. A religiosity without faith easily adapts itself to this practical atheism. But the phenomena of a religiosity without faith are possibly only more or less natural responses to theology and churches, which operate without restraint with words that have long since lost their plausibility under the changed conditions in the world.

You can believe justifiably in God's omnipotence, in His intervention in the course of nature and history as long as you do not seriously believe in it. The phenomena of a religiosity without faith are perhaps also to be interpreted as unconscious immunization strategies against the immense disappointment potential of the faith in a god who does not only hear man's plea but acts.

In Christoph Schlingensief's book "So schön wie hier kann's im Himmel gar nicht sein.: Tagebuch einer Krebserkrankung" [As beautiful as here it cannot be in heaven.: Diary of a cancer]", which has just conquered the bestseller lists, it says angrily: "And this, dear God, is the greatest disappointment, that you simply crush a lucky child. In any case, you are just about to do it. And you also crush all the other people who believe in you, for example, those who go to Lourdes and are nevertheless not cured "(Cologne 2009, 51f.)."

Those who in the theologians' guild today stand up for religiously disappointed people, those who throw their weight behind modernity's problems with God, which since the 19th Century increasingly drastically emerged, are (politically) by no means in vogue. Theology, too, is the child of its time, and it is therefore not surprising that the in all social and cultural contexts observable tired aversion to the allegedly always only subversive work of criticism is not only popular, in theology, too. And a theology that is indebted to the biblical tradition has indeed to do more than just to doubt. It has always to "account for the reason of the hope" (1 Peter 3.15) that is in the believers.

But what does that mean anyway? To be always willing to account to those who ask about the reason of hope means first that one accepts the conditions of life and the experiences from which people's questions arise. The primary task is now to take modernity not only seriously as modernity but even better to read it as the unavoidable "sign of the times" and theologically to learn from what it means in the modern age to draw up anew theology. And that would then also mean to declare at last the principle of autonomy to be the heart of theological reflection.

In the last notes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who is truly free from any suspicion that he lived in conformity to his time, we find such approaches to a radically autonomous understanding of the world. Reminding of Jesus' cry of desolation on the cross Bonhoeffer writes in the prison: "We can not be honest, without realizing that we are to live in the world - 'etsi deus non daretur'. And just this we recognize - before God. God gives us to know that we must live as such people who cope with a life without God. The God who is with us is the God who leaves us (...) The God who allows us to live in the world without the working hypothesis God is the God before whom we always stand. Before and with God we live without God." (Widerstand und Ergebung. Briefe und Aufzeichnungen aus der Haft, München 1959, 241).

The one who is writing here does not reckon with the intervention of God in the course of nature or history. He is serious about the disappointment potential of the tempting belief in a God who controls the world with a strong hand. Bonhoeffer risked instead the idea of a world that is radically left to itself.

When in response to a Christianty that orients towards the hereafter Friedrich Nietzsche says, "Brothers remain faithful to the earth," then we find in Bonhoeffer's text the theological answer. He writes, "There are people who think that it is frivolous, Christians who think that it is impious to hope for a better earthly future and to prepare themselves for it.



They believe in chaos, disorder and catastrophe as the meaning of the current events and evade in resignation and withdrawal from the world the responsibility for life going on, for building a new world, for the next generations. Doomsday perhaps begins tomorrow, then we will willingly give up the work for a better future, but not before" (25).

This faith in autonomy has nothing to do with a cosy religion of security. It is rather exposed to the full hardness of history's gaze. And at the level of theory such a belief can of course not invalidate Schnädelbach's mixture of experienced rage and sadness about all this being not true. For the simple reason that we have finite experiences of sense, there is no need of an all-embracing sense horizon that comprehends these experiences. And indeed, even more absurd is the view that functionalizes religion, "keep religion, so that not everything on earth goes off the rails."

In the modern age, Schnädelbach insists, "morality stands on its own feet (...) and does no longer need a theological foundation" (150). He clearly marks thus the difference that had almost been forgotten through the public sense of well-being in view of the encounter between Jürgen Habermas and the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

In the reflexive modern age the moral imperative is no longer substantiated by the fact that it is derived from an unconditional being that is called God. But it is the mutual attribution of man's absolute dignity as a person, which in the modern age is so far taken as standard as freedom finds in it its destiny. Translated: You act morally, because you do want nothing else but to live morally sensitively or with Schnädelbach's words, "The fact that the dignity of man is inviolable is neither based on a divine commandment nor on the authority of our tradition but on our self-respect and the mutual recognition as human beings" (151).

This reason for the inviolability of human dignity can and should not irritate devout people. It should not do it, because they had otherwise to wonder whether their respect for human dignity is only owed to the fear of a divine sanction in case of violation - on closer moral examination this is not just an admirable attitude. It cannot do it, because it applies also to believers that they autonomously acquire the principle of inviolability of the dignity of every human being.

Instead of repeatedly insinuating that morality was in effect dependent on the fact that human reason could be cleansed beforehand one has to seek ecumenism with all people of good will. And aiming at those who still believe and who are therefore able to bank on a god who has, beyond the humanly possible, promised a different future, we should begin to ask what it means theologically that some are still able to believe whereas the others live in a mixture of grief and rage, thinking that all this is not true. Whether the modern age will necessarily be profane remains to be seen. But in order to get in the modern age into conversation about modernity, one should go to school with an atheism à la Schnädelbach.


    {*} Magnus Striet (born in 1964) was in 2001 in Münster qualified as a university lecturer and has since 2004 been professor of fundamental theology at the University of Freiburg. His activity centres on theology, theodicy and eschatology, questions of a theological anthropology.


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