Dynamics of religion and politics – guiding principles

Dynamics of tradition and innovation

Religions have always been the engine of political and social change – both in the past and in the present. The Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics” investigates these dynamics of religion and politics from a historical, comparative and interdisciplinary perspective. The history of religion is full of charismatic upheavals, new spiritual beginnings, innovative schisms and reformations, which all represented themselves as something new even while claiming to return to their origins. At the same time, religions are often portrayed as traditional, as defending the old against the dynamic changes in their environment. But traditions also have the potential for renewal, since tradition means making past forms of meaning contemporary, translating them into the present. By the dynamics of religion, we mean its potential to accelerate and intensify social processes and conflicts, but also to distract and divert, or decelerate and counterbalance them.

Tradition and innovation are entangled, but we nevertheless need to distinguish between them. Innovation can be intended, and then it deliberately sets the new apart from the past. But it can also be set in motion unintentionally, in which case the new often only becomes recognizable as such in retrospect. Traditions, on the other hand, are cultivated by religious communities, protected against innovations, and employed to set these communities apart from the new. They are characterized by a certain pull towards the social, and can only be preserved by being constantly recreated.

The question of the productive power of religion in the double tension between tradition and innovation is the central problem that the Cluster of Excellence focuses upon. It identifies the driving forces, systems of logic and typical patterns of change in the relationship between religion and politics, and identifies the characteristic dynamics of tradition and innovation.

Religion and politics

In its analysis of the relationship between religion and politics and its historically changing dynamics, the Cluster of Excellence assumes that religion and politics cannot always be clearly distinguished from one another. Rather, their borders are always contested and are always being renegotiated. Nonetheless, the distinction between religion and politics is very well suited to denoting the central poles of social conflict when it comes to those religious traditions that the Cluster of Excellence focuses upon: namely, for the text-based, complex religions of the ancient Near East, Greek and Roman antiquity, Christianity from its origins to the present day, Islam and Judaism.

Religious and political roles and institutions developed in all these traditions that were not only different from each other, but also often even competed with one another. Our understanding of religion, and our understanding of politics, have varied greatly in history, and have sometimes overlapped. We should therefore be careful not to turn religion and politics into fixed objects. While they can be used as analytical categories, we can still observe again and again not only shifts in their borders, but also instances where their borders are transgressed or disregarded entirely.

Social context and the intrinsic power of religion

In order to treat religion and politics as clearly distinguishable entities and categories of analysis, it is necessary to examine them in the social context of conflicts, opposing interests, and processes of negotiation and demarcation. Even where religious identities, discourses and practices claim that they are in conflict with their environment and that they are superior, they still very much participate in what they wish to emancipate themselves from.

On the other hand, religion does not simply dissolve in its social integration, but possesses an intrinsic power resulting from its tradition and history, from its semantics, rituals and forms of community, and it is this intrinsic power that makes it an independent factor of social change and political conflict. If we wish to understand the interplay of religious identities, expectations of salvation and ideas of order, discourses and practices with non-religious interests, then we must also take religion seriously as a resource with its own internal dynamics, one that follows its own autonomous rules, system of logic and attributions of meaning, and that can thereby initiate, modify or even hinder social changes.

It has proved worthwhile in the work of the Cluster of Excellence to employ a broad concept of religion, which enables us also to consider functional equivalents of religion, metaphorical uses of the term, and forms of secular sacralization (such as the sacralization of the nation). It is also worthwhile adopting an open approach when it comes to defining “politics”.

Religions are socially anchored systems of symbols and practices that mediate between this world and the hereafter, while at the same time intentionally transcending the realm of the tangible life world. It is in their potential for transcendence that lies the special ability of religions to enter into a reflexive relationship to the tangible life world, to provide its norms with new values, to modify and even to reverse them, and thereby to dynamize existing conditions.

Politics is to be understood not only as all those aspects of human action that are to do with producing collectively binding decisions concerning the community. Binding decisions first need to be justified and accepted. The field of politics therefore also includes those social practices that, in the shape of demands, influence binding decisions, pave the way for these decisions and ultimately legitimize them, as well as all processes that concern the enforcement and acknowledgement of binding decisions, i.e. also the relationship between political processes and structures on the one hand, and political culture on the other.