History’s Religion Revisited

Conference organizers: Henning Trüper (HCAS), Jouni Tilli (HCAS), Jonathan Sheehan (UC Berkeley), Mario Wimmer (University of Basel)

In this symposium, we want to revisit the longstanding problem that has been known, under varying labels, as “theology of history,” historical thought as “secularized eschatology,” (K. Löwith), or “history’s religion” (Geschichtsreligion, W. Hardtwig). All these labels express a similar underlying notion that it was constitutive for the modern European “regime of historicity” (F. Hartog) that, although seemingly secular, it was modeled after both mythical and theological understandings of the time of the world as unfolding between creation and the last judgment. As a prime indicator of this dependence, theorists of history have highlighted the future-orientation of modern historical consciousness. This orientation entailed a sense of history as a progressive process, toward a definitive state of equilibrium or a dynamic standard of constant improvement. As H. G. Gadamer and R. Koselleck have argued, in the 18th century, the “space of experience” and the “horizon of expectation” were separated definitively, as a result of the acceleration of technological and political change. This separation opened the opportunity to project formerly religious expectations of salvation at the end of time onto the imagination of a this-worldly historical future. This overall line of argument is a major component of notions of “European modernity” across various disciplines. The ability of the humanities to participate in arguments about the nature of modernity crucially hinges on this family of arguments about history’s religion.

We propose to challenge key components of this concept. We assume that the supposed “secularization” of theological temporality did not merely consist in the re-labeling of older dogmatic topoi and their grafting onto a supposedly novel understanding of historical world-time. Rather it took place in a more complex historical reality. Crucially, one has to take into account the history of the humanities as a broader and messier body of knowledge than the sterilized understanding of historical thought with which the philosophical analysis of history’s religion has operated.

We will test these assumptions with the help of the following hypotheses and questions:

(1) Can we produce a more comprehensive and more accurate understanding of history’s religion if we identify and study theological meanings implicit in humanist discourse that reach beyond the confines of the eschatological domain? Examples for such meanings would be notions of sacrifice, violence, asceticism, the name of god, justice, grace, the Other, or charity; and in terms of cultural notions of time, the distinction of the world-time of eschatology and the cyclical liturgical time of the holy year would be a chief topic to discuss.

(2) After decades of criticism of the earlier secularization paradigm (in the vein of Weber’s “Protestant Ethic”) it seems legitimate to assume that at any given point in modern European history an ongoing production of knowledge within various religious frameworks continued feeding into an imperfect discourse of the secular that consisted primarily of shifting “formations” (T. Asad) and “figures” (D. Weidner) without a clear rupture around 1800. Still, we have learned relatively little about what this assumption entails for the history of scholarly knowledge production, for the dynamic interlinkages of epistemology and ontology such a history, by present standards, ought to include. What would a revisited understanding of “onto-theology” look like if it were to take into account fully the history of scholarship, and if it were deprived of the traditional periodization that divides the modern from the pre-modern at the supposed watershed of 1800?

(3) As a working hypothesis, we assume that secularization, in our context, should not be regarded simply as the appropriation of the formerly religious on the part of the mundane. Rather, secularization entailed collective appropriation on the part of multiple, interdependently differentiated agencies, a process resembling the distribution of an inheritance. The differences among humanities disciplines may be related to their appropriation of different, clearly delimited portions of the theological semantics of world-time (history inherited the Book of Revelation, philology Genesis). If this appears plausible, how does the picture of history’s religion have to change in order to account for the fragmentation as well as the interdependencies of humanities knowledge?

(4) What happens to the overall picture if we fully take into account the embeddedness of the problem in the institutional, social and practical contexts of humanities knowledge production at large? What happens if we actually include the histories of universities, disciplines, and concrete projects of scholarship?

(5) Given the centrality, to the humanities, of a “critical” orientation of knowledge production, a contribution to the betterment of a historical present, to the attainment of temporal/historical justice, the humanities themselves appear caught up in the secularized temporality of history’s religion. How then would – or could – the concept of “critique” change if the understanding of the religious meanings embedded in historical consciousness were altered?

(6) What are the prospects for losing the inheritance of secularization altogether, and what would such a loss entail for the future of the humanities? What might this question entail for the supposed distinction between the modern and the post-modern in the humanities, provided we want to uphold it?