Session at the 51st Biennial Meeting of German Historians

On September 21st, 2016 Simone Lässig and Kerstin von der Krone presented preliminary results of the project at the 51st Biennial Meeting of German Historians in Hamburg (September 20-23, 2016).  They organized the session “The Dynamics of Religious Knowledge: Resilience and Innovation in the Face of Modernity” together with Hedwig Röckelein (Göttingen University).

Some impressions of the session and further information:

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all presentations were held in German

Prof. Dr. Simone Lässig (German Historical Institute, Washington DC):
Religion, Knowledge, and Resilience: On the Ability of Social Groups to Change in the Face of Modernity (Introduction)

Dr. Kerstin von der Krone (German Historical Institute, Washington DC):
Old and New Knowledge Orders in German-Jewish History

Prof. Dr. Anthony Steinhoff (Université du Québec, Montreal):
Religious Knowledge on the Imperial Frontier: Religious Education and Academic Theology in Alsace-Lorraine, 1870-1914

Dr. Jana Tschurenev (Göttingen University):
Religion and Social Reform in Colonial India: The Anti-Caste Movement, Feminism, and the Critique of “Hinduism”

Dr. Esther Möller (Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz):
Transnational Dimensions of Religious and Cultural Knowledge in the Late Colonial Middle East

Prof. Dr. Hedwig Röckelein (Göttingen University):
Knowledge Orders and Religion, Modern and Premodern: A Commentary

This session explores religious knowledge as a facet of the process of coming to terms with the transformation of social and cultural orders on the threshold of modernity. Focusing on different religious groups, regions, and periods, the papers examine changes in religious semantics and practices in grappling with social upheaval. The session takes up the questions whether/how religion and appeals to religious tradition fostered resilience in social groups and how far such resilience gave rise to new social knowledge. The question then arises whether religion and religious knowledge might also be bases for social innovation.

These and similar questions have long been neglected in historical research on account of the influence of the secularization thesis. The turn toward a cultural history of religion and religiosity toward a socially oriented history of knowledge have resulted in a broadening of research on religion in the modern era. The focus is no longer resistance to change but rather the capacity for change and potential for renewal [in religion].

Two developments were of fundamental importance in the formation of religious knowledge in the modern era: first, the change in the stance of religion and religious authority toward state and society, which reinforced the trends toward growing individualism, increasing social differentiation, and pluralism; and second, the formation of a new knowledge order shaped by universalization and systematization, rationalism and criticism. This new order was the foundation for modern scholarship and scientific research and an entirely new understanding of education. It was no accident that education was a central instrument of social change in Europe, it colonies, and the regions it influenced.

Simone Lässig
Religion, Knowledge, and Resilience: On the Ability of Social Groups to Change in the Face of Modernity

In her introduction to the session, Simone Lässig discusses the potential gains in understanding through the intersection of the history of knowledge and education with the history of religion and religiosity. She takes up the question of how religious groups react to and try to shape fundamental changes in social structures, knowledge orders, and cultural practices. She also elaborates whether to consider recourse to familiar religious knowledge and traditions as a source of resilience and as a basis for innovation for groups experiencing social change.

Kerstin von der Krone
Old and New Knowledge Orders in German-Jewish History

Kerstin von der Krone focuses on German-speaking Jews during the Sattelzeit, the period of transition from the premodern to modern eras (c. 1750–1850). During this period, against the background of social change extending to almost every facet of life, Jewish education and ideas of learning underwent fundamental conceptual and structural change. The updating of existing institutions of learning and the creation of new institutions, the adaptation of modern teaching methods, the integration of new subject matter that was alien to Jewry, and the coming to terms with non-religious thought and categories of thought shaped a differentiation and pluralization of the religious knowledge order. This change was not limited to a fundamental change in the methods and structures of Jewish learning and the professionalization of rabbinical training. It also entailed the creation of a new approach to Jewish religious education that was modern both in form and content. The transmission of religious knowledge – in the school, in the congregation, and in the family – underwent fundamental change and was inextricably bound up with attempts to redefine Judaism in the modern era. The paper thus gives particular attention to the question of how far Jewish religious tradition served as a point of reference in the formation of a new Jewish order of knowledge.

Anthony Steinhoff
Religious Knowledge on the Imperial Frontier: Religious Education and Academic Theology in Alsace-Lorraine, 1870-1914

Recent research on the late nineteenth-century European culture wars has underscored the centrality of schools and schooling in these conflicts. Yet, it also tends to frame the basic question in these debates as follows: should the modern school serve to form Christians or citizens? Namely, while liberals and anticlericals claimed schooling as a central state concern, rather than an ecclesiastical prerogative, they also challenged the place of religious education in school curricula and the contemporary relevance of religious-based knowledge.

This paper suggests that this perspective obscures critical dimensions of late nineteenth-century Europe’s socio-cultural landscape. It underestimates religion’s important and ongoing contributions to knowledge production, especially in “Protestant” Germany and Great Britain. It also overlooks the high degree to which religious communities continued to rely on schools and schooling to promote faith and the dissemination of religious knowledge.

Specifically, the paper explores the debates over the Alsatian primary and secondary schools’ religious education programs as well as the restructuring of the University of Strasbourg’s program in Protestant theology following Alsace-Lorraine’s incorporation into the German Empire. As the local Catholic, Protestant and Jewish communities quickly understood, these developments altered how religious knowledge was produced and prompted new ideas about the relationship between faith and knowledge. The German state certainly promoted a modernizing and Germanizing agenda there; nevertheless, its educational policies admitted religion’s and religious knowledge’s importance. Likewise, while the Alsatian Catholic, Protestant and Jewish communities bemoaned their reduced influence over education, they continued to link schooling to religious identity formation. Alsatian Protestants even sought to enhance these ties by promoting curricular modernization in the schools and at the university.

Jana Tschurenev
Religion and Social Reform in Colonial India: The Anti-Caste Movement, Feminism, and the Critique of „Hinduism“

Jana Tschurenev examines the relationship between religious identity and socio-political engagement in colonial India. Over the course of the nineteenth century, “Hinduism“ underwent a profound reconstitution, seeking to position itself internationally as a “world religion” patterned on the model of Protestant Christianity. At the same time, several counter-movements arose, which, influenced by liberal political ideas, rejected the Brahmanical, or high-caste, conceptions of social order commonly referred to as varnashrama dharma. Critics of existing caste and gender hierarchies demanded the opening up of education – in both the Sanskrit canon and in modern subjects – to women, “lower caste“ Shudras, and “untouchables.“ In the process, as the paper will show, the engagement with religious ideas and identities took on central importance. Whereas Jotirao Phule, a prominent figure in the anti-caste movement, rejected “Brahmanism“ and proposed a strategic position on the issue of religious identity, Pandita Ramabai, an internationally renowned activist for educational and social reform, converted to Christianity but without abandoning her identity as an “Indian“ grounded in high-caste Sanskrit culture. The paper examines these complex positioning strategies and the socio-political conflicts in which they were employed. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the situation became more heated: the rejection of conservative Hindu norms was taken as a form of treason to the nation that was taking shape. Such accusations of collaboration with the imperial project still frame the confrontation of Hindu nationalism and oppositional, particularly Dalit and feminist movements, until today.

Esther Möller
Transnational Dimensions of Religious and Cultural Knowledge in the Late Colonial Middle East

Esther Möller’s paper explores the transnational dimensions of religious and colonial knowledge in the Middle East. She analyzes the educational institutions the French established in Lebanon while it was a part of the Syrian province of the Ottoman Empire and, in turn, after it had been made a French mandate by the League of Nations. In addition to Catholic schools, the French also opened Protestant, Jewish, and secular educational institutions. Many Lebanese families made use of French-founded schools. Although widely praised, French schools also came under criticism from the local population. Through the schools, distinct transnational communities of knowledge came into being in which the issue of religious knowledge played an important role. There was considerable agreement and reciprocal exchange on religious values between Lebanese Christians and French Christian schools. Muslim students attending French Christian and secular schools and their parents, on the other hand, were of widely varying opinions on the religious knowledge transmitted in those institutions. With the strengthening of colonial structures during the mandate period, these interconnections were transformed, leading to new practices by schools in disseminating religious knowledge – precisely at the time that negotiations on Lebanese independence were underway. Esther Möller’s paper examines the potential benefits and risks of those new practices. The special Franco-Lebanese relationship will be considered in connection with the (post-) colonial educational situation in other Middle Eastern countries.

Esther Möller could not participate in person. Her paper was read by Anne Bruch (Georg Eckert Institute for international Textbook Research/ University Hamburg) whom we would like to thank for her contribution.


Hedwig Röckelein
Knowledge Orders and Religion, Modern and Premodern: A Commentary

Hedwig Röckelein’s commentary, first, sets the papers in the historical context of the intellectual and political engagement with religion in Europe during the nineteenth century. Second, it elaborates on the rejection of the modernization and secularization paradigms in regard to religion and religiosity in the modern era. Third, it casts light on the relationship of religion, knowledge, and education to state and society by setting conditions in premodern European and Mediterranean societies in contrast to developments in the nineteenth century.