Colonial knowledge was imposed by force. The West has set our planet on fire. To extinguish it, we need all archives of knowledge with their different references to the world. We cannot do it any other way. Therefore, it is urgent to initiate a paradigmatic change in education, not only in Germany, to correct this deplorable state of affairs.
“We need an Enlightenment 2.0”
Interview with educator Louis Henri Seukwa on colonial knowledge, the wilderness of European humanism, and postcolonial approaches to pedagogy
by Louis Henri Seukwa and Stephan Kosch
[This 2022 interview is translated from the German on the Internet, „Wir brauchen eine Aufklärung 2.0“ | Gespräch mit dem Erziehungswissenschaftler Louis Henri Seukwa über koloniales Wissen, die Wildnis des europäischen Humanismus und postkoloniale Ansätze in der Pädagogik.]
Lawsuits delay its renaming: the street named after colonial merchant Adolf Lüderitz (1834-1886) in the Berlin district of Wedding
Zeitzeichen: Professor Seukwa, you research postcolonial approaches in educational science. What “colonial” structures need to be overcome in pedagogy?
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: I like the fact that you talk about postcolonial approaches, that is, in the plural. Because postcolonial thinking combines several approaches in a fragmentary way and does not represent a unified, self-contained body of theory. It therefore incorporates the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles as well as the heritage of non-Western, but also Western philosophies. Despite this fragmentation, it is possible to identify certain modes of argumentation that are specific to this school of thought and whose contribution to an alternative reading of our modernity is significant.
Can you be more specific about this?
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: I will start with a critique of the – I would say colonial – conception of reason, humanism, and universalism that has produced an unprecedented blindness and cruelty. How, for example, can we reconcile with ease this positively invested belief in the human as a universal category with sacrificing the lives and labor of the colonized, as well as their world of meaning? Postcolonial critique consequently exposes the distorted representations of reality without which colonialism would have failed as a historical power and hegemonic configuration. This helps explain how what was declared as European humanism appeared in the colonies in the form of the duplicity and disguise of reality as procedures of ‘racialization’ of the colonized. For postcolonial thought, race is in fact the wilderness of European humanism, its beast. Postcolonial thought seeks to dismantle the skeleton of this beast and to trace its dwelling places, privileged at the expense of others.
So what does this mean for pedagogy?
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: This can be illustrated by a simple example. In an international research project completed in November 2021, which focused on the empirical study of cultural heritage and identities in the Europe of the future, we also analyzed classroom content. What you called “colonial” structures still have an impact. For example, in the subject of history, the history of German minorities is kept silent. Non-whites and people of non-Christian religion have contributed just as much to the development of Germany; however, they do not appear in history lessons! This is also true for the German colonial history, which is either completely concealed or only told from the perspective of the colonizers. This German history of violence is glossed over by a limited perspective and the continuity of the colonial belief in superiority to the murderous dehumanization as also during National Socialism is hidden. Thus, the ideology of superiority is continuously and subtly transmitted in school lessons. This is also the case in the subject of geography, where Western societies are portrayed as developed, superior and helpful, while so-called “emerging countries” are portrayed as backward and in need of help. Thus, a pejorative image of people from these countries is reproduced through educational content and knowledge based on a colonial self-image, which is necessarily racist, is solidified.
How can postcolonial approaches change that?
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: A postcolonial view of pedagogy-especially (high) school pedagogy-understood as a practice of producing and transmitting knowledge makes it possible to perceive a globalization of Western knowledge and techniques of knowledge production. This is what I call, following the historian and political scientist Achilles Mbembe, “colonial knowledge.” By this he understands the totality of techniques and sciences, myths and knowledge, which since the 15th century have made it possible to destroy the conditions for the renewal of life on earth.
A serious accusation. What do you base it on?
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: The essential feature of this construction of knowledge is the degradation of the Other, the non-white European, as the antithesis of oneself. This constructed hierarchy makes it impossible to share and increase knowledge, to unite people. Even with regard to the treatment of nature, it would have been important to share very different sources of knowledge. Instead, colonial knowledge was imposed by force. The West has set our planet on fire. To extinguish it, we need all archives of knowledge with their different references to the world. We cannot do it any other way. Therefore, it is urgent to initiate a paradigmatic change in education, not only in Germany, to correct this deplorable state of affairs.
How do you characterize “colonial knowledge”?
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: Colonial knowledge is a narcissistic development narrative. On a constructed ladder of human development, it places the West at the top and assumes that everyone else must pass through the same stages of development. It is self-referential: although the scientists, “explorers,” artists, and missionaries from the West have scoured the world, the knowledge produced in the process is always only their own, because they have constantly compared others to themselves in order to consider their own development. That is the problem.
But isn’t it normal to compare oneself with others, especially when the other is foreign? What is the problem?
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: In the colonial context, comparison always led and still leads to hierarchization and the self-construction of the West as superior. If you ask yourself why racism is so constitutive of Western societies, you can find the answer in this structure of knowledge production and its transmission. In German education, racism is structurally reproduced, because the others become a marginal part of Western knowledge, an epiphenomenon. They are involved as objects, as consumers of this knowledge, but not as producers. Their knowledge is not present, it is de-thematized. You can see this in textbooks and curricula. Indeed, you do not find this knowledge there. So the view of history is falsified by the Western superiority narrative and historical facts are suppressed.
Do you have an example?
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: A person educated in Europe seriously believes in what was called ‘Greek miracle’ in the age of so-called Enlightenment. That is, that the new quality of ancient thought is a sign that God has given reason to the people of Europe and therefore they also have the right and the mission of mission. But with this one falsifies 5000 years of scientific history in the Mediterranean area. The theorems of Pythagoras and Thales, for example, had been around for a long time. The scholars in ancient Greece themselves never made a secret of the fact that they spent educational stays in ancient Egypt, which, by the way – as we now know after considerable struggles for the restoration of historical truth – was populated by black people through and through. For this, one has only to read some of the writings of ancient Greece. But because Hegel constructed a Greek miracle, we believe in a kind of divine moment and the superiority of white Europeans over the rest of the world.
To what extent does this colonial knowledge determine the identity formation of people of color in Germany?
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: Identities are relational, they develop in relationships. I need the other to recognize me. If this happens in an environment where racialized people are seen as successors to less developed “quasi-humans,” whose history is distorted or not told at all, this also leads to a distorted self-perception. The postcolonial perspective now allows people of color to become aware of and correct this distortion. After all, our identities are hybrid and complex. We are, after all, much more than our skin color or gender.
A very concrete field of work for pedagogy is the school. You have long called for textbooks and curricula to be revised so that “colonialism, neocolonialism, and postcolonialism are adequately represented as structuring moments in the current world order.” You are still waiting for a corresponding decision by the ministers of education, aren’t you?
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: Yes, there are many a declaration of intent and here and there a commissioner for the topic, but the problem has not yet been tackled at the root. Schools and their curricula are, after all, a reflection of society. Current research shows that textbooks and curricula still contain far too little discussion of racialized others – and not just in the subjects of history or social science. No mathematics textbook points out that the statement about semicircles and triangles formulated in Thales’ theorem was already known and used in Egypt and Babylonia. Something like this produces again and again the image of the superior European and the inferior African who must be helped to develop.
And you contradict this image.
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: How could I not! In 1974, at a conference organized by UNESCO in Cairo, the scholar and most famous African Egyptologist Cheikh Anta Diop scientifically proved linguistically, archaeologically, historically, and with the help of C 14 dating techniques et cetera, that the ancient Egyptians were black Africans who had created a civilization that also influenced ancient Greece. The Egyptologists present had to concede that all the civilizing elements that made up their own culture had been lived in Africa thousands of years ago. What is and was very difficult to accept for Europe, respectively the construct called the West, is the fact that they owe all the civilizing foundations of their modernity to this Africa, which they so exploited, humiliated, dehumanized and constructed as a radical antithesis to themselves. This fact is one of the most important foundations of the epistemicides, the destruction of knowledge, that the Eurocentric racist worldview has made possible.
But isn’t the accusation of deliberate falsification of history too far-fetched? Is it not also a problem of source material? Here the written evidence, there oral traditions?
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: That Africa had no written culture is also such a narrative that falsifies history. Ethnographic as well as linguistic research confirms this in different parts of Africa that were considered authentically African. Thus, symbolic systems, including graphic systems have been found in different regions. Contemporary West African spellings, for example, are found in several geographic zones. The period of oral culture was the period of brutal oppression through enslavement and colonization. For writing can be dangerous when living under colonial occupation. Orality in such a context is an instrument of transgressive resistance. It is part of the system of domination that knowledge that is not allowed to be is not given discursive space. A decolonization of knowledge makes it necessary for the West to decenter, to remake itself, and to enable the formation of new knowledge, which is literally fed by the world archives.
Which brings us to the concept of education, which you question. You’ve done research on the competencies of young refugees. What were the results? And to what extent is this a postcolonial issue?
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: I’ll start with the second question. It was about the competencies of refugee*migrants from Africa in Hamburg. To associate people from Africa with competencies at all is already a challenge for representatives of colonial thinking. In addition, I try to assume a countermovement when it comes to the causes of flight. Causes of flight are usually shifted to the countries of origin. This perspective ignores the fact that the causes of wars, economic poverty and political crises are global and that the West is often implicated in them. Therefore, migration policy is not about a humanitarian or charitable gesture by the West, but about the West assuming its political responsibility.
And the competencies?
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: What competencies are for an education system depends on the recognition and acknowledgement, i.e. the utilization in the educational institutions here, of the competencies of refugee* migrants often acquired in the informal or non-formal sector of their countries of origin. So far, so banal. But the exciting question is: How do the refugees manage to cope so well under the difficult conditions in Germany with all the structures that deprive them of freedom and with the experiences they have had on the run? Their competence is the ability to defy the adversities of life, to pull themselves out of the mud by their own bootstraps and to play with the rules of the system they cannot escape. I have called this “the habitus of the art of survival.”
But what specifically follows from this different perspective on refugees?
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: Apart from the question of how we can use these competencies in our education system, a recommendation for action: We should transform these structures characterized by foreign determination into enabling structures, so that people do not have to be resilient, but find structures that enable them to live well even without “the habitus of the art of survival.”
You became known in church circles because you were very critical of colonial remembrance culture in Hamburg’s Michel. Did your intervention have an effect?
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: I first spoke out critically in 2002 in a speech to the church council about, among other things, the memorial plaque commemorating the German soldiers who were killed in the extermination of the Herero and Nama. At that time, the topic was not so present. Activists picked up on that. In 2013, there was a big discussion in the church and different proposals on how to deal with this culture of remembrance. The debate is still going on, and I am still being interviewed. So the intervention had an effect.
How would you like to deal with such historical evidence of the colonial era?
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: They are and remain a challenge in the literal sense. While they pose a problem, they hold the potential to positively shape a postcolonial reading out of a negatively charged past. The prerequisite, however, is that historical testimonies can play a political and pedagogical role. This means that through public debate, the history that is linked to it is differentiated and viewed from different perspectives. It is not about assigning blame, but about using such places and confronting the population with the question of what colonialism actually is and what it still means for the place today. So my plea is to use these places for public education.
A good year ago, the “Network for Academic Freedom” was formed in Germany, in which more than 600 scientists are now organized. You see freedom of speech and research endangered by gender studies and postcolonial research. How do you assess that?
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: The opposite is true: networks like this endanger our freedom of research and our freedom in general. These are reactionary movements that we can also observe in France and the United States. They are waging a kind of war against a set of real or imagined enemies, i.e. liberals, leftists, Marxists, minority, immigration and queer activists, decolonial feminists, Islam et cetera. One of their privileged narratives is that the descendants of the colonized, whom we have kindly integrated into our scientific system, are trying to destroy us instead of being grateful. I evaluate such movements as retreats of nostalgic:ins of a Eurocentric, culturally, religiously, and identitarian monolithic society. Postcolonial thinking, on the other hand, is a thinking of entanglement and concatenation. It emphatically points out that identity emerges in diversity, in relations and dispersion; that reference to oneself is only possible in co-constitution, that is, with others. Therefore, postcolonial perspectives bet on a future that will realize the emergence of a universal and fraternal community. However, this has as a prerequisite the abolition of the colonial figures of inhumanity and racial difference. The values that the West proclaims as universal are in fact universalized in postcolonial approaches as a principle for all people. Whether the members of this strange network want the same, however, I dare to doubt.
The worry is that it is not about complementing but destroying the principles of the Enlightenment….
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: Thank you for this question, postcolonial thinking differs from Eurocentrist racist thinking precisely in that the Other is precisely not destroyed, but in principle a co-constitution with others is sought. Therefore, it is first of all about the critique of a very specific conception of reason, humanism and universalism. The critique exposes the violence inherent in this form of reason. And the postcolonial reading addresses the gap that separates European ethical thought from its practical political choices under colonial conditions. So the gap between the order of discourses and the order of practices.
Now they have to explain that again.
LOUIS HENRI SEUKWA: Take the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. From a postcolonial perspective, the timing is problematic. It was the barbarities of the Second World War, which Europeans suffered, that made them declare that human dignity is inviolable. But genocides by Europeans against other non-European peoples existed before that war, and colonialism was still in full swing at that time. The victorious powers received African countries as spoils of war. From this you can see that when colonial knowledge talks about man, it talks only about itself. And postcolonial theory now demands: take your ideals and ethical principles seriously and apply them to all people. So it is not about the destruction of these principles, but about their universality. We need an Enlightenment 2.0, if we want to use the term at all.
The conversation was conducted by Stephan Kosch on May 19 via zoom.
Dr. Louis Henri Seukwa is Professor of Education at the University of Applied Sciences in Hamurg.
Stephan Kosch is editor of “zeitzeichen” and closely follows all topics of sustainable business.
Diversity as a gain for all
Interview with Wuppertal New Testament scholar Claudia Janssen on feminist theology, what has been achieved, and the future of gender-just theology
by Claudia Janssen, Kathrin Jütte and Reinhard Mawick
[This interview published in June 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, Vielfalt als Gewinn für alle | Gespräch mit der Wuppertaler Neutestamentlerin Claudia Janssen über feministische Theologie, das Erreichte und die Zukunft einer geschlechtergerechten Theologie.]
Vielfalt als Gewinn für alle | Gespräch mit der Wuppertaler Neutestament…
zeitzeichen: Frau Professorin Janssen, feministische Theologie
Deconstructing the Divine. Roland Peter Litzenburger: King of the Jews (1973) from the cycle Christ the Fool.
Photo: Viktoria Litzenburger-Schreijäck
Deconstruction of the Divine. Roland Peter Litzenburger: King of the Jews (1973) from the cycle Christ the Fool.
TIME SIGN: Professor Janssen, doing feminist theology is a very personal and political activity, which is how many theologians formulate their definition of feminist theology. What is yours?
CLAUDIA JANSSEN: For me, feminist theology is not a special theology, but the central approach to theology. That’s where my heart beats. And for theology to become capable of speaking again in social questions, for people who learn to do this theology to become capable of speaking theologically in the processes of social transformation. So that they can actively participate in these questions and look at them from a theological perspective, asking themselves self-critically what social developments mean for theology. Socially, politically, theologically, that belongs together for me and constitutes the core of feminist theology.
Asked personally, how did you come to feminist theology?
CLAUDIA JANSSEN: In my home country we had a political community work with Easter marches and peace work. And our pastor gave me a book by Dorothee Sölle and Fulbert Steffensky when I was a teenager. I devoured their books. At my first church congress in Hanover in 1983, when I was 16 years old, the focus was on the social issues of disarmament and the NATO double decision. The Bible studies by Luise Schottroff and Dorothee Sölle provided the impetus to go into theology. To be socially articulate and politically engaged, to have a great piety, that characterized Dorothee Sölle and also Luise Schottroff. This connection appealed to me from the beginning, and it still carries me through theology.
Those church congress appearances in the 1980s were very moving. How and when did feminist theology emerge in the first place?
CLAUDIA JANSSEN: About fifty years ago. Important impulses came from the USA, the theologian Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel translated these texts. And they are rooted in the social women’s movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. It was never about founding a special theology for women, but about a paradigm shift, that is, to change theology in order to be able to help shape and transform social processes, always with the question of gender justice. I have understood feminist theology from the beginning as a justice movement. Justice not only for women, but in the relationship between women and men, also with a broad view of issues of racism and ecology. Important debates from the 1980s-1990s have advanced feminist theology, such as the question of Christian anti-Judaism. The fact that these questions are so widely discussed in theology today is also a merit of feminist theology.
How do the drafts of feminist theology of the past decades differ from those of today? Or would you say that it is rather a further development?
CLAUDIA JANSSEN: I see it as a further development in continuity. Whether we are dealing with a clash between feminist theories and gender studies is being discussed in the disciplines. In sociology or in the social sciences, I see much greater conflicts. When I look at the feminist discussion in the present, I see a great continuity with the feminist theology of the 1980s and 1990s, with a natural acceptance of gender studies. There is a critically constructive dialogue. If I formulate what feminist theology is today, it would mean an approach to this multidisciplinary field of gender studies. Looking at social positions with a political commitment to feminism.
Is there even a need for a specifically feminist theology today? When one actually has the betterment and liberation of all people in mind?
CLAUDIA JANSSEN: In a good world, there would be no need for it. But the MeToo debate, for example, shows that these questions are not outdated. Verbally, we may be much further along, but the power structures have changed little, especially globally. What makes feminist theology work is that it never just has this small fixed view of our Western well-off world, but a global one.
What do you think feminist theology has achieved so far?
CLAUDIA JANSSEN: It has initiated important debates. In terms of science theory, it is a contextual theology. Embedding this diversity of approaches in social issues has changed theology. The Protestant churches have recognized that in the training of their pastors, gender competence is fundamental for the pastorate. This is anchored in the examination regulations, my chair here in Wuppertal is called “New Testament and Theological Gender Studies,” and at the beginning of the year we opened an institute for feminist theology, theological gender studies and social diversity. Compulsory courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels are part of the curriculum. At the Kirchliche Hochschule Augustana in Neuendettelsau, the professorship for feminist theology and gender studies has just been reoccupied.
In your opinion, what makes more sense for the institutionalization of the subject? To link it to a classical theological discipline, as in Wuppertal, or to have a separate chair, as in Neuendettelsau?
CLAUDIA JANSSEN: The discussions are already old. The vision is to implement gender issues as a cross-cutting dimension of thinking, acting and theological research, especially in language. This should also be anchored institutionally. But in the meantime, in fact, only the two ecclesiastical universities with their chairs are left. In the cutbacks, this subject is the first to fall away. I offer an introduction to theological gender studies and teach basic concepts in feminist theology, critical masculinity studies and queer theory. We “translate” theories from the social sciences into theology. The goal of the summer term is to introduce a gender certificate. This requires participation in a lecture course, two or three other courses, and a practicum project. It’s important for Theological Gender Studies to set itself up as its own subject because the theoretical framework has become so large, because gender issues have become a paradigm guiding research academically. But to really be able to study it, students need a similar knowledge to exegetical methods, for example. They need to learn new vocabulary like essentialism, deconstructionism, or intersectionality. And they also need to reflect theoretically on these terms before they can integrate them into their theological thinking. From that point of view, it would be good to have a dedicated chair. The combination with the New Testament, however, makes it possible to show in an exemplary way what profit, what diversity opens up when gender issues are centrally understood as a cross-sectional dimension of a subject.
You have described feminist theology as action-oriented and also activist. Practically an active shaping of socio-political reality. Is that the reason for the often voiced reproach that it is not scientifically-theologically connectable?
CLAUDIA JANSSEN: If it were exhausted on this level, yes. But that is the starting point and the basic principle of contextual theologies. To work on social processes theologically as well, to become capable of conversation in order to be able to influence social debates again, this process is an important one, and of course it shakes up self-evident things, professorial ponderousness. If you look at the tone from the time when Dorothee Sölle was to be given an unpaid teaching position in Mainz – it is unbelievable with what blatant misogyny it was acted. Mean-spiritedness and administrative tricks were used, and feminist theology was accused of being emotional and polemical. In the 1990s, the battles were still being fought openly; now they are more subtle. For example, over third-party funding applications and over publications. The battles are still there, and arriving at scientific discourse also means penetrating the citation cartels, getting publications published, providing reviewers.
So there are still reservations about feminist theology?
CLAUDIA JANSSEN: What is outstanding is indeed that gender issues are understood as a cross-cutting issue or dimension for any theological or social action. That’s why my professorship in particular is so important; it integrates these issues. I am a New Testament scholar, and the gender question is a central theme in the biblical texts and precisely not just brought in as a new hermeneutical approach from today. But there is a lot of resistance to it; although the approach is no longer declared heretical or devalued, it is not an integral part of theological research either. At least not in the German-speaking world. In Scandinavian countries or in parts of US theology it is more self-evident.
Where are the similarities and differences, in terms of Germany, with your Catholic colleagues?
CLAUDIA JANSSEN: I look primarily from the perspective of exegesis; there is hardly any difference among the researchers. The denomination becomes relevant in view of the understanding of ministry. When I look back a hundred years on the development in Protestant theology, I see that the ordination of women fundamentally changes the church and theology. Also in terms of anthropology. There is a great solidarity with the Catholic militants:inside, like Mary 2.0. It drags like chewing gum to have to repeat the biblical arguments over and over again. That women were disciples and in leadership positions, that there were women apostles. And that’s why theology as a whole is affected by the importance of exegesis.
If one has the improvement of all people in mind, must not contemporary feminist theology also be deconstructionist? Based on Galatians 3:28: ” … here is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
CLAUDIA JANSSEN: Yes. And when I see the more recent discourses, who is publishing in gender studies and, of course, presupposing deconstructionist theories, they are often the same author:s who have written on feminist issues. This continuity is very strong. Consider the work doing gender, doing religion, edited by Ute Eisen, Angela Standhartinger, and Christine Gerber. Perhaps this is a distinctive feature of feminist theology, that this absorption of current theories also has a very strong impact on the further development of feminist research. The British journalist Laurie Penny puts it this way: I see myself as queer, but politically I argue feminist. So as long as there is this inequality of women, it’s important to be able to put up statistics to show how many women are in the ministry and how many men. That’s where I have to be able to argue politically, that’s the only way Equal Pay Day works.
This is new to many people. Reactionary critics claim that gender justice and gender theories endanger the divine order. How do you deal with this unchanging front?
CLAUDIA JANSSEN: The anti-gender argumentation quite often goes hand in hand with backward-looking ideas of family, society, especially masculinity. This criticism is not very rational, but emotional and points to a crisis of masculinity today. This means that young men must be encouraged to embrace change and to perceive the diversity of role models as enrichment. Often there is no argumentation, but a backward utopia is created from the gut. Everything should become the way it has never been. These people have no visions of a changing society or positive images of the future, but are directed against everything that is not white, not male, not heteronormative. Unfortunately, an exchange based on factual arguments very rarely works.
In recent months, the question of whether transwomen are considered women or not has come to a head, also in debates in the Bundestag. What is your opinion on this?
CLAUDIA JANSSEN: I have several trans* people among the students, and I try to strengthen them theologically as well by working on bodies, gender, and deconstruction. For me, this is theologically relevant because creation is diverse and because it is divine creation. That diversity is inherent there. I always wonder why we want to know better than God what creation means. I think that is hubris. In the first creation narrative, it says “And God created them male and female.” There are ideas even in ancient times that assume that the first being is androgynous. In the second creation narrative, “Adam,” the original human being, is then divided into two parts. There is no mention of a “rib” in Hebrew; the word used here is “side.” After the separation, one side is still called Adam and the other Eve, this has led to many misunderstandings in the history of impact. There are Jewish interpretations that read it as the original being male and female.
This thinking has a distant relationship to Platonic thoughts …
CLAUDIA JANSSEN: Yes, we have had binary thinking only since the Enlightenment. The American historian of culture and science, Thomas Laqueur, who has done research on the cultural approach to sexuality, says that people in ancient medicine tended to assume a single-genderedness. According to this model, female and male sexual organs were not thought to be fundamentally different; rather, they were assumed to be analogous to each other – for example, the vagina was a penis turned inward. The gender order, what we call gender today, thus had to be culturally fixed. Masculinity was defended in this way because gender was considered changeable and vulnerable to attack. Binary thinking is a recent thinking, as is the notion of an autonomous individual. This too is a construct of the Enlightenment. With modern gender theories, we are in some ways close to ancient discourses.
In the coalition agreement of the German government, it is planned that in the future self-disclosure will be enough to give oneself a new gender identity. What do you think of this initiative?
CLAUDIA JANSSEN: That is a complex question. I experience how humiliating these procedures are that people go through. In the current situation, I see that no one changes gender voluntarily or arbitrarily. Trans* people are forced to deal intensely with their own bodies, with the question of what masculinity or femininity means. I can hardly imagine what it is like to live in this tension between the outer body gender and the inner knowledge of the actual other gender. I admire those people who openly engage in the process of transition. And there are many who do not want to commit themselves at all. This possibility must also remain. The necessary process of further development is now being triggered by politics. That’s why I think it’s right to define it legally and at the same time accompany it socially with discussion processes. Until it becomes a matter of course that gender is not defined in binary terms, which has long been known in the human sciences. I think it is important that it is precisely such courageous people who step out into the open who initiate thought processes and processes of change, and it is important to support them legally and accompany them theologically.
If you were to formulate a vision for the future of gender-conscious theology, what would it be?
CLAUDIA JANSSEN: That it changes theology as a whole, with an acceptance for diversity and difference. And that it awakens an awareness that it is a gain to live in diversity and openness to one another, and yes, that it ensures that theology as a whole once again becomes socially relevant and credible, an interlocutor with other social variables.
The conversation was conducted by Kathrin Jütte and Reinhard Mawick via video conference on February 22, 2022.
Dr. Claudia Janssen has been professor of New Testament and Theological Gender Studies at the Kirchliche Hochschule Wuppertal/Bethel since 2016. Previously, the 55-year-old worked, among other things, as a study director at the Study Center of the EKD for Gender Issues in Church and Theology and as a theological advisor to the Evangelical Women’s Work in Germany. Since 2011, she has taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Marburg.
Kathrin Jütte is editor of “zeitzeichen.” Her special focus is on social-diaconal issues and literature.
Reinhard Mawick is editor-in-chief and managing director of zeitzeichen gGmbh.
“Bringing the finite back to life”
Sociologist Harald Welzer on an economic and cultural model that systematically ignores finitude, even abolishes it. And why renunciation doesn’t have to be a bad thing
by Harald Welzer, Philipp Gessler and Kathrin Jütte
[This discussion posted in January 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://zeitzeichen.net/node/9457.]
“The place is falling apart right before our eyes.” Spoil excavator in the Garzweiler 2 opencast lignite mine.
TIME SIGN: Professor Welzer, we want to talk about stopping and turning around. Your topic in your new book is stopping. When you hear the word repentance, can you do anything with it? Or do you find that repentance is a somewhat outdated term?
HARALD WELZER: No, why? But honestly, I’ve never thought about the word repentance, whether that’s old or new or whatever.
In your book, you talk about stopping and starting over. The word conversion implies both movements.
HARALD WELZER: Yes, but maybe I don’t use the word repentance because it has a certain pathos, like: Stop, turn back! That kind of thing. Besides, that would also imply that you were already at a point before that you absolutely had to go back to. Neither is my concept.
You write in your book, which is almost a wise book …
HARALD WELZER: … oh, that’s a sign of getting old, when you start writing wise books already now …
… well, anyway, you write, we have to get used to finiteness, to stopping again, also to the finiteness of the earth’s resources. Does it help to know about finiteness in order to be able to stop?
HARALD WELZER: Yes, one motive for writing this book lies in my personal experience of finiteness: I almost died after a heart attack. But I had long had the idea of writing about quitting. Because we have problems of finitude, they are problems that characterize this century.
What do you mean by that?
HARALD WELZER: We have an economic and cultural model that systematically ignores finitude, in other words, is virtually unaware of it, and has even abolished it. This leads to attempts to solve problems of finiteness with the wrong concepts. This is what I wanted to write about. And it was only through my own case of almost dying that I realized that this cultural concept of infinity has a correlate in our mentality and in our psyche. That’s why in my book I think on the three levels socially, culturally as well as individually. This is very helpful and also opens up new perspectives on bringing the category of finitude back into life.
Now you have described that it is so difficult for us to think finitude and also to stop. Why is that so difficult for us? Because we have unlearned to think in these categories? Is it really a kind of untraining over the past centuries or decades that the finite is basically repugnant to us?
HARALD WELZER: Because you take the notion of training: It’s just that. We are subject to the idea that we live in a state of limitlessness. And we also live in a training program of individual infinity. Another aspect of the notion of infinity, of course, is that you can increase everything infinitely. Every limit is to be exceeded. Everything is to be improved, optimized, increased.
This thinking extends into everyday life.
HARALD WELZER: Yes, you can see that when people strap Apple Watches around their wrists. These are training tools for not being satisfied with yourself. “You still have to walk a thousand steps, your pulse rate is bad today, you didn’t sleep really well either – but sleep better next night!”
Individuals should continually optimize themselves.
HARALD WELZER: Yes, and you find that pore-less in every segment of society, from school to self-concepts at work to the consumer goods you buy. There’s always this in there: “This has to be increased now!” This is fatal, of course, because first of all it looks past the empirically regrettable fact that life is finite, that is, after a certain moment I am no longer capable of increasing. And conversely, the same applies to the famous limits to growth.
In the past, this was also called reversal. Did people used to be more aware of the concept of finiteness?
HARALD WELZER: Yes, of course, for many reasons. Finitude as a social fact was much more present. But reversal? I have no difficulty with stopping, for example, when I’m hiking. Just turning around, whereas many people I hike with would never do that, because you have to finish the path you once started. I also don’t really have a problem with quitting in jobs and many things, even relationships.
HARALD WELZER: Quitting opens up a different space. On the other hand, when I turn back, I turn back into something that has been there before. For me, stopping is more obvious analytically and also as an opening of experiential space.
How much does stopping have to do with renunciation? This is slightly reminiscent of the polemic that the Greens only ever want to preach renunciation. And renunciation is no fun, they are fun and games killers. Do we have to give up things when we stop?
HARALD WELZER: Yes, why not? I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Incidentally, with the coalition agreement of the traffic light coalition, the Greens’ farewell to renunciation has become law. The word prosperity comes up incredibly often.
The FDP probably pushed that through.
HARALD WELZER: Yes, those are the yellow pages. I would turn the term renunciation differently: The question is, what are we renouncing under the given conditions? The moment I say renunciation, the status quo takes on something completely unquestioned. It stands there like a monument and is great. And everything I change about it is associated with renunciation.
What would be better?
HARALD WELZER: I would simply turn it around: We’re doing without an awful lot right now. When we live in the city, we forego peace and quiet, space to move around, good air, all kinds of things, because it’s structured that way by certain means of transportation. We forgo a self-designed healthy lifestyle under the conditions of increase, we forgo contemplation, encounters. I can draw up a huge list of renunciations under the conditions of the present and then say, I don’t really want to do this renunciation anymore, let’s think about how we can renounce less.
So renunciation must also be fun, if we understand you correctly?
HARALD WELZER: Then we are in a semantic contradiction, because if something is fun, we don’t need the concept of renunciation. We can also do things differently! I find that much more interesting. Or like this one elderly gentleman I quote at the end of my book with the famous sentence: “I teach refugees to repair bicycles. Why? Because I can.” And being able to do things is a great thing. In that sense, being able to change things is also a benefit. It’s not to be associated with renunciation.
It comes down to a new perspective?
HARALD WELZER: Yes, what I do is constantly try to formulate a different assertion of reality by saying: let’s talk about something else. Or let’s flip the optics.
Now, you could argue that what you’re describing is a first-world view, because we live in abundance and have experienced abundance. Now if someone from the poor south of the world says, I want to experience that abundance too – and only then am I happy to do without certain things. Wouldn’t that be understandable?
HARALD WELZER: Yes, absolutely. Whereas I think that can be a protective claim to maintain our lifestyle. I’m happy to take that from a member of an indigenous people or something, but not from somebody from the FDP. Because, of course, the intent is clear when I build the backdrop that everybody wants to live the way we do. So then, of course, I have a great legitimacy to keep doing what I’m doing.
It’s an excuse for non-change.
HARALD WELZER: I always suspect there are two groups of people who always get called out when you don’t want to change anything. One is the members of the coming societies, and the other is the Hartz IV recipients. When someone from the FDP comes around the corner with the Hartz IV recipients, I no longer believe a word he says, because at not a single point does anyone underprivileged play a role in their political agenda. They are not even taken note of. They don’t even exist, and if they do, it’s only as a cardboard cutout to say we don’t want to change anything.
Now, thinking in terms of the needs or necessities of the next generation is something that is inherent in people. Saying that I want my children and grandchildren to be well off is something very human. Has that somehow been lost to us in spite of this or in large parts of society?
HARALD WELZER: We have been talked out of it. First of all, because for decades the economy has been based on this completely insane image of homo oeconomicus. And not only has it preached this, but it has also set the world up as if we were all just utility maximizers. Consequently, in school, for example, children have also been conditioned to become individual utility maximizers, as well as later in the workplace. It is a simple story that certain ideas about the world do not remain imaginary, but also shape the world properly.
It’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
HARALD WELZER: Yes, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. But certain ideas about people being like this lead to the state being organized according to this idea of people. In the end, I have a collection of individuals who all believe about themselves that they are terribly individual. But from an anthropological point of view, this is not the case, because people do not exist in the singular. Plain and simple. In this respect, there is no such thing as the individual utility maximizer. But nevertheless, these self-images are very common. In a sense, it is my work to destroy these self-images.
But can such a reversal or cessation that you call for succeed at all in a global capitalist world? After all, capitalism thrives on the ever-more. That is, isn’t a demand for cessation automatically a statement against a capitalist world?
HARALD WELZER: Of course. The place is falling apart right before our eyes. We have an incredible number of symptoms of the fact that what has worked well for a while, from which a great many people, including myself, have profited for a while, is no longer sustainable. We have a poster hanging in our FuturZwei office that says, “It wasn’t all bad under capitalism.” Unfortunately, that’s true. Capitalism has many merits, but it’s also brutally destructive. The difficulty is simply to turn this successful model into something else.
For many, that may be a provocation.
HARALD WELZER: Of course it’s a provocation, but I also give talks to bankers, to savings bank directors or people who run a company and have their annual meeting with their customers. It’s interesting that there’s an openness to discuss such things there, too. We’re no longer in a concrete era, in which people always formulate such beliefs as: “Without growth, everything is nothing. We need the market after all.” But there are few competing offers. That’s a problem.
What are the material consequences for you personally of the change in mentality that you have made?
HARALD WELZER: It’s a process. For me, it’s a misconception that many convinced people have, that from time x, when the insight comes, they suddenly have to do everything differently. And then if they sin, they have a problem. I would always say it’s gymnastics or training in both directions to get used to living differently. Letting things be is not something that you can do overnight without further ado, but that requires training. In that sense, I am in a training program.
Can religions contribute to this cessation or cessation training?
HARALD WELZER: I think so. I would say it’s very helpful if you can have the conviction that the world, is not the only world there is, so if there is a transcending moment. I think that’s basically helpful and necessary. For me personally, however, religion doesn’t offer that; perhaps I’m too rationalistic for that.
The interview was conducted by Philipp Gessler and Kathrin Jütte via zoom on November 25, 2021.
Harald Welzer, born in 1958 in Bissendorf near Hanover, habilitated in social psychology in 1993 and in sociology in 2001. Among other things, he was professor of social psychology from 2001 to 2012 at the private University of Witten/Herdecke, and he is also co-founder and director of the non-profit foundation “Futurzwei. Stiftung Zukunftsfähigkeit.” Welzer has written many books, most recently the bestseller: “Obituary for Myself.”
Philipp Gessler is editor of “zeitzeichen.” One focus of his work is ecumenism.
Kathrin Jütte is editor of “zeitzeichen”. Her special focus is on social-diaconal issues and literature.