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M. Frenschkowski: Address to World Summit 2015

Address to World Summit 2015, Seoul, Korea, August 27 to 31, 2015

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear colleagues and friends at this conference!

Every generation has its challenges. These may not be the same as those of former generations, though some have a tendency to turn up again every few years. In Germany, where I come from, the global situation has come down rather vehemently on political and civil authorities, in the last months, exhibiting in particular the faces of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Germany has tried to accept the challenges and has opened its doors to more refugees than any other European country, though non-European countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan, Jordan and others have to support larger absolute numbers. But since 2013 Germany has been the recipient of the single largest number of new asylum claims among industrialized countries, according to the UN Refugee Agency. There are more forcibly displaced persons in the world today than at any other time since World War II. Indeed, quite a number of older German people are strongly reminded of the situation after World War II, when millions of fugitives from East Germany had to be integrated into postwar society. In 2014 in Europe, 627,000 people asked for asylum, including 203,000 in Germany. This year it will be far, far more, perhaps almost a million alone in Germany.

This also changes the interreligious dialogue, which is the subject that concerns me most. Muslim people increasingly are perceived as victims of violence and terror, not just as possible perpetrators. A more discriminating, sophisticated and careful look not only at Islamic groups has become a necessity, at least in Germany, not an exception as it still was 20 years ago in my country. But other facts have surfaced also. The twentieth century produced more religious persecution and even more Christian martyrs than all the centuries before. But also Muslims and Buddhists, Jews and Bahá'ís and many other people have been subject to harassment and indeed persecution. Religion has been both a victim and a cause of violence. Many people in the 1980s believed religion would decrease in a secularized world and perhaps die a peaceful death in a few decades: “This is the way religion ends, not with a bang but a whimper,” to restyle T.S. Eliot’s famous line—a prediction dramatically wrong both for good and evil in religion.

These all are facts. What do they mean for the religious aspect of human development? A hundred years ago Max Weber, the greatest scholar in the sociology of religion, defined as the first duty of academic teaching—my field—to bring students to the acceptance of unwelcome facts. Fact is always more important than theory. “Unbequeme Tatsachen anerkennen zu lehren” (“to teach [one’s students] to acknowledge inconvenient facts”), as he wrote in his famous lecture on science as a profession.

Unwelcome facts: to realize things are not as easy as we might welcome. The first thing that happens in science, and also in the science of Religious Studies, always is a collapse of easy theories. Peace must be so easy when people really want it: This is an easy theory, and it is a wrong theory. Peace is not easy. It takes all our intelligence, all our imagination, all our courage, all our work.  

The academic field of Religious Studies, the science of religion, very much has to deal with such unwelcome facts. Religious Studies is the academic field of multidisciplinary and secular study of religious beliefs, behaviors and institutions. As such, it is part of the wide field of Cultural Studies or, as we used to say, of the Humanities. Religious Studies—which is not theology—describes, interprets, compares and perhaps to some degree explains religions, but it generally does not evaluate them. Yesterday we spoke about ISIS [the Islamic State] and extremism in young adults. To say it clearly: We know quite a lot about how this happens; it is a well-researched area. We know the contributing factors, but for the media it is much more interesting to present tales of atrocities than to let a scholar talk for very much more than a few minutes.

Let me take the liberty of repeating something I said at another UPF meeting in Jerusalem a number of years ago. What can Religious Studies, or let’s say what can the science of religion, contribute to what we are talking about at this conference? Peace does not come from being less religious, but more so, not from secularization, but from taking seriously the diversity and richness of the religious traditions.

  • Academic science can help to read the holy texts of religions, and clarify their historical background. It can help to understand our own place in the history of our faith and not take for timeless truth what in fact is a special expression of faith at a certain time and under certain cultural circumstances. It can help to liberate, to disengage religion from political and military agendas trying to use religious energies for their own ends.
  • It can overcome clichés and stereotypes. It can fight sheer stupidity. It seriously can help to understand extremism and the violent side of religion. It can chair or host interreligious dialogue. It can destroy prejudices, if it has a free hand to do so.
  • It can help to overcome kitsch and other forms of infantile regression in religion. It can keep a discussion sober and useful. The sobriety and properness of dialogue are not easy to keep up, and for this you need scholars who are fair and interested observers.
  • As in recent post-colonial studies, it can teach one to overcome Western or Oriental myopic vistas, to see as many sides as one possibly can.
  • It cannot answer the religious question itself. Religious Studies is not religion; it just describes what religion is and how it works. This also means that it cannot lead the interreligious dialogue by itself, because it is not religion.
  • It cannot pray and heal; only religious people can do this. It cannot be a foundation for humankind as a family under God; only love can be this.
  • It cannot keep open the doors of dialogue; only hope can accomplish this.

So there has to be a certain humility in Religious Studies. But on the other hand, deeply religious people sometimes think they can do without such studies. They sometimes think in simple faith that they have everything they need to cope with the problems of modernity, globalization, scientific progress, and perhaps even the ugly faces of materialism and atheism. In this they are wrong, as I believe. This is not just a question of intellectual honesty but more of a willingness to face complexity and ambivalence. In other words, it is a question of avoiding the pitfalls of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism which today exists in every religion means giving too easy answers to difficult questions. The tempting power of such answers is that they are not plain wrong, but that they are half-truths. Half-truth is always much more dangerous than error.

Let me mention one example about how academia comes into all these questions we are discussing here. In Germany we have many guests from Korean universities. In fact, Korean universities in the last few years have strongly endeavored to enter partnerships with German universities, and there is always one agenda, one hidden subtext, whatever may be the subject of that partnership. One question is always present, even when not talked about directly. That is: How did you do that reunification thing? How did the German reunification work? How was it possible? We always have two very disillusioning points and one encouraging point to make in such discussions. Sometimes we have a feeling these colleagues are looking for some kind of theory of how to do reunification. Of course, there is no such theory that could be applied to such a very different case as Korea. And there is a second point our friends from South Korea sometimes are reluctant to accept. Peaceful reunification did work because people in East Germany, in the communist part of Germany, did do it. They overcame peacefully their dictatorial system. Western people could not really contribute much, though at least they could abstain from doing anything foolish like trying to accelerate things too much. Of course, there is a Western prequel, the so-called Ostpolitik by politicians like Willy Brandt and others in the 1970s, that brought people into contact, and they could show people they were not their enemies. But the essential thing was done by brave citizens from East Germany and by no one else. Many of them were Christian people. I say this as a scholar who grew up in West Germany. The encouraging thing, of course, is that completely unexpected historical possibilities may come around at a time when no one is looking for them. And there is one other thing I say as a Christian. As a Christian, I do not believe in fate or destiny. I believe in God, which is something completely different. Indeed fate, destiny and God are competing concepts, if I may say so. You believe in fate or in God; you cannot do both. I have decided to believe in God as the Lord of history, also. So we may get help in unexpected ways.

I come to the end of my short remarks.

It is not enough to conjure up the peacemaking potential of religions. We have to understand what makes religious communities peaceful and what makes them violent, because they have both options. For this, Religious Studies can help. Some observations are basic: no peace without justice. No peace without mercy and forgiveness. No peace without giving things their proper name. No peace without the willingness just to hear the other side for a very long time. This is basic. But, of course, it is not enough. Religious Studies can help, as already mentioned, to understand the history of stereotypes. These stereotypes often are not lies: they are half-truths, and this is what makes them so dangerous.

Much work remains to be done, but we have many co-fighters in this cause, some here today in this very room. Thank you for your kind attention.

For more information about the World Summit, click here.