Hans Joas: Possible Futures of Faith


Possible Futures of Faith

Hans Joas

Humboldt University of Berlin (Germany) and University of Chicago (USA)


“Those were beautiful, magnificent times, when Europe was a Christian land, when one Christianity dwelled on this civilized continent, and when one common interest joined the most distant provinces of this vast spiritual empire.”(1) These are the famous opening lines of one of the most influential manifestos of early German Romanticism, namely, the 1799 fragment Christianity or Europe by Friedrich von Hardenberg, known as Novalis (the clearer of new land). This text was initially a lecture delivered in Jena in November of that year; it was decades before it was published (in 1826) under a title not chosen by Novalis.(2) Novalis’s text embodies a very special, quite new understanding of past, present, and future. In the wistful tone of the fairy tale, Novalis bathes Europe’s past in a golden light; as he looks back over history, it is above all the Middle Ages that appear as an era of homogeneous Christianity. The present, meanwhile, is presented highly critically in Novalis’s text. For him, it is dominated by egotism and a suffocating rationalism; material interests hold sway. The main reason for Europe’s dire condition and the losses it has suffered seems to be the secularization of Europe. Like Friedrich Schleiermacher’s talks on religion, also from 1799, Novalis’s work is one of the German intellectual responses to the French Revolution and its consequences for religious politics. The battle against religion is also responsible for new superstitions: “Where there are no gods, phantoms rule.”(3) While Novalis paints a very gloomy picture of the present, the prospects for the future that he presents are bright indeed. He predicts the emergence of a supranational European state, held together by a renewed Christianity, which will overcome its confessional divisions; in a cosmopolitan spirit, rather than excluding other parts of the world, it will invite them to engage in peaceful cooperation. Novalis is keen to underline that this renewed Christianity must no longer be “sacrilegiously enclosed within the boundaries of the state,”(4) but should keep its distance from the interests of all states.

This is not the place to go into this text’s multilayered effective history or its place in Novalis’s oeuvre. It is no wonder that this text could be perceived as prophetic in a very different historical situation in Germany, namely, after the collapse of the Third Reich, when many people placed their hopes in the renewal of the Christian “Occident.” In this discourse, however, there was no longer any sign of the cosmopolitan gesture of invitation to other parts of the world—quite the opposite. Now Christianity, European culture, and the “Occident” functioned mainly as terms of cultural and political exclusion—of Russia, Asia, the Orient, and often the United States as well. Even today this discourse flares up regularly, again under radically different historical conditions. This is why I now [ask] how Novalis’s three basic assumptions appear today […]. Was Europe ever homogeneously Christian? Is Europe today entirely secular? Does the future of Europe belong to a renewed Christianity—or, conversely, is Christianity leaving Europe?

It seems to me that we can answer the first question firmly in the negative. There are six reasons to reject the notion of a once homogeneously Christian Europe, and I shall run through them briefly now. No one now disputes the continuous significance of the Jewish religion in European history. But Islam, too, became a part of Europe long before the labor migration of the past few decades. In fact, mostly on the Iberian peninsula and in the Balkans, Islam has had a long European history. Further, in much of Northern and Eastern Europe especially, pre-Christian religious practices and ideas persisted into the late Middle Ages. Some countries, such as Lithuania, were Christianized only in the fourteenth century. Christianization from above, which is what generally took place, requires several generations to achieve broad effects. For a long time, the adoption of Christianity was molded by the specific pre-Christian religion of a given population, and in some cases this may still be the case. Ancient (primarily Greek and Roman) polytheisms did not have an impact on European religious and intellectual history on just one occasion, in the Renaissance,(5) but have repeatedly functioned as a potential source of inspiration or challenge. What is more, the notion of a uniform Christianity masks its internal heterogeneity. Since the Reformation and the division of the church to which it gave rise, it has been impossible to overlook the dramatic character of the relationship among differing forms of Christianity. Attempts were certainly made to defuse the clash between the confessions through religious peace settlements (such as those of 1555 and 1648); but given the limited size of the individual territories in the Empire, this only ever succeeded in a very partial way. More important in the present context is the fact that the Reformation was not the first historical event with the undesired consequence of pluralization. The division between Orthodox and Latin Christianity occurred centuries earlier. Furthermore, in the Middle Ages, the Latin Church was characterized by considerable internal diversity and was repeatedly caught up in conflicts with so-called heretical movements. And finally, the rise of the “secular option” (Charles Taylor), […] in other words, the increasing potential for and availability of worldviews based on nonbelief, is a significant pluralizing step; to the extent that responses to new secular worldviews may themselves prompt new processes of sacralization or a new receptivity, for example, to Asian religious traditions, there is, again, more going on here than just secularization.

So we should view Europe as very rich in traditions of religious pluralism. If we also consider that the various religious traditions have not simply developed in hermetic isolation from one another but through frequent interaction—Christian mysticism is influenced by its Jewish counterpart, Francis of Assisi took some of his inspiration from his experience with Muslims—then the overall picture changes definitively.(6) In sum, Europe was never uniformly Christian—and Christianity, by the way, was never solely European. Enthusiasts for a Christian Occident easily overlook, not just the fact that the origins of Christianity lay outside Europe but also that its early spread occurred along a variety of routes, some of which led to the outermost fringes of Europe or away from Europe (Armenia, Georgia; the Copts; dissemination to India and even to China in the case of the Nestorians). It is no coincidence that in this age of the globalization of Christianity, people are becoming more aware of this forgotten or “lost” history.(7)

The second question, as to whether Europe is largely secular, can certainly be answered in the affirmative to a greater extent than in the time of Novalis or Schleiermacher. In retrospect, it is surprising how much contemporary commentators in parts of Europe around 1800 saw religion as on the defensive. The present-day situation is highly heterogeneous (8) […], particularly in light of whether Europe’s enormous regional and national differences can be explained as a function of varying degrees of modernization. […] I dispute this idea […] What matters here, to sum things up, is that Europe today is indeed strongly secularized in certain countries, but this does not apply everywhere, and even in strongly secularized countries, with a few exceptions, large numbers of people belong to religious communities, share beliefs, and participate in religious practices and rituals at least occasionally, whether individually or collectively.

As far as the future is concerned, […] I very cautiously make certain predictions. In particular, I emphasize the dissolution of religious milieus, but also the emergence of new ones, as well as the huge importance of migration to the religious situation in Europe. It goes without saying that religious revitalization in those post-Communist countries in which this is found (Russia, Romania) is of great importance. It is also important to acknowledge that the shattering of the idea that modernization inevitably leads to secularization opens up new possibilities for faith. But realization of these new possibilities depends on convincing action by the various believers and religious communities. In the foreseeable future, Europe’s future will not belong to a renewed Christianity—even if this renewal does occur at some point. The future of Europe will be a multireligious one; it should also be characterized, and I hope to contribute to this with the present book, by a new open-mindedness on the part of both believers and nonbelievers, whenever they agree on the fundamental values of moral universalism.

Novalis’s text is titled “Christianity or Europe.” I would modify this today by stating that we can be (pro-)Europeans and Christians, but should reject attempts to fuse the two together. Such fusion results in an ideology of exclusion and misuses Christianity to further this ideology. It is characteristic, as for example in debates on Turkish accession to the European Union, that the people who highlight that Turkey is not Christian otherwise have very little time for the Christian message.(9) There may be many political and economic factors, which I am not concerned with here, that augur badly for Turkish accession. But there are no persuasive arguments against Turkish membership based on cultural, let alone religious factors. Those who share European values cannot be excluded for such reasons.(10)

This is also of great importance because the migrations of the past few decades have wrought major changes to Europe’s religious landscape. We are by no means dealing here only with Muslim migrants but, to varying degrees in different European countries, also with Christian ones. They often bring with them a Christianity that has been gaining new adherents and growing in strength as a result of missionary work and colonization, but in recent decades chiefly through spontaneous dissemination. Ironically, in answering the question of whether Christianity is leaving Europe, it seems plausible to suggest that in important respects it is in fact arriving there! We cannot yet predict what the consequences of this unpredicted process will be for the religious situation in Europe. The possible future of Christianity is being determined by the interplay between Europe (and North America), on the one hand, and a globalized Christianity, on the other, and, just as important, by global political constellations that may inject conflict into the relationship between the followers of different religions. Conflict or dialogue between religions, a new de-Europeanization of Christianity, and the overcoming of old hostilities between believers and nonbelievers in favor of an opposition between universalists of all kinds and the (nationalist or racist) opponents of universalism: this seems to me to describe the situation in which faith today can be a living option.



This article by Hans Joas is based on excerpts from his latest book: Faith as an Option: Possible Futures for Christianity. Translated by Alex Skinner. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014. Copyright (c) 2014 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. The publisher is to be thanked for the permission to post these passages here. https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=23713.

(1) Novalis, “Christianity or Europe: A Fragment” (1799), in The Early Political Writings of the German Romantics, ed. Frederick C. Beiser (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 61.
(2) See Wolfgang Braungart, “Subjekt Europa, Europas Subjekt. Novalis’ katholische Provokation. Die Christenheit oder Europa,” Sinn und Form 63 (2011): 546.
(3) Novalis, “Christianity or Europe,” 75.
(4) Ibid., 66.
(5) Hans Gerhard Kippenberg has pointed this out on a number of occasions in recent years. See Kippenberg, “Europe: Arena of Pluralisation and Diversification of Religions,” Journal of Religion in Europe 1 (2008): 133–55.
(6) See the wonderful book by Michael Borgolte, Juden, Christen, Muselmanen. Die Erben der Antike und der Aufstieg des Abendlandes 300–1400 n. Chr. (Munich: Siedler, 2006).
(7) Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia (Oxford: Lion, 2008).
(8) For an overview, see José Casanova, “The Religious Situation in Europe,” in Secularization and the World Religions, ed. Hans Joas and Klaus Wiegandt (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009), 206–28; Andrew Greeley, Religion in Europe at the End of the Second Millennium (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2003); Bertelsmann Stiftung, ed., What the World Believes; Philip Jenkins, God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
(9) Ute Schneider, “Von Juden und Türken. Zum gegenwärtigen Diskurs über Religion, kollektive Identität und Modernisierung,” Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft 52 (2004): 426–40, refutes such arguments very well.
(10) See Hans Joas and Klaus Wiegandt, eds., The Cultural Values of Europe (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008); for my introduction, see 1–21.


Joas_Hans - portrait pictureHans Joas is Ernst Troeltsch Professor for the Sociology of Religion at the Humboldt University of Berlin and Professor of Sociology and Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He served as the Vice-President of the International Sociological Association from 2006-2010. He was the Director of the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies at the University of Erfurt from 2002-2011. Among his major works are Pragmatism and Social Theory (1993), The Creativity of Action (1996), The Genesis of Values (University of Chicago Press 2000), War and Modernity (2003), The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights (2012), and most recently Faith as an Option: Possible Futures for Christianity (2014).


Banner image: Byzantine fresco in the Agios Demetrios of Mystras, Laconia, Greece, taken by the WebForum editor.

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