Conference Report: Religion in Germany in the 20th Century: Paradigm Shifts and Changing Methodologies

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 4 (December 2014)

Conference Report: Religion in Germany in the 20th Century: Paradigm Shifts and Changing Methodologies. Seminar at the Annual Meeting of the German Studies Association, September 19-21, 2014

By Mark Edward Ruff, Saint Louis University

More than two dozen historians and German language and literature scholars from North America, Germany and Great Britain traveled to the annual meeting of the German Studies Association in Kansas City to take part in this seminar from September 19-21, 2014. The seminar was convened by Thomas Großbölting of the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster and Mark Edward Ruff of Saint Louis University.

This group of scholars made their focus the changing methodologies in the field of German church history. Undergirding this seminar was the assumption that old models of church history have been superseded. Whereas an earlier generation of church historians typically painted a narrow picture of theologies and old men in church towers, younger scholars have sought to broaden the canvas. In their picture of the German religious landscape, both Protestant and Catholic, they now analyze social forms of organization, political networks, societal relationships, gender, religious vocabularies and alternatives to Christianity that range from Islam to political religions, cults and new forms of religious spirituality.

Yet these younger scholars, critical of old orthodoxies, have been unable to achieve any sort of consensus. This lack of consensus stems, at least in part, from the lack of a methodological common denominator. Sociologists, confessional theologians, scholars of religious studies and historians have long often used different vocabularies and definitions of the transcendent, the immanent, the spiritual and religion. Such problems of definition are familiar to anyone entering the field of religious studies today but they have posed a particular challenge to the historiography of German religious history in light of the fact that so many more scholars have recently entered the field.

This seminar was intended to take stock of these fundamental transformations in the historiography and point to new directions for the future. The first day of the seminar explored traditional models of church history that predominated well into the second half of the 20th century. Participants analyzed portions of classic primer for Catholic Church historians, Kirchengeschichte, by Karl Bihlmeyer and Hermann Tüchle. They turned to an article from 1981, “Christ und Geschichte” by the profane Catholic historian, Konrad Repgen, a long-time director of the Kommission für Zeitgeschichte who put forward his vision of Christian scholarship in this lecture-turned-essay. They concluded with an overview and critique of these approaches by the Professor for Mittlere und Neuere Kirchengeschichte in Tübingen, Andreas Holzem in an article entitled “Die Geschichte des ‘geglaubten Gottes’: Kirchengeschichte zwischen ‘Memoria” und ‘Historie.’”

The second day of the seminar was devoted to an analysis and critique of the classic model of the the Catholic milieu from 1993, “Katholiken zwischen Tradition und Moderne: Das katholische Milieu als Forschungsaufgabe” by the Arbeitskreis für Katholizismusforschung in Münster, Germany. One of the participants, Christoph Kösters of the Kommission für Zeitgeschichte, had served as one of authors of this pioneering article and provided an account of this article’s genesis. Participants subsequently examined a recent and powerful challenge to these models posed by Benjamin Ziemann of the University of Sheffield in his article, “Kirchen als Organisationsform der Religion: Zeitgeschichtliche Perspektiven.”

The third day analyzed the current state of fragmentation in the field. Participants began by examining a plea for embracing cultural history and the linguistic turn by the Swiss historian, Franziska Metzger, in her article, “Konstruktionsmechanismen der katholischen Kommunikationsgemeinschaft.” They subsequently turned to an essay, “Further Thoughts on Religion and Modernity” by the Harvard sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, who since the 1990s has largely repudiated his writings from the 1960s on secularization. They also drew upon a survey of recent literature, “’Sag: Wie hast Du’s mit der Religion?’: Das Verhältnis von Religion und Politik als Gretchenfrage der Zeitgeschichte” by the London-based historian, Uta Andrea Balbier.

Almost all of the participants agreed that the paradigms that have long dominated the field – paradigms of church history, secularization and “social-moral milieux” – suffer from distinct weaknesses. These include undue teleologies and the fact that the social-moral milieux were as heterogeneous as they were homogeneous.

But it was probably inevitable that the group of two dozen scholars did not agree on precisely where the field is heading – and should be heading. The assembled represented a diverse group including graduate students, freshly-minted Ph.D.s, junior faculty, associate professors and senior scholars in the field. Some taught at religiously-affiliated colleges and university, others at secular institutions. The majority focused on the twentieth century, but even there, their interests were diverse. Two-thirds were scholars of Catholicism, one-third scholars of Protestantism, the inverse of the confessional balance in Germany through from 1870 through 1945. Some focused on the Weimar era, others almost exclusively on the Nazi era and its immediate aftermath; others focused on the Federal Republic, including the Vatican II era. With such diversity in the seminar, perspectives naturally – and refreshingly – differed.

Why else was there such a lack of consensus?

The lack of consensus stemmed the fact that not all participants were willing to throw the baby out with the bath water. Many sought to retain the most valuable insights from these earlier models, while jettisoning their outdated features. While all of the participants agreed that “salvation history” (Heilsgeschichte) was dead, for instance, not all participants were willing to a priori reject the notion of Christian scholarship as defined out by such distinguished scholars as the Notre Dame historian, Mark Noll. In response to criticisms that the model of the Catholic milieu papered over the very real diversity within, some participants pointed out that there was a coherence to the Roman Catholic milieu (how could there not have been during eras of religious persecution!) The models of the Catholic milieu, they observed, had always taken into account the social, economic, political and intellectual diversity within the flock and fact that the Catholic milieu had been anything but static. Religious organizations, their social-forms, and even their message changed with the times – and had to out of necessity. And no one would deny that the major churches today show far lower rates of membership, church and mass attendance and cultural influence than they did even as late as the 1960s.

The lack of methodological consensus also arose out of a lack of agreement over how to describe the contemporary German religious landscape. Conscientious observers of the religious landscape of modern Germany disagree over what religious forms took hold following the era of religious upheaval in the 1960s. Are Germans even religious today, or even spiritual? If so, where are their religious and spiritual roots, if they are no longer anchored in the established churches? Do existing religious and spiritual practices even exert any significant claim over daily lives of Germans or have they become utterly diffuse? These questions become all the more important for historians today, since most inevitably read the past through the lens of the present. If it is unclear which methodological tools are needed to make some sense of a muddled German religious present, how can we grasp the transformative processes from fifty years ago that ushered it in?

Where was there widespread agreement? Most participants agreed it was necessary to integrate religious history into mainstream narratives of German history. They also concurred that religious history would profit from the insights and methodologies gleaned from cultural history. All agreed on the need for additional comparative studies, in which the German religious experience would be placed alongside that of its neighbors and those from the other side of the Atlantic. Finally, all recognized that the field of contemporary German religious history has become a much more vibrant place since having been freed from often stifling methodological orthodoxies and a narrow focus on churchmen and dogmas.