Critical Theory of Religion

Teaching Philosophy

The critical or dialectical theory of religion not only has a psychological, sociological, philosophical, and theological dimension, but also a pedagogical dimension.  Education is at the core of its interest.  


     Today, there is an intense discourse going on about education in America as well as in Europe.  In the neo-conservative and neo-liberal globalization and economization, the question comes up all the time concerning the price or the costs of education, what the purpose of education is supposed to be, if it is profitable, and in which sense it can possibly serve the present capitalist economy.  In contrast to these functional questions, the critical theory of religion emphasizes education as a human and civil right of every citizen.   In the perspective of the dialectical theory of religion, education constitutes a necessary presupposition for the individuals' participation in public discourse.  In this way, education becomes a characteristic component of the modern and possibly post-modern democratic and future-oriented learning society, and of its social evolution as learning process.  


     The critical theory of religion tries to motivate students to modify and mitigate the trends within civil society that push toward the post-modern Alternative Future I and II.  I have described Alternative Future I as the totally bureaucratized, automated, robotized, and cloned signal society and that Alternative Future II as the entirely militarized society being continually engaged in conventional and civil wars and preparing weapons of mass-destruction for nuclear, biolological, and chemical warfare (NBC warfare for short) and the environmental destruction that will follow.  The critical theory of religion promotes, as much as possible, the cultural tendencies toward Alternative Future III - a society in which personal autonomy and universal solidarity will be reconciled.  More specifically the critical theory of religion tries to educate students to keep an open dialectics between the modern dichotomy between religious fundamentalism, on one hand, and complete secularization on the other, and, at the same time, overcome the dialectic of enlightenment and the dialectic of religion for the purpose of contributing to the possible post-modern reunion of the religious and the secular on the secular side.  This is accomplished in two ways: (1) through letting semantic and semiotic materials migrate from the depth of the mythos into the discourse of the profane expert cultures and (2) through communicative praxis of the everyday life world and even into the activities of the economic, political, and military subsystems of the modern and even post-modern action systems and systems of human condition.  In short, the educational dimension of the critical theory of religion is to fight against the conditions that would allow the rebirth of a new Auschwitz or Triblinka, a new Abu Ghraib or Gutanamo Bay, a new bombing of London, Canterbury, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, New York City, or any other systematic annihilation of our fellow human beings.  


     In the perspective of the critical theory of religion, a culture is carried over from one generation to the other not through gene exchange, but rather through education: through nurture rather than through nature.  Precisely the specifically human genome demands long educational processes of individual reconstruction and appropriation of a cultural life form, which has been produced accumulatively through many generations.  The young generation has to grow into a specific culture and precisely thereby has to find itself at the same time.  One is not possible without the other.  Each young individual has to go through a process of enculturation and individuation: i.e. a process of education.  This happens in the context of the family, society, state and religious organizations.  


     An essential element of any culture to be transferred through a symbolical process from one generation to the other in each life form has been for many centuries religion as a system of interpretation of reality and orientation of action: from magic and fetishism, Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism, through Zoroastrianism, the Syrian, Egyptian, Jewish, Greek, and Roman religion to Christianity and Islam.  These religions were thus an essential element in the enculturation - and individuation- and education- process of each individual in each new generation in each cultural life form.  In this way religion has so far contributed essentially to the humanization of the human species on its long march from animality to freedom.  The dialectical theory of religion is concerned with this social and cultural evolution of man and particularly with the progressive and critical role religion has played in it.  


     Thus the dialectical theory of religion also tries to answer the question, what happens to the coming younger generations, when the scientific enlightenment, and demythologization, and modernization, and secularization seems to interrupts the religious traditions, and to relegate them to a place in the childhood of humankind, and their meaning-carrying stories and the ethical values and norms contained in them are no longer being learned, and thus loose their authority in modern or postmodern life forms, and thus are forgotten.  


     Once religion told people, where they came from and where they were going, and thus gave them meaning.  The secularization process has lead to a depletion of the resource of meaning.  The loss of meaning leads to painful boredom in civil society, and boredom leads to the use of drugs in all forms.   >From the tonnage of drugs, that are used by the younger generation, we can conclude the amount of boredom it experiences, and the degree to which the resource of meaning has been depleted for it, and the extend to which the secularization process has progressed.  

Death of Religion

     Religions can die like languages do.  That is what religious and political fundamentalism try to prevent.  Fundamentalism may ask the right questions: only the answers are deficient.  The new notion of the post-secular society does not mean, that fundamentalism has succeeded in rescuing the old religious traditions, but only that they disappear more slowly than the most optimistic enlighteners, like Friedrich Nietzsche, had hoped for: God is dead, and he remains dead!.  The enlighteners still think today, that religion has become obsolete, because it can no longer do in the face of the modern slaughterbench of history and nature, what it once was supposed to do: to solve the theodicy problem connected with the fundamental perils of human existence: loneliness, abandonment, alienation, injustices, meaninglessness, illness, aging, dying and death.  


     The dialectical theory of religion seeks for ways, which allow some positive semantic and semiotic materials and potentials to - while the negative elements are to be forgotten - migrate symbolically from the depth of the religious mythos into the educational process of a new secular generation, in order to help it to deal with, to resist, and to conquer the always new waves of rebarbarization, which seem to be connected with the transition from modernity to post-modernity, which started with World War I.  The critical theorist of religion defines religion as the longing for the imageless and nameless totally Other than the horror and terror of the sacrificial altar of nature and history; the hope for perfect justice and unconditional love; the longing, that the murderer shall not triumph over the innocent victim : at least not ultimately.  Such longing for Transcendence could restore to the modern and postmodern ego the sovereignty versus the pressures of the external natural and social environments, and the internal environments - the id, the will to life with its libidinous and aggressive components, without which autonomy universal i.    e.   anamnestic, present and proleptic solidarity, and thus ethics and social ethics and even legality is not possible.  It is this notion of religion which the dialectical theorist intends to transfer symbolically through education to a new otherwise secular generation in a profane society.  


     Such longing for Transcendence could restore to the modern and post-modern Ego its sovereignty versus the stimuli and pressures and tensions of the external natural and social environments, as well as of the internal environments - the Superego as internalized culture and the Id, the will to life, with its libidinous and aggressive components, without which autonomy universal, i.e. anamnestic, present and proleptic solidarity and thus personal and social morality and even national and international legality is not possible, and without which also the massive Ego-weakness among our youth can not be overcome.   It is this notion of religion - the longing for the entirely Other - which the dialectical theorist intends to transfer symbolically through educational processes to a new otherwise secular generation in the context of a profane society.  

Transition Period

     In the present transition period from modernity to post - modernity the young generation stands before the question, if the modern life form, including the cultural and religious options, which is still offered to it, can give it at all life possibilities toward the future - be it Future I, II, or III - and if it can understand itself in them.  The young generation must ask itself.  If it only needs to learn well the social and cultural and also religious language game, which is still played at the end of modernity, or if it must change it, if it wants to have a future at all - particularly Future III.  The young generations have found themselves at least since World War I - the beginning of the post-modern paradigm - in such a deeply changed situation, that they had to ask themselves, if the social and cultural and thus also the religious language game, which continued to be played, was not really coming to its end, and that a new and the right one had to be found, and that this needed an exceptional rationality.  What does education mean in this context?  

Types of Learning

     The critical theory of religion differentiates between two forms of learning.  There is first of all the additive learning.  It means, that the young generation learns in the framework of a given old fundamental categorical structures of interpretation of reality and orientation of action always more and more new particular facts and data, which however do not change but rather only affirm that framework and the corresponding modes of behavior and of world -and self-understanding.  No fundamental paradigm change occurs.  There is another form of learning: there are experiences, which, if they are not repressed, explode the previous modern paradigm and its modes of encountering reality and of guiding action and interaction, and which transcend the usual capacity to deal and cope with them.  If the young generation wants really to receive those experiences instead of repressing them, then a transformation of the fundamental structures of the interpretation of reality and of the orientation of action as well as of the whole world - and self-understanding is demanded.  

Post-modern Paradigms

     Today not only the secular sciences, but also all the living world religions are either moving into new postmodern paradigms or move into historical niches and become obsolete and ineffective.  Only a religion which is willing to move into a new post-modern constellation, can make a contribution to peace among the nations and civilizations.  The young generation will turn away in boredom from a religion which refuses to enter the post -modern paradigm, but the new generation may be attracted by a religion that dares to enter a new stage in its evolution.  


     In the perspective of the dialectical theory of religion, such not anti-modern, but truly post-modern paradigmatic transformation not only of religion but of the whole modern life form is characterized by the fact, that in it the young generation can no longer reach back to known conditions and procedures and practices.  The new generation must rather invent the new interpretations of reality and orientations of action, as well as itself.  It is obvious, that such invention does not simply happen out of nothing, It rather happens in the process of the determinate negation of modernity.  Certainly, modernity is not simply to be negated abstractly, so that nothing remains of it.   Modernity is rather transcended dialectically: it is critically negated, but also preserved, elevated and fulfilled in the newly arising post-modern life form.   Nevertheless, in this dialectical process, the young generation must in the perception of the new explosive experiences learn together with the reality also itself.  The negative experiences of disappointed expectations, of antagonisms and contradictions, and of crises, into which actions in conformity to the rules of past modern social and cultural and also religious language games must necessarily lead in the new post-modern situation, then force the young generation to finding themselves and to developing competencies of action on a new paradigmatic level.  The negative can also be positive.  In any case, such negative processes change the consciousness of the young generation not only accidentally, but also substantially.  What takes place is a transformation of consciousness in a most radical sense.  It is radical in the sense that it gets down to the very roots of humanity itself.  Out of these negative processes the consciousness of the young generation arises anew and materializes itself anew practically and communicatively.  The critical theorist signifies such self-finding of the new generation on a new paradigmatic level as a dialectical learning process.  In such dialectical learning process the new generation must consciously produce new modes of perception of reality and of encounter with things, persons and itself.  That means, that the young generation must find a new identity.  The dialectical theory of religion calls education this acquisition of new competence of action and of a new identity in a historically concrete transition period, which challenges the new generation to communicative action.  

Groups and Societies

     In the present transition period from modernity to post-modernity not only individuals but also groups and whole societies face the challenge to such learning and such education, which change traditional modes of behavior and conditions.  This happens, because not only individuals but also groups and societies have gotten into crises in the present paradigmatic transition period, in which the usual modes of learning and education of the whole modern life form has become questionable and problematic.  In this situation deep-reaching transformations not only of the individual consciousness and subconsciousness and the corresponding action formation, but also of the petrified forms of the collective consciousness and subconsciousness and the correspondingbehavior become necessary.  Negative modern residuals - like religious and political fundamentalism, nationalism, racism, sexism, colonialism, imperialism, liberalism, fascism, etc. - can not really stop the post-modernization process, but - to the contrary - rather accelerate it.  

Reduction of Education

     In the perspective of the critical theory of religion, education should not be reduced to training and the university should not turn into a trade school.  Certainly, the reduction of education to a falsely understood economical, falsely understood short term calculating instrumental or functional rationality is dysfunctional and contra productive.  Insofar as at present in economics under the category of costs can be understood in general the action possibilities, which are excluded by a certain decision, the so-called opportunity costs, also losses of life time, social relations and in general of creative life possibilities must be taken into consideration.  Also certain consequences of one's own present economic activities can not simply as external costs be imposed on other contemporaries or on future generations.  The precisely through the economic medium integrated one global society has no external competitors any longer: at least not as long as quasi -human beings are not yet discovered on other planets.  The integrated global society is only its own competitor.  It, therefore, has to carry all the costs itself.  That precisely the upcoming generations feel and experience most of all.  Therefore, they ask for a more embracing communicative as well as anamnestic and proleptic rationality.  Therefore, Kant's and Hegel's accusation, that wars become more and more expensive, and that the states use all their energies for vain and violent expansion-intentions, and that they therefore continually hinder the slow efforts of the internal education of the mentality of their citizens, instead of facilitating them, and withdraw from them all support as they pursue those intentions.  In addition, the aggressive and even terroristic colonialistic and imperialistic states give a bad example to their citizens and thus lead them back into a violent barbarism.  When Hitler was told that he was a barbarian, he answered: we want to be barbarians!  The result was World War II and Auschwitz!  

New Categorical Imperative

     As the critical theory of religion reflects on the trends toward the post-modern Futures I,II and III and thus also on the future of education in general and university education in particular it is particularly concerned with a new categorical imperative for the praxis in a democratic morally reflective learning society.  This new categorical imperative demands from us that we act in such a way that we try in our own productive practice to help others, particularly our students toward an independent creative development, and that we in this way build alternative Future III: a communicative world, in which autonomous and solidary rules can be found for the friendly living together of all, and in which thereby life possibilities are opened up and secured continually under a democratic and social constitutional state.  

Contribution to Education

     The critical theory of religion can make a substantial contribution to education in general and to university education in particular in the present macro-paradigmatic change from the modern to a post-modern age: particularly global alternative Future III.  It can provide new resources.  It can broaden the cognitive as well as the communicative competence of the students.  This can happen in the following ways:


     The dialectical theory of religion can enrich particularly the university education in a material sense.  It can broaden the university knowledge through opening up the sources, witnesses, and reflections of the theological and ethical and socio-ethical traditions of the dead as well as of the still living religions, and through interpreting them, and through actualizing them in relation to their present significance and relevance: the traditions of Zoroastrianism, of the Syrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman religions, as well as of Confucianism and Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and etc.  It can make non-contemporaneous religious materials and potentials contemporaneous.  Thereby the critical theory of religion carries the religious themes and questions into the educational processes and procedures, It demonstrates their religious dimensions and structural elements and thus broadens their horizons.  

Cognitive Competence

     The dialectical theory of religion can make the students cognitively competent in matters of the world religions.  At the same time it aims at making the students also communicatively competent in matters of religion.  It facilitates discourses between the students and competent representatives of the different world religions.  In such discourses a door is opened up toward what the religions consider to be the Divinity and the truth and its obligations.  To such cognitive and communicative competence belongs of course also the insight into the ambivalence of religion.  The world religions contain besides critical and creative also destructive and ideological potentials: ideology understood critically as false consciousness, masking of racial, national, gender, or class interests, shortly the untruth.  There is such a thing as the pathology or even criminology of the world religions.  What is at stake here, is to make clear, that religion can enslave as well as liberate.  It can make blind and it can open up reality.  It can lead to self-immunization and self-deification through all kinds of personality cult and it can strengthen the sense for personal autonomy and universal solidarity: and thus a global ethos as presupposition for the peace rather than clashes among the nations and the civilizations.  In addition the critical theory of religion mediates competence in reference to the multitude of the functions and forms of religious language, and memory, and anticipation, and ethical and soci-ethical praxis: not only in the everyday life world of modern or post-modern action systems, which is still characterized by communicative rationality and steered over the medium of ethical values and norms, but also in the economic subsystem, which is usually characterized by instrumental rationality and steered over the medium of money, and in the national and international political and military subsystem, which is usually also characterized by functional rationality, but steered over the medium of power.  The dialectical theory of religion promotes the understanding of such functions and forms of religious language, memory, expectation and communicative praxis.  


     The critical theory of religion sensitizes the students for the fundamental and boundary questions of human existence and of the social living together: the perils of human existence, the theodicy problem.  The dialectical theory of religion promotes the perceptions of the abysses and contingencies of human life and action and inter-action.  It pays attention to the limitations of the individual and collective existence.  It contributes at the same time to the attention and watchfulness for the ultimate questions, which transcend the finite human existence.  The critical theory of religion is more interested in the eschatology - the last things - than in the protology - the first things.  It takes seriously the eschatological reservation. It sees society as it appears with all its antagonisms in the light of redemption.  


     The critical theory of religion stimulates the consciousness of the students for the historicity, the limitations, and the situational character of the individual and social existence.  It makes the students receptive not only for the subjects, the texts, the purposes and motivations of communicative action, but also and particularly so for the natural, social and cultural contextuality of human being, thinking and action and interaction.  It sees at the same time this contextuality in the horizon of the universal, imageless and nameless totally Other transcending all possible finite contexts: most of all the horror and terror of the slaughter bench of nature and history.  

Commitments and Communication

     The dialectical theory of religion strengthens the students' perception for their belonging to social and religious communities.  It reflects on the significance of commitments.  At the same time it aims at keeping open these commitments in direction of communication and understanding with others and at transcending them.  The critical theory of religion analyzes, and reflects, and criticizes, and stimulates the communication of the members of social and religious communities among each other.  It also has as a public scientific activity the understanding with other social and religious communities in its view. It intends to promote the ability and the will to mutual understanding and recognition.  

Dialectic of Theory and Praxis

     The critical theory of religion communicates a sense for the connection between theory and praxis.  It presents the difference and the connection between theory and praxis: shortly, their dialectic.  It tries to reconcile the modern positivistic dichotomy between theory and praxis.  It emphasizes, that theory and reflection have a practical tendency.  It comprehends itself as the practically constituted and oriented comparative-dialectical analysis and reflection of the world - religions, which is rooted in religious as well as humanistic praxis, and which aims at it.  Insofar as the dialectical theory of religion starts from practice and aims at it, it demands and promotes an action-related education, which includes the ability and readiness of the students for a form of action, which does justice to the matter at hand, and to a particular context, and to the men and women involved in them.  

Inter-Disciplinary Thinking

     The critical theory of religion postulates and practices an intra-and-transdisciplinarily oriented thinking and acting.  It combines the historical-dialectical reconstruction and interpretation of religious texts, as well as comparative, paradigmatic, systematic reflection, and practical analysis and option.  Doing so, it uses besides the dialectical logic different positivistic - scientific methods.  Thus the dialectical theory of religion offers and presents to the students a good example of theoretical and practical networking and at the same time gives them guidance to such connecting way of thinking and acting.  

Commitment and Critique

     The dialectical theory of religion inserts a double thorn into the flesh of education: commitment and critique.  This happens in the way, that the critical theory of religion implicates toward a thinking and action, which is based on tradition.  Furthermore, it aims at a praxis, which intends to transform modern antagonistic civil society toward post-modern alternative Future III - a reconciled society.  The critical theory of religion sharpens the students' sense for remembrance on one hand, and demands and promotes its critical reflection on the other.  In this process, the orientation of the critical theory of religion toward tradition connects itself with the option for the critique and the transformation of all conditions in contradictory civil society, which degrade the dignity and the human and civil rights of human persons.  The dialectical theory of religion chooses precisely this option for the concrete human subjects and the community and solidarity of all human beings in the face of the remembered history of the world religions and of the hoped for fulfillment of their promises: particularly the Messianic promises of the three Abrahamic religions.  The critical theory is guided by the eschatological reservation.  

University Education

     The dialectical theory of religion stands up for an embracing orientation of education in general and university education in particular, which opens itself up for the elementary questions of all human beings, cultures and societies concerning survival, life and meaning, and which at the same time preserves and sharpens the sense for community, solidarity and justice.  The critical theory of religion stands up for a university education, which responds to the present social and cultural challenges, and which at the same time includes the past, and thinks it through further into the future.  The dialectical theory of religion is an advocate for the universality of the university.  In this universality the critical theory of religion emphasizes a kind of thinking, which transcends the present generations anamnestically and proleptically, through giving a voice to the voiceless calling for personal autonomy and universal solidarity in the present macro-paradigmatic transition from modernity to post-modernity: particularly Future III.  

Greatest Demands

     Such multi-dimensional educational processes of mutual, creative and structure forming dialectical interpretations and actions make the greatest demands on the critical theory of religion, in so far as it must prove itself in the antagonism between the world religions on one hand and profane scientific knowledge on the other.  However, precisely by doing so the dialectical theory of religion approaches and comes closer to the discursive structure of present educational processes, in which what is at stake is never only the one-dimensional reproduction of a transferred cultural life form, but also its deconstruction, and at the same time its critical, transforming reconstruction out of the perspective of the young generation, which must explore and discover its own new life possibilities in the formation of a new common world.  In the solidary search for post-modern global Future III - a common world, in which differences are recognized, but which at the same time opens a universal horizon with life possibilities for all - the critical theory of religion and pedagogics can share their central intentions.  They can thus collaborate in the context of the determinate negation and concrete supersession of modernity toward a more humane postmodernity, which will combine its innovations with whatever was good in the modern and traditional societies.  


Prof. Rudolf J. Siebert
Department of Comparative Religion
Western Michigan University
First Posted on the World Wide Web on July 30, 2005


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