Excerpt #2 — Larry Shiner on Friedrich Gogarten on Secularism

Here is the beginning of Larry Shiner’s book on Friedrich Gogarten, a German Lutheran friedrich gogartenwho wrote during the beginning of the 20th century. I found Gogarten through a footnote in a book by another German Lutheran, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and looking at this, it is difficult to hear that Gogarten differs from Pannenberg on this topic, whether due to the historical record or to the influence Gogarten had on Pannenberg (whose take on secularity and secularization shall eventually appear here).

Gogarten’s general thesis strongly resembles elements of the disenchantment of the modern world that Charles Taylor describes. Although disenchantment is not quite the same thing as the de-divinized world that the early Christians or their successors lived in, the two are related, and the latter certainly offered part of the foundation for the former. Also similar to the above-linked post on disenchantment is the model of meaning found in Gogarten, who argues, according to Shiner, that man

universally experiences responsibility for his own destiny as the task set by his relation to the world. However feebly we may live up to it, Gogarten sees in this responsibility the Law before which we must justify ourselves today, the ultimate “ought” written into the fabric of existence.

Although the pre-Christian world can fairly be described as presenting “a mythically understood cosmos determining and securing human life by its spiritual powers”, I am uncertain as to whether the pre-Christian engagement with the world neglected to think of the world as over-against humanity. Certainly the divinity of each and all things in The Iliad militates against this? –but then this could be taken to signal that the world is not other than the subject.

If the reader discerns me to have serious reservations about this excerpt, in whole and in part, he or she would be correct. It has value insofar as it presents one take –one take– on secularization as the actualization of Christian principles. (There are other interpretations that see modernity as such an actualization, and still other takes that see the secular modern period as something autonomous, and legitimate in itself.) Enough: here is Shiner on Gogarten.



The Christian Origin of Secularization

The term “secularization” first appeared in a sense approximating its contemporary usage at the writing of the Treaty of Westphalia where it designated lands transferred from the church to the princes. Its connotations at the time were neutral and no more anti-Christian than the term “secular clergy.” Gradually secularization came to be applied to any aspect of life that was withdrawn from the control of the church or interpreted apart from the Christian world view. Today we retain this sense of the word when referring to the capitalist spirit as a secularization of the Puritan ethos or to Marxism as a secularized Judeo-Christian eschatology, etc. The essential element here, according to Gogarten, is the transformation of institutions, ideas, and experiences that were once the work of divine providence into the product of purely human thought and action.

Although Gogarten uses this definition of secularization as a reflection of the spiritual transformation of the West over the last seven hundred years, he is convinced the divorce of Western culture from its religious foundation could never have occurred if man had not already become independent of the supernatural powers of the cosmos. The deeper meaning of secularization for Gogarten, therefore, is not the obvious change in “ideas” or the revolt against “organized religion,” but the coming to fruition of a transformed relation to the world. At the heart of this permutation is man’s emergence from subservience under cosmic forces into a relationship of responsibility for the world. By the time we reach the “modern” period Western man has become “mature” in the sense that he universally experiences responsibility for his own destiny as the task set by his relation to the world. However feebly we may live up to it, Gogarten sees in this responsibility the Law before which we must justify ourselves today, the ultimate “ought” written into the fabric of existence. When compared to this more fundamental transformation, “secularization” in the sense of breaking off the real or imagine shackles of the church or the “Christian world view” is an important but secondary phenomenon. Although Gogarten admits that the proximate source of modern secularity is to be found in such factors as Renaissance individualism and the rise of science, he believes the remote and primordial root of secularization is the desacralization of the world through Christian faith. He builds his case for the Christian origin of secularization, therefore, on the contrast between the relation to the world of the Christian and the pre-Christian man.

The world of pre-Christian man is desribed by Gogarten as a mythically understood cosmos determining and securing human life by its spiritual powers. In this “mythical” relation to the world man is not really conscious of a world over against himself but lives in an immediate unity with the cosmos. Since history is possible only where man is responsible for what happens, the mythical experience is by nature ahistorical. Gogarten grants that man’s cosmic innocence did begin to dissolve with those Greeks who articulated an awareness of separation from the world. Whereas the battle of Troy is still conceived mythically with the divine and human action as one, for example, the battle of the Greeks and Persians is a history where only men are fighting and on their own responsibility. Yet as Gogarten points out, history for the Greeks is never the whole of reality but only the unceasing flux of the earthly above which reposes the unchanging divine cosmos.

The definitive break with the mythical relation to the world, according to Gogarten, occurred in the prophetic preaching of Judaism and Christianity. He illustrates his case primarily with the writings of Paul who was explicitly concerned with the contrast between the old and new existence. Paul announces the end of the old cosmic order in his statement that through Christ we have become mature sons who are free from the stoicheia, the ordering powers of the world (Galatians 4:1-11). Since these powers were considered divine, it is no accident that the early Christians were charged with atheism when they claimed the divinity had gone out of the world. Even the distinction between sacred and profane was swept aside, and meat from the sacrifices at pagan altars was in no way tainted, because those altars had been neutralized. As a result not only did the Christian become self-conscious over against the world but once the canopy of the cosmos was pierced he was able to stand before the divine power as a person. For Gogarten the distinctiveness of the “new man” who emerges through Christian faith is his knowing of himself as person in relation to God and the world, a knowledge in which he is at once the independent master of his own destiny and receives his freedom in openness to the divine mystery.

The liberation from the elements as a central feature of Christianity: I wrote something like this in my piece on mirroring. The way that Christ liberates from the gods/stars and their customs has a kind of radical freedom to it, so that, as Shiner reports,

man’s emergence from subservience under cosmic forces into a relationship of responsibility for the world

is at “the heart” of the transition to the secular modern world. Perhaps he weighs too heavily on this element, making it primordial even in relation to the Scientific Revolution. The anthropocentrism he sees as part of secularization, if it can be legitimately traced to this Christian liberation, would strengthen his argument, but the sketch here is too brief.

Regarding the attitude of early Christians to pagan sacrifices: Gogarten is, in a slight sense, wrong, if Shiner here presents him accurately. He seems to be projecting one line in Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians (ch.8) about meat sacrificed to idols onto the whole canopy of early Christian history cosmology and history, where it doesn’t quite hold the sway he thinks. See Brown.  Christians saw themselves as poised positionally between the earth and the domain above the sky, and historically between the present age and the age to come; their attitudes to sacrifice were apparently that (a) sacrifice marked the boundary between communities, (b) this world/age was in slavery to powers at once cosmic, spiritual and elemental (Shiner/Gogarten rightly note the “piercing” of the boundary between the earth and the demonically-stomachly sky-heaven by the resurrection and ascension of Christ –see the narrative in Mark about the heavens ripped open at Christ’s baptism, and the curtain of the temple ripped open as Christ’s S/spirit returns/ascends to God– that allows Christians to “stand before the divine power as a person”), (c) the Christian was liberated from bondage to the elements, to the cosmos, and to these spiritual powers, participating in a kind of trans-cosmic freedom that participated in the world/age to come. Saying that “an idol is nothing” is different from saying that the altars of the gods and daemons “had been neutralized”; clearly participation in idol meat can stain, and it is not clear that Paul’s position is the early Christian position. The difference is slight; perhaps it is negligible; perhaps I am being uncharitable; the difference does not seem to be nothing.

Further, the way that Gogarten presents the consequences of the de-divinization of the world, where a person stands immediately before God — this ostensibly historical description sounds very Lutheran, rather than either (1) strictly Pauline or (2) descriptive of the first four centuries of Christian writing. I am willing to concede on either of these two points, though, should someone with more understanding point out something I have overlooked. There is nothing wrong with being Lutheran, of course, and there are good reasons one might commend taking up a Lutheran stance on this issue, but we should not project our ideas back onto ages where they did not obtain.


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