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Doering-Manteuffel, Anselm, u. Kurt Nowak [Hrsg.]
Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte. Urteilsbildung und Methoden. Mit Beiträgen von W. K. Blessing u. a.
Stuttgart-Berlin-Köln: Kohlhammer 1996. 288 S. gr.8 = Konfession und Gesellschaft. Beiträge zur Zeitgeschichte, 8. Kart. DM 79,-. ISBN 3-17-013927-4.
John S. Conway
In ancient centuries church history consisted of the lives of thesaints, whose heroism and martyrdom were a means of stimulating the devotion of successive generations. After the Reformation, church historians were engaged in justifying the separate, often rival, experiences of their own denominations. Later they concentrated almost exclusively on the history of each institutional church, or on the lives of its most notable ecclesiastical or theological leaders. In the twentieth century, when the church suffered the onslaught of hostile governments, and Christianity's intellectual credibility was so widely challenged, the emphasis changed to a defensive posture, seeking to portray the resistance against such unwelcome developments. More recently, however, a group of younger German historians has taken the initiative in adopting a new approach. Much influenced by their secular counterparts, and learning from French models, they call for church histories to be written not from the top downwards, but from the bottom up. They are interested, not so much in the organized structures, but in the milieu and mentalities of everyday church life, and how Christian ideas are lived out by the women and men in the pew. Such a stance, they believe, will break down the unfortunate division between "Kirchengeschichte" and "Profangeschichte" (a very German dichotomy), and overcome the self-imposed limitations of so much of the earlier denominationalism and hagiography.
The authors of the eighteen essays in this book see themselves as the avant garde of contemporary church history writing. Their aim is to make use of secular approaches and to avoid the kind of didactic moralising so common in earlier church histories. At the same time they seek to overcome the deliberate disregard of church affairs by their secular colleagues who for so long have marginalised such aspects of life as irrelevant to the "emancipated" scholar. The result has been a welcome broadening of horizons with the spread of more pluralistic approaches, and the recognition of the need to acknowledge the historian's own preconceptions and prejudices. The objective of the series "Konfession und Gesellschaft" is to encourage this dialogue, even though it might appear to lead to a purely eclectic, subjectivist or relativist approach. But better this than the kind of canonized dogmatic history which seek to construct political or theological orthodoxy on a monopolistic basis. In the opening contribution, Werner Blessing argues in favour of the kind of international and inter-denominational stance, whereby each church historian can contribute his or her own "insider" insights, while recognising the risk of bias. Such studies rightly belong in the total picture of the past, and thereby can help to offset the unfortunate results of earlier and artificially maintained divisions.
Kurt Nowak also believes in openness and integration. The present situation seems hopeful, now that Catholic historiography has largely dealt with the traumas of the Nazi past, Marxist or protomarxist historiography has been largely discredited, and Protestant historians, while still deeply divided, are vigorously active. What is needed now, he believes, is a long-term study of "Religion in modern times" including the various forms of "civil religion". On this basis a new and interesting convergence might be found.
Anselm Doering-Manteuffel is less sure. In the most provocative essay in this book, he takes issue with the editors of the journal "Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte", accusing Professor Gerhard Besier in particular of missing out on the opportunity for a new start with an interdisciplinary approach, and instead mis-using history to bolster his own church-political or moral crusades. He sees Besier's books on the East German church policy as retrogressive just because they ignored the preferred trend in social history, and reverted to a history from the top downwards. In his reply Gerhard Besier gives as good as he gets. He points out that the average layperson needs ethical guidance from the past for his or her future action, not some abstract methodological construction, especially one which attempts to claim to be the only "scientifically-correct" position. In any case, he states, the danger of this latter stance is that of reducing church history to just another branch of anthropological enquiry - even though Martin Greschat in the following essay denies this. But God is not mocked. Theological insights have their rightful place, what-ever the so-called "modernists" fixed in their 1980s orthodoxy may say.
It is a relief to turn from these inner-German squabbles to three excellent contributions by foreigners. Jean Mayeur gives a brief but interesting account of the various initiatives underway in France to record its religious history, indicating a notable vitality. David Diephouse contributes an American perspective, pointing out that the "problem of American church history is its sheer multifariousness" when a highly diverse constituency leads to highly diverse responses and a multiplicity of approaches in a creative combination of ideas. Hugh McLeod, from Birmingham, U. K., writes a masterly chapter on urban religion, and shows from his researches in London, New York and Berlin, how valuable and productive such comparative social analyses can be.
Most readers of this book will be unlikely to agree with Margaret Anderson's view that "even in modern Germany religious history is too important to be left to the church historians". We can instead be grateful for the stimulating and thoughtful ideas about how it should be written, and the vitality of the debates about form and content which make this study an indispensable if contentious prerequisite for all practitioners.