Reinhard Hütter: The Church as Public (& not as Voluntary Association)

Several weeks ago I posted a summary of Steve Bruce and Roy Wallace on the “orthodox model” of secularization. In that work, Bruce & Wallis argue that the defining mark of secularization is the diminution of religion’s public influence, and, we might quickly conclude, the loss of its public character (they distinguish the process of secularization from the trends of modernization, such as inclusion into a national center, &c.). Regarding this loss of public character, there is a section from Reinhard Hütter’s book, Bound to be Free, where he asks some very pointed questions about the Church as public: he thinks the Church is essentially public, and ponders what it means for her to lose this characteristic feature.

Though Hütter does not seem to wish to turn back the clock on our modern liberties, he does wish to recover a sense of the collective identity of the mainline Protestant churches as what he calls a “public”, a cohesive, unified community that is distinguished by unifying common practices. His read of modernity is, unfortunately, that of a force that is hostile to the true life of the Church, but he doesn’t seem to show any awareness of the history and problems (one might say, the horrors) that lead to our modern liberal political and social arrangements in the aftermath of the European Wars of Religion, which is troubling.

He says that “any public is constituted by binding teachings and practices”, but these can only be seen as private in the modern world, unless the practices are imposed, conformity and consent is engineered, and dissent is erased. He wants the Church to break out of “the iron cage of privatism set up by” the modern private/public dichotomy, but it is not clear that the “public” he advocates is anything but the “association of religiously interested individuals” he laments that it has become. Hütter says that a public is determined by “binding” elements, yet unless these are impossible to dodge legally, or unless dissent has some very unpleasant social consequences, or unless there is no option of reaffiliating with another public, then one must voluntarily assent to affiliate with and practice these “binding” elements. The alternative to a binding Church being voluntary would be some form of controlling authoritarianism. It is futile to imagine away the advent of our modern autonomy.

Hütter advances the voice of Erik Peterson who, in his correspondence with Adolf von Harnack, indicated that (in Hütter’s words) Protestantism “lost itself as a distinct public,” so that it “is constantly in search of its own relevance in that public that is the currently determining and normative one, namely, that of secular society.” This is why, Hütter argues, the mainline churches threw themselves behind the project of American civil religion, which is how they became the sacral anchor for the public culture. Now, of course, that the culture has raised anchor, and is moving or has moved on, the mainline churches are trying to catch up, and have wholly involved themselves in a variety of causes to try to be the vanguard of the general public, based on where they see the general public trending, or where they think it should trend, so as to retain an identity that is continuous with what they had before, or at least analogous. This is symptomatic of an element of what secularity means, its neutrality — the secular world cannot have an identity in quite the way that individuals and groups of individuals can opt for an identity. The identities on offer for groups, however, cannot include an exclusive marriage to the secular public, even if that public was once so married to a certain group or groups.

What follows is from pp.19ff. of Bound to be Free.

2. The Church as Public: Doctrine, Practice, and the Holy Spirit

I. The Eclipse of the Church in Modernity.

The dynamics of advance modernity seem to be forcing the church in America (especially Protestantism) in two directions: either toward an ever intensified understanding of faith as an essentially private gnosis or experience made “relevant” through various subject-related activities or toward more and more objectified forms of faith – as especially in fundamentalist biblicism or traditionalist ecclesiasticism. Common to both of these Christian reactions to modernity’s forces of dissolution is that the church as a genuine “public” is eclipsed.

Yet we might very well ask why this should be deemed an important issue at all. What is lost if the church is just an association of religiously interested individuals? Under the conditions of modernity, can the church be anything other than a private association – and even if so, can it be a “public” in any full sense?


II. The Protestant Church – an Oxymoron?


The thesis I am going to argue in this chapter is that it is essential for the church to be a “public.” When the church is not characterized by those aspects that constitute it as a public in its own right, the church is a church in crisis. It is not God’s crisis; rather, it is a crisis self-inflicted by the church’s accommodation to modernity’s norm for the organization of a public that is shaped by the liberal nation-state and the free market.


As a political project, modernity is constituted by a particular way of organizing the “private” and the “public” that entails the dichotomizing –and thereby the effective taming– of religion. On the one hand is a “civil religion” destined to justify and stabilize the project of a liberal society. On the other hand are those idiosyncratic opinions that particular individuals and traditions might hold on their own. The latter are strictly relegated to the realm of privacy. The freedom of religion becomes, for individuals, the right of privacy in religious opinions and, for the church, the “right” to exist in denominations — which is synonymous with the crisis of the church as public. This politico-religious context, in which the church as public has to a high degree been eroded or even lost, makes it imperative that the church explicitly claim its public character as a nota ecclesiae, an essential mark of the church.

The central contention of my argument here will be that the church has to break out of the iron cage of privatism set up by modernity’s specific way of defining “private” and “public” in order fully to be the church. The church is either fully church and thereby a public in its own right or a bundle of denominations. So the key question concerns what a public is and how a public is constituted. I will argue that any public is constituted by binding teachings and practices.


III. Objectivism versus Subjectivism: The Peterson-Harnack Impasse

The correspondence between Peterson and Harnack reflects in a paradigmatic way two reactions to Christianity’s existence under the conditions of an increasingly secularized modernity. On the one hand, Harnack gives in to secularity and espouses an essentially individualistic and relativistic perspective:

What will become of the Evangelical Church, I do not know; but, as you correctly state, I can only welcome the development which leads more and more to independence and purely intentional community in the sense –I do not shrink from this– of Quakerism and Congregationalism….We will indeed find a way and forms free of ecclesiastical absolutism (absolutism only has a place in a lively spirit) — of course in the meantime we are still severely dependent on the remains of Catholic tradition among us, as it were, on the aroma of an empty bottle, and I am also not of the opinion that we should intentionally hasten the process, which will proceed slowly but surely, of its own accord.

All that remains is nonbinding moral exhortation and voluntary association with those who hold similar convictions — of whatever sort. The church as distinct, identifiable public disappears.

On the other hand, there is Peterson’s option, the return to Roman Catholicism, a step he took, after long hesitation and inner struggle, on December 25, 1930. Peterson raises the question of the church under the conditions of modernity. If the Protestant church has lost its public character by being disestablished (whether culturally or politically) and by increasingly being pressed into modes of privacy, can it still be church?

It is worthwhile to listen to Peterson’s analysis of modern Protestantism in Germany:

It seems at first sight one of the most astonishing features of modern Protestantism that it stands in alienated, uncomprehending opposition, not only to Catholicism –which at least makes psychological sense– but to its own past in traditional Protestantism, and, let it be noted, not just in “liberal” circles, but today quite generally, even among those of the so-called “positive” theology. The only way to grasp this incomprehension is to realize that the ontological basis of Protestantism has changed. The civil and public character of the Protestant church and theology, which was essentially definitive for traditional Protestantism, has vanished with the extinction of the Christian state, that is, of a confessionally defined territory. Along with it, the dialectical relationship to the Catholic church and to Catholic theology with its authentically ecclesiastical public character has been dislodged. As I see it, a good part of the development of the Protestant church makes sense in light of this slippage in the foundations.

Peterson’s analysis is, I think, of considerable importance for understanding some aspects of the dynamics internal to mainline Protestantism in the Western world. Having lost itself as a distinct public, mainline Protestantism is constantly in search of its own relevance in that public that is the currently determining and normative one, namely, that of secular society. Peterson anticipated already in 1928 the three dominant ways in which current mainline Protestantism makes itself “relevant” in this public: rationalism, mysticism, and activism — until quite recently the three most popular strands of American mainline Protestant theology. Yet Peterson’s insight is suggestive beyond anticipating the major trends of contemporary Protestant theology: his insight suggests a crucial link between Protestantism’s lack of a public nature and its ongoing crisis of relevance. The very collapse of its public character might be the reason that American mainline Protestantism took the national project of America as its subject matter, overcoming its crisis of relevance by becoming culturally established as civil religion. And accordingly, it is the loss of precisely this status as civil religion that has thrown mainline Protestantism into a renewed crisis of relevance in the last decades. Only by becoming itself a distinct public can mainline Protestantism overcome this systemic crisis of relevance. But then again, mainline Protestantism is not a church but a conglomerate of loosely affiliated denominations.

Erik Peterson writes: “the ontological basis of Protestantism has changed”, and he is correct. He laments this, but perhaps we should simply be honest, and note that the “civil and public character of the Protestant church and theology, which was essentially definitive for traditional Protestantism, has vanished with the extinction of the Christian state, that is, of a confessionally-defined territory”. Hütter clearly wishes for mainline Protestants to become a sort of clan with identifiable features, but since such a thing is merely a heritage for us moderns, it remains always a non-necessary option, and one that must legitimate itself in the marketplace of identities that the contemporary world offers individuals. This does not mean that the idea of liberal freedom we have is simply and exclusively the kind of Promethean thing he asserts it is.

The loss of the Church as a public is part of the Protestant heritage. It may mean the eventual death of the mainline Protestant churches, or at least their hyper-extreme atrophy (some of them have enough endowments to keep going long after they have fallen below the demographic thresholds ordinarily needed for sustainability). This doesn’t mean that the modern world is the result of bad math that needs to be fixed, or that this trend can be reversed by social engineering amongst mainline Protestants. Nor should we chide the mainline Protestants for this, or gloat over it, or shrug our shoulders with indifference. We should care, because it tells us something important about who and where we all are, for we all live in a mainline Protestant country, and are carried along on the crest of that history — even if we are atheists, Orthodox, Catholics, Hindus, Jews, etc. Mainline Protestantism, for Americans, is a peculiar kind of tradition, for it’s never really “other”: we all live in the ruins of the Protestant public, and are heir to these ruins. In this sense, we are all Protestants, and so we stand to gain a great deal by examining the career and fate of mainline Protestantism in the modern world, regardless of our formal religious affiliations (if any).

Modernity is something positive, a real change into something that has its own shape. It offers us a real gain in understanding our humanity and our society, as well as our religions and institutions, even something about God. If we ask the right questions in the wake of the decline of the mainline churches, it will help us to see this shape.

3 thoughts on “Reinhard Hütter: The Church as Public (& not as Voluntary Association)

  1. Pingback: Reinhard Hütter: The Subject is the End of the Church | Into the Clarities

  2. Pingback: The Decline of Religious Institutions, The Ascent of Spiritual Marketplace Goods | Into the Clarities

  3. Pingback: Vasquez on Dreher, The Benedict Option | Into the Clarities

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