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Holiday from the Enlightenment

God is back in fashion among intellectuals. But even spiritual movements today are motivated by Western fundamentalism: the Enlightenment. By Heinz Schlaffer

"The ostracised believer – stronger than all!" This was the title of a speech held in the Stuttgarter Literaturhaus and subsequently reprinted in a German newspaper. Its author was Feridun Zaimoglu, a German writer of Turkish origin, 40 years old and recently distinguished with the Chamisso Prize. Zaimoglu calls the species of non-believers who have been condemned to downfall by their proper name: the Enlightened. "The Enlightened pull angry faces when they hear that there's a higher power influencing the plight of mankind or the world's cycles. But God, declared for dead, considered a trap for those dumb enough to believe in the thereafter, survives every trial and every renewal. Maybe it's time to do a little reversal, to consider the Enlightenment as the opium of the bourgeois and thereby devalue every object that was and is not a ware."

What? Belief is being ostracised? But it's en vogue! Whether or not God exists can't be decided intellectually; but it can be observed that he's back in fashion among intellectuals. The feuilleton of the same paper decided to ride the trend and is printing, under the title "Bibelfest" (Biblically well versed) a series of stories from the Old and New Testaments; the Bild Zeitung is publishing a full edition of the Bible. Well-known writers are actively supporting a celebration of the traditional liturgy of Catholic masses, a rise in the spirituality of Protestant communities, the propagation of transcendental experiences in the inner and outer world. Literary historians like George Steiner and Roberto Calasso read the fictions of the poets as factual proof of the existence of saints. Cultural magazines are devoting entire issues to the "Visions of Christianity." Rene Girard's application of the Gospels to modern society appears with a forward by Peter Sloterdijk, put out by Hanser Publishers. Suhrkamp Publishers dedicate an entire programme to world religions. A national theatre performs "Kirchenlieder" (Chuch songs) with a choir. In the institutions of liberal culture, religious statements are being treated as a novel charm, and increasingly gaining the power of conformity. Is the Enlightenment really over, as the anti-Enlightenment writers claim?

Zaimoglu considers the Enlightenment's motives to have been strictly economic, as though it only attacked religion to make possible the free flow of goods. Because such simplifications dominate intellectual discourse today, it's necessary to recall the historic reasons and the ongoing achievements of the Enlightenment critique of religion – reasons and achievements which may be forgotten and rendered banal today but have not been opposed or nullified. It is still generally taught that scientific discoveries since the 16th century have demonstrated numerous "truths" of Christian teachings to be errors, for instance that the earth is the centre of the cosmos and first came into being five thousand years ago; that extraordinary natural happenings – storms, earthquakes, plagues – are God's punishments and can be avoided with prayer; that man was created directly by God and looks like him (while the similarity between god and apes is solely attributable to this animal's nasty habit of aping man). For as long as it was possible, the church tried to repress the new appearance of the visible realm. When it was forced to give up its fight, it returned to the invisible, to those "truths" that are less easily subjected to verification.

The discovery of foreign countries and previous cultures lead teachers of early modernity to the view that Christianity, like other religions, is based on myths which embody stories of a God's sacrificial death and resurrection. Philologists researching the convolute of Biblical texts reduced the sacred scriptures dictated by God into an unreliable collection of historically determined legends and later adaptations.

This "demystification" of the Bible didn't begin with Rudolf Bultmann, but rather with Spinoza, Voltaire and David Friedrich Strauß. Christian belief, robbed of its colourful variety of explanations of the world and tales of miracles, was reduced to nothing more than belief itself: a vague feeling that without adherence to tradition and hope in the beyond, something was missing; a refusal to be contented with existence in a demystified world.

The repercussions of the debate over the correct path to beatitude were to be felt by all those who digressed from that path. Compared to the deadly intolerance of the medieval church – the crusades, persecution of heretics, burning of witches, execution of homosexuals – contemporary Islam, even in its strictest form, while maintaining many traits of a pre-Enlightenment religion, can be called humane. The Enlightened critique of religious intolerance – from Erasmus to Lessing – is fed by the experience of the religious civil wars that ravaged Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Monotheistic religions that had not undergone an Enlightenment which spawned tolerance excluded and attacked one another. In order to prove the truth of their own belief, those of other beliefs had to be conquered. War is the extension of theology by other means. (Today, the three world religions that came to being in the narrow strip between the Levant and the Arab World, in the Middle East, are still engaged in war: Judaism, Islam and Christianity – the conservative American variety.)

"How far we are from this gloomy world," the new belief-seekers and belief-finders will say of this historic review and glance at the current situation. They are right, because it was only after Christianity had been disempowered by the Enlightenment that it became civilised, friendly and modest enough that its adherents could find joy in it and its opponents no longer had to fear it. It isn't Christianity that forms the basis of modern Europe but rather the disempowerment of Christianity, the Enlightenment. We don't have the popes, monks and priests to thank for democracy, equality in the law and individual freedom, tolerance and the right to criticise, but Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu. The world in which we live is the enlightened world in which even those who oppose it would like to live.

Western culture is also fundamentalist: Its fundament is called the Enlightenment. The paradox is that this fundament is the basis for our present society, but also half forgotten by it. That which has become a matter of course most easily escapes observation and evaluation. To put it more bluntly: the Western world is now reluctant to stand up for its principles, so as not to appear dogmatic. Artists, writers and philosophers afford themselves the "luxury of self-abstinence" to set themselves apart from their contemporaries who make unabashed use of the practical advantages of the Enlightenment: "Doubting everything, being dissatisfied with everything, wanting to improve on everything: this basic attitude of modernity's critics belongs to the very core of the modernity being criticised." (Gerhard Schulze)

The Enlightenment did away with all tradition only to usher in the counter-Enlightenment, which romantically empathised with these lost traditions. Around 1800, the Romantic re-conversion to the Middle Ages followed the progressive Enlightenment of the 18th century. Around 1900, the artistic inclination toward occultism followed the progress of the natural sciences in the 19th century. Around 2000, the longing for an ecstatic experience of the non-rational now follows the economic rationalisation in the 20th century. For several years each century, Western civilisation is taken by an aversion for itself. It temporarily gives itself over to the magic of the enchanted, so as to recover from the unremittingly unmagical and disenchanted.

The Enlightenment has always suffered from one shortcoming, which today is its undoing: it has a stock of efficient ideas, but no impressive images. Enlightenment merely takes the form of writings and speeches, critical treatises and constitutional drafts. Enlightenment knows no cathedrals, no holy masses, no chorals or rituals in magnificent robes with which it can feed the perceptive organs of the present, the camera and the screen. In a word: Enlightenment is not television-compatible.

Notwithstanding that, the recurrence of religious needs in the Western world is among the conditions for the Enlightenment. What all new religious converts wish for is nothing other than a comfortable Christianity that has been cheered up by the Enlightenment. The Christians of the Middle Ages and early modernity were hounded by the fear of Hell, and consequently of sin. Believers left the proofs of God to the theologians, while their daily experience gave them ample proof of the Devil. They performed heavy penances and suffered privations to cleanse themselves of sin. Who has time today for such tortuous ideas and painful mortifications? Today's religious fantasies focus solely on Christianity's positive side: the promise of a meaning to life, the dear ego's continuation after death (in Heaven, of course, and not in Hell), the feeling of emotional security and personal distinction, the consolation offered by pretty ceremonies. When the new Pope and the writers Martin Mosebach and Hans-Josef Ortheil extol the latter as an advantage of the Catholic faith, they fail to see that the ceremony of Hinduism on Bali far surpasses the Christian competition as far as beauty goes. Wouldn't they do better to become Balinese Hindus?

This new yet old Christianity of the intellectuals is a wellness religion, one which has inherited from the Enlightenment the right to a maximisation of happiness, and which seeks to extend this happiness beyond the worldly limits drawn by the Enlightenment. The churches, for their part, offer rock concerts, cultural programmes and "long nights of the churches" to accommodate the vaguely sacralised consumers, who are only too happy to boost their spiritual quotient without it having any consequence on their practical lives. Followers of this cosy religion reap its benefits without foregoing a thing: neither pre-marital nor extra-marital affairs, neither whoring nor sodomy (as past generations of Christians called such deadly sins). What people are after is a religion that serves up gratifications rather than bans.

Everyone constructs for themselves a religion of opportunity, often with the help of esoteric or Eastern elements – religion too is subject to globalisation – to fit their habits and appease their afflictions. As in the astrological wave that preceded the religious one, the individual demands meaning especially tailored to fit him, the individual: a sort of personal religious design. Within it, the Enlightenment principles of individual freedom and mutual toleration remain in force. Hardly any of these individuals would be willing to acknowledge the theological jurisdiction of a church over their way of life. Hardly any of them would even be willing to take on the responsibilities of regular church visits, confession and repentance. All that is acceptable to these religious enthusiasts is a harmless, enlightened Christianity, one that has been modernised by the Enlightenment. Where the Devil is the Devil in all that?


The article was originally published in German in Die Welt on February 18, 2006.

Heinz Schlaffer is professor emeritus for modern German literature at Stuttgart University. He is author of the much-discussed book "Die kurze Geschichte der deutschen Literatur" (The short history of German literature), published by Carl Hanser Verlag in 2002.

Translation: nb, jab.

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