Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) 
Herder was a philosopher and literary critic, whose writings were instrumental in forming the European romanticism. As the leader of the Sturm und Drang movement, he inspired many writers, notably Goethe, the future leader of the German Romantics.

He was ordained a Lutheran pastor in 1765 having given up medicine because he had an inconvenient tendency to faint during dissections. When he later became General Superintendent of the Lutheran clergy at Weimar his orthodoxy was questioned during the selection process - with some justification.

Herder studied at the University of K�nigsberg under Immanuel Kant. Among Herder's earliest critical works was Fragmente �ber die neuere deutsche Literatur (Fragments on Recent German Literature, 1766-1767), which advocated the emancipation of German literature from foreign influences. In it he discussed language and linguistic development. He wrote:

Language, is a tool of the arts and sciences and a part of them. Whoever writes about the literature of a country must not neglect its language.

Subsequent essays contributed to the development of Herder's idea of Volksgeist (perhaps best translated "national character") as expressed in the language and literature of a nation.

His major work was Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menscheit (Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind). It attempts to demonstrate that nature and human history obey the same laws and that, in time, contending human forces will be reconciled. Although unfinished, the treatise embodies most of Herder's ideas, and it remains his most important contribution.

Towards the end of his life, Herder set out to criticise the philosophies of Kant but met with a harsh reception. Kant's followers thought that Herder had both misinterpreted and misrepresented Kant's ideas. 

Later commentators have judged that Herder's criticisms were acute. In particular he realised that Kant had failed to perceive the essential tautology of arithmetic ("The proposition 7 + 5 = 12 is ... identical [with] 1 = 1.") He also correctly identified that Kant's approach to the way we think failed because of the latter's artificial abstractions which bear no necessary coincidence with reality.

Herder's work was not systematic. But he earned considerable later influence by clarifying some of the assumptions which underpinned the Enlightenment of the 18th century.

  • He pointed out that reason is not a superior and controlling human faculty which operates somehow independently of our other faculties. "It is one and the same mind that thinks and wills, understand and perceives, exercises reason and has desire," he wrote. 

    Thus reason and language can't be artificially separated from each other. To examine reason must be also to examine the words through which it is expressed. This places reason firmly in the arena of social and cultural expression. Reason is not something we are born with, but something we learn, said Herder.

    The mastery of language and other signs (what we now know as semiotics) is critical to our ability to reason. Language is intrinsic to humanity.

    His insights remain difficult for Christians to swallow, since they call into question the possibility of establishing and expressing theological formulae which are absolutely true for all people and all times and are unaffected by social and cultural contexts.

  • Herder has left his mark primarily in the field of the philosophy of history - an important arena to the Christian faith, claiming as it does to be an historical religion. In contrast with many of his contemporaries, he insisted on the importance of the histories of other cultures such as China, India and the Middle East. 

    His work broke across a prevailing theme of the times - a search for laws or rules of history by which it might be interpreted. There are, he said, no such standards by which the history of everything that has happened in the past can be judged. Rather than irrationality and passion disrupting the smooth course of cause and effect in history, history consists of highly complex patterns and tides which prevent consistency of pattern.

    This inevitably pointed historians towards interpreting events in relation to the period and milieu in which they occur. Herder wrote that "... the historian of mankind must, like the Creator of our race or like the genius of the earth, view without partiality and judge without passion." He likened the history of any society to the growth and change of a biological organism. 

    The implication, therefore, was that history should be considered "without foisting any set patterns upon it". In turn this implies that any human achievement makes sense only when interpreted in terms of the society in which it takes place. Extract an event from its context and that event ceases to display coherence.

    Herder's influence on subsequent historians was considerable. But it took another hundred years before Ernst Troeltsch was able to bring his thought to its fruition in relation to Christianity. 

    Herder's position means, in effect, that the life and acts of Jesus make sense as history only when they are interpreted in terms of the culture of which he was part. Jesus has therefore to be re-interpreted in each subsequent age - as has proved the case. There can be no statement of absolute truth if this is the case, since historical truth is in some degree relative to the interpreter.

  • Herder prefigured modern concepts of the human mind by refusing to sanction what amounted to a collection of sub-personalities - as when reason, will, desire and so forth are described as entities acting within the human persona. He thought that such views were "philosophical nonsense" resulting from false abstraction. Reason, feeling and every other aspect of human nature are parts of an essentially unitary personality. He said that "... the inner man, with all his dark forces, stimuli and impulses, is simply one." 

    Thus the traditional division between mind and body was also misconceived. The soul of humans, properly understood, is "physiology at every step".

    Recent discoveries of how the human brain works back up Herder's position in an uncanny fashion. The relevance of his views to his time, however, rests mainly upon the increasing difficulty for Christian thinkers after his time to separate the human psyche into physical and so-called spiritual attributes.

It might appear that Herder broke away from the prevailing metaphysical cast of much thought in his time. In fact, he proposed that a primitive force or energy must logically underpin all human existence. Without such a force all interpretation is inadequate, for there is no other way of explaining the dynamic nature of existence. It is as it were, that which activates and binds together everything, including the inanimate. 

In this respect he influenced later thinkers like Bergson. But his influence impacted many other thinkers of his time and it's true to say that he affected many others who went on to begin to formulate a more contemporary approach to Christianity.

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