Figures of Authority
People – Texts – Traditions
Winter School “Religion and the Culture of Democracy”
December 12–16, 2021
A cooperative project between the University of Virginia, the Catholic Academy of Berlin and the FEST Heidelberg
Religion and the Culture of Democracy
Democratic societies are currently facing a situation that has been described as a “crisis of representation” or even as “post-democracy”. The self-image of Western societies characterized by the idea of democratic participation of their citizens in the political shaping of the community is being put to the test by a growing disenchantment with politics. Political disenchantment manifests itself not only in political abstention from tried and tested procedures of co-determination, but also in a questionable interaction between a loss of willingness to engage in discursive understanding of controversial issues on the one hand, and an emotion-driven polarization of political opinions, on the other. The cohesive power of the public sphere as a place of mutual recognition in the exchange of perspectives, expectations, and convictions based on a consciousness of civic commonality seems to be diminishing. Responding to this loss of cohesion the project “Religion and the Culture of Democracy” seeks to analyze the role of religious communities in the culture of democratic societies within and beyond the so-called West.
The project “Religion and the Culture of Democracy” is based on the hypothesis that the “post-democratic” developments are essentially due to a condensing atmosphere of distrust, which increasingly permeates the civic interaction of citizens in at least four dimensions: a) distrust between scientific elites or science-based economic functionaries and the population, b) distrust between ethno-cultural groupings, c) distrust between social classes, and d) distrust between information elites or networks and information users or recipients.
The loss of cohesion in the democratic public sphere challenges the preconditions of trust in governance and representation in general. Therefore, we need to re-evaluate the concept of authority, which Max Weber defined as the ability to achieve voluntary allegiance – that is to speak as the source of successful and legitimate rule. In political and public debates, however, the question of authority has often been ignored or treated with suspicion, as a relic of times long past. Socially, but also religiously and ecclesiastically, a crisis of authority is encountered above all in the present. At the same time, however, a new and frequently disconcerting desire for authority has experienced a remarkable renaissance in public debates and in political life.
Recovering the concept of authority as a key issue for understanding the political-cultural-religious situation of the present is therefore overdue. Moreover, the situation described may seem less paradoxical if we realize that the normalization and routinization of potentially crisis-ridden sequences of action belongs to the political function of authority. Thus, where authority exists it is rarely thematized as such, but embodied in action. Where authority is thematized, on the other hand, it does not seem to exist, for it lacks authority’s embodiments. The perception of a lack of authority, therefore, correlates with crises of action, in which normal patterns and stable routines of action orientation are no longer available. Religious communities are by no means exempt from this crisis-like cultural-political process, but rather form a mirror and laboratory of social developments as a whole. Precisely for this reason, however, it is worthwhile to address the role of religious communities in and for a democratic culture as an exchange of experiences among learning communities.
The Berlin Winterschule will be organized around the following areas of inquiry:
1. Historical and Religious Ramifications: On the Concept of Authority
The distinction between authority and power has been an integral component to Westerns political thought. It suggests that something other than mere force is needed to establish order and cohesion. Models for authority go back to biblical times and ancient Rome. Addressing the revived desire for authority and stable values in an age without ultimate justification requires, therefore, historical and conceptual clarifications. Max Weber’s analysis of the function of authority, his distinction of three types of action corresponding to three strategies of securing authority (charismatic, traditional, rational) offer a solid point of departure. Exploring the specifically religious heritage of the concept of authority invites a re-examination of the emblematic biblical examples and strategies of authority.
2. Liberalism’s Threshold: Authority and the Authoritarian
In reaction to the leadership cults of the interwar period authority has often been equated with the authoritarian and denounced as “escape from freedom”. The difficulty that Western cultures had in giving meaning to authority is closely linked to a devaluation of obedience. Instead of demanding obedience, people are encouraged to cultivate relationships of trust, covenant or, as Spinoza put it, “voluntary obedience”. But unlike claims to authority, relations of trust are fundamentally subjective and rarely founded upon a shared narrative or on claims to permanence, universality, and duty. The reluctance to embrace powerful narratives of identity, the disregard for intrinsic values of liberal democratic societies, and the fear of cultural relativism in the face of renewed theo-political challenges have led to a global revival of new right-wing, nativist, and identitarian movements. This shift exposes the common dilemma of authority—that authority seems to appear only at the moment of its loss. Against this horizon, questions arise how we can respond to current anti-liberal, as well as liberal, forces of polarization and to new dynamics indicating a shift from left to right-wing political ideologies? What do we learn from intra-religious and inter-religious dynamics of de-legitimizing the authority of sacred texts, leaders, and institutions? Are there lessons offered for the cultural struggles in democratic societies?
3. Power and Anti-Authoritarianism: The Legacy of an Unfinished Project
Anti-authoritarianism was the buzzword of the 1960s, radically calling into question all traditional bastions of authority, such as church, school, family, and state. What is the legacy of those halcyon days? Which impacts had the powerful counter-cultural movement of the 1960s on the shape of organised religions around the globe? Was it the beginning of a social decline in values, a necessary reform of society and its institutions or the unwilling launch for a neoconservative revival? Most astonishing seems the revival of theo-political constellations that inspired new hermeneutics of tradition like the interpretation of rabbinic culture as antiauthoritarian or the new attention to the varieties and conflicts of spheres of freedom as limits of liberalism. Finally, a comparative perspective on the legacy of the 1960s and the anti-authoritarian mobilization in Eastern Europe or the religious roots of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States forged through rites of friendship and solidarity, as Danielle Allen and Nina Witoszek have argued, serve as examples for authorities born out of the spirit of anti-authoritarianism.
4. Alternative Authorities: A Global Perspective
Focusing on non-Western concepts of authority allows us to challenge and deepen familiar Western modes of thought. Important religious centers in Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world define cultural identities and traditions with their own structures of authority and organizations of community. How can these models challenge, expand, or transform Western traditions of authority? Which notions of individuality and self-realization do we encounter and how are they mediated with social realities like community, authority, and tradition? Finally, what role do questions of race and gender play as reflections of imaginaries and metaphors of authority?
5. The Charisma of Tradition: On Religious Sources of Authority
How do religious conflicts of “tradition and modernity” impact contemporary political disputes? What makes religion especially important in the contemporary crisis of trust and authority? If the crisis of trust and cohesion corresponds to a post-secular age, then the return of—and to—religion appears not only as a political and socio-economic, but also as a cultural phenomenon. Accordingly, processes of sacralization as modes of generating charisma need to be investigated by their social, political, and cultural impacts. While the dynamics of secularization confront us with the de-traditionalization and individualization of action, charismatic behaviour or the evidentialization of authority through the charismatization of persons, groups, organizations and institutions take on new significance in times of religious revival and renewed traditionalism. The capacity for charismatic commentary makes religious communities and churches important social factors.
The vision of the Winterschule is to build bridges in two directions:
a) The project views itself as an exchange of experiences and ideas from European and American perspectives on the current role of authority and its challenges for religion and politics.
b) Another focus is on establishing an intellectual exchange between Jewish and Christian traditions and positions, triangulated also to include Islamic and non-Western approaches, in order to explore their respective impulses for contemporary political thought.