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Troeltsch, Ernst

Troeltsch, Ernst

Sociology of religion

Historicism

WORKS BY TROELTSCH

SUPPLEMENTARY BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), German historian and sociologist, was born in Augsburg, a descendant of an old burgher family and the eldest son of a practicing physician. His father introduced him to the natural sciences, and he retained a keen sense for scientific thinking throughout his life. His interests, however, lay in the direction of religion and philosophy. From 1883 to 1888 he studied theology at the universities of Erlangen, Gottingen, and Berlin and for a short time was a Lutheran curate at Munich. He became a lecturer at Gottingen in 1891 and an associate professor of theology at Bonn in 1892. In 1894, at the age of 29, he became a professor at Heidelberg, where he remained for 21 years. In 1915, feeling that theology was narrow and confining, he transferred to philosophy at Berlin, where he lectured on a variety of topics, from the philosophy of religion to the philosophy of history. He was influenced by Kant and Hegel, and by Fichte and Schleiermacher, as well as by his teachers, especially Ritschl. In 1901 he married the daughter of a Mecklenburg officer; a son, Ernst Eberhard, was born in 1913. Troeltsch took part in politics, was long a member of the Baden upper house, and from 1919 to 1921 was a member of the Prussian Landtag and undersecretary of state for public worship. He died in 1923 in his fifty-eighth year.

Troeltsch was conservative in politics. In the early days of World War i he was moved, as were many of his friends, including Max Weber, by what Weber called the “great and wonderful” fervor of the German people. Like almost all his fellow intellectuals, he saw rooted in the German nation idealist values that constituted the ethical justification for the war effort. Like Weber, he believed that his fatherland upheld an important spiritual heritage, as opposed to the materialistic values of the British and the French. Soon, however, under the influence of Weber and Friedrich Meinecke, he separated himself from the conservative majority, opposed annexationist war aims, and advocated domestic democratization, which he Considered urgent. He joined the circle around Prince Max of Baden and after the war became active in the founding of the German Democratic party. He supported the Weimar Republic and in the early 1920s defended the new constitution in monthly articles in the review Der Kunstwart, using the pseudonym “Spektator.” These contributions rank among the most clearheaded political analyses of the day: he decried the “frightful demagoguery” of the right and urged that the republic be accepted wholeheartedly, despite its alien character (its basis in Anglo-French eighteenth-century values) and the inferior quality of its office holders. The true conservatism required to restore balance to German life could be brought about, he declared, only by the acceptance of the Weimar Republic. Troeltsch’s articles appeared until four months before his death, representing his last efforts to save both humanity and rationality.

Sociology of religion

In his great sociological work, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (1912), Troeltsch examined the history of Christianity up to the eighteenth century. He sought the answer to two fundamental questions: (1) Are religious beliefs and movements primarily the products of non-religious factors or are they primarily irreducible phenomena that develop independently? and (2) the reciprocal question, To what extent do religious ideas and institutions affect other elements of society and culture? He raised these questions not simply in the abstract but with respect to Christianity in its total historical setting.

Weber concerned himself with similar questions but evolved a rather different technique of study. Weber used ideal type constructions and, in a kind of post hoc mental experiment, attempted to hold some factors constant while he compared two or more cases. Troeltsch studied only Christianity and attempted to trace the whole vast interconnected web of factors impinging on it, delineating the place of religion within this total complex. The result—The Social Teaching—makes difficult reading but exhibits tremendous learning, and despite a certain diffuseness, it presents a host of valuable theoretical insights. It reveals the interaction of ideal and material factors at the same time that it conveys the unique quality of concrete historical situations.

The Social Teaching affirms the reality and autonomy of the religious factor—or, to use a more modern expression, finds that religion can be an independent variable in social change—but locates this autonomy in a context of interacting factors. Primitive Christianity was a religious movement, not reducible to displaced social protest, as Kautsky and the Marxists had tried to show, and its inner meaning contained autonomous implications for future development. But the forms of its beliefs, values, and organizations were to a great extent conditioned by circumstances, and once established, Christianity in turn affected other aspects of society and culture.

Troeltsch examined this complex interaction of factors in relation to four aspects of society: family, economics, politics, and learning. In all four areas he saw Christianity exhibiting two contradictory but complementary tendencies—accommodation and protest, or compromise and absolutist rejection of compromise. Both were genuine expressions of New Testament values. He concluded his monumental study with the following summary: “The Ethos of the Gospel … is an ideal which requires a new world if it is to be fully realized … [it is] an ideal which cannot be realized within this world apart from compromise. Therefore the history of the Christian Ethos becomes the story of a constantly renewed search for this compromise, and of fresh opposition to this spirit of compromise” ([1912] 1931, pp. 999-1000).

This great permeating rhythm of accommodation and protest has its sociological expression in three types of religious participation. The church compromises with the “world”—with society and culture; the sect rejects the world and compromise with it, as well as the social consequences of compromise; and individual religious spontaneity finds expression neither in creative compromise nor in dissent, but in mysticism. The appearance of these forms is conditioned by social and cultural influences, but each represents a genuine religious expression that is irreducible to other factors or variables.

Troeltsch was influenced by Weber and, like him, was concerned with the relation of religion to economic activity. In an earlier work, Protestantism and Progress (1906a), he sought to find out how much the development of modern secular capitalism owes to Protestantism. Troeltsch saw Protestantism as originally a reaction, a return to medieval thinking, “which [swept] away such beginnings of a free and secular civilization as had already been toilsomely established.” Its impact upon the rise of modernity was mainly “indirect and unconsciously produced,” as well as “against its will" ([1906a] 1958, pp. 85-87). Like Weber, he asked whether or not the this-worldly asceticism of Protestantism had provided indirect and unintentional support for the development of capitalist economic activity, and he agreed with Weber that Calvinism did have an important early influence. But he felt that Weber should have given greater emphasis to the fact that Reformed asceticism was itself “partly determined by … the commercial situation in the Western countries,” especially “the exclusion of Dissent from political life” (ibid., p. 138) and that it was economic decline in Germany that gave emphasis to the element of asceticism in traditional Lutheranism.

Curiously, although Troeltsch was a friend of Weber’s and somewhat dependent upon him intellectually, he seemed unaware that he had seriously criticized Weber’s thesis. Moreover, although he charged Weber with having failed to stress sufficiently the differences between Calvin and Calvinism, he did not seem to realize that this also was a highly critical appraisal. In the same work Troeltsch both denied any immediate or direct causal relationship between Protestantism and capitalism and declared that “Weber has, in my opinion, completely proved his case” (ibid., p. 138).

Troeltsch believed that religion was more significantly affected by the development of modernity than the reverse. Yet he saw that despite “all the hostility to the churches and to Christianity” in his own time, culture and values derived from and rested upon Christian foundations. He felt that “individual autonomy,” “belief in progress,” “confidence in life,” and even the “impulse to work” would be impossible, were it not for the Christian heritage (ibid., pp. 38-39). Toward the end of his life Troeltsch assessed the future of Christianity as “unpredictable,” but he felt that it was “at a critical moment of its further development, and that very bold and far-reaching changes [were] necessary, transcending anything that [had] yet been achieved by any denomination” ([1923] 1957, p. 60).

Historicism

Troeltsch took a classic position with respect to the problem of historicism. Influenced by Dilthey, he believed in a sharp distinction between the methods appropriate to the natural sciences and those appropriate to study of the life of the human spirit. The former could use generalized categories and seek timeless regularities; the latter must endeavor to understand the meaning and uniqueness of spatially and temporally situated cultural complexes. History is “an immeasurable, incomparable profusion of always-new, unique, and hence individual tendencies, welling up from undiscovered depths.” History reveals individual configurations of ideas, values, strivings, relations, and situations in “always-new and always-peculiar individualizations” (ibid., p. 44). These “historical individuals” can be understood only in their own terms.

Weber too had faced this issue, and his solution represents an important contribution to social science. He accepted the uniqueness of specific historical configurations and the importance of understanding meaning and quality, but he also developed generalized analytical categories for analysis. These he saw as formal in Kant’s sense. He was thus able to break down the historical complexes into a number of analytical factors, to make comparative studies in which some factors were held constant as far as possible, and thereby to produce analytical and generalizing sociology. He did not, however, pursue the philosophical difficulties involved in this “nominalist” use of “universals” for scientific convenience. For Troeltsch the issue was more profound; he was concerned with its human and not its technical implications. He sought not simply a methodological posture for scientific work but “a vital and effective religious position, which alone could furnish my life with a center of reference for all practical questions and could alone give meaning and purpose to reflection upon the things of this world” (ibid., p. 37).

Troeltsch’s problem was this: If everything in history is individual and unique and is limited to specific times and places, is there then nothing suprahistorical in the products of man’s search for truth and his creations of value? Can man make no contact with any extrahistorical truth or any transhistorical truths or values? In his Trennung von Staat und Kirche (1906b) he introduced the concept of “polymorphous truth”: Truth is one, but it is apprehended by men in historical forms that vary indefinitely. He rejected “monomorphous truth” as no longer genuinely accepted, save by Roman Catholics. In 1909, in his Absolutheit des Chris-tentums, he sought the basis for transhistorical validity in the inner experience of the Christian and its effects on his actions and in an evolution toward universal religion.

Troeltsch also looked for an extrahistorical element in what he called the “morality of conscience.” Conscience arises from the need to preserve the inner integrity of personality amid “the flux and confusion of the life of the instincts.” But this need has “a purely formal aim of independence from mere fate” and finds its content in historically relative cultural values. Personality and conscience do not represent a genuinely transhistorical basis for values, however, for the value of personality is itself culturally relative; our own high evaluation of it is derived from Christianity and unknown in our sense in the Far East ([1923] 1957, pp. 77-78, 121).

Troeltsch later gave up these tenuous bases for extrahistorical validity but continued to be greatly concerned with what he saw as the fundamental conflict between “the critical scepticism generated by the ceaseless flux and manifold contradictions within the sphere of history and the demand of the religious consciousness for certainty, for unity, and for peace” (ibid., p. 39). He came to see all the world religions as unique and relative to given historical conditions, having validity only within a community of tradition. “The actual history of religion knows nothing of the common character of all religions, or of their natural trend toward Christianity” (ibid., p. 43). He did not limit this concern to the sphere of religion but in his Historismus und seine Probleme (1922), as he wrote later, he examined the “relation of individual historical facts to standards of value within the entire domain of history in connection with the development of political, social, ethical, aesthetic, and scientific ideas” and found that “even the validity of science and logic seemed to exhibit, under different skies and upon different soil, strong individual differences present even in their deepest and innermost rudiments” ([1923] 1957, pp. 52-53). He held that mankind has little in common besides material needs and a capacity for mutual understanding.

Cultures represented for Troeltsch unique historical products, and values, although the “source of all nobility and all greatness,” are the consequence of a “molding which is peculiar, unique, and sui generis.” Cultural values remain in a “permanent dependence on the natural basis and the temporary and special historic position of that basis…. Here there is nothing independent of time and universally valid except the stimulus and obligation to create a system of culture” (ibid., pp. 105-108).

Troeltsch never found a basis within history itself for any transhistorical position for either knowledge or values. He concluded that validity is historically relative and conscience valid only for each individual. He fell back on faith, the anguished and dissatisfied faith he had never completely lost. He believed that the truth man sees from his limited and relative point of view is a refraction of a truth beyond and that relative values reflect a transcendent value realm. Thus he could say: “Scepticism and relativism are only an apparent necessary consequence of modern intellectual conditions and of Historicism. They may be overcome by way of Ethics …” (ibid., p. 126). Ethical values are objective to the actor and challenge him to transcend his situation. Thus, they are genuine and valid, but finally rest upon a “deep subjectivity” and “personal resolve” (ibid., p. 126). It is perhaps an ironic example of the historical determinism with which he grappled that he himself found his last uneasy and unsatisfactory solution in his own version of the doctrine in which he had been brought up—the Lutheran doctrine of salvation through faith alone.

Troeltsch had created a stir among German intellectuals in 1896 when he appalled a group of theologians by announcing that “all is tottering,” and when they rebuked him, walking out and slamming the door. He never ceased to concern himself with this tottering. His friend Meinecke said of him with irony and compassion that he was the incarnation of the idea expressed by both Heraclitus and Archimedes: Everything is in flux; give me a place to stand. This deeply religious man, in Baron von Hügel’s words, this “so realistic believer in God,” struggled to find within the ebb and flow of history a stable basis for universally significant values. When his anguished search failed, he found a final position in an anguished faith. Shortly before his death Troeltsch wrote: “If there is any solution at all of these riddles and problems, with their conflicts and contradictions, that solution certainly is not to be found within their own sphere, but beyond it, in that unknown land, of which there are so many indications in the historic struggle of the spirit upwards, but which itself is never revealed to our eyes” ([1923] 1957, p. 146).

Thomas F. o’dea

[See also Christianity; History, article on The philosophy of history; Religion; Sects and cults; and the biographies of Dilthey; Meinecke; Weber, Max.]

WORKS BY TROELTSCH

(1906a) 1958 Protestantism and Progress: A Historical Study of the Relation of Protestantism to the Modern World. Boston: Beacon. → First published as Die Bedeutung des Protestantismus fur die Entstehung der modernen Welt. The first English translation was published in 1912 by Williams and Norgate and by Putnam.

1906b Die Trennung von Staat und Kirche: Der staatliche Religionsunterricht und die theologischen Fakultaten, Akademische Rede zur Feier des Geburtsfestes des hochstseligen Grossherzogs Karl Friedrich am 22. november 1906 bei dem Vortrag des Jahresberichts und der Verkündung der akademischen Preise gehalten von dr. theol. et phil. h.c. Ernst Troeltsch. Heidelberg: Universitäts-Buchdruckerei.

(1906c) 1909 Wesen der Religion und der Religionswissenschaft. Pages 1-36 in Systematische christlicheReligion, by Ernst Troeltsch et al. 2d ed. Die Kultur der Gegenwart, t. 1, abt. 4, 2. Berlin: Teubner.

(1909) 1912 Die Absolutheit des Christentums und die Religionsgeschichte. Vortrag gehalten auf der Versammlung der Freunde der Christlichen Welt zu Miihlacker am 3. oktober 1901. 2d rev. ed. Tubingen: Mohr.

(1912) 1931 The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan. → First published as Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen. A paperback edition was published in 1960 by Harper.

1915a Augustin, die christliche Antike, und das Mittel-alter: Im Anschluss an die Schrift, De civitate Dei. Munich and Berlin: Oldenbourg.

1915b Das Wesen des Deutschen. Rede gehalten am 6. dezember 1914 in der vaterlandischen Versammlung in der Karlsruher Stadthalle. Heidelberg: Winter.

1916 Über Massstabe zur Beurteilung historischer Dinge. Academic dissertation, University of Berlin.

1919 Die Dynamik der Geschichte nach der Geschichts-philosophie des Positivismus. Berlin: Reuter.

1922 Der Historismus und seine Probleme. Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 3. Tubingen: Mohr.

(1923) 1957 Christian Thought: Its History and Application. New York: Meridian. → Lectures written for delivery in England during March 1923 and first published by the University of London Press. A German edition was published in 1924 as Der Historismus und seine Überwindung.

1924 Spektator-briefe: Aufsätze über die deutsche Revolution und die Weltpolitik, 1918/22. Tübingen: Mohr. → Published posthumously in book form.

Deutscher Geist und Westeuropa: Gesammelte kulturphilo-sophische Aufsätze und Reden. Tübingen: Mohr, 1925.

Gesammelte Schriften von Ernst Troeltsch. 4 vols. Tübingen: Mohr, 1912-1925. → Volume 1: Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen, 1912. Volume 2: Zur religiösen Lage, Religions-philosophie und Ethik, 1922. Volume 3: Der Historismus und seine Probleme, 1922. Volume 4: Aufsatze zur Geistesgeschichte und Religions-soziologie, 1925. Volume 4 includes a comprehensive bibliography of Troeltsch’s writings.

Glaubenslehre. Nach Heidelberger Vorlesungen aus den Jahren 1911 und 1912. Munich & Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1925.

SUPPLEMENTARY BIBLIOGRAPHY

HÜgel, Friedrich von 1923 Introduction. In Ernst Troeltsch, Christian Thought: Its History and Application. Univ. of London Press.

Hughes, H. Stuart 1958 Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930. New York: Knopf.

Yinger, J. Milton 1948 The Sociology of Religion of Ernst Troeltsch. Pages 309-315 in Harry E. Barnes (editor), Introduction to the History of Sociology. Univ. of Chicago Press.

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Ernst Troeltsch

Ernst Troeltsch

The German theologian, historian, and sociologist Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), through his utilization of the objective methods of modern scholarship, contributed to the sociology of religion and the problems of historicism.

Ernst Troeltsch was born in Augsburg. After studying theology at the universities of Erlange, Göttingen, and Berlin from 1883 to 1888, he became a lecturer at Göttingen in 1891, an associate professor at Bonn in 1892, and a professor at Heidelberg in 1894; he remained at Heidelberg for 21 years. For a short time he was a Lutheran curate in Munich. In 1901 he married, and a son, Ernst Eberhard, was born in 1913. In 1915 he came to feel that theology was too confining and transferred to philosophy at the University of Berlin.

A conservative in politics, Troeltsch long served in the Baden upper house. From 1919 to 1921 he was a member of the Prussian Landtag and concurrently secretary of state for public worship. He was moved deeply by the war. Like Max Weber and others, he hailed the "great and wonderful" fervor of the Germans and saw their cause rooted in idealistic values as opposed to the materialism of the Allies. Soon, however, together with Weber and Friedrich Meinecke, he left the conservative majority, opposed annexationist war aims, and advocated increased democratization. After the war he defended the Weimar Republic, decried the "frightful demagoguery" of the right, and advocated a genuine conservatism in articles which bore the pseudonym of Spektator and appeared until 4 months before his death.

In The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (1912) Troeltsch studied the relation between religion and the other elements of society and culture. He found that Christianity was not reducible to displaced social protest, as Karl Kautsky and the Marxists had suggested, but rather was a real and autonomous religious movement with its own immanent implications for development and its own independent effect upon history. Although the forms of belief and organization developed by the Church were historically conditioned, they also represented the unfolding of the implications of Christianity's inner meaning; and once the Church was established, it also in turn affected and influenced other aspects of society and culture.

Troeltsch carried out his study in four contexts— family, economic life, politics, and intellectual life—and found Christianity exhibiting two contrary but complementary tendencies—accommodation and protest. These two tendencies gave rise to two organizational types: the Church, which qualifiedly accepted the world in order to sanctify it, and the sect, which rejected the world and the whole idea of adjustment to it. Troeltsch stated that the Christian ideal could not be "realized within this world apart from compromise" and that consequently Christian history was "the story of a constantly renewed search for this compromise, and a fresh opposition to this spirit of compromise."

In an earlier work Troeltsch had examined the relationship between Protestantism and modern capitalism. He agreed with Weber that Calvinism had an important early influence upon the development of capitalism, but he saw the Protestant impact upon economic developments as chiefly "indirect and unconsciously produced" and religion as more affected than affecting with respect to modern developments. Despite the Christian derivation of modern civilization, Troeltsch came to see the future of Christianity as "unpredictable" and its survival demanding "very bold and far-reaching changes."

Historicism was a profound challenge to Troeltsch. If all beliefs and values are products of individual tendencies specific to particular conditions, is there then nothing suprahistorical resulting from man's search for truth and creation of value? He studied this problem in his Historismus und seine Probleme (1922), examining the "relation of individual historical facts to standards of value within the entire domain of history in connection with the development of political, social, ethical, esthetic, and scientific ideas." Earlier he had spoken of "polymorphous truth, " which though beyond history is apprehended differently in different civilizations and epochs, and he had also sought for an extrahistorical basis in morality. Now he concluded that "even the validity of science and logic seemed to exhibit, under different skies and on different soil, strong individual differences present even in their deepest and inner rudiments."

Troeltsch was concerned with historicism not simply as a scholar but as a deeply religious man as well. Although he failed to solve the problems intellectually, he concluded: "Skepticism and relativism are only an apparent necessary consequence of modern intellectual conditions and of historicism. They may be overcome by way of ethics"; and, "If there is any solution at all to these riddles and problems, with their conflicts and contradictions, that solution certainly is not to be found within their own sphere, but beyond it, in that unknown land, of which there are so many indications in the historic struggle of the spirit upward, but which itself is never revealed to our eyes."

Further Reading

Most writings on Troeltsch are in German. In English, a study of his thought is Benjamin A. Reist, Toward a Theology of Involvement: The Thought of Ernst Troeltsch (1966). He also is considered in Thomas W. Ogletree, Christian Faith and History: A Critical Comparison of Ernst Troeltsch and Karl Barth (1965), and Wilhelm Pauck, Harnack and Troeltsch: Two Historical Theologians (1968). For background see Hugh Ross Mackintosh, Types of Modern Theology: Schleiermacher to Barth (1937).

Additional Sources

Drescher, Hans-Georg, Ernst Troeltsch: his life and work, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993. □

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Troeltsch, Ernst

Troeltsch, Ernst (1865–1923). Christian historian of culture and religion. He became professor of systematic theology at Heidelberg in 1894, and professor of ‘religious, social and historical philosophy and the history of the Christian religion’ at Berlin in 1915. The latter title points effectively to Troeltsch's general position. Historical relativism (or ‘historicism’) suggests that cultural values are embedded in history and change over time. No religions (including Christianity) express absolute values which are exempt from this process; and the recognition that this is so is the consequence of the modern historical consciousness—and that is why Troeltsch maintained that the modern age began with the Enlightenment, not with the Reformation, which he regarded as a medieval phenomenon. But in that case, is there anything about religion which persists and endures through the vicissitudes of time? Here, Troeltsch, like R. Otto, took a Kantian line, and argued that there is an a priori religious mode of consciousness, which brings religions, in all their variety and relativity, into being. In Die Absolutheit des Christentums … (1902; The Absoluteness of Christianity …) he claimed that Christianity is ‘relatively absolute’ (relativer absolutismus) as a religion because it, more than any other religion, affirms the value of personal and ethical beings, locating this character in God and exhibiting it in Christ. His development of the Church–Sect (and mysticism) typology has remained influential. In his major work, Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen (1912; The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches), he argued that underprivileged and less educated populations are the driving force in religious creativity, since they feel more and ask less.

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Troeltsch, Ernst

Troeltsch, Ernst (1865–1923) A German philosopher and theologian, contemporary and close friend of Max Weber, who also made a major contribution to the sociology of religion (see his The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, 1911, and Protestantism and Progress, 1912
). Like Weber—whom he influenced greatly—Troeltsch was interested in the interrelationship of the material and ideal elements in social life. Again, like Weber and in criticism of Karl Marx, he insisted that religious beliefs could act as an independent variable influencing the development of material factors. His ‘church-sect typology’ subsequently proved influential in characterizing religious movements. See also SECT.

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