Markus Vinzent's Blog

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Theology writing itself off the shelves

Over the past three centuries, theology is writing itself off the shelves. The subject-matter as it has been dealt with in the past seems condemned to death, at least in the public consciousness; time will show how long it can survive as an academic discipline the finance crisis of higher education.
The decline of theology is reflected in our experience when we enter any major bookshop today, be it a physical or a virtual one. With the exception of a few Bibles, the Koran and other holy books, liturgical and pastoral aids, and books written by and about the Pope, there is almost nothing, and what remains languishes among new age material and psychology. In contrast, books of philosophy are still prominently displayed, and history is doing even better. That the present state of affairs is the end of a gradual process over the past three centuries is amply shown by Ruth Conrad in her Lexikonpolitik of 2006,[1] which substantiates the initial dominance of theology and surveys the decline of its presence in the overall book market after 1740:
The situation in 1740 was very different from today.  In Germany for example, 38.54% of all books published in that year were on theological topics: out of a total of 755 books 291were new theological monographs, 246 of them in the vernacular language. Only 30 years later, in 1770, the production of new titles had jumped to an overall figure of 1,144, while the number of new theological books had fallen slightly to 280, a percentage drop of one third, to 24.47%. Most drastically, with only 36 theological books in Latin, this strand of production was running out. Indeed, just another 30 years later, in 1800, overall book production had more than doubled to 2,569 new titles per annum, and although theology produced more new books than ever, 348, both the nature of those books and the overall percentage had changed. Instead of intellectually demanding academic works, the theological output was mainly popular in nature and the percentage compared with the overall book market had declined further by around another third, to 13.55%, with only 2.59% theological books in Latin. Hence the ‘noticeable decline of Latin’, was not a 19th or 20th century phenomenon, but ‘lies between 1770 and 1800’, around the turn of the era of enlightenment to that of romanticism.[2] Today, over 200 years later, this trend has not been reversed, and the absence of challenging theological monographs in our bookstores is apparent.
While in the 80s and 90s of the last century religion proved to be resilient, surviving against all the predictions of secularist theorists; and although after September 11, 2001 religion returned to the fore and has ever since remained in the headlines, this public comeback has not been reflected in monographs from the pens of theologians, and the continuing output of theological literature is mainly confined to university libraries and scholar-to-scholar peer review. Rather, it is on the shelves of philosophy, history and sociology that readers today search for and successfully grasp stimulating publications on religion, be it studies by French sociologists or philosophers such as Marcel Gauchet,[3] George Bataille[4] and Jacques Derrida,[5] German thinkers such as Peter Sloterdijk[6] and Ulrich Beck,[7] the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek[8] and the Italian Gianni Vattimo,[9] or the works of US-based Tomoko Masuzawa,[10] British sociologist David Martin[11] and historian Hugh McLeod.[12] This being so, how must we re-locate ‘religion’ or theology in a world where theological research has gone underground, locked itself into an ivory tower of academia, or been replaced by sociology, psychology, education and philosophy? Once an off-shoot of theology as practical theology, Religionspädagogik or catechism, religious education is still in demand today,[13] but will this demand be fulfilled by departments other than theology? Or can we conceive of a theology that will once again inspire and impact on the formation of human beings, starting from the hermeneutical framework that has been set over the past hundreds of years?

[1] Ruth Conrad, Lexikonpolitik: Die erste Auflage der RGG im Horizont protestantischer Lexikographie, Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte 97 (Berlin and New York, 2006).
[2] Ruth Conrad, Lexikonpolitik: Die erste Auflage der RGG im Horizont protestantischer Lexikographie, Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte 97 (Berlin and New York, 2006), 31.
[3] M. Gauchet, Le Désenchantement du monde (Paris, 1985).
[4] G. Bataille, Theory of Religion, trans. Robert Hurley (orig. 1973 = New York, 1989).
[5] J. Derrida, Religion, ed. by G. Vattimo (Stanford, 1998).
[6] P. Sloterdijk, God’s Zeal: The Battle of the Three Monotheisms, trans. Wieland Hoban (orig. 2007 = Malden, 2009).
[7] See below.
[8] S. Žižek, Living in the End Times (London, 2010).
[9] G. Vattimo, Belief (orig. 1996 = Malden, 1999); After Christianity (New York, 2002); R. Rorty and G. Vattimo, The Future of Religion (New York, 2005); J.D. Caputo and G. Vattimo, After the Death of God (New York, 2006); G. Vattimo and R. Girard, Christianity, Truth, and Weak Faith, Gianni Vattimo and Rene Girard (New York, 2009).
[10] T. Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago and London, 2005).
[11] D. Martin, The Future of Christianity: Reflections on Violence and Democracy, Religion and Secularization (Farnham, 2010).
[12] H. McLeod, Secularisation in Western Europe, 1848-1914 (Basingstoke, 2000).
[13] An indication is given by the hugely successful project of the Quandt-Foundation on the trialogue of cultures, see Clauß Peter Sajak (ed.), Trialogisch lernen: Bausteine für interkulturelle und interreligiöse Projektarbeit (Seelze-Velber, 2010); Lisa Kaul-Seidmann, Jorgen Nielsen, Markus Vinzent, School Curricula and European Pluralism (Bad Homburg, 2004); Lisa Kaul-Seidmann, Jorgen Nielsen, Markus Vinzent, European Identity and cultural pluralism. 8 European Country Reports on Judaism, Christianity and Islam in European school curricula (Bad Homburg, 2003); Lisa Kaul-Seidmann, Jorgen Nielsen, Markus Vinzent, European Identity and cultural pluralism. Judaism, Christianity and Islam in European school curricula (Bad Homburg, 2003).

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