Conservative clerics committed to progress

Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University
December 8, 2006

This book contains some excellent and stimulating historical analysis. But its main arguments are not always easy to identify because it is often a victim of its own erudition and it frequently allows factual digression to obscure its most important claims. Its intentions are generally to examine the emergence of a modern intellectual and political culture in 19th-century Prussia and after 1871 in Germany as a whole, and, more specifically, to assess the contribution of academic theology to the consolidation of this culture. Its primary topics are consequently the University of Berlin and its theology faculty. However, its focus wanders periodically and the author ruminates shapelessly on various matters from the dissemination of German theology in other countries to students who studied in Germany then later founded universities and theology faculties outside Germany.

The book also contains some methodological ambiguities. At one level, it can be read as an essay in the historical sociology of religion and religious education. It uses quasi-sociological approaches to show how religious teaching in the universities of 19th-century Prussia adapted to the emergence of a mass market in higher education resulting from "rapid population growth", from "improved literacy" and from the expectation of the new middle class that universities would act as "avenues of social mobility". At the same time, however, Thomas Albert Howard is motivated by a discerning and understated care for religion, and he never finally decides whether the integration of religion into the structures of mass society and the rationalisation of theology as a scientific discipline should be documented as signs of the continuing relevance of religion in modern social life or lamented as a betrayal of its founding commitment to Heilsgeschichte and to the ideals of Christian antiquity.

Ultimately, however, it is most appropriate to accept this book as a work that complexly fuses engaged defence and factual analysis of religion in an emergent modern society, and whose methodological preconditions are, in consequence, rather fluid. The book's fundamental claim is that after the union of the Reformed and Lutheran churches in Prussia, initiated in 1817, the state and the Church interacted closely to form a culture of "Erastian modernity", concentrated in the University of Berlin, in which scientific modernisation, political leadership and religious doctrine were closely connected. In this, Howard rejects the normal assumption that the closeness of state and Church in Prussia gave rise to a political and academic establishment that exuded relentless conservatism and educational surveillance. Instead, he argues that the integration of theological inquiry and religious observance into the functions of the state meant that religion was assimilated into, and in turn consistently reinforced, an intellectual environment that, despite its innate conservatism, was scientifically rigorous, open to liberal influence and shaped by an underlying spirit that was "decidedly progressive". If the state and the sciences were the primary pillars of European societies approaching the condition of high "modernity", Howard suggests, Prussian society was distinctive for the fact that theology was not excluded from this company.

While acknowledging that it suffered a gradual "diminution" of its institutional significance, he explains that academic theology still continued to respond to the prevailing exigencies of a modern society, to shape itself as a formal science and to sustain its formative influence in the universities, in the professions and in the state.

In proposing these theses, Howard describes how from the early 19th to the early 20th century, the great theological luminaries in Berlin, first Friedrich Schleiermacher and, later, Adolf von Harnack, construed their religious commitments as components of a discernably progressive political culture. Schleiermacher's interventions in wider political debate are well documented, and the account of him as the "prototype of a new, politicised theologian and clergyman" will ring true for those who have reflected on the relation between state and Church in Prussia. However, Harnack emerges in a new light. The discussion of his attitude to the foundation of the Weimar Republic and to the provisions for religious education enshrined in the democratic constitution of 1919 is illuminating. Indeed, Howard's argument that Harnack's work possessed particular secular-political significance, and that he was able, from an institutionally conservative vantage point, at once to defend the teaching of religion in universities and to show "open sympathy for many social democratic causes" does much to support his broader claims for the adaptability of academic theology in face of rapid societal transformation.

In addition to these central points, the book also contains a number of wider implications. First, Howard argues that Prussia was always shaped by progressive and rationalistic intellectual attitudes. These attitudes were initially embodied in the flagship university of the early Enlightenment, the University of Halle (founded in 1694), whose multifaceted professoriate included proto-positivist legal philosophers, early rationalist theorists of natural law and pietist theologians. Second, Howard also claims that academic theologians commonly collaborated with professors in other disciplines to sustain this culture and, later, to develop an advanced and internationally influential university system. Third, and most important, the book also indicates, in rather more implicit terms, that theological research should not be viewed as marginal to the distinctive "modernity" of modern societies for it reflects and structures this modernity to just the same extent as other academic disciplines. To substantiate this, Howard offers evidence to show how throughout the 19th century Protestant academic theology consciously promoted a secularisation of its outlooks to support the cultural and pedagogic foundations on which Prussian political life was organised.

This is a diffuse, complicated and intriguing book. It might be argued that it is too long for what it has to say and it addresses too many subjects and offers too much factual information. However, it undoubtedly illuminates the sociopolitical role of religion in modern Germany and it probes effectively, and in an originally eclectic style, at the wider processes of religious transformation underlying modern societies.

Chris Thornhill is professor of European political thought, Glasgow University.

Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University

Author - Thomas Albert Howard
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 496
Price - £75.00
ISBN - 0 19 926685 2

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