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Theology and Social Analysis: A Q&A with Dr. Günter Thomas

December 01, 2016 • By Günter Thomas Theology and Social Analysis: A Q&A with Dr. Günter Thomas

How can faith, hope, and love offer us a window into political philosophy? Günter Thomas, Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany and a Principal Investigator for The Enhancing Life Project, discusses his project and its recent particular political relevance. 

What is the focus of your Enhancing Life Project research?

The general prospect is basically a work on counter-worlds constructed by human beings to change life, to enhance life. I’m looking in particular to the Christian counter-world of Christian hope, and my focus here is on the unity of love, faith, and hope. I think it’s important because people tend to create a tension between Christian love, faith, and hope and what we hope for in politics and public spheres of life. Right now, I’m working with what could be the equivalent of faith in our public life. We think of faith just as a kind of trust. But faith is not only a matter of trust but a matter of power. What powers do we allow to live through us? My personal approach combines theology and social analysis.  So in this case I ask: what power do we allow to form our conceptions of love, and hope – not only in our faith community, but also in our public life?

What is the potential public relevance of your specific research on faith, love, and hope?

There are many ways to look at the public relevance. For instance, if your hope is totally without love, particularly your political hope, it can become pretty violent. If you have love without a horizon of hope, you’ll tend to be very apolitical, very provincial, and you’ll lose any wider horizon, with respect to time, space, and people. The issue of faith is—what, basically, are we trusting in? What kind of power do we allow to live through us? And there are powers which are quite ambivalent. And, there are powers we can hardly escape from – even if we try. For instance, one pretty sensitive and hot issue right now is the amalgam of culture and nation. To give an example of that power, every Russian Christian will remain in some way a Russian, and every American Christian will in some way remain an American, and every German Christian will remain somehow a German, even if there’s quite some fluidity and flexibility in it. There might be some hard core cosmo-political folks out there (3 passports, 5 cities), but this is a tiny minority. These forming powers shouldn’t be denied, demonized, but also they should not be sacralized. Some of my friends demonize economic globalization, but divinize the cultural globalization. Others divinize the economic globalization, but demonize the cultural globalization.

These powers simply open up our spaces of responsibility. So in our work as academics and in particular as scholars of religion, we look at the way these spaces of responsibility can be transformed and modulated – and what the role of religion is in this ongoing negotiation and transformation. What difference do we make? As scholars we occupy a middle ground – we don’t go for the eternal, but also don’t go after the news of the day. In a similar way, it is absolutely crucial not to lose a universal perspective – even if we always work in particular and limited spaces of responsibility.

Also, we should be self-critical. To be quite blunt: Much of the academic work of the last decades made Trump and other forms of populism possible. Why? Donald Trump in some respect just hijacked the identity politics of the left. For decades we argued in theology for enculturation. For many years the liberal academy pleaded for the acknowledgement of particular identities, their rights, their struggle of pursuing their interests, and we supported their will to power. Any notion of the universal or the common good was dissected or just used to justify their own particular struggle. Be embedded in your environment! Nourish and affirm your own identity, see what you need! Your group identity first! Have the courage to be particular! And now we are stuck, because the destructive and chauvinistic populists everywhere hijacked the very same strategy: Declare yourself to be a victim and go for identity politics, affirm particular identities. In German we say: “Dumm gelaufen.” The project of identity politics is bearing pretty bitter fruits.

But faith is always affirming and transforming cultures. Both ways. Exculturation, the transcending of particularities, was always part and parcel of Christianity. Faith is embedding and disembedding, it’s a package deal. This is what we need to win back.

Is this just a good dose of German Kantianism? Well, as a theologian I would like to say: This might be, but it is also the message of the New Testament. Christ is the one human being asking us to transcend particularities. It is this wider cultural climate I mentioned where I see quite some utterly unplanned, and I have to admit uncanny, public relevance of my project.

Where is there overlap between academia and political life?

In certain respects, as academics, we are not in politics. To use a metaphor, as academics, we are not sprinters in a 100-meter sprint, we are long distance runners, and I think academics share something with Christians there. Sometimes we have to be detached from what’s going on in order to provide the creative solutions for tomorrow. We have to have the courage to practice what the anthropologist Roy A. Rappaport once called “creative maladaptation.”  And, well, tomorrow can come faster than sometimes expected. We care for public life in different ways than in the political field, where rhetoric and power are very much linked.

How do you envision academia influencing the political sphere?

If we influence, as academics, the cultural life and the political sphere, we have to get a better idea of: what are we actually doing? I think we should try to form ways of thinking, and create a kind of field of moral perception, of sensitivity. What people care for is influenced by what they perceive and where they are sensitive. In many fields of humanities, we help people find ways of living for something. We open spaces of possibilities others can really inhabit. We cannot and don’t want to influence exactly how they live in a particular way, but at the same time, we want to plant and nourish a specific concern: to care for a shared vision of enhancing human life. We should negotiate the universal horizon of shared life based on human life and dignity, but we should use this power to transcend the particularities we live in—there we can provide a vision of a common human shared good. 

What are some of your current academic projects, and how are they related to the work of The Enhancing Life Project?

One such project is the conference on religious reformations that I planned which took place at the beginning of October. If you look at the impact of the Reformation, I think there are two very fascinating things. First, there’s a striking double-movement, almost a paradox—on one side, the Reformation implied a dramatic reduction of media to communicate with God. Second, there was almost an explosion of media to communicate among the believers and in society. It is quite a challenge to search for the subtle interconnectedness of these two movements. How do they hang together? Did they enhance life in their own way?

The second question that I wanted to answer was: Is there a commonality among the many places where the Reformation really changed the life of the cities? And it looks like there is a seemingly simple common denominator: people really took up in a new way the responsibility for their shared life in the city. They engaged in politics, engaged in welfare reform, and took up responsibility for the spaces they lived in. This is something really fascinating. And I would say, yes, we need to look in your specific spaces of responsibility, and check how the unity of love, faith, and hope can make a difference.  

Have any past conferences explored the themes of The Enhancing Life Project?

Together with Heike Springhart I organized an interdisciplinary conference on vulnerability in Heidelberg. Heike is the specialist on vulnerability, I was the novice trying to creatively weave this theme into what I am doing already. This symposium with folks from philosophy, medicine, political science, religion, and ethics really tied into The Enhancing Life Project, because the life we seek to enhance is vulnerable life, and at the same time, to enhance life is in no way to get out of a condition of vulnerability. Many destructive ways of enhancing life have attempted to eliminate the vulnerable condition. A lot of creative drive comes out of vulnerability. But it is also dangerous and risky.

How is that question of vulnerability related to your own research?

For myself, again, working in theology and social theory, I have started to read and write a bit on the issue of how we conceive God’s own vulnerability without having a totally powerless God. Speaking as a Christian and a systematic theologian, I’m asking: Is the notion of vulnerability really taking seriously enough the creative and powerful spirit of God manifest in the resurrection of Jesus Christ? How do we navigate between God’s vulnerability, love, passion, and power? The connection between passion, power, and vulnerability is also central for our understanding of our human life. So again, we are looking at an intersection between theology and social theory. There’s a real correlation between our understanding of God and our conception of human life and how it could be different.