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Justin Reynolds, Columbia University, History

The Problem of History and the Roots of Post-Secular Theology in Transatlantic Protestantism and its Interlocutors, 1935-1960

Explanations for the “return of religion” in the world today usually point to developments since the end of the Cold War: the collapse of militantly atheist Soviet Communism, the emergence of non-western modernities hospitable to religious belief, and the rise of fundamentalist movements in global Christianity and Islam. But well before 1989, in fact just when the Cold War was coming to define the geo-political landscape, a group of Christian theologians and theologically inclined intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic were already envisioning a “post-secular” future for the West. Their views crystallized in response to what many regarded with Paul Tillich as “the problem of our period,” the “problem of history.” Centuries of secularization had severed man’s contact with transcendent sources of meaning, leaving him disoriented in the current of historical events. But rather than simply preaching the need to return to the true or traditional faith, religious thinkers developed an apologetic strategy that presented man’s modern condition as derivative of the “Judeo-Christian” understanding of history and thus only meaningful within the framework of Jewish or Christian belief. Protestant narratives of modernity both shaped and emerged through a transatlantic exchange of ideas brought about by the exodus of intellectuals from Nazi Germany and the newly resurgent Ecumenical Movement, which provided a forum for interactions between American, British, and Continental theologians. Christian writings also resonated beyond confessional circles, decisively impacting the work of non-Christian thinkers such as Karl Löwith, Eric Voegelin, and Jacob Taubes. Furthermore, since Christianity was deemed to have inherited from Judaism the idea of revelation in and through history, the players I focus on may be regarded as important catalysts in promoting the idea of a coherent “Judeo-Christian” tradition. By reconstructing the discourse on history and secularization that connected the main stream of Protestant thought with Catholic, Jewish, and agnostic/atheist thinkers in the mid-twentieth century, my project reveals the role of theology in conceptualizing the struggle against totalitarianism and shows how confessional religious discourse helped to create a self-consciously post-secular perspective that prefigures contemporary movements in today’s academy.