Demythologizing the Secular: Karl Barth and the Politics of the Weimar Republic

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Demythologizing the Secular:

Karl Barth and the Politics of the Weimar Republic

Rudy Koshar

University of Wisconsin-Madison


Historians have long regarded the Weimar moment as a turning point in the secularization of German culture. Religion became more fully privatized—so the narrative goes--partly through the legal-constitutional definition of the German state as neutral in matters of religion, partly through the continuation of the Social Democratic party’s long-standing program of having religious belief recognized as a purely individual affair, and partly through the evolution of industry, trade, art, literature, music, architecture, travel, sports, cinema, and theatre--significant parts of which now took on those attributes of heroic secular modernism for which the Republic has been praised and studied, often in decidedly nostalgic and idealizing terms. Underlying such celebrative narratives of Weimar cultural vibrancy is an account of how the polity was alsodefinitely “freed” from direct (and even indirect) religious influences, as the abdication of the Kaiser and the sudden collapse of the Imperial government cut the ties that bound “throne and altar.”Although scholarship has produced a large body of research analyzing the political disaster that led to the horrors of National Socialism, there is nonetheless a sense that Germany’s first full-fledged parliamentary democracy was an important stepping stone in the march toward modern political expression, if for no other reason than that it served as a negative marker, or perhaps a necessary cautionary tale, by which a progressive, democratic, secular, and stable “Bonn” became something other than the tragically ill-fated “Weimar.”1The implication of this narrative—even despite the enormous scholarly efforts devoted to the history and memory of the Holocaust and the effects of World War II--is that modern secular society’s victory was somehow worth the enormous cost.

As compelling as this historical narrative may be—and as much as we may sympathize with the efforts of a flawed democracy--it stands in a somewhat uneasy relationship to morerecent critical understandings of the relationship between religion and modern secular society. “Religion is always receding and returning and its repeated tidal flow is essential to the self-image of modernity, which can no more dispense with religion than embrace it,” writes Jonathan Sheehan.2No matter how one defines secularity, whether as the separation (more or less) of church and state, the decline of religious faith and practice, or the evolution of a situation in which for more and more people belief in God is one option among many3, older models of progressive, definitive secularization have been submitted to increasing skepticism or qualification. Moreover, just as religion’s tidal flow punctuates modernity, scholarly and political critiques of secularization advance and recede. We have been in a period of advance during roughly the past two decades. But what marks the recent wave of critique—or at least a significant part of it--is a sense that “the logic of secularism is imploding.” Not definitive triumph, it is argued, but a “soulless, aggressive, nonchalant and nihilistic” ambience characterizes secularism’s stance in the contemporary world.4

The point of departure of this paper is that such recent critique demands a parallel reconsideration of the Weimar Republic’s almost iconic role in the secularization paradigm. But this is not simply a matter of redirecting scholarly attention to the persistence of religious belief, or the continued strength of the churches after World War I, or the way in which certain forms of“fundamentalist”Protestantismnurtured anti-democratic and nationalist “conservative revolution” against the Republic. Important as such research may be, the issue here is also—and more significantly—howWeimar theological discourse re-describedsecularity in ways that anticipated or prefigured contemporary, radical understandings. In short, it has to do with viewing the Weimar Republic not only as a moment of aggressive secularization, but also as one in which a distinctly “foundational” theological apperception of liberal secularity became more resonant. It has to do not only with quantity but also with quality.

Discussing what theological discourse was up to in Weimar includes rethinking the role of political theology, a subject that continues to attract significant attention from scholars across disciplines.5Political theology is a contested concept the content of which depends in part on whether the term refers to analysis and critique, on the one side, or operation and practice, on the other, as well as the interaction and cross-fertilization between them. Moreover, regardless of from which side one approaches it, defining political theology also depends on whether the political or theological takes precedence.6 These difficulties will not be resolved here. Suffice it to say that my focus is on that strand of political theology that interrogates power relations from the point of view of the interpretation of God’s action in the world, that gives precedence to critique over practice (although without eschewing practice), and that sets the theological firmly over the political.

Just as the Weimar moment works as a kind of icon in what amount to global historical narratives of secularization, so too does the study of political theology in this period suggest the need for a broader perspective oriented to the conditions and directions of modern history as such. That there were various strands of political theology on offer during the years of the Republic is evident. Klaus Scholder has argued that political theology was a new departure in Weimar-era German-evangelical theological circles, associating its rise with conservative theologians such as Paul Althaus and Emanuel Hirsch, who as a result of World War I integrated a concept of the Volk into their thinking.7 Of particular interest here, however, is “dialectical theology,” the most original and controversial product of that theological ferment that accompanied the Weimar Republic at its inception. The political meaning of interwar dialectical theology was not at all clear to contemporaries. This historical indeterminacy is reflected in the scholarship on the leading exponent of dialectical theology, Karl Barth, who, to the rather uneven extent that scholarship has given him a political profile (compared to Carl Schmitt8, above all, who for many scholars was the Godfather of modern political theology), has been ascribed a variety of political positions, from conservative quietism to radical socialism, and from anti-modernism(or even post-modernism) to liberalism.9Barth himself contributed to such divided opinions throughout a long career by stressing the essentially context-specific nature of Christianity’s political interventions—and by taking seemingly contradictory stances toward National Socialism and Communism.10But the real question here is how to portray Barth’s Weimar-erapolitical theology with reference to its re-description and critique of liberal modernity, and the resultant determination of how he saw the role of the theological in an age shaped by a narrative of secular triumph.

My argument in this paper is that Barth’s theologycontributed to a “demythologization” of liberal secularity along with the role Christianity played within it. Barth’s erstwhile ally Rudolf Bultmann is famous for his project of demythologizing Scripture, which meant above all to interpret the Word of God critically and existentially. It may be somewhat ironic that Bultmann’s idea of demythologization, which he introduced formally in 1941, was directed in part against those influenced by Barth’s theology, who in Bultmann’s perception were repristinating Scripture at the expense of more critical readings. But this critique overlooked that Barth was involved in another kind of demythologizing, namely of theological tradition rather than the biblical text.11Such nuances notwithstanding, Ipropose here that an analogous aspect of Barth’s thoughtwas tointerrogatethe myth of secularism’s historicalseparation of theological and political spheres and its consequent “containment” of religion.

One might specify what Barth accomplished with reference to a recent study of political theology in the West. Mark Lilla celebrates the fact that for centuries Western political culture, especially since the time of Thomas Hobbes’ thought, assumed that political questions dealt with this-worldly concerns rather than with questions of revelation. Lilla terms this achievement—and he regards it a central accomplishment of the modern West--the Great Separation, with emphasis on “great,” because it brought about a most difficult (and historically unprecedented) psychological perspective whereby ultimate questions about God and immortality were relegated to the margins in deference to the penultimate aims of quotidian political life. In short, first things gave way to second and third things, which then came to dominate political conflict. But Lilla worries about how this separation is now endangered, both within and outside “the West,” which stands on “the other shore” of a “narrow, yet deep” river that serves as a border between a secularized, liberal civilization and the “opposite bank,” but where one finds men and women who regard attitudes toward God or doctrinal purity as having a central place in political discourse.12 This evocative language sets the stage for a discussion of how “we” (Lilla never gives the imperial pronoun a specific social content) came to the other side of the river, what that journey entailed, and what often unintended consequences followed from the fact that numerous key thinkers, most of them with German names, kept traversing back and forth between the two banks, thereby undoing, or at least seriously undermining, the arduous political-theological work of the Great Separation. Lilla’s narrative covers an impressive ground, encompassing numerous thinkers, but the important point here is that Barth appears in the penultimate chapter of Lilla’s account as one of those seemingly Gnostic figures who unintentionally built bridges from one bank to the other, thereby fostering the “theological celebration of modern tyranny.”13

My argument takes issue withLilla’sdiscussion in two important respects. First, it argues that Barth did not unintentionally weaken the hard-won gains of the modern secular polity but rather intended to move well beyond the Great Separation through a project of demythologization. The critical, directional nature of Barth’s project was there from the start (all debates about the periodization of his various theological turns notwithstanding) and hardly an unintended consequence of fuzzy thinking or naivete.Second, it argues that the political consequences during the Weimar Republic (and for liberal secularity in general) were just the opposite from what Lilla maintains because Barth continued to appreciate and value many aspects of liberal culture and politics, and his early Weimar critique, for all its radical and even “Gnostic” resonances, supplied a note of sobriety in an otherwise tense and indeterminate political context. In short, demythologizing the Great Separation carried the potential—both in the long run as well as in the heat of the moment--for a more stable polity than the one liberal secularity had on offer. But it was not a polity that envisioned departure from some of the most relevant and defensible elements of liberal society. Indeed, that his radical critique included the retention of liberal attributes is one of the reasons for “radically orthodox” thinkers such as John Milbank’s criticism of “a certain liberal residue” in Barth’s theology.14Yet Milbank’s criticism ignores the fact that a liberal residue was the intended consequence of Barth’s theological project, which, just as Bultmann’s research program did not intend to reject myth but rather to interpret it critically15, aimed to address secular myth existentially.


In considering the first of these differences with Lilla, it is useful to rely on Barth’s well-known imagery of concentric circles, which originated in his writing of the 1930s but which was implicit in his earliest scholarship. In his discussion of relationships between state and church, or to use his words (from 1946), between the “civil community” and the “Christian community,”16Barth sketched out a vision of twentieth-century society in which the state worked asthe outer ring to the church, the locus of God’s Word, which in turn was “the inner circle within the wider circle.” Even when the state overlooked or misunderstood its relation to the Christian faith, even when it acted in a decidedly (and necessarily) un-Christian way by dirtying its hands in the messy business of quotidian politics, it operated as the outer edge of a centrally locatednucleus built up on Barth’s vision of church authority. The state’s efforts were designed “to achieve an external, relative, and provisional humanizing of man’s life and the political order instituted for all” in an unredeemed world.” It is important to note that in this schema, the state could operate, at least at the level of appearance, which means also at the level of human history, in a neutral fashion, a point of view broadly compatible with liberal theories of the state. State action, political parties, the law, and many other associations nonetheless could mark out analogies with the Kingdom of God—external, relative, and provisional analogies, but analogies nonetheless. The church’s role, in contrast, was shaped more directly and portentouslyby God’s Word; its significance was to serve a “theology of witness”17 grounded in humankind’s utter dependence on God’s grace. Here the attributes of externality, relativity, and provisionality that Barth identified for the state were still applicable, but they operated much more closely, and therefore had to be approached more responsibly, to the Word of God as evidenced in church proclamation and Scripture. I translate these terms into a center-periphery metaphor in the following pages.

It is worth noting that Barth’s use of terms such as “Christian community” or “church” was quite malleable. When he spoke of Church he often paid little attention to denominational differences, notwithstanding his frequently strident critique of Lutheran and Catholic (and for that matter, Calvinist) theologies on a range of issues. But it should also be noted that his work evolved, gradually and not without controversial articulations, a “covenanted solidarity” with Judaism, not solely as a response to the Holocaust but rather also as a derivation of the heart of his theology.18 His demythologization of liberal secularity therefore engaged not only critical positions vis-à-vis Christian theological discourses but possible points of dialogue with Jewish thought as well. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss either of these strands of Barth’s thinking, but it is important to note such elements nonetheless given recent critical statements, especially on the subject of Barth’s response to the Holocaust.19

Historically, the place of religion in the modern world had evolved. From a time in medieval culture when it still made sense to speak of a Christian polity, modern states, through a long and often bloody struggle, acquired the means to dominate and control ecclesiastical power, often with the collaboration and conspiracy of church authorities themselves.20 The beginnings of this assertion of civil over religious authority preceded the so-called “religious wars” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.Whereas Christian belief was once defined in terms of daily practice or participation in the Body of Christ, the state now took command of bodies, leaving the souls to the church. Such bifurcation enabled the modern state to define Christianity as interiorized faith, thus opening the door to multiple “religions,” the tolerance of which could be used by the state to regulate religious affiliation. Whereas thefragmentation and pluralization that increasingly characterized the religious “marketplace” of modern Europe was not without roots in Christian denominational conflicts, it was also closely tied to the state’s ability to define religion as a private matter. Through this historical dynamic, the periphery contained and “tamed” the center, which remained a threatening and potentially destabilizing element despite its many (and often disastrous) accommodations to political regimes.

To follow the complexities of church-state relations from the early modern period up to World War I would take us well beyond the present paper. But one can mark out several important signposts along the way, at least with regard to late modern history. Helmut Lehmann argues that three major “waves” of secularization took place since the French Revolution, one in 1789-1815, another in 1815-1878, and a third in the period of the world wars.21Without going into the complexities of national peculiarities in the dynamic interaction of the secular and the theological in each era, we can identify Germany’s experience with democracy, fascism, and war as part of the third wave marked out by Lehmann.Since Lehmann argues that the most important religious engagement with the third wave of secularization took place in the decades after World War II, it is clear that Barth’s Weimar-era critique anticipated or even prefigured the later engagement. The still open question of whether Barth’s critique substantially shaped postwartheologies, or whether it was primarily a precocious offshoot of the Weimar moment--and would have to wait later periods for its full effects to be felt, a possibility Barth himself mentioned obliquely in the forward to the first edition of his Romans--is a question we must leave aside for this paper. Similarly, the question of Barth’s influence on the post-World War II debate over secularization, modernity, and Gnosis must be left aside.22

In the historical narrative sketched out here, the Weimar Republic works not only as an important way station in the broader history of the evolution of secularity in modern Europe, but alsoas a significant point in a longer trajectory within German history by which the periphery dominated and defined the center of political life. This domination had not gone unnoticed before the Republic, but was part and parcel of the German intellectual heritage as it grappled with the legacy of the Enlightenment and with the theological roots of modernity. If the periphery’s power was premised on the state’s reliance on modern economic structures, on a scientific world-view, on rationalism, and on growing “liberation” from religion as a source of societal knowledge, then how did Germany’s rich theological heritage relate to the new developments? And did the new represent a loss or a gain? Many German intellectuals—from J.G. Hamann to Hermann Cohen to Max Weber--had already given a variety of answers to such questions, and although scholarship must be wary of reducing the complexity of discussion, it is safe to say that German intellectuals were highly sensitive to the limits of liberal secularity even if this often did not issue into a more “theologized” perspective. Barth was influenced by this tradition of critique and interrogation of modernity, just as he was profoundly aware of how theological discoursehad registered (or not) intellectual debates on the subject. The intellectual life of the Republic was therefore the heir to a long and often strident cultural debate on secularity; war and revolution only exacerbated the sense of urgency of the intellectual exchanges that ensued.

In addition, after 1918 new political realities brought forth startlingly new implications for the churches and for theological culture in general. The Weimar Constitution was premised on the idea of a pluralist society shaped by competing interests, the churches envisioned as one among many such interest groups. Religious belief was to be left to the choice of each citizen, and although the Christian churches continued to have an important public profile (in education, health care, ministries in the armies and hospitals), their close identification with the governmenthad ended even if the churches’ worst fears about the consequences of separating church and state did not come to fruition. One could nonetheless argue that Christianity—as institutional matrix, as pattern of belief, and as intellectual-theological discourse—had now been more fully subjected to the periphery’s legal-political power than at any previous time of German history. Whereas the Weimar Constitution, heralded as the most progressive democratic constitution of its time, did not establish a fully “irreligious” state, as conservative critics often claimed, it went very far in reducing the concrete political-institutional influence of the Church, and thereby also reduced the public status—and perhaps the “aura”--that the Protestant church in particular had enjoyed before World War I. One could argue that it was this even more than the concrete circumstances of the church’s existence that was behind many conservative Protestants’ antipathy toward the new order.23

The Protestant church’s role in nationalist opposition to the Weimar state, though ostensibly focused on bringing religious concepts back into politics, in fact reinforced the periphery’s dominance over the Christian community. One of the most outspoken and articulate critics of Weimar was the Göttingen theologian Emanuel Hirsch, a former colleague of Barth’s and the prime interpreter of Kierkegaard in Germany after World War I.24 Hirsch developed a sophisticated existentialist position by which Christianity became the vehicle for the reinvigoration of the German Volk. Hirsch understood that modern secularity’s corrosive questioning of everything had created a crisis of reason that could not be overcome by resort to earlier modes of thought. Only a leap of faith could help modern Germans respond to the dislocations of the post-World War I world. Whereas his primary concern was always theology, Hirsch nonetheless allowed nationalist and anti-democratic considerations to steer his thought. Unlike Barth, who wrote that “Christianity is unmoved by Nordic enthusiasm,”25 Hirsch allowed the leap of faith to be conditioned by nationalist goals and finally by Nazism itself.Even Friedrich Gogarten, the Lutheran theologian and co-editor with Barth of the groundbreaking journal Zwischen den Zeiten, a flagship of the dialectical theological movement, unintentionally reinforced the periphery’s reduction of the center in his PolitischeEthik of 1932. By premising his thought too firmly on the concrete, historical side of the “I-Thou” diad he deployed in his existentialist theology, he left too little room for the absolute nature of God’s authority—and thereby opened the way to divinizing secular history, nation, family, and Volk.26

The drift of Weimar culture, especially during the period of relative economic prosperity in the second half of the 1920s, added to what can only be called the hyperinflation of the periphery. On the one hand, it would be difficult to overlook or under-appreciate Weimar culture’s “spirit of innovation,” which of course included theological innovation.27(It may be noted in passing that most general treatments of “Weimar culture” ignore the religious dimension entirely.) The Weimar Constitution was based on the idea of the German state as a Sozialstaat, but also as a Kulturstaat, promoting and enabling a multitude of cultural activities and expressions based on freedom from censorship and liberation from the notionally suffocating influence of Imperial Germany’s official culture.28Historical scholarship has begun to revise the narrative of Imperial culture’s stagnation in favor of a view that stresses modernism and vibrancy—a vibrancy that appears to make the Imperial period the seedbed of all of the modernist trends for which the Republic was known.29 Even so, for contemporaries, Weimar appeared to mark a major cultural rupture, which was in turn reflected in legal-institutional arrangements. The catalogue of rights built into the Weimar Constitution included unprecedented freedom of cultural endeavor. The state had a direct role in what appeared to be a non-state realm, i.e., art, literature, photography, cinema, music, and all the other areas that Weimar culture was known for as a site that seemed to be one of unprecedented energy and originality. In this regard, there was a paradoxical continuity with the pre-World War I era because the Imperial government and the Kaiser had often sponsored and promoted Kultur. So too did the Republic intervene in cultural life, although now the signs were reversed, with the emphasis on freedom and individuality rather than a more “classical,” corporate, and national impulse in the Kaiserreich.

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