Pannenberg on Secularization and Orientation

In 1988, German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg published a fascinating and brief study that traced the concept of “secularization” and the Christian faith’s changing relationship to a world becoming increasingly “secular.” He intended to critique secularization as such with the hope of “a new definition of the relationship between religion and society. But for that reason it need not just be seen as an expression of mere nostalgia or of a conservative disposition.”[1] Which is to say that Pannenberg’s critiques are not reducible to a mere “good ol’ days” narrative–when society was more or less “Christianized,” an idealized vision of the past that almost certainly never broached reality. I touch on that idea briefly here, if you would like a more cogent argument to that point.

Pannenberg puts forward a few consequences of secularization that deserve critique, which in turn raise a few questions of their own. Although the scholar wrote for his culture specifically, i.e. late twentieth-century Germany and Europe, the critique holds for a similar process that has been underway in the United States nearly since its inception. Cone addresses this from another angle when he writes that “[t]here was the temptation to let economics, rather than religion, determine one’s actions.”[2] For Cone, two competing narratives–a gospel in which all men are equal and a proto-capitalism in which all men are expendable–coalesce to form the substratum on which American culture was built. Pannenberg’s section is quoted below:

[Secular society and culture’s] great defect, to which Berger has constantly referred, is the loss of any meaningful focus of commitment in the spheres of public culture and private life. In former cultures a meaningful focus of commitment was provided by religion. The loss of such a focus as a result of the detachment of public culture from ties to a particular form of religion initially brought individuals great freedom and thus also introduced a phase of cultural flowering. However, this cultural flowering in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still lived on the aftermath of the cultural tradition, the basic elements of which were all present, even though the age itself had diverged from its norms. In advanced secular society, the presence of these basic elements has faded in human consciousness. That applies not only to Christianity but also to the legacy of antiquity and its influence on European culture. True, information about these elements is still available, but as a culture to be consumed, along with a variety of other items on offer. Whether to make use of them is left to individual preference, especially as the education system no longer presents them as being binding. The arbitrariness of the consumption of culture destroys any sense of the binding nature of the cultural tradition and especially the religious tradition. But people need to be oriented on that which gives binding meaning. Erich Fromm has spoken of the need for a referential framework to provide orientation on the world, and along with this of the need for respect towards the sources and vehicles of such an orientation. Without such an orientation that is binding on the individual everything can become a matter of indifference. And in that case hopelessness and feelings of alienation spread under cover of succumbing to the pressures of the consumer society.[3]

What one ought to note immediately is that Pannenberg does not attribute this sense of loss simply to a cultural abrogation of Christian roots, although that is included. Such a simplistic account will not do. He cites also “the legacy of antiquity,” which ought to recall individuals such as Aristotle, Cicero, and the like. However, a “religious tradition” stands at the forefront of his analysis, and this is likely because of the demands that religion places on its adherents, the “focus of commitment”–especially when such a religion is diffused broadly through a culture. This sort of religion, further, draws individuals into a communal life that a purely secular association (that is, until it itself becomes a kind of sacred association) cannot accomplish. By uniting a society in a mostly shared vision, and by providing a community and a common set of rituals, a religious tradition offers an interpretative grid that often functions more subliminally than consciously. One mischaracterizes Pannenberg if they attribute a base traditionalism to this critique. He welcomes the opportunity to reimagine the place of the church in a new diaspora, prefiguring the present ventures of James K.A. Smith and Rod Dreher.

Nevertheless, the vestiges of the former foundation continue to recede into the background while losing their “binding,” normative force for most individuals, except those who consciously choose to embrace the old ways. It would be foolish to suggest that one could simply retrieve the antiquated ethos and replant it in our present time. It must be rejiggered to some degree, if only because the Christian “orientation” no longer serves as the major interpretative grid for most. Part of such a recovery would necessarily entail, by Fromm’s addition to Pannenberg’s critique, a parallel reconstruction of “respect towards the sources and vehicles” of that orientation. In practice, reconstructing this respect involves re-centering the church-as-holy-fellowship in the lives of Christians, suggesting two things:

  1. The church as holy place, which functions as the locale for sacramental practice. These sacraments instruct their practitioners cognitively, affectively, and manually.
  2. The church as fellowship, which identifies this collection of people as especially my people. “These are my people” provides a concrete place in a bifurcating society–and also an orientation.

Which brings us to our final point. Pannenberg’s emphasis here is certainly on the individual’s response to secularization. Little attention is paid to how the collective functions when a society has lost its moorings. In the absence of a positive vision provided by the church, society seems to have shifted towards claiming a negative vision, in which (almost) all are free to pursue whatever end they wish without an overarching good or telos for the whole of society. Not to suggest that modern liberal societies are libertarian utopias, but on both the left and the right[4] an emphasis has grown in recent years to let certain groups (usually my group rather than your group) live as they would like, without interference. Whether this involves choosing for whom you would like to bake a cake or choosing for yourself what kind of bathroom you would like to use, a narrative has popped up concerning this freedom of choice.

Without denigrating that narrative,[5] it does fill a vacuum created by the loss of an ostensibly majority-Christian culture. Even though most Americans at any one time have not been practitioners of the faith, there was to some degree a general self-understanding of this being a religious, perhaps even Christian, nation, and that self-understanding permeated the institutions and provided a glimmer of a shared vision to those even outside the religious organizations. As secularization continued further into the churches, what one witnessed among Protestant bodies especially was either a capitulation into secular culture or a total entrenchment against it. In recent decades, movements have sprouted among evangelical circles that seek to correct both impulses. To what degree they are successful depends in large part on their defined ends, but the notion that the sacred has a responsibility to the secular has grown. Talk of “mission” and “vocation” as Christian duties to the world exemplifies this quality as well. In the degree to which Smith’s critique of Dreher’s Benedict Option is fair,[6] I would have to agree that a retreat from the culture would be neither prudent nor wise. The suggestion that the historically marginalized church should cower in the face of increasing pluralism doesn’t seem correct. Rather, one should find much to like in Moore’s conception of the church as a prophetic minority, challenging injustice and abuses of power. Perhaps it would be more pertinent to suggest that the church act as a gadfly, constantly calling the world to account and exhorting it to be better than it is with a view toward the coming Kingdom.

It’s unlikely that the church will reclaim a fundamental, normative voice for the broad swath of Western, particularly American, culture. What must be reclaimed, however, is the church’s fundamental position for the broad swath of Western Christians. It must become again that place where communal bonds are formed and strengthened; where an orientation to the world is fostered; and where individuals find their place in the world. Only when her own members are united in a shared purpose can the church hope to enter its local community, and national conversation, with a voice to be heeded. And only from that position can the church hope to exercise her commission faithfully.

[1] Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Christianity in a Secularized World. Translated by John Bowden (New York: Crossroad, 1989), ix.

[2] Cone, James H. Black Theology and Black Power. New York: the Seabury Press, 1969. That is to say, whereas many of the early American settlers did come in search of religious freedom, many others (and many of those who did come for religious freedom) capitulated to an anti-gospel anthropology that permitted slavery.

[3] Pannenberg, 32 – 33.

[4] Convenient shorthand for mainstream democratic and republican platforms. Acknowledged that democrats are not particularly “left.”

[5] Indeed, there’s much to applaud about a free and open society. The problem today is that choice is entirely politicized such that one’s choice must by necessity be at the expense of another’s, or so the argument goes. In any event, I don’t intend to articulate much beyond this point. This is a very complicated matter and beyond my purview.

[6] Without having read Dreher’s work, I cannot comment on its veracity. However, for what it’s worth, Dreher and Smith have had a recent public spat, and here is Dreher’s response to Smith’s Washington Post editorial criticizing the work. Make of it what you will.



  1. I’m leaving a comment so that I can come back to this article later for a proper read-through. Looks tasty, given the beginning! I’ve been sitting on a draft of something similar for awhile on P., though, given your article, I might have wasted my time. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I see so few people engaging with Pannenberg! I know for certain that this brief little excursus doesn’t address everything in this work; you should certainly put your stuff on him out there into the ether.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. After I get through all of these other projects, I’ll go back and clean it up.


  2. Pannenberg is almost single-handedly responsible for waking me up. I built a library around his footnotes.

    Liked by 1 person

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