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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E Troeltsch (1865-1923)

rnst Troeltsch was a historian of religion and a philosopher of history. But he also contributed to cultural and social history, to ethics and to jurisprudence. His views, closely argued as they were, caused considerable consternation among the ruling religious elite of his time.

This was because his argument, if correct, spelled at a very fundamental level the end of Christianity's claims to absolute truth. If, said Troeltsch, one examines the doctrines and history of Christianity, its claim to be the final and complete revelation of God's truth and wisdom can't be sustained.

When criticised by a Lutheran General Superintendent for his views and accused of no longer being a Christian, he wrote, "I comfort myself that God is not the General Superintendent of the universe and I therefore continue with imperturbability to regard myself as a Christian."

Troeltsch thought that what he called "moral awareness" is a faculty available to all as an abiding element of the human constitution. Religion and religious doctrines were formulated as humanity developed through history. In the process our inherent moral sense became incorporated into various religious systems.

A problem he faced, therefore, was that knowledge of the origins of morality as we have it now is therefore available to us only through the analytical discipline of historical investigation. This discipline by its nature requires that we pursue information about the origins of events and phenomena. 

Thus so-called moral awareness should also be subject to an investigation of its origins in human history, since humanity itself had a beginning in history. It will not do merely to locate morality in single events through which God "speaks" to us.

If truth has its origins in a gradual evolution over time of human awareness, and if history is a seamless web of cause and effect, then it makes no sense to posit information from a supernatural being ("God") which gives a person or group access to an absolute truth. He called this an "artificial absoluteness" which is 

...a theoretical determination of relationship in which the only fixed point is its starting point in personal or inherited faith. [1]

He continued, referring to artificial absoluteness: 

It leads in Catholicism to the Thomistic system with its practical complement in the infallibility of the Pope, and in Protestantism to a dogmatics which combines natural and supernatural illumination and finds its practical support in the inspiration of the Bible.

By this he means, I think, that any claim to special inspiration direct from God, results in what we would today call an oppressive system.

If any knowledge comes direct from God - either via the Pope or the Bible - it cannot be refuted, since by definition God cannot lie. Anyone who possesses such absolute truth is under great pressure to convey this to others, especially if their "immortal souls" are to be rescued from damnation by assent to this truth.

Troeltsch asserts that the "secular idea of history" collides with the Church's "apologetic, supernatural idea of history". The former threatens  "... the very foundations upon which the venture of dogmatic theology ... ordinarily depends". If dogmatic theology tries to test its origins by using the so-called secular method of historical investigation it will find itself in a double-bind.

  • If origins of its truths rest, as do all other religious truths, in social events, then it must concede its claim to absolute truth. 

    To put this in context, we should refer back to the convictions of G W F Hegel. He asked how the claim to the absolute truth of Christianity could be rightly asserted in the newly-discovered rich and diverse religions world wide. Hegel thought that even though the absoluteness of Christianity could not stand, nevertheless it was, so to speak, better than the rest.

    Troeltsch thought Hegel was wrong. First, the discipline we call history contains no criteria for making such a judgement. Second, it is plain that there is no single absolute and unchanging aspect of Christianity which can be thought of as its essence. 

    What then was actually "better" than other religions? The essence of the Christian faith can't be separated from its cultural context as the kernel of a nut is separated from its shell. Troeltsch wrote that, "... the actual absoluteness of the kernel always absolutises the husk as well, while the actual relativity of the husk always relativises the kernel in turn." Christianity is just as vulnerable as any other religion in its claims to be the final and absolute truth.
  • In other words, any concession to historical method - and Christianity claims to be an historical religion - isn't possible if divine revelation is asserted. The two, revelation and historical method, are incompatible.

Because it is not the sole heir of truth, Christianity is, in Troeltsch's view, only one of a world-wide family of religions. It is the expression over a particular period of time of a particular Western culture. It's claims are valid only in terms of the impact it has had on the West and wherever else it has taken root. He conceded, albeit reluctantly, that the Christian claim to validity is 

... the fact  that only through it have we become what we are, and that only in it can we preserve the religious forces that we need ... Christianity has grown up with us and has become part of our very being.

Though, added Troeltsch, it must also be acknowledged that Christian mission has had as much to do with political, military and commercial expansion as with its inherent power to convert those of other religions.

Protestantism derives from the confluence of toleration, the idea of  human development, and reason. Those who think it an aspect of modern man are, said Troeltsch, badly mistaken. In fact, the Protestant movement as a whole and in its particulars was essentially a continuation of medieval culture. 

On the other hand, modern Christianity is, he thought, radically different from anything which has preceded it. It is separated from all previous cultures, and from traditional Christianity, by a "great divide", typified by modern analytical methods.

His views on the historicity of the Bible were impossible for the Reformed churches to swallow. Jesus, he said (in common with others of his time) clearly did not intend to found the Church. The Church was the outcome, albeit inevitable, of the need of early Christians to continue and pass on their convictions about the meaning to them of Jesus' life and ministry.

Troeltsch rejected classical Christian teaching which isolates Jesus from the overall matrix of historical cause and event by claiming that his uniqueness results from miracles - including the resurrection and incarnation. 

Why, he asked, is the Church able to claim miracles for itself while denying that the miracles of other religions lack validity? On what grounds could Protestant Reformers validly claim the efficacy of biblical miracles while denying miracles claimed by Roman Catholics for their saints and heroes?

If Christianity cannot rest on the miraculous, it can't claim absoluteness on the basis of faith either. It can't argue validly that those who do not see biblical events with the "eye of faith" are therefore blind to the absoluteness of Christianity. To do this would place faith finally and absolutely beyond history, and thereby deny that Christianity is founded upon an historical person and historical events.

But Christianity is founded on a real person, who actually lived, and who actually did and said certain things. So how we understand the past determines how we understand the Christian faith, at least in relation to its fundamentals.

If we are understand history properly, said Troeltsch, we have to try to enter into the events of history in a sympathetic way, trying to make the past "... as intelligible as if it were part of our own experience." 

One implication of his approach is that we will understand Jesus better the more we try to enter into his social and cultural ethos. Cause and effect in history isn't mechanical, like cause and effect in physics. In history our interest must lie in the individual whose choices, among other forces, are the stuff of history.

Three important principles apply to history, thought Troeltsch.

1. History is continuous. It's a web of cause and effect which, although complex beyond our imagining, ceases to be history if broken. As John Macquarrie writes, "... although there may be distinctive events, and even highly distinctive events, all events are of the same order, and all are explicable in terms of what is immanent in terms of history itself." [2]

Thus if history is to retain its validity, the possibility of divine  irruptions or interventions into the chain of cause and effect can't be admitted. In other words, to maintain that God is active in history is also to maintain that God's activity is continuous. If that is the case, no events can be final or absolute because God might be constantly adding to or building upon each event. 

In my opinion, to maintain that God is in constant and complete charge of history is merely to substitute "God" for "history". In the process, moreover, we take from humanity the ability to choose and therefore to make wrong choices and to sin. This is because if God is in total charge, then God makes all the decisions, not we ourselves.

This means, in my view, that the elaborate structure of Christian theology must, if it claims to be based on the historical person of Jesus, admit him to be of the same order as all other humans who have affected the world. He was undoubtedly a highly distinctive person who, through his followers, changed human history substantially. But he, like us, was human and could be no more than  that if we are to retain history as it has developed over the millennia.

2. History by definition is a process of critical analysis. This process yields only provisional "facts" or conclusions. This is because, as an analytical discipline, it is always open to new information and new people to interpret that information. Any conclusion in history can be revised by new data and new perspectives.

So, for example, those nearest to Jesus in time were actually farthest from him in history. They knew less of Jesus than we do because they had no knowledge of, or access to, history as we know it. They concluded - in terms of the norms of their contemporary world-view - that Jesus was (to use a metaphor then current) the "son of God." We now know that Jesus claimed nothing of the sort, and that this doctrine does not accurately reflect historical truth. This if we are to be historical in our approach to Christianity, we required also to be critical of tradition, no matter how sanctified.

3. Troeltsch's third principle is generally known as the principle of analogy. It states that any event in the past which we wouldn't allow today must be suspect. If, for example, we're unwilling to allow today that the sun can be made to stand still in the sky for a length of time (that is, that the planet's rotation can stop), then even the biblical account of such an event can't be classed as good history.

Thus if we can't find an analogy in our own experience for a reported event from the past, then that event must be considered inherently improbable.

Unless we allow this principle it follows that we would be unable to learn anything from the past at all. We couldn't know, for example, that an earthquake in the past was of the same order as an earthquake today. Nor could we understand anything of the past. The fall of the German Reich in the Twentieth Century could have no necessary relationship as a process of history to, say, the fall of Napoleon's empire or the demise of the Roman Empire. Each empire could have been caused to fall directly by God using processes of which we are unaware and cannot possibly perceive and analyse. 

Each and every event would have therefore to be treated as unique and unrepeatable. No event could be interpreted in terms of any other. History, in effect, loses its point. Jesus would have no necessary relationship to us or to anyone else after his time. Nor could we point out how his roots extend into the Old Testament - an essential element of early Christian interpretation of the meaning of Jesus. There would be no point in researching the culture in which he lived, since each element of that culture would have been unique and could therefore not have influenced anything. This is all patently absurd, even to those who claim absolute infallibility for the Bible as the Word of God.

There is, however, one sense in which an event might be final or absolute - as an event in the context of a particular culture. "It is final and unconditional for us," wrote Troeltsch, 

... because we have nothing else. But this does not preclude the possibility that other racial groups, living under entirely different cultural conditions, may experience their contact with the divine life in quite a different way.

Troeltsch's point could be said to have been confirmed by our knowledge in the 21st century of other major cultural groups. Not only is their perception of the divine fundamentally different from those in the West, but they have only limited interest in Western forms of religion.

This is not to say that as global culture becomes more homogeneous, religious forms will not also become more similar. But it is to say that Christianity, like the other religions, is the product of social forces. So,  for example, Troeltsch noted that within Christianity there are "church-type" and "sect-type" religious groups. The first is open to secular culture, the latter closed.

Karl Marx claimed that religion is the outcome of social forces. When those forces are so oppressive that there seems no way out, then religion becomes a way of escaping reality. Marx is incorrect, says Troeltsch. Christianity is influenced by the times and tides of history. But within all societies there is an inherent, unquenchable religious consciousness. As a result, all societies and cultures are just as much influenced and changed by religion as religion is by them.

The old attitude toward history can no longer be maintained. That the history of humanity reaches through immeasurable stretches of time, that all historical occurrences are alike conditioned and temporal, and that the principles of historical criticism are universally dominant - all these points must be admitted. Amid such concessions the question comes very much to the fore how the historical connections of faith are to stand their ground. [3]

All this is not to say that Troeltsch thought that Christianity no longer has a unique contribution to make. He wrote that 

... only a superficial understanding of history can lead men to believe that religion must fade away because of the apparent contradictoriness of its different kinds of absoluteness ...

 On the contrary, he wrote, 

... I have come more and more to regard the specific kernel of religion as a unique and independent source of power.

Assertions of access to absolute truth are, he thought, temporary positions. They tend to disappear when any religion is compared with and measured against others. That is, Christianity is not absolute, but relative to its environment, both now and in the past. As such, the proper and most fruitful "missionary" approach was not to attempt to convert others to Christianity, but to strive for mutual understanding and enrichment.

The present environment, thought Troeltsch, was one which would soon force Christianity to come to terms with the truth of its relative historical context. If it failed to do so it would be bound eventually to stagnate in the backwaters of society. His conclusion may well be correct in the longer term. But it seems that traditional Christianity, which clearly hasn't come to terms with Troeltsch's challenge, today appears to be finding new life and energy in the less-sophisticated cultures of Africa and Asia.

Troeltsch, with typical modesty, admitted that he had been unable to overcome all the challenges he had encountered and had therefore been unable to come up with a comprehensive theory of history. With hindsight, we can forgive him that failure since he has proved one of the most original and insightful thinkers of his time in relation to fundamental changes which face Christianity in the 21st century.
[1] The Absoluteness of Christianity, 1901
[2] Twentieth Century Religious Thought, 1963
[3] Religion in History, T&T Clark, 1991

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