We finally arrive at Ernst Troeltsch and his engagement with a multifaceted and problematic relationship between theology and social science. In parts 1 and 2, I laid out the problems he is grappling with as I understand them. On the one hand, we have the dual problems of “value neutrality” and the “objectivity of values” in historical and social scientific study and on the other, we have the problem of theology as a discipline centered around an organizing principle, attempting to take into consideration the development of Christianity as one world religion alongside others, while also utilizing its organizing principle to assert its own absoluteness.
In the foreword to the first edition of The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions, Troeltsch remarks that the aim of the text is to clarify the relationship between the “theological faculties” and those utilized in the study of the history of religion. Systematic theology, traditionally a discipline of describing absolutes in the form of law-like doctrines, seems to shake itself free of historical contingency through its appeal to the absolute, universal truth claimed to be central to and revealed through Christianity. Its sister discipline, historical theology, does not carry the same normative tone, but instead examines the ways in which doctrine has attempted a normative approximation of the absolute. Theology, Troeltsch says, is primarily concerned with normative knowledge, which it derives, he argues, “from the history of religion instead of from scholastic theories of revelation or apologetics against philosophical systems,” in order to “give to the Christian world of thought a form that will correspond to the present religious and intellectual situation.” In other words, Troeltsch here accepts Ritschl’s claims about historicism but rejects his Hegelianism in the form of an absolute principle toward which Christianity is unfolding. What Troeltsch is after, then, is adescription of a theology that is able to maintain both intellectual and normative rigor while delimiting the two extremes of absolutism and relativism along non-universalizing lines through a unification of the two. He argues throughout the text that the absolute and the relative are inextricably linked, that both history and theology find their deepest meaning in their connection to the universal and the absolute as he now understands those terms. Troeltsch is arguing for a different understanding the absolute here, one that escapes both the problems he finds in the Hegelian understanding of history and those of traditional apologetics.
This relationship, as Troeltsch understands it, raises interesting questions about the nature of theology as a discipline, and especially (as I mentioned in the first post) it’s relationship to the natural sciences and its place within the academy more broadly. As Troeltsch himself and later Troeltschian scholars note in detail, this question is central to The Absoluteness of Christianity: What are the constructive possibilities for a systematic theology that is necessarily bound to its own time and place with no appeal to be made to an absolute telos as its anchor?
The consensus among much of the theological community has long been that Troeltsch’s project ultimately failed, primarily because it could not adequately reconcile the poles of absolutism and relativism; hence, theology snapped back toward the former in the theology of Karl Barth. But I think a re-examination of Troeltsch’s theology by paying particular attention to his articulation of a properly scientific theology in light of Heinrich Rickert’s philosophy of history, especially the ways in which the latter outlines the process of concept formation in both the natural and historical sciences, could be fruitful in clarifying the relationship between theology and religious studies/sociology of religion and even theology and the hard sciences. Furthermore, it seems to me that one of the primary faults in traditional criticism of Troeltsch has been to read his project as attempting to reconcile two sides of a binary, that is, find some sort of “third way” between them, rather than as an attempt to articulate a means of doing away with that binary all together.
A constructive Neo-Kantian Troeltschian theology can probably best be understood as a normative-historical science which develops concepts of historical individuals out of a non-essential value and general concept apparatus that constitutes the “core” of Christianity itself. In Rickertian terms, constructive theology for Troeltsch proceeds in the development of historical concepts in relation to a set of values taken as ahistorical but always manifested historically as well as a set of general concepts that establish a permeable boundary for theological discourse. The important Rickertian resource in this move is the way in which concepts are related to reality itself: historical concepts more closely reflect our actual experience of reality than any other type of concept, whereas general concepts are empty of all empirical content and instead hold validity for reality (see Part 1.) Neither concept type has any ontological content; they are only two different ways of regarding our experience of reality. I read Troeltsch, therefore, as advancing a viable material-ideational strategy (not in a binary sense) for systematic theology, one that is necessarily dependent upon the historical and social situation in which it is produced yet is still able to secure the normative authority necessary to still be called a properly constructive theology.
Troeltsch sets up the historical problem as it exists in the study of religion in particular, although it is clear he thinks that the problematic exists in historical study more generally as well. Troeltsch’s terminology, relativity and absoluteness, roughly parallels Rickert’s distinction between the individual and the general when referring to concepts. Troeltsch writes, “Relativity simply means that all historical phenomena are unique, individual configurations acted on by influences from a universal context that comes to bear on them in varying degrees of immediacy.” Both are concerned with the potential meaninglessness that the infinite manifold of experience presents us with. However, Troeltsch brings to bear the normativity which theology and religion more generally demand out of the manifold—to transcend the manifold—on his formation of the problem. In other words, the problem is not simply that the selection of historical individuals has the potential to be arbitrary given the nature of empirical experience but more importantly in the theological context such selection has the seemingly obvious potential of lacking any authoritatively normative content at all thereby rendering such selection non-theological by definition.
The result of this tension between theology and history has been recourse to the absolute. The parallel between this term and the function of general concepts and universal laws is not quite as clear nor is it as strong. Troeltsch identifies two ways in which the same absolute has been regarded in the history of the church. The first, Troeltsch refers to as “the apologetic of supernatural, orthodox theology”—namely, the primary tradition of the Church writ large—which, though it may admit the historical contingency of human institutions (i.e. the Church), still holds that these institutions have access to a universal, absolute truth that is outside of history. The second and Troeltsch’s primary target he refers to as the “evolutionary apologetic.” This is the absolute according to Hegel’s speculative philosophy, which similarly posits an absolute of which all of history partakes and toward which all history is unfolding. Under both methods, however, the absolute is more or less the same thing: an ahistorical, universal guiding principle. It is the absolute telos under which all historical individuals are subsumed. It is in this way that doctrines can achieve the status of “divine law” if they are posited as universal and outside of the scope of history.
Troeltsch’s aim, then, is to resolve the tension between history and theology—between the relative and the absolute. Troeltsch writes that the problem of resolving this tension is “the problem of how to discern, in the relative, tendencies toward the absolute goal. Or, to state the problem more accurately: How does one work out a fresh, durable, and creative synthesis that will give the absolute the form possible to it at a particular moment and yet remain true to its inherent limitation as a mere approximation of true, ultimate, and universally valid values? That is the nub of the problem, and it cannot be set aside either by the naturalization of history or by skeptically oriented specialization. It arises directly out of the material of history itself.” As we saw with Rickert, the material of history is a selected material according to specific value relations, and it is in the process of selection that Troeltsch most radically departs from Rickert, particularly in his understanding of value relations and valuation. In short, Troeltsch does not think that value neutrality is actually possible or even desirable in historical study broadly conceived. In Part 4, we’ll turn to an examination of Troeltsch’s proposal for a solution.