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Interview: Hartmut Rosa, sociology professor

21 June 2024

‘Democracy shouldn’t be based on something we already share. It should be based on a common project and a listening heart’

Jürgen Bauer

I teach sociology and social theory at Friedrich Schiller University, in Jena, a small East German town with a great history, marked by the names of Hegel, Fichte, Schiller, Hölderlin, Marx. I’m also director of the Max Weber Centre in Erfurt, which is an international Centre of Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

I love to teach undergraduates who are full of curiosity. Many of them come from East Germany, and are very secular, if not outright atheists; but I also have a lot of doctoral students who come from all over the place — from Latin America, China, and India — who are interested in social theory.

Democracy Needs Religion is the result of a talk I gave for the bishop and his congregation in the German city of Würzburg. I realised that people working in and for the churches, including priests and bishops, have become extremely pessimistic and insecure. Some told me that they even think the times of the Church and of religion are over, that no one wants to hear them, and there’s nothing they can contribute to the political or cultural life of late-modern society.

As a sociologist, I tend to disagree. Religion and church life do have something to offer, particularly to late-modern, contemporary societies, which are in deep trouble. The slogan of the meeting in Würzburg was taken from the Bible, King Solomon: “Give me a listening heart,” and that’s it — that’s what we need in our democracies.

It’s not enough that everyone has a voice in our political and social life. It only works if everyone also has ears — and a listening heart. And maybe this is exactly what we can learn from religious or Christian traditions.

The Church provides us with spaces, times, practices, and ideas, which can help us to create an attitude, or a habitus, of attention, of receptivity — in short, a resonant disposition, a mode of listening and responding.

Dogmas, fundamentalisms, and institutionalised authority can create the exact opposite, and put people into a mode of knowing and commanding. Here, religion becomes a resonance-killer. Because of that, many people think that religion per se is undemocratic. It is not.

We should not emphasise differences between religions all the time, but commonalities: the mode of believing, being open, listening to something “out there”, and being ready to be touched and transformed. Two things are defining elements for religion: transcendence — something beyond myself; and transformation — being ready to be touched and changed by something other.

This is also the essence of democracy. First, I encounter other people not just as opportunities or obstacles to my own interests, but as beings from whom I can learn and be transformed. I want to listen to them, to answer them, and to enter into a process of mutual transformation. This is a process in which we feel alive — and a process beyond our control, having encounters after which we will not be the same. These are the essence of religious as well as democratic practices.

Weber argued that it was religious — Protestant, puritan, and pietist — conceptions that produced the spirit of capitalism or “this-worldly asceticism”: incessantly seeking profit and growth without resting or indulging in luxury. The need for incessant growth and acceleration is an entrenched structural requirement of capitalist economies.

We need to seek for alternative modes of being in the world, alternative forms of life. And, here, I feel we find most valuable resources in religious ideas, practices, even in religious spaces like cathedrals, or in religious conceptions of time. Sundays still are a bit exempt from the logic of growth and acceleration. These are realms of deceleration, pockets and resources of resistance against the overall imperatives of speed and growth. Yes, the disappearance of those spaces and practices is bad news.

God is the idea and experience that is at the root of my being. There’s a responsive, resonant connection. God has given me the breath of life. God has called me by my name, I belong to him. It oftentimes requires some form of institutionalisation: we might need a certain space, times, rituals, and inner disposition; so a mixed bag of flexible spiritual beliefs and practices might not be enough.

I’ve always been sceptical towards the insistence on values. Democracy shouldn’t be based on the past or something we already share, like a common history, language, religion, a set of values. It should be based on a common project and a listening heart. Everyone who lives within a certain territory should be included to build a common future, a common shared home.

Everyone should have a voice — which is the core idea of democracy — but also ears, a listening heart. I dream of a democracy in which citizens encounter each other, and want to encounter each other, as those who have something to tell, even though they look different, speak differently, believe differently, love differently. This is the only value we really need to share: “response-ability”.

The shift in Europe from left-liberal to more right-wing, populist positions says: “I do not want to hear those who love, believe, or speak differently.” There’s a growing sense of alienation from the political sphere, a growing lack of resonance. People feel precisely not heard or seen by politicians.

But turning towards the Right rests on a dual confusion. First, right-wing populists attribute their sense of alienation to “aliens”. Unfortunately, closing off one’s ears does not overcome alienation. Frustration increases. Second, voters seek to overcome alienation by the promise of popular sovereignty. Life will always be essentially uncontrollable. What we all need is a sense of vibrant connection, self-efficacy — not domination and control over others, or events, but real participation in life’s open-ended adventure.

The dominant slogan of the Brexit campaign was telling: “Take back control”. People now find it didn’t work. They don’t have control over their lives. Labour will not give it to them, either. I assume Sunak will lose, and Starmer will win in your elections, but it will not make much difference.

The US presidential election? Well, do you want to depress me? The US is always one step ahead of us. There, political opponents no longer want to listen and answer: they want to lock up, or even kill, the other. They feel nausea towards each other. It’s a state of affairs that might lead to civil war. Some churches are caught up, too. They don’t listen to others because they “know” what God says and what God wants.

My parents were very simple people. They were not interested in politics. My father was a baker, my mother stayed at home. We lived in a very Catholic village, but somehow my mother decided she could no longer believe the priest; so she embarked on a life-long search for the truth. My parents joined a group of Rosicrucians, part of a Hinduistic sect, with an Indian guru who lived in Switzerland.

It certainly gave me a deep religious sensibility. But I had two experiences which turned me into a Christian: first, whenever I walked by a church and heard the organ play, I had to listen, sometimes for hours. Eventually, I convinced my parents to let me learn it. Second, I would join my schoolmates for services, and it was the practices of praying and the eucharist, and the Aaronic blessing at the end of the service, which struck a deep chord in me: the image of God’s face turned towards me. It still moves me deeply.

I recently realised that something in me has changed — and not for the better. I have started to lose my temper in political discussions when I see absolutely no attempt, no vision, no idea to create a better world for all of us in politics. In Germany right now, politicians tend to speak about the need to become “ready for war” (kriegstüchtig werden): we need to become better at killing Russians; we have to support Israel’s war; we need to send warships against the Huthi rebels in Yemen. We go for military manoeuvres with India against China. We send rockets and fighter jets to Saudi Arabia to help them kill people in Yemen and elsewhere.

It’s not so much that weapons might still be necessary in today’s world. What makes me angry is the resolve to give up any dream of a better, peaceful world. Until 2020, politicians admitted, unfortunately, that there still is war and violence — but we tried to strengthen the EU to create security for all of Europe; we tried to strengthen the UN to stop future wars and reduce violence; we tried to become better at negotiation to overcome the necessity of war. Now, they tell us: forget about all of that; what we really need is to be better at killing others. This, for me, is the ultimate capitulation of humankind. Oh boy, it does make me angry.

I love to teach and discuss and work with my students. I run a summer school for highly talented high-school students. I love the mountains, the Alps in particular. Seeing the Alps from my window in the Black Forest is a kind of mystical experience, as is watching the stars through my telescope. The most intense moments of happiness probably always come though music — listening to it, or playing. Often, I practise late at night on Saturdays to find the right tunes for the Sunday service in our little community.

Apart from the organ, I love the sound of rock guitars, supported by a solid frame of drums and bass. Heavy Metal was my escape route from the ascetic strictness, the iron cage of the Hinduistic group.. It felt like a lifeline, an umbilical cord to infuse me with energy, and it still does to this very day. But maybe the sound I love most is the soft sound of falling snow, and the silence that comes with it.

I still have hope, I think. As human beings, we are by nature and essence resonant beings. We listen and answer to each other. And innovations and significant changes never came though our planning, reckoning, or devising. The new develops behind our backs. I think, this is good news.

In praying, I seek connection. Do you know the prayer by Nikolaus von Flüe: “My God, take me from myself and give me over to you”? This one I love. And, yes, I do pray for peace, particularly in times when I feel there’s nothing else I can do to stop the madness of our world.

Well, right now, I would choose to be locked in a church with Albus Dumbledore. I imagine him as the perfect combination of benevolence and wisdom. I’d like to be like that. He’d know how to fight the Voldemort who seems to govern our present age.


Professor Hartmut Rosa was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Democracy Needs Religion is published in translation by Polity Press at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-5095-6123-0.

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