Why Troeltsch? Why today? Theology for the 21st Century

by Garrett E. Paul

Garrett E. Paul was, in 1993, associate professor in the department of religion and director of the Florence and Ray Sponberg Chair in Ethics at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota.

This is the sixth in a series of articles on "rethinking religious classics." This article appeared in The Christian Century, June 30-July 7 , 1993, pp. 676-681. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Troeltsch was very attracted to mysticism, but he knew that religion would die without symbol, cult and myth, and that it would grow impotent without institutions.

Ernst Troeltsch died 70 years ago, and his theology was shortly thereafter declared dead as well. Famous in his own generation as a theologian, philosopher, historian and politician, he was soon forgotten, or remembered as the best example of what not to do. For Karl Barth, Troeltsch was the last theologian of the 19th century; a man whose failure revealed the true character of liberal theology. Barth’s judgment shaped an entire generation of theologians.

But all that has changed. Interest in Troeltsch’s thought is greater today than ever before, and also more widespread, attracting attention in Eastern and Western Europe, North America and Japan. What began about 20 years ago as a trickle of articles, dissertations, books, translations and reprints in German, English, French, Italian and Japanese has become a steady stream. Far from being the last theologian of the 19th century, Troeltsch is coming to be seen as the first theologian of the 20th century—or perhaps even the 21st.

But why do the life and thought of this early 20th-century man now seem so relevant? Because Troeltsch, at the beginning of this century, was keenly aware of many trends that became apparent to most observers only at its end: the collapse of Eurocentrism; the perceived relativity of all historical events and knowledge (including scientific knowledge); an awareness that Christianity is relative to its Western, largely European history and environment; the emergence of a profound global pluralism; the central role of practice in theology; the growing impact of the social sciences on our view of the world and of ourselves; and dramatic changes in the role of religious institutions and religious thought. Moreover, he was a profoundly interdisciplinary thinker whose contributions embraced philosophy, history, sociology, philosophy of history, ethics and politics.

Precisely because Troeltsch understood the forces that were and are shaping 20th-century religion and society, he can provide us with needed perspective on contemporary theological and religious movements. Furthermore, his willingness to confront some very difficult theological is-sues—issues that the intervening generation of theologians mostly ignored or evaded—makes his insights uniquely instructive. The issues Troeltsch confronted are many, but I will focus on three: 1) Christianity as a historical, relative phenomenon, 2) Christianity as a social phenomenon, and 3) theology as a practical discipline. Troeltsch’s contributions are far more complex than this division suggests, but it provides a convenient format in which to summarize his chief insights. Then in light of this summary, I will explore how a theology informed by his insights might differ from what we see in theology today.

"Everything is tottering!" Troeltsch exclaimed at an 1896 conference, initiating an exchange that ended with Troeltsch slamming the door as he left the room. Everything is tottering, because Christianity was now known to be a historical phenomenon. From the beginning, Troeltsch took a historical approach to the study of religion and theology. He was convinced that there was no reason to exclude Christianity from the history of religion as a whole. The Bible, Jesus and the church were all part of history; they were neither exempt from historical investigation nor entitled to a privileged historical method. This meant that almost all of late 19th-century theology was on shaky ground.

The modern study of history had established that Christianity was not a supernatural phenomenon that had just appeared in history without cause or antecedent. On the contrary, Christianity was influenced by a host of non-Christian and non-Jewish factors. Christianity could not, therefore, on historical grounds be proven final or absolute. Troeltsch stated this conclusion in The Absoluteness of Christianity—tentatively in the first edition of 1902, emphatically in the second edition of 1912. Nor could Jesus be exempted. He too was relative to his origins and history, influenced by the spectrum of opinions and practices of the Judaism of late antiquity.

But relativity is not the whole story for Troeltsch. The fact that Christianity and Jesus are both historical also demonstrates their relatedness. And what is more, it demonstrates our interrelatedness with them. We can dispense neither with the historical Jesus nor with the revered Christ; he remains indispensable, for "we possess these religious powers of the present only in association with the present and revered person of Christ."

The historical character of all religion that Troeltsch recognized still serves to check the shallow individualism and subjectivism so characteristic of our age. Faced with the awareness that everything historical is also relative, the individual is tempted to think (with Kierkegaard and the early Barth) that history is without significance, or indeed that nothing has any significance. But a study of history, on the contrary, demonstrates that religion is not a purely subjective phenomenon; it is rather a historical phenomenon that shapes and transcends individual experience. Individual belief is historical, relative and related. The autonomous individual never—not even in the case of Jesus—spontaneously produces faith within his or her isolated individuality. The individual needs the stimulus and impetus of history—and of community. Troeltsch understood these relationships and thus paid careful attention to religion’s social dimension.

Troeltsch began to address the social context of religion partly as a result of his friendship with the sociologist Max Weber. He had already called attention to the historical relativity—and relatedness—of Christianity; he now began to note its social and institutional relativity—and relatedness—as well. The result of this interest was the nearly 1,000-page work, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches and Groups (1912), which remains a classic of religious sociology, social history and ethics.

Christianity, Troeltsch taught, can assume any of three basic social forms or types: the church, the sect and mysticism. The church, into which one is born (like the medieval Catholic Church), is distinguished by an ethic of conservation and compromise in its relationship with the surrounding society; the sect, which one must join as an adult (like the Anabaptists), rejects the surrounding society and has an ethic of rigor, perfection and transformation; the mystic is primarily a subjectively religious person who is not linked to any particular religious body (or, if linked to one, does not find it very important). The church emphasizes the sacraments and education; the sect emphasizes conversion and commitment; the mystic emphasizes inner experience. All three types are authentically Christian, each has roots in the New Testament, and all three have decided strengths as well as weaknesses, according to Troeltsch.

But the most rapidly growing type, Troeltsch held, was mysticism—and studies of contemporary American culture confirm his analysis. "Mysticism," in this sense, does not refer to miraculous visions or signs or supernatural experiences. Instead, it signifies a personal and subjective form of religion that is more internal than external, more individual than institutional, more experiential than scriptural. For the mystic, Troeltsch said, membership in church or sect is of no significance—it is the free personal experience that matters.

This kind of mysticism abounds in all ages, in churches and in sects, and outside of any formal religious body—from medieval mystics to modern Quakers to contemporary college sophomores who talk about their personal "spirituality." But the modern era in particular has seen a tremendous growth in Troeltsch’s mystical type, as the authority and influence of both churches and sects have declined. A noninstitutional mysticism was already, according to Troeltsch, "the secret religion of the educated classes." Today we must add: not so secret anymore.

Troeltsch himself was deeply attracted to mysticism. In part this attraction was rooted in his antagonism to dogmatism and authoritarianism, and no doubt it also grew out of his awareness of historical relativity. Yet Troeltsch was no simple individualist, which is what makes him so very refreshing today. He knew that religion would die without symbol, cult, and myth. And he knew that religion would grow socially and ethically impotent without institutions. So despite his own attraction to mysticism, he knew that it was an inadequate and unsustainable expression of religious faith. Troeltsch could never overcome this contradiction between vital personal religious experience and its institutional mediation, and it remains a problem for us today—one far more serious than that of relativism.

Following Schleiermacher, Troeltsch refused to call his theology "dogmatics." The whole idea of dogma—timeless, nonhistorical facts about God, Jesus, the church and so forth—had been completely undermined by the study of history. "We are no longer in the business of fixing permanent dogmas from an inspired Bible. Instead, we formulate teachings which express the essence of Christian piety," Troeltsch wrote. In other words, theology is inextricably linked to practice.

Theological statements do not describe objective facts about God and salvation, according to Troeltsch. Instead, they "express the preconditions and contents of the Christian consciousness of faith, i.e., a living, practical-theoretical orientation to God, the world, and humanity." It is a "theology of consciousness" instead of a "theology of facts," for God "can never be known apart from subjective experience." Troeltsch argued that religion is primarily a matter of experience and subjectivity, not dogma and fact. "It comes not from the desk, but from life." In his later writings he also came to emphasize the role of decision in relation to the religious life.

But Troeltsch’s religious decision was not like that of Kierkegaard, which supposedly took place apart from social-historical conditions. Troeltsch never capitulated to mere subjectivism. Knowledge of God is never possible apart from subjective experience, but it is always more than subjective experience. Troeltsch maintained that such knowledge is "not a frivolous subjectivity but something that takes shape within us, overwhelming us with an irresistible inner sovereignty." Or put another way, subjectivity "does not mean a matter of arbitrary taste, but a subjectivity which is saturated with God." In other words, Troeltsch believed that authentic subjectivity involves more than the mere subject alone. Genuine faith "lifts the individual subject above its own limitations and brings it into full and living contact with the divine life for the first time."

This observation brings us back once more to Troeltsch’s emphasis on the indispensable role that history and community play in Christian life. To re-emphasize a cardinal point of Troeltsch’s thought, faith—even in the case of Jesus—is never spontaneously produced by an autonomous subject. Faith needs the stimulus and impetus of history and community. Any attempt to sever these ties that bind would result in the destruction of genuine religion, and in "an utterly individual, personal, and emaciated mysticism." Troeltsch’s theology is a highly sophisticated combination of personal experience and social history, of subjectivity and historicity, of individual and community.

What do Troeltsch’s life and thought mean for today? His relevance can be indicated with regard to three contemporary theological movements: postmodern theology, narrative theology and liberation theology. All three movements share some of his interests, yet each displays serious deficiencies that Troeltsch’s work can illuminate and help correct. Not that Troeltsch has all the answers, or that his theology itself can be revived lock, stock and barrel. For all his achievements, scarcely one stone of his theology can be left standing on top of another. But theology today will have to reckon with these very stones, or else stumble over them.

Postmodern theology: The desire to be postmodern often outpaces the ability to articulate just what postmodernity is all about. An enormous number of intellectual and pseudo-intellectual movements now rally to the postmodern juggernaut, often with contradictory agendas. Since pluralism is itself a hallmark of postmodernism, generalizing about the movement is dangerous. But in most respects, postmodern theology as represented by figures such as Thomas Altizer and Mark C.Taylor rejects any attempt to formulate enduring principles and doctrines or to identify any ontological or foundational reality. It also rejects Enlightenment beliefs that there are universal truths of reason, that history is characterized by progress, and that rational science and technology are the solution to our problems. Postmodernists tend to be particularly critical of the claim that science knows the "real" world. This devaluation of science is usually coupled with the rejection of all dualisms: mind/body, man/nature, man/woman, and so on. Finally, postmodern theology declares that the modern era—that is, the one characterized by all those Enlightenment beliefs—is now over.

Troeltsch has great affinities with many postmodern in-sights; indeed, he anticipated many of them. He was aware that scientific knowledge is relative to its time and culture, just like religion. He knew that all values are in flux, and that true knowledge of value is always a challenge and a process. Yet he was also aware, in a way that many post-moderns are not, that no one can completely break with the past; any claim that one has done so is illusory. Compared with Troeltsch, much of postmodernism can be seen as more hypermodern than postmodern. It is largely another attempt to carry out the old Enlightenment program of demolishing tradition, ritual, cult and historical narrative, except now without the Enlightenment’s faith that reason and technology can assume their place. At the same time, much postmodern thought perpetuates Romanticism’s narcissistic glorification of emotion and irrationality, except now without the romantics’ esteem for tradition and the people. Postmodernism is simply the Enlightenment once more with feeling—combining the worst excesses of rationalism and romanticism.

In terms of Troeltsch’s writing, postmodernism is closely linked to what he called mysticism—and it shares in that religious type’s contemporary inevitability and in its inadequacy. Troeltsch does not provide us with a solution to the problems that postmodernism both reflects and raises, but he can help puncture the pretensions of those varieties (and they are many) that pretend to have left the Enlightenment behind while continuing to perpetuate some of its most unfortunate errors. History, community and tradition are the true basis of autonomy and decision. As Troeltsch understood, these features of human experience cannot be separated.

Narrative (or postliberal) theology: The major rival to postmodern theology in intellectual circles is the narrative theology movement represented by such figures as Hans Frei, George Lindbeck and (in a maverick version) Stanley Hauerwas. Narrative theology accepts the premises of post-modernism at many points but draws a radically different conclusion. Since we cannot survey history from some universal, purely rational point of view, narrative theologians argue, we have no choice but to operate out of the historical narrative in which we find ourselves—and for the Christian theologian that means the Christian narrative, shaped by the story(ies) of Jesus Christ as found in the Bible. The Christian narrative embraces within itself the claim that the meaning of all history is to be found in Christ, narrative theologians say, but they also hold that such a claim cannot be demonstrated from a standpoint outside the narrative. In the cases of Hauerwas and Lindbeck, at least, this line of reasoning is linked to a preference for the sect type of Christian community.

Of all the theological options on the horizon today, narrative theology has the most direct ties to Troeltsch, though they are not usually acknowledged. The narrative theology movement itself may be traced back to H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Meaning of Revelation, a book in which Troeltsch’s emphasis on history and subjectivity appears on nearly every page. But contemporary narrative theologians seem to have forgotten two lessons from Troeltsch that they should have remembered: that the narratives themselves are historical and relative, and that we find ourselves participating not in one but in many different narratives.

For instance, Hauerwas lives not only within the Christian narrative but also (as he has said) within the Texan narrative, and he shares in an academic narrative and a personal narrative as well. These are all creditable stories, but how are they to be distinguished? And, more important, what about the narratives that he excludes, such as the liberal democratic narrative or the feminist narrative? Moreover, the Christian narrative itself exists in a wide variety of versions, and it has never existed in such magnificent isolation as narrative theology seemingly supposes. Starting from the time of Jesus, it has woven together diverse narratives: Pharasaic, Zealot, Hellenistic, Stoic, Platonic, Catholic, Russian, Anabaptist, African and so on throughout history. The Christian story has never been monolithic. Narrative theologians must come to terms with the relativity of the Christian narrative.

Liberation theology: Liberation theology is multifarious and diverse. It embraces German political theology, Latin American liberation movements, African-American theology, feminist theology, womanist theology and many more varieties besides. Generalization is dangerous here too, but it is safe to say that liberation theology is characterized by an emphasis on the experience of oppression and a Marxist-inspired social analysis that divides society into oppressor and oppressed. Practice (or praxis) is central to liberation theology; such theology seeks to be part of the historical political project of liberating the oppressed.

Troeltsch also has much in common with liberation theology. He emphasized theology as a practice, and his own practice became increasingly political. He was one of the first theologians to make a positive (though also critical) use of Marxist thought. Yet he pointed out both the limitations of Marxist tools and the hazards of simplistic appeals to experience. Through these criticisms, Troeltsch can provide us with a needed sense of perspective on the liberationist project. Any criticism of the liberationist program is perilous, for it can quickly put the critic in the uncomfortable position of seeming to favor the oppressor. How can one "criticize" the experience of the victim of domestic abuse or incest, the child refugee who has seen his family slaughtered by the national police, or the mother who must watch her children starve? We cannot. But although we dare not criticize the experience, we can and must be willing to challenge some interpretations of that experience. Much liberation theology exhibits a dangerous tendency to jump from the experience of suffering to the assertion that some x must be the cause of that suffering, whether that x be capitalism or patriarchy or Eurocentrism.

A fine example of such a short-circuit was the recent Presbyterian study document on human sexuality that was justly excoriated by Camille Paglia for its exceptionally shallow analysis. Overall, the entire field of Christian social ethics—liberationist or not—pays scandalously little attention to empirical data and social science, as when Karen Lebacqz cites the Hite Report as though it were a statistically representative sample of sexual attitudes and behaviors, or when Michael Novak draws simplistic comparisons between Japanese and Latin American political economies. Troeltsch, by way of contrast, was well versed in the social science of his time, and sought to make careful use of it in his theological, political and moral judgments. In this respect, the contemporary practical theology movement (represented by Don Browning, among others) is much closer to Troeltsch’s standard.

Why does the Troeltsch revival continue? Because the questions he raised are still worth asking, because his attempts to deal with these questions are still instructive, and because he can provide us with perspective on what is happening today and is about to happen tomorrow. He is, indeed, only now coming into his own.