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Christian culture

The Light in the World

München, 08/07/2017

Christianity set its seal on culture and society from the very beginning. Its history can also be seen as a process of ‘enchantment’, says Protestant theologian Jörg Lauster – before embarking on a whirlwind tour of the last two millennia.

The Light in the World: Gerhard Richter’s stained glass window created for the south transept of Cologne Cathedral in 2007. Capture: Dombauhütte Köln, J. Rumbach / Köln, Gerhard Richter

A process of enchantment of the world? Is this intended as an antithesis to Max Weber’s contention.
Lauster: Yes, I consciously chose the term as an antonym to Weber’s concept. When he identified ‘the disenchantment of the world’ as a basic element of Modernism almost a century ago, Weber was undoubtedly right in many respects. If we compare lifestyles and – above all – the prevailing attitudes to life in the 19th century with those of the Middle Ages, we soon recognize major differences in people’s perceptions of themselves and the world around them. But Weber’s view is too simplistic. Modernity cannot be understood solely as a blanket dismissal of religion and transcendence. The 19th century witnessed a transformation of religion, which can be traced in the figurative arts, in music and in literature. Religion seeks and finds new outlets. That is the reason why I use the expression ‘enchantment’.

The core of the Christian ideal has survived for 2000 years. That suggests a remarkable capacity to adapt to cultural change. How has Christianity managed to combine flexibility of approach with stability of content?
Christianity is flexible because it has to be. After all, it attempts to communicate a mode of being that transcends the human sphere and all human forms of expression. Christianity’s core message is encapsulated in the assertion that God is present in this world in a myriad of signs – most especially in the person of Jesus Christ – something that can never be fully expressed or comprehended in human terms, because it surpasses the expressive capacities of human speech. Hence, the search for ways to communicate it is never-ending, and that accounts for Christianity’s flexibility. And the stability results from the fact that this central point of reference will always remain beyond our reach as humans.

Christianity begins on the fringes of world history. Galilee was then a remote corner of the Roman Empire. How did the Christian religion emerge from the shadows? And how could an initially obscure sect leave such an indelible mark on Roman culture over the course of so many centuries?
The French historian Paul Veyne has written a lovely book on this, in which he postulates that Christianity succeeded in achieving three things: It demonstrated a tremendous potential to endow life with meaning and projected a huge sense of intellectual power. It offered the inhabitants of the Classical World compelling answers to existential problems that Roman religions and philosophers had also grappled with – questions about the origins of man and the meaning of life. And thirdly, it exerted a strong social attraction, by mitigating differences between classes and constructing a social safety net. Christians looked after the poor, whereas the Roman Empire had no concept of a duty of care. Furthermore, Christianity brought a previously unknown quality of emotional engagement to religious practice. It encouraged its adherents to pray to the saints or to God in the same fashion as one would converse with, or ask advice of a friend. That is very different from offering sacrifices to the gods in the classical pantheon.

With the onset of the age of migrations, and the invasions of Germanic tribes, the fate of the Roman Empire, with the city of Rome at its center, was sealed. But instead of declining with it, Christianity went from strength to strength. This too betokens an astonishing degree of adaptability.
Two hundred years after their initial conversion, the Germanic tribes, the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths had developed an extraordinary interest in Christianity, in theology, in Christian art, and came to see themselves as the legitimate successors of Rome ­– and indeed as the better Christians. The few buildings that survive from the time of the Ostrogoths in Ravenna clearly express Theoderic’s claim to be closer to the true Christian ideal than the Romans had been, and they testify to the fascination that Christianity held for the new masters of Italy. This was what induced the Germanic peoples to adopt Christianity and graft its culture onto their own traditions.

Yet the Early Middle Ages are often referred to as the Dark Ages, but you prefer to speak of ‘a flowering in the gloom’. How was the darkness dispelled?
In the Early Middle Ages, Christianity began to create forms of culture from which we still benefit today. The European ideal of education, for instance, owes an incalculable debt to the monasteries and their roles in preserving and propagating Classical texts and establishing a culture based on books and writing. The monasteries gave rise to the first disciplined and consciously European way of life, and this view is shared by Protestants. The Benedictine Order laid the foundation for this development in the Early Middle Ages – when the light shone more brightly than we tend to imagine.

The Christianization of Europe involved much conflict. Does this imply that violence and religious conviction are mutually dependent?
That is a difficult question to answer. Christianity’s commitment to peace goes back a long way, back to its earliest days in fact. Christ’s appeal for peace is an immensely important part of His message. But Christianity later took on the functions of a civilizing power and, in doing so, became an instrument of the political elite. Charlemagne undoubtedly exploited Christianity in order to extend his own power, and his war with the Saxons is one of the first instances of the large-scale use of violence to disseminate Christianity. The Crusades were another – attempts to recover Christianity’s Holy Places, but also to assert the dominance of the Christian faith over other world religions.

Were the Crusades any different in character from other wars of conquest? Do they not imply the presence of marked strain of belligerence at the heart of Christianity?
No. I see the Crusades as aberrations, as a corruption of Christianity, not as a phenomenon that can be explained as a necessary consequence of the true character of the faith. Religion is of course a very potent means of mobilizing individuals. The Crusades were not only wars of conquest, but veritable mass migrations. People were ready and willing to make the journey to the Holy Land, because they were convinced that it would win them their reward in Heaven, because they wished to support Christ’s cause. From our point of view, the corruption lies in the very notion that Christianity could or should be spread or served by violent conquest.

People are killed in the name of Christ, the orthodox – and later the Inquisition – persecute dissenters.
The great waves of persecution within the Christian community certainly acted as outlets for social tensions, but they were also intended to establish ecclesiastical power claims. The persecution of heretics is a form of cultural self-aggression which – quite typically – set in during periods in which externally directed missionary activities had begun to falter, as a result of the prior Christianization of large parts of Europe. The basic postulate behind the Inquisition might seem strange to us, but it seemed not only reasonable, but progressive, at the time: The purpose of an interrogation is to discover the truth. In other words, the aim was to ensure that nobody could be condemned on the basis of unsupported accusations or rumors. But the Inquisition perverted this ideal by resorting to violence and torture. One might say that it implemented an especially cruel form of rationality.

Giotto is the first painter to depict the power of the emotions and the human gaze in his works. This fresco shows us the dramatic scene of Christ’s arrest. Source (detail): Hervé Champollion/akg images

It nevertheless remains a puzzling paradox: As heretics are being burnt at the stake, Christian culture blossoms: Universities based on Christian values are founded, it is the age of the great cathedrals. Is there such a thing as a theology of the cathedral?
Researchers are divided on the issue. Clearly, the architects of the great Gothic cathedrals did not use theological treatises as blueprints. But they were undoubtedly interested in ideas, and sought to embody them in their buildings. Perhaps the central idea is that of the divine light, which permeates and animates the world – and is reflected in structures that soar upward toward that light. The realization of this aspiration required a technological revolution: The Gothic cathedral with its ribbed vaults and pointed arches represents an advance on the foregoing Romanesque style, because its architects had worked out how to balance the stresses exerted by the massive walls. Certain aspects of popular piety that drew on everyday life also found expression in Gothic architecture. Romanesque churches are like fortresses. They resemble strongholds with sturdy bastions, representing humanity’s last refuge from an evil – or at least chaotic – world. Gothic cathedrals, on the other hand, are a testimony to the attainment of new level of civilization. God is seen as less forbidding, people feel less threatened than before, and more willing to entrust themselves to the divine light that illuminates the world. In this sense, the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic reflects both a civilizational transformation and the emergence of a new theological program.

With Giotto, the emotions and the individualized human countenance first appear in pictorial art – generations before the great artists of the Renaissance. What spiritual consolations do his frescos convey?
European Christendom has always been very attached to imagery – as a Protestant, I too acknowledge that – and the centrality of the image makes it impossible to overestimate Giotto’s importance. He painted a crucifix for Santa Maria Novella, the Dominican church in Florence, which must have made a deep impression on his contemporaries in the early 14th century, because it depicts Christ’s Passion with unprecedented realism. Viewers must have felt as if they had been transported to Golgotha itself, for image draws the observer into the scene it depicts. Giotto is also the first artist who can be grasped as an individual in his own right, and he opens a new era: From now on, the artist appears as a personality, who must call on his own genius, on his store of ideas and experience, for the emotional power that is art’s raison d’être. This represents an immense boost in prestige. Giotto himself was perceived as a craftsman and a guildsman, but his peers in the High Renaissance – in Michelangelo’s time, for example – have attained the status of independent artists. Artists must respect the wishes of his patrons, but by this time they have virtually taken on the mantle of the priest, who interprets religious concepts for the public. In its iconography, the Renaissance attempts to reconcile the two essential sources of European culture – the legacies of Classical Antiquity and Christianity. Christendom is once more reminded of its roots.

What then ensues is not only a return to its roots, but a revolution. What was the primary trigger for the Reformation?
The Reformation marks a major turning point, it was indeed a veritable upheaval: For the first time, a new apprehension of the faith and its transcendental implications poses an existential challenge to the Church itself. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and many other reformers contended that the essence of Christianity had been misunderstood and indeed perverted, and was not reflected by the existing institutional structure of the Church. This radical critique of Christianity was the product of lived Christian experience, but it did not give rise to a unified movement. Reformation always denotes pluralization. That for me is its most important legacy.

But pluralization has its dark side. In the 17th century, European civilization is engulfed in a series of religious wars, and the resulting cultural devastation is lit up by the glowing colors of the Baroque. Is that not a contradiction?
I see these phenomena as two sides of the same coin. For me, the Baroque is a kind of intellectual resistance movement. Take for instance Rubens’ “The Slaughter of the Innocents”, now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. In the context of the atrocities perpetrated on the civilian population during the Thirty Years War, the fury with which Herod’s minions set upon their hapless victims is unlikely to have shocked the artist’s contemporaries. We may find the painting disturbing, but the violence it depicts was an integral part of life in the 17th century. And into the midst of his hellish scene, Rubens inserts angels, as symbols of the consolation of divine compassion. That may not be in accord with our religious feelings today, and might even be interpreted as kitsch. But Rubens’ message is quite clear: Violence and cruelty will not have the last word. Suffering has a deeper meaning and will find consolation. This impulse is what constitutes the intellectual protest which is such a feature of great art. Similarly, sacred music – most especially that of the Protestant Church, which reaches its peak in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach – sets before us an ordered cosmos, as an image of divine harmony, and a counterpoint to the turmoil of the real world.

What accounts for the astonishing and unbroken affinity between Bach’s religious works and the Protestant form of Divine Service?
First of all, the surpassing beauty of the music itself, though it took a while to make a real impact. Bach’s music only became widely known 80 years after his death, thanks to the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. The second factor is Bach’s personal commitment to Lutheranism and his use of Lutheran texts and motifs. I would relegate to third place the conventional argument which postulates that the emotional color provided by Bach’s musical settings compensate for Protestantism’s emphasis on the spoken word. For that argument ignores the fact that the staid and dispassionate form of Protestantism we know today is a child of the Enlightenment. In Bach‘s time, Protestant ritual was a great deal more sensuous and joyful. I would prefer to say that the music validates the wordiness of the texts by underlining their meanings. This would explain why Bach composed his great oratorios.

The modern novel also first appears as a vehicle for religious ideas and concepts. You contend that the novel was conceived in the spirit of the Puritans.
As a narrative form, the novel goes back to Classical times. But, rather amazingly, it was English Puritans who first realized that it was ideal for the depiction of intellectual reflections and subjective states – and could serve as a medium for the transport of religious ideas. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is perhaps the best example of this. Robinson undergoes a metamorphosis, from a rather dissolute mariner into a Christian who places his trust in the Bible. He recovers a Bible from the wreck of his ship, reads it during his lonely sojourn on the island and comes to accept its teachings. And ultimately he realizes that his life is in God’s hands. This process can be depicted much more effectively in a novel than conveyed in dogmatic terms in a sermon. The novel enables the author to address his readers much more directly and appositely. Of course, Robinson Crusoe has a famous precursor, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the most significant works in the whole of English literature. The book describes – in the form of an adventure – the life of a protagonist named Christian, who must prove himself in the face of all sorts of dangers, including monstrous beasts. It is highly entertaining, as well as being an effective proselytizing text. Works like these inspired a flood of novels that dealt with religious themes in a non-dogmatic fashion. And they inspired the novels that dominated the literature of the 19th century.

The printed book becomes the foremost cultural factor in the Age of the Enlightenment. How deeply did this period affect Europe’s perception of the world – and how large was its impact on Christianity?
The Age of Enlightenment was an even more momentous turning point for Christianity than the Reformation had been. Yet it is an epoch that is difficult to define and describe. Many researchers now use the term Enlightenment exclusively in the plural. The Enlightenment radically altered people’s everyday lives, as the spirit of rationalization – the acknowledged means of overcoming man’s self-incurred immaturity – gradually permeates all spheres of life and culture. The Enlightenment questions previously accepted authorities, and creates what we now know as the public sphere and public opinion. In addition, it sets great store in technological progress. These developments were much more positively received in Christian circles than is generally realized. Their primary implications were that religious beliefs should be rationally based and that Christians should play a more active role in shaping the contemporary world. Theological and religious matters suddenly became matters of public debate.

Post-Enlightenment Christianity had lost its position as the principal model for the interpretation of humanity and its place in the world. How did Christianity make the transition to modernity? Secularization promoted the pluralization of religious attitudes, but how exactly?
Let’s take a simple example: Joseph von Eichendorff once wrote a poem that marvellously captures the mood inspired by a clear, still, moonlit night, and causes the poet to feel as if his soul “were winging its way home” (als flöge sie nach Haus), the phrase with which the poem ends. This phrase epitomizes the home as a secure haven – in an essentially religious idiom but without recourse to the traditional vocabulary used in church. For this reason, Eichendorff is, for me, a prime witness for the pluralization of religious attitudes. Eichendorff works with religious concepts, but no longer expresses them in classical terms. He was well versed in the standard vocabulary, and he wrote poems on Marian themes. The question is whether religious emotions expressed in non-ecclesiastical language can be regarded as Christian? Can piety be expressed in purely secular terms? I believe the answer is yes. The past two centuries constitute an attempt to accomplish yet another transformation of Christianity.

You also attribute a religious dimension to many of the works of German painters of the Romantic era, such as Caspar David Friedrich.
In my opinion, Caspar David Friedrich is a deeply religious artist. He hides – ‘hide’ is not the right word – he smuggles religious symbols into his paintings. “The Altar at Tetschen” evokes the Crucifixion, his images of mountainous terrain often show crosses on the summits. The “Monk by the Sea” shows us a monk – not an ordinary civilian – gazing in the approaching darkness on the immensity of the sea. By using these symbols, the artist makes it clear that the image depicts an act of contemplation. But what really makes him a religious artist is his ability to project the magic inherent in the natural world into the images that he makes. His style is clearly figurative, but it is not realistic. His paintings are not copies of natural scenes, but expressions of inner moods. And these moods are implicitly alert to mysteries of a higher order. And that is what epitomizes religion for me. Impressionist paintings too are often concerned with giving artistic expression to something that is intrinsic to nature and may even be perceived as threatening.

Cultural, or liberal, Protestantism attempted to reconcile Christianity with non-religious or profane culture. How exactly?
The aims of this movement around the middle of the 19th century are perhaps best illustrated by a simple example: One of its protagonists, Richard Rothe, theology professor in Heidelberg and a senior ecclesiastical administrator in Baden, once wrote that the invention of the railway had done more for the dissemination of Christianity than the Church Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon put together. This is the practical hands-on attitude, which confronts the world head-on, and views the rapid conveyance of people from one place to another as an act of Christianity. That exemplifies cultural Protestantism, dedicated to progress and to shaping the world in the Christian spirit. This set of ideas tends to arouse skepticism today, but we owe it more than we realize. At all events, its influence extended far into the 2oth century. Indeed, one can plausibly argue that its impact on Protestant elites is all-pervasive.

The theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher is regarded as its leading protagonists. Why?
In the literature, Schleiermacher is described – almost without exception – as the 19th century’s nearest equivalent to the early Fathers of the Church. He stands at yet another turning point. He saw himself as an adherent of Romanticism, but he had imbibed the theology of the Enlightenment and grew up in a Pietist household. As a young man, he had explored and brought together all the important currents of Protestantism, and this makes him a remarkable figure. He once remarked that: “It is inconceivable that the faith of the individual should ever part company with scientific knowledge.” Otherwise, he maintained, humans would be intellectually schizophrenic beings. So there had to be a way to reconcile the two. ‘Piety’ was Schleiermacher‘s favorite term, and referred to a state of mind which was attuned to the openness of the world to God, but at the same time welcomed secular progress. He made some headway towards this goal, and others were to follow him during the 19th century.

Science and faith should never lose touch with each other – but Darwin’s theory of evolution was a severe stumbling block. Can it be said that religion and science (have) found common ground?
Surprisingly enough, Darwin’s work had a more positive reception among theologians than is generally known. Or, perhaps one should put it the other way round: His ideas were viewed as being far less scandalous than they are by many churches today. Attempts to prevent the teaching of evolution by legal means began in the USA in the 1920s, and in England theological reactions to Darwin’s theory were mixed. But for many scholars, the idea that God could have fashioned the world in an evolutionary process, and that humans might perhaps be related to the primates was perfectly compatible with Christian doctrine. This is essentially how Darwin’s theory was initially received by German theologians. The difficulties arose when Darwin’s followers insisted that the evolutionary process is intrinsically random; Darwin himself had made similar suggestions. Clearly, survival of the fittest as a result of blind chance was irreconcilable with an evolutionary process guided by God.

How did Christianity survive the 2oth century, with its competing forms of totalitarianism, caught as it was between persecution and marginalization?
At least in Europe, the 20th century was one of the greatest trials that Christendom has ever faced. The persecutions in the Roman Empire under Nero were nowhere near as ruthless as that initiated by Stalin – which claimed the lives of many thousands of Christians. In socialist countries of Eastern Europe, Christianity was, up until the 1970s or even the 1980s, either suppressed or driven underground. Poland was the sole exception. One of the most remarkable developments over the course of the 20th century has been the growth of Christianity in the Southern hemisphere and its repercussions for Christianity in Europe ­– liberation theology, for instance. Christianity is now expanding most rapidly in Asia and Africa. This shows that Christianity’s center of gravity is gradually shifting, but then Christianity’s aspirations have always been universal.

The enormous popular success of the Reformation in the 16th century falls in the same period as the cultural revolution sparked by the invention of printing. What impact is today’s digital revolution having on Christian culture?
Historians have long recognized the impossibility of adequately describing processes in which one is actively involved, because gauging their impact requires a degree of detachment. So it is unlikely that the reformers were in a position to grasp the significance of the invention of printing for the movement. Clearly, however, we now use digital media so intensively that they will inevitably bring about drastic changes in our perception of our everyday lives, of the world as a whole and of the process of globalization. We can now communicate in fractions of a second with others anywhere in the world. That will undoubtedly have repercussions for how religion is communicated, promulgated and practiced. The new edition of Luther’s translation of the Biblical text is already available as an app. From a technological point of view, the very act of going to church on Sundays now appears anachronistic – but happily people continue to attend church in person. As the great American sociologist of religion Robert Bellah said: “Nothing is ever really lost.”

Interviewer: Martin Thurau

Plauster_130_webrof. Dr. Jörg Lauster is Professor of Dogmatic Theology, Religious Philosophy and Ecumenics in the Faculty of Protestant Theology at LMU. Born in 1966, Lauster studied Theology, Philosophy and Romance Languages in Munich, Tübingen and Heidelberg. He obtained his doctorate in Munich and completed his Habilitation at Mainz University. He was Professor of Systematic Theology and Religious Philosophy at Marburg University, before taking up his present position at LMU in 2015. He is the author of Die Verzauberung der Welt: Eine Kulturgeschichte des Christentums, which is published by C. H. Beck.