Workshop 2B secularism

Sjoerd Griffioen – Contesting Secularity: The Löwith-Blumenberg Debate Revisited

In recent years, ‘the post-secularism debate’ has reintroduced the problem of modernity’s relation to religion in philosophy. Post-secularism questions the assumption of a clear-cut discontinuity between religion and modernity and instead conceives of alternative ways of conceptualizing this relation. However, perhaps due to its multi-disciplinary and protean character, this debate has remained rather diffuse and inconclusive. In light of this inconclusiveness, it becomes worthwhile to investigate an older debate – one which is perceived by various post-secular authors as paradigmatic for the contemporary discourse on secularization – which is usually regarded as having been definitively resolved.

This is the so-called ‘secularization debate’ between Karl Löwith (1897-1973) and Hans Blumenberg (1920-1996), two preeminent German philosophers who were concerned with the ‘legitimacy of the modernity’. In this debate, Blumenberg accused Löwith of being a representative for the widespread but ill-founded ‘secularization theorem’, a brand of Kulturpessimismus that regarded modernity as a ‘bastard-child of Christianity’. In his famous Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Blumenberg offered what is commonly perceived as a decisive refutation of Löwith’s account and of the secularization theorem it supposedly represents.

A thorough investigation of both accounts will establish, however, that this debate was not resolved, and that Löwith’s account is gravely misrepresented by Blumenberg and his followers. I intend to readjust the image of this debate by offering a critical analysis of Löwith’s account and of Blumenberg’s interpretation of him. It will  be argued that most of Blumenberg’s explicit criticisms result from a misinterpretation of Löwith’s work, and that the latter is wrongly represented as an example of the ‘secularization theorem’. Indeed, after a careful reading of both authors it can even be asserted that they share some common enemies, namely those authors who ignore the problematic tension between modernity and its Christian past, or the authors who argue for a ‘return’ to modernity’s Christian roots (e.g., Schmitt). Finally, I argue that the Löwith-Blumenberg debate should be regarded as an unresolved dispute between two fundamental philosophical positions, in which Löwith represents a ‘Stoic retreat’ from modernity and from Christianity, and in which Blumenberg  represents a modest defense of modernity against the metaphysical burden of its Christian past.

An investigation of the Löwith-Blumenberg debate will prove to be valuable because it can arguably provide a necessary reflection on the contemporary debate on secularization. Firstly, it can elucidate the difficulties that arise when discussing modernity and religion: e.g., the incommensurability of the competing standpoints and the subsequent inconclusiveness of such a debate. Furthermore, it can be shown that both Löwith and Blumenberg offer valuable insights for post-secularism, since both explore – albeit differently – the foundations of the problematic relation between modernity and Christianity; either between ‘progress’ and ‘eschatology’ (Löwith), or between the ‘self-assertive’ modern individualism and divine omnipotence (Blumenberg).

Key bibliographic sources:

Blumenberg, H. (1983). The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. (R.M. Wallace, Trans.) Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Kroll, J.P. (2010). A Human End to History? Hans Blumenberg, Karl Löwith and Carl Schmitt on Secularization and Modernity. Ann Arbor: UMI.

Kuhn, H. and F. Wiedman, Eds. (1964). Die Philosophie und die Frage nach dem Fortschritt. München: Anton Pustet.

(Conference volume of the 1962 German philosophical conference in Münster, the starting point of the Löwith-Blumenberg debate.)

Löwith, K. (1949). Meaning in History. The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Wim Nusselder – Secularization for the Sake of Religion

Society needs religion for cohesion. Global society needs secularized religion. Churches and theology should harbour secular thinking and practical universalism to give religion a beneficial role in society.

The paper will argue this thesis from 4 perspectives: a social science perspective, a humanities perspective, an intersubjective perspective (my Quaker tradition) and a philosophy of science perspective.

From a social science perspective I will distinguish institutionalized religion and religion as connecting (relational) phenomenon.Viewed from a secular perspective religion in the first sense divides people. By definition religion in the second sense connects people, among themselves and/or with nature, the divine etc.. I will explore the interconnectedness and tension between these different concepts of religion in religious practice. Bibliographic reference: the draft vision text for the Dutch Christian Social Congres 2016 (31 August – 2 September 2016).

From a humanities perspective I will explore the meanings of ‘religion’ and ‘society’, interpret Matthew 10:39 (“those who lose their life for my sake will gain it”) as a reference to ‘losing religion for the sake of Christ to save religion’ and interpret Meister Eckhart’s “Man’s last and highest parting occurs when, for God’s sake, he takes leave of God” accordingly. Bibliographic references: The Bible (Good News translation 1992) and Meister Eckhart’s Sermons.

From the perspective of my own religious tradition as a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) I will argue the value of being “Rooted in Christianity, Open to New Light” (Alex Wildwood and Tim Peat Ashworth, 2009), which Quakers traditionally claim to be.

From a philosophy of science perspective I will take a meta-perspective to reflect on the argument from the previous 3 perspectives, to qualify the verisimilitude claim of my starting thesis,to explain its ‘performativity’ (its relative ability to create social and ideological ‘reality’) and to plead that the thesis be simply applied to create a better social reality, a more coherent and harmonious global society.