Symposium Introduction

How do we become human? In Forming Humanity: Redeeming the German Bildung Tradition, Jennifer Herdt narrates a tale—“Once upon a time,” she begins (1)—of late eighteenth-century German thinkers and artists who saw humanity as a task, not a starting point, and for whom self- and communal formation occur not through divine re-formation after the image of God in Christ, but through human agency, dialogical encounter, and mutual recognition.

In casting this group of thinkers and artists—some you probably know (Goethe, Schiller, Hegel), others you’ve just heard of (Herder, Humboldt)—as a tradition of reflection on ethical formation,1 Forming Humanity is at once recovery and assertion. If Herdt is critical of her story’s central figures and ideas, she nonetheless contends that reflection on the Bildung tradition has continuing philosophical force. We cannot avoid its central question, she tells us—how indeed do we become human?—and should not disdain its call to responsibility: to identify and correct the failures in our imaginations of “the human.”

Herdt’s argument is historical and philosophical, descriptive and normative.2 Forming Humanity’s first two chapters deftly trace Bildung’s intellectual precursors in Greek paideia, Roman humanitas, and seventeenth-century Pietism. Studies of Herder and Hegel frame central chapters on aesthetics (the “Religion of Art”) and literature (Bildungsroman). The Bildung tradition that emerges is attractive to our moment: its “humanity” constructed through the diversity of human particularities of characters and cultures, not abstract totalities.

And yet, there are pitfalls. The Bildung tradition, we learn, has been too-easily coopted to authorize cultural and racial privilege. (In many of its tellings, what we all should humanly become can look suspiciously bourgeois and Teutonic.) So too its accounts of history may leave us queasy: everything works for the good, it seems, never mind the suffering along the way. Forming Humanity’s subtitle is thus Redeeming the German Bildung Tradition. Redemption comes from the dialogical humanism the tradition avows—conversation always continues—with Herdt adding a theological interlocutor in Karl Barth, the great Protestant theologian of the twentieth century.3

Barth is usually cast as the archcritic of humanism and modernity. He condemns “autarchy,” human self-sufficiency apart from God and our neighbors. As such, Bildung stands duly condemned. (We make ourselves, after all.) For Herdt, however, Barth is an internal critic of the Bildung tradition insofar as he acknowledges culture as our task: the very task, indeed, of realizing our humanity. So judged and so engaged, the tradition is opened up: an eschatological vantage point sees human formation as provisional and indeterminate; formation’s connection to dialogue means listening for the voice of very-Other others. Or, as Barth might say, listening for the Word of God.

* * *

This symposium adds five more speakers to these dialogues: Thomas Pfau, Hjördis Becker-Lindenthal, Vincent Lloyd, Molly Farneth, and Chad Wellmon.

Forming Humanity proves rich fodder; even as the symposium panelists praise Herdt’s scholarly achievement and engage the work’s historical, philosophical, aesthetic, and literary details, they do not balk from challenging Herdt’s foundational claims or principal purposes. Among the latter are Barth’s inclusion as Bildung’s refiner, not contradictor, and Herdt’s Bildung tradition as a partner to Christian humanism, not its secularizer or replacement (239).4

Pfau finds Bildung irremediable: its history darker than Herdt’s account, its metaphysics relentlessly secular. Becker-Lindenthal adds Søren Kierkegaard to the fray: like Herdt’s Barth, the Dane can be a critical friend to this tradition, his judgment its refinement. For Lloyd, the Bildung tradition misidentifies the facts of life (and death), hawking false reconciliation where there is paradox. Farneth saves Hegel, in part, from Barth and Herdt’s restorative Christian reading. Wellmon saves Barth from Hegel and Herdt.

How do we become human? Let the dialogues begin!

  1. Bildung is an unfamiliar term to English speakers. The word itself is shaded with meaning, not least from Bild, “image, picture,” and bilden, “to form, fashion, shape, mold, educate, or . . . improve/broaden the mind” (28). Herdt notes that, in the German language, “the noun today most commonly means education (particularly in the sense of a holistic liberal education), but it can also mean formation, fashioning, shaping, or even simply form, as well as cultivation, culture, or civilization. It can refer either to the process of formation or to the endpoint or culmination of this process” (28).

  2. For a direct treatment of her claim that the historical and normative questions are mutually interrelated, see Jennifer Herdt, “Religious Ethics, History, and the Rise of Modern Moral Philosophy: Focus Introduction,” Journal of Religious Ethics 28.2 (2000) 165–88.

  3. Surprisingly, perhaps, the symposium panelists do not challenge Herdt’s choice to shape Forming Humanity by engaging with Barth, even if they disagree with her interpretation of him. For the alternate position, see Timothy Stoll’s review in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews,

  4. In Herdt’s telling, the Bildung tradition, refined in Barthian judgment and forgiveness, ultimately narrates the work of ethical formation as participation in humanity’s reditus (return) to a God “whose life is overflowing self-gift and invitation into friendship” (9).

Thomas Pfau



Equivocal Legacy of Enlightenment Humanism

Reading through Jennifer Herdt’s Forming Humanity, I felt a flicker of hope that this book, so deeply considered, lucidly structured, and carefully argued, might also reach the rather insular precincts of literary studies and help them overcome their decades-long overindulgence in a hermeneutics of suspicion. Thus, most interpretive fields today take as axiomatic the naturalistic and secular conception of human beings (no longer “persons”) and of cultural “production” (no longer “expression”), and in so doing have reduced human agency to an unwitting relay station for sundry ideological currents and fluctuating desires. Opting instead for a very different methodology and focus, Forming Humanity explores what may have been the last concerted attempt to develop an alternative to the reductionist model of human agency and the skeptical epistemologies that had been on the ascendant since the days of Hobbes, namely, the ambitious reinterpretation of the human being in light of the imago Dei conception that came to be known as the German tradition of Bildung. To that end, Herdt recalls for us that tradition’s dual root in Renaissance Humanism and, especially, in medieval Rhineland mysticism and early eighteenth-century Pietism, a theologically intricate prehistory that, tellingly, has been all but ignored within the precincts of literary studies. It is Herdt’s choice of an integrative and genealogical approach, rather than a disjunctive and narrowly analytic one, which also made me feel hopeful that, just maybe, Forming Humanity might usher in some kind of rapprochement between the study of aesthetic and literary form, on the one hand, and that of spiritual and theological inquiry, on the other. Certainly, it is to be hoped that Forming Humanity—a terrifically smart, insightful, and rewarding book—will be studied and valued not only by readers in Herdt’s own discipline but also in the discipline of literary studies, which arguably is most in need of the kind of corrective her account offers.

Let us begin with Herdt’s carful parsing of the central term—Bildung, and its various cognates—which turns out to be replete with semantic ambiguity and metaphysical ambivalence. Is Einbildung, to choose but one of Bildung’s many cognates, a case of divine in-forming the human being as imago Dei, of Grace received? Or do Herder and Goethe in particular resolve it into a case of humankind unilaterally “imagining” and “forming” (bilden) its ethical and spiritual completion? Already, Pietism’s view of “human and divine formative activity as competing with one another” (74) hints at the concept’s univocal underpinnings by positing that God and man occupy one and the same metaphysical plateau, differing, for now, in degree, though never in kind? Yet Herdt’s reassurance that, for Pietism, “practical Christianity . . . is not finally understood as a form of human activity at all but rather as a form of divine activity in and through human beings” (71) does not quite persuade. For in the end, it is in affect-laden, human interiority alone that God’s handiwork stands to be traced; and once we grant Pietism’s major premise, namely, that all phenomenological Evidenz of Grace is to be sought in (and validated by) the drama of human inwardness, it is but a small step, as Talleyrand would say, from Eckhart’s apophatic mysticism to Schleiermacher’s fetishizing of a purely immanent conception of the imago Dei as “religious feeling” and, soon thereafter, to Feuerbach’s dismissal of Christianity’s God as sheer projection.

In the end, Forming Humanity still reads, as indeed its subject matter warrants, as a secularization narrative of sorts, even as Herdt rightly insists that reading the record thus “is in need of revision in a number of respects” (29). Time and again, her prose thus works hard to balance a conception of Bildung as neither simply repurposing Christian tropes for strictly immanent ends nor as standing in outright continuity with the mystical and Pietist traditions from which it draws many of its conceptual and spiritual resources. Thus, Herdt writes, Bildung is “not simply a reworking . . . but also a retrieval and reimagining of classical notions of the virtue of humanitas and of education as paideia” (29–30). Likewise, “if Pietism was an expression of autocratic humanism,” to recall Karl Barth’s disapproving phrase, Herdt contends that “it was also an attempt to flee from it” (55). Early on, Herdt gives programmatic expression to the both-and logic informing the project of Bildung:

The Bildung tradition is an effort—or constellation of efforts—not just to hold . . . contradictory points of view in permanent tension but so to understand humanity and the process of its formation that these “infinite incommensurabilities” do not contradict but rather embody the fully human. . . . In grappling with the Bildung tradition, we can grasp human self-formative agency precisely as mediated through critically self-conscious dialogically developing carriers of social practices. (19)

To put it thus persuasively and supplely characterizes the aspiration of the Bildung project. Yet could an undertaking, conceived in such overwhelmingly immanent terms, have possibly succeeded? The big question that continues to loom over much of Forming Humanity is whether the theological bearings of Bildung do not inevitably reduce to the old wine of Pelagianism served up in new bottles. The fact that Herder draws on modern natural law theory so as to “discern the Creator’s intentions for humanity without recourse to divine revelation” (90) speaks volumes here. Herder’s “providentialist optimism” and his largely Kantian view of universal history as “an arena in which progress was assured” (83) certainly has more than a whiff of Pelagianism and human-engineered salvation about it. As Herdt shows, Herder’s oeuvre reveals a clear shift in the meaning of Bildung, away from Pietism’s understanding of the term as the Grace-dependent formation of human beings in the image of God and toward the deification of a distinctly new imago humanitatis.

It is hard not to conclude, as Barth so unceremoniously did, that in construing “human beings as self-formers” (52) the late-Enlightenment concept of Bildung fundamentally called into question a Christian metaphysics of Creation and Grace. Hence, even as “a radically transcendent God does not compete with the dignity of the human” (239), the obverse of that thesis may well hold true for Herder, Goethe, and especially Wilhelm von Humboldt. For they often do conceive human agents as striving to fulfil divine providence (Herder), as creators of quasi-divine, symbolic forms (Goethe), as participants in a cosmopolitan, strictly anthropomorphic order (Humboldt), and as dialectically realizing the immanent eschaton of an “ethical” (sittliche) community (Hegel). While the human being’s nature continues to be accepted as transcendently given, there is a decisive shift in focus, away from the “primary cause” (God) to secondary causes as these can be seen to operate in history. As Herdt shows so well, Herder and Hegel in particular conceive of “humanity” as a temporal process of progressive self-realization that depends less on a numinous, transhistorical God than it is wrought by historically contingent agents incessantly generating forms of knowledge whose scope exceeds what their finite and limited perspective allows them to conceptualize.

Not coincidentally, it is Herder and Hegel’s philosophy of history that was to prove especially vexing to Karl Barth, whose unsparing critique of the Bildung tradition Herdt engages so perceptively throughout. Indeed, Herdt’s interweaving of her own narrative with Barth’s sharply different appraisal of the concept of Bildung struck me as one of the most riveting features of Forming Humanity. Unsurprisingly, Barth bristles at Herder’s unabashedly Pelagian commitment to a model of salvation firmly centered in, if not outright engineered by, humanity (Menschheit) as it actuates its potential in historical time. “Filling in on Barth’s behalf,” Herdt writes, Herder’s principal shortcoming is that he “fails to recognize God’s Word as coming from outside, a forgiving but thereby also standing in judgment on, human experience and activity” (108). In what seems a subtle intellectual exorcism of sorts, Herdt’s intermittent dialogue with Barth’s harsh critique of the late-Enlightenment ideal of Bildung brings into focus the central problems and questions associated with the term’s often bewildering theological and philosophical moorings. The central question, I’d venture, is whether Bildung still presupposes a transcendent and normative authority external to its own operative logic or whether, alternatively, the progressive narrative of Bildung amounts to a speculative “internalization” (Verinnerlichung) of divine agency unfolding within historical, secular time.

It is this question, whose eschatological dimension goes largely unaddressed throughout Forming Humanity, that I would like to press a bit further. While Herdt offers an impressively nuanced and deeply informed account of Bildung as an ambitious program for a human-centered, ethical community, rather less attention is given to key concepts of theological inquiry that under this new dispensation have ceased to play any operative role. The fact that the theological virtues, as well as key concepts such as humility, sin, and increasingly grace (both enabling and cooperative) no longer play a normative and indispensable role in the writings of Herder, and just about no role at all in Goethe and Hegel, strongly suggests that the window has at last closed on the realist and normative framework that had dominated (though never uncontested) Western thought from Plato to Leibniz. Take the concept of sin. Herdt is right, I think, to demur at Barth’s rejection of the “rational autarchy” and “autocratic humanism” of the Bildung tradition simply on the basis of Luther’s self-certifying conception of faith. Properly to engage Hegel on the question of the subject’s rational and ethical autonomy takes a logos theologian, not an antinomian fideist. In fact, Herdt notes, Hegel’s principal “failure is not that of denying human sinfulness” but, rather, his blanket “identification of history as the site of divine self-realization” (234). In qualified assent, I would merely suggest that one might be the cause of the other, that where philosophy would trace the dialectical self-realization of the divine “idea” in history, sin (along with any variety of other normative theological concepts) will be superseded by a strictly immanent view of human freedom as the central idea to be “realized” (verwirklicht) in finite, human time as a definitively self-aware “concept” (Begriff).

Yet another aspect of Hegel’s argument concerns the gradual calcification and eventual collapse of the concept of Bildung that extends from his immediate successors all the way into the twentieth century. Both for Herder and Goethe, Bildung was essentially dynamic and experimental, deeply vested in aesthetic practice and prospective in its view of human flourishing. As unfolded in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, subject of yet another rich chapter in Herdt’s book, narratives of Bildung at the beginning of the Romantic era shuttle back and forth between spontaneous expression and intermittent reflection. Yet already in his early, Schiller-inspired writings from Bern, and most prominently in his Phenomenology (1807), Hegel’s description of Bildung as a kind of practical rationality is forensic, not participatory, animated by analytic detachment rather than intuitive commitment. It is this transmutation of Bildung from a function of dramatic “presentation” (Darstellung) to an object of dialectical reflection and its quasi-sociological description that foreshadows the ideal’s eventual demise.

Forming Humanity does not tell us much about this emergent pattern of reflexive detachment, philosophical prevarication, and ultimate loss, which I would argue is just integral to the Romantic conception of Bildung and, starting in the 1820s, has become virtually synonymous with it. Indeed, this mournful quality unsettling the providential optimism of the Bildung tradition explains the surge of interest in classical antiquity, that shadows the development of the Bildung ideal from its very beginnings in Herder. As interpreted by Winckelmann, Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, and Hölderlin, the ideal of Bildung seems inseparable from its original precursor in classical Greece, a luminous if transient era of collective intellectual and artistic flourishing equally impossible to retrieve or to forget. The affective and formal counterpoint to Herder’s “providentialist optimism” and Goethe’s similarly prospective view of Bildung thus is found in Schiller’s das Sentimentalische and in the genre of the elegy. Hölderlin’s lyric paean to the lost plenitude of Greek paideia and its ruined legacy (“Denn lang schon stehst Du, / Oh Stolz der Welt, die nicht mehr ist.”)1 is the photographic negative of the immanent conception of the imago Dei at the heart of the Bildung tradition, whose anthropomorphic confidence it relentlessly shadows and ultimately exposes as a transient cultural moment. A fuller consideration of the astonishing range of literary output associated with the Bildung tradition (Schiller, Novalis, Hölderlin, Eichendorff, Heine) would have brought out the project’s ethical precariousness and formal paradoxes, which I submit go a long way toward explaining the project’s inevitable and, after 1813, rapid decline.

All this is to remind ourselves that the internal fracturing of the Bildung tradition had come into focus from its very beginnings and, by the time Barth enters the scene, had been the subject of dystopic accounts by Oswald Spengler and Thomas Mann, particularly in “Death in Venice” (1912) and The Magic Mountain (1924). The latter novel, often described as an Umbildungsroman, lampoons both the cosmopolitan and the nationalist ways in which Bildung had been variously inflected during the long nineteenth century. Somewhat earlier, Robert Musil’s Confusions of Young Törless (1906) had offered an unsparing diagnosis of how a typical Bildungsanstalt deforms the moral, intellectual, and sexual personae of the protagonist and his peers. Now, while literary modernism’s exposure of the monstrous underbelly of Bildung as a rigorously institutionalized project seems to postdate the concerns of Forming Humanity by almost a century, this is not actually so. For already in Schiller, Hegel, and Humboldt, Bildung has begun to mutate from an expressivist practice to a sociocultural institution; and by the time Hegel arrives at the University of Berlin (1818) at a time of surging political repression, Bildung has mutated from a verb to a noun, as it were, from imaginative practice to the philistine’s virtual property. Far from denoting the “self-formation” of human individuals and communities in search of an ethically viable and meaningful existence, Bildung has become enshrined in rigid, state-sponsored and administered institutions: encyclopedias, national museums, almanacs, historical dictionaries, philologically accurate editions of medieval sources, and coveted diplomas from the new universities of Bonn, Breslau, and Berlin that had been founded in its Humboldtian imago.

Herdt, of course, is right to insist that “the task of forming humanity” not only “requires hope . . . but also repentance, [and] acceptance of forgiveness,” absent which “the infinite harmonious relatedness that Christians name as trinitarian life” (242) is bound to degenerate into an empty phrase. Yet this ideal of an ethical life consummated in “infinite . . . relatedness” was betrayed the very moment that Bildung defined itself as an immanent and, yes, essentially secular project alternately fixated on the fetish of a German national Kultur or pledged to what Kant in 1784 calls a “cosmopolitan [weltbürgerlich] point of view.” Indeed, Herdt’s opening claim that “the Bildung ideal was cosmopolitan at heart,” aimed at realizing a “shared humanity” rather than idealizing an autochthonous, monolingual culture” (3) may hold mostly true for Herder and Kant. Yet even then it already contains the seeds of its eventual undoing. For one thing, there is the paradox of Bildung envisioned as an ostensibly cosmopolitan ideal of culture whose promotion, however, is almost entirely confined to a single geographic and linguistic domain. Once we factor in how this “cosmopolitan” ideal flourishes just as Germany’s linguistic and cultural domain seeks to realize itself as a German nation, the avowed cosmopolitanism of the Bildung tradition begins to take on a chimerical quality.

While Herdt’s decision to focus on Herder and Goethe as her protagonists makes good sense, it overlooks the concurrent emergence of an alternative, rather more menacing counter-genealogy of Bildung. It would include works such as Fichte’s Bestimmung des Menschen (1800), followed by the rabid nationalism of his Reden an die deutsche Nation (1806), as well as Novalis’ reactionary Die Christenheit oder Europa (1799), the programmatic writings of Franz Brentano (including his virulently anti-Semitic 1813 polemic against Jewish Bildungsbürger), and similar writings by the Catholic Restoration writers Friedrich von Gentz and Joseph Görres. Hence, even as Herder, Goethe, and Humboldt at various points struggle to “repudiate” such notions of Germany’s racial and cultural superiority, surely they cannot be said to have done so “decisively” (94). Unfailingly circumspect in the way she unfolds her argument, Herdt of course also takes note of this “dark side” of Bildung, one “that legitimated injustice, private projects of self-cultivation and the political withdrawal of a cultural elite content to polish itself” (241). Hence, too, as she notes, the young W. von Humboldt, who more than any of the other writers discussed in Herdt’s book helped smooth the passage from Bildung as an ideal to Bildung as an institution, was almost immediately forced to push back against the looming misconstrual of Bildung as sheer “uniformity” and “narcissistic self-cultivation” (115).

Yet not only did Humboldt’s caveats, like Herder’s, ultimately go unheeded, but his successful effort at transposing Bildung from a spontaneous practice into an institutional framework tells us a lot about why the project of Bildung ultimately had to fail. Thus, starting in 1800, Bildung is being co-opted, and its ethical vision effectively vanquished, by the harsh antinomy between the autochthonous ideal of German Kultur and a cosmopolitan (read: French) Zivilisation. In the event, it took but one generation and a pan-European war for the “creative, imaginative engagement of unique persons” (240) outlined in Herder’s and Goethe’s ideal of Bildung to expire in the petit-bourgeois philistinism lampooned in Heine’s On Religion and Philosophy in Germany (1833) and in Carl Spitzweg’s Bookworm (1859).2 Yet another generation later, their alternately humorous or satirical take on the miscarriages of Bildung will be supplanted by the withering polemics of the young Nietzsche in On the Future of Our Educational Institutions (1874). Summing up at that point the fate of Bildung during the preceding half century or so, Nietzsche acerbically remarks on how the vaunted “classical” ideal of Bildung has contracted into the hidebound idea of “training” (Erziehung), that is, into the institutional and administrative socialization of politically conformist and solidly credentialed petit-bourgeois Bildungsbürger content to worship at the barren altar of historicist, specialized “scholarship” (Gelehrsamkeit).

Jennifer Herdt has written an impressive book about the beginnings of Bildung. Yet where a project as ambitious in its ethical and intellectual scope as the Bildung tradition seeks to absorb its metaphysical conditions of possibility (e.g., God, Grace, Redemption) into a process of immanent and increasingly institutionalized “self-formation,” its end turns out to have been indelibly woven into its very beginnings.

  1. “For long now desolate you have stood, O pride / Of a world that is no more.”


  • Jennifer Herdt

    Jennifer Herdt


    Beyond Critique

    Thomas Pfau seeks to explain why the project of Bildung ultimately had to fail. I am interested in rather a different question, that of determining how best to carry it forward, since I believe that in key respects we who live downstream of this tradition are doing so, willy-nilly, and ought rather to be doing so mindfully. Even a rejection is a kind of relation, and the question is what sort of a relation we should enact.

    There is a familiar secularization story about the Bildung tradition, and Pfau wishes that I had stuck with it. On his account, the undertaking was conceived of in “overwhelmingly immanent terms” and hence the seeds of its demise were woven into its DNA from the start. Pfau’s telling of this story, even in the brief expanse of this response, is rich and compelling, reflective of his literary expertise and deep knowledge of the period. I count myself fortunate to have Pfau amongst the participants in this symposium, given his many distinguished contributions to the understanding of Romanticism and more particularly of Bildung and the Bildungsroman; he is a rare theologically attuned voice amongst the interpreters of English and German Romanticism. But I do not think the Bildung tradition is dead.

    Pfau begins by noting his initial hope, in reading Forming Humanity, that the book “might also reach the rather insular precincts of literary studies and help them overcome their decades-long overindulgence in a hermeneutics of suspicion.” This is not a bad way of articulating one of the aspirations of the book, insofar as it might speak to an audience beyond Christian theologians. Others, such as Rita Felski, have begun to speak up about the limits of critique engaged in as an end in itself, and I am happy to chime in; critique is seductive, but it leaves us homeless.1 One form incarnation critique takes is that of anti-humanism. And we must indeed be vigilantly critical of the failures of all past imaginings of the universally human, and of the ways in which these have cast the human in the image of the powerful, notably of Colonizing Man.2 But this does not mean that we can leave behind the task of identifying what it means to flourish as the particular sort of creature that we are, one that constantly throws up diverse new forms of life. Given that we are indeed aware of ourselves as formed self-formers, responsible for the social practices and institutions that define our identities and loyalties, we are carriers of the Bildung tradition.

    What I offer in Forming Humanity is a reparative Christian reading of the Bildung tradition, driven by this normative project. This shapes the particular choices that I make about how to begin and where to end. At the beginning, I dig deep to reveal the theological roots of the Bildung tradition in medieval Rhineland mysticism and early Pietism, in Meister Eckhart and Johann Arndt. And I conclude where Karl Barth ends the first part of his Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, with Hegel. Critical as he is of Hegel, Barth credits him with a concern for truth, for knowledge of God, that he takes to be missing from Schleiermacher, whom he regards as exchanging for the logos of God the examination of human religious consciousness. It is Schleiermacher, not Hegel, who directly inherits Pietism’s interiorizing thrust. Barth convicts Pietism as absorbing all aspects of the otherness of the Word of God by way of interiorizing not just external churchly authority and sacrament, but the neighbor; “Pietism sought the removal or at least the neutralization of the alien character of one’s fellow man . . . he is no longer to disturb me by his otherness.”3 For all Barth’s sharp rebuke to autocratic humanism, he does not merely reject the project of culture, or that of humanism, but rather shows what shape they would need to take in order to be theologically salvageable, accepting that “culture is the task set through the Word of God for achieving the destined condition of man in unity of soul and body.”4

    I am grateful for Pfau’s careful reading of Forming Humanity, which attends to the nuances of the argument. But I do not mean to reassure, as he infers, when I note that for eighteenth-century Pietism, “practical Christianity . . . is not finally understood as a form of human activity at all but rather as a form of divine activity in and through human beings” (71). Pietism, to be sure, is no declaration of human independence from divine agency. But it buys into the same contrastive understanding of human and divine agency that fueled such declarations. The grasp for human autocracy that we witness in Humboldt, Schiller, and Goethe comes into focus precisely as a backlash against the Pietistic evacuation of human agency. In Herder and Hegel (and at certain moments even in Goethe and the others), we have to do with something more interestingly complex than merely this backlash. The immanentizing thrust is not difficult to perceive; I am interested in the more-than-immanent remainder that emerges, particularly as these thinkers sought to make normative pronouncements. This provides an entry point for theological reclamation and repair.

    Pfau suggests that the central question “is whether Bildung still presupposes a transcendent and normative authority external to its own operative logic.” I agree, both with the centrality of the question and with the need for an affirmative answer. I am puzzled, though, by Pfau’s comment that the “eschatological dimension” of this question “goes largely unaddressed throughout Forming Humanity.” It is just this that I find missing in Herder; despite the fact that his understanding of Bildung remains participatory and not merely immanent, a cosmic process in which humankind participates, not a merely human project. He falls into optimistic providentialism because he lacks an eschatological reference, and so must regard “history as capable of serving as the site for human perfection” (111).

    Where Pfau suggests that “the window has at last closed on the realist and normative framework that had dominated (though never uncontested) Western thought from Plato to Leibniz,” I am interested in showing how the window remained open. The growing interest that Pfau notes in secondary causes as these operate in history is not in and of itself problematic (and better than a competitive either/or construal of divine and human agency). There is, to be sure, one trajectory on which Bildung moves from “an expressivist practice to a sociocultural institution.” I raise this in my discussion of Humboldt, the invention of Kunstreligion, the Religion of Art, and the concomitant rise of the Bildungsbürgertum, the educated bourgeoisie with their political withdrawal into private projects of self-cultivation. But I see this as just one trajectory, and where Pfau traces a shift from expressivist practice to analytic detachment, I see an ongoing dialectic between engaged participation and analytic reflection, a dialectic that is bound up with awareness of human beings as formed self-formers, and with the assumption of responsibility for the ongoing reformation of our social practices toward fuller belonging for all.

    I share Pfau’s concern for the eschatological dimension that goes missing in Herder’s and Hegel’s philosophies of history. What I miss in his engagement with the Bildung tradition is acknowledgment of this tradition as a site for working out the radical social and political implications of human creation after the image of God. Within the Bildung tradition, human beings were recognized as responsible to one another for the ongoing tending and transformation of their social practices. To be human, these thinkers grasped, is to awaken to the task of honoring human dignity and difference, building ever-richer webs of recognition and interrelation. And this process was understood, in varying ways open to theological retrieval, as participating in God’s formative activity. This is glimpsed in Herder’s rich consociationist vision of the cosmic unfolding of difference-in-communion, Goethe’s ironic gestures beyond his own authority to chart ethical formation, and Hegel’s insistence that human beings can be at home in the social institutions that comprise “Objective Right” only insofar as these reflect the dynamic freedom-in-relation of Trinitarian life.

    1. Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

    2. María Lugones, “Toward a Decolonial Feminism,” Hypatia 25.4 (2010) 742–59.

    3. Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History (London: SCM Press, 1972; orig. German ed. 1952), 116.

    4. Barth, “Church and Culture,” in Die Theologie und die Kirche (Zollikon-Zürich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1928), 337.

Hjördis Becker-Lindenthal


Becoming Oneself

Kierkegaard’s Subversive Account of Bildung

Jennifer Herdt offers a fascinating re-narration of the “story of Bildung,” which until recently has been understood as a “tale of secularization” (8). She convincingly argues that it would be an oversimplification to paraphrase the conceptual change that took place as “human beings took responsibility for something they had earlier left in the hands of God” (7). Rather, the story of Bildung, properly told, needs to include the loss and partial recovery of Christian Humanism. Herdt approaches her task from two angles: she invites the reader on a journey through the intellectual history of Bildung, while at the same time offering a critical perspective inspired by Karl Barth’s theology. In doing so, she subtly excavates categories from the tradition that might help us define the telos of Bildung today.

Core to the whole endeavour is the distinction between autocratic and authentic humanism; Herdt being in favour of the latter. Autocratic humanism perceives human and divine agency as mutually exclusive and in strict competition when it comes to forming humanity. Moreover, autocratic humanism is defined by the tendency to annihilate genuine otherness by absorbing it into the self—this is the main reason why Barth reproached Pietism’s inwardness. In contrast, the openness to accept the formative power as a gift and the ability to be “called into question, disturbed by otherness” (54) is assigned to authentic humanism.

I would like to contribute to Herdt’s endeavour to redeem the German idea of Bildung. To that end, I will introduce a religious thinker whose work can be read as a subversive engagement with almost the whole Bildung tradition as described by Herdt.

On first sight, adding Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55) to the row of German Bildung thinkers does not seem adequate—after all, he was not German. However, the Dane was writing in a cultural context that exceeded the borders of nations, and he genuinely contributed to the Bildung discourse, albeit indirectly and in a dispersed manner, and until recently largely unnoticed.1 Kierkegaard’s focus on the individual and inwardness seems to indicate that his idea of Bildung is a variation of the Pietistic account of Bildung. As such, it would incur the label of “autocratic humanism.” While Kierkegaard’s thought evolved in deep contact with Pietism, it does not bear the negative aspects of autocratic humanism that Herdt and Karl Barth criticise. Rather, his perspective undermines the dualism of autocratic and authentic humanism.

In Two Ages (1846) Kierkegaard castigates his contemporaries for not being “essentially educated” (“væsentligen dannet”).2 The emphasis is on essentially. Due to the mass print media, there is an abundance of knowledge available, but people prefer this knowledge to be boiled-down, quickly accessible. Rather than reading a whole book, they turn to journals, which publish reviews of novels and plays, summaries of philosophical works and social-political commentaries humouring the public opinion. In addition, there are manuals available that teach cultivated behaviour. Thus, Kierkegaard’s contemporaries are cultivated or gebildet only in a superficial sense. Neither do they engage with the tradition and the contemporary culture thoroughly nor as individuals, reflecting on what something means for their particular existence.

In Two Ages, Kierkegaard goes to great lengths in order to show how mass media gave rise to a public (Danish Publikum), which is the opposite of Kant’s ideal of a self-educating, reasonable public that discovers its self-forming potential. As a member of the Publikum the individual loses her will, together with any feeling of responsibility: “Even good-natured and worthy people become like totally different creatures as soon as they become ‘the crowd’ (Mængde).”3

Being a member of the public distracts the individual from herself and relieves her of the responsibility to become a self. As Klaus-M. Kodalle observes, “Where the ‘I’ is too weak to form [bilden] itself to a distinctive individual, the obsession for surrogates of the self increases.”4 According to Kierkegaard, the main substitute for selfhood in the nineteenth century is being a member of the Publikum. As such, the individual not only forgets about her task of developing an authentic selfhood, but also actively devaluates and annihilates the uniqueness of other individuals. The superficial Bildung that takes place via an engagement with the reading public is thus linked with “levelling” (Nivellering) of otherness.5 The overzealous adaptation to the public opinion leads to inauthenticity all round, manifesting itself in an empty chatter: “The conversation will tend to become a trivial rattling and name-dropping.”6 And while “the inward orientation of silence is the condition of cultured conversations (den dannede Tale i Omgang)”; chattering is the “caricaturing externalization of inwardness, is uncultured (Udannethed).”7

This udannedhed (literally “un-formedness”) also affects those relations in which otherness is usually encountered and cherished: in the relation to a beloved. Kierkegaard is deeply worried about the fact that in Germany—the homeland of Bildung!—there are “handbooks (Haandbøger) for lovers, so it probably will end with lovers being able to sit and speak anonymously to each other.”8 They will not acknowledge the other as a particular individual, but rather use him or her as stage partner to articulate a compendium of romantic feelings and seemingly deep thoughts learned by rote.

People might show all signs of refinement and seem to fulfil the Kantian idea of Bildung, but according to Kierkegaard, this usually is a persiflage. The public annihilates individual differences, lets enthusiasm shrivel and, as a consequence, hampers action. The Bildung of Kierkegaard’s contemporaries is thus not only superficial. It is also impotent. It is distracting the individual from her existential task of relating to the world individually, developing a life view and then acting on it, changing—forming—the world in accordance with it.

Kierkegaard is relentless in his criticism, and the clear-cut talk about essential Bildung is highly normative and judgmental. This, however, does not serve a social exclusivism. It does not legitimate a cultural elite to rule over the still uneducated. Quite to the contrary. Kierkegaard attacks the powerful majority that has the means to cultivate itself. The criteria for true Bildung are not to be found in the bourgeois salons and literary cafés, but in the kitchens and coal cellars: it is the handmaidens and workmen who according to Kierkegaard are essentially educated. They relate to others, themselves and the events in their lives with earnestness, acting on their passions and beliefs.9

Needless to say, this is of course an idealisation. Nevertheless, it suggests that Kierkegaard develops a version of Bildung that would classify as “autocratic humanism” due to its focus on (Pietistic) inwardness, but that does not foster an annexation of otherness or a depreciation of the powerless members of humankind.

But what exactly is essential Bildung, and how is it achieved? Kierkegaard can only say what it is not, as the actualisation of true Bildung is essentially individualistic: “What then, is education (Dannelse)? I believe it is the course (Cursus), the individual goes through in order to catch up with himself (indhente sig selv), and the person who will not go through this course is not much helped by being born in the most enlightened age.”10 The phrase “catching up” with oneself suggests that we are supposed to become what we are—a hidden reference to the idea that it is precisely through their particular individual existences that human beings are the image of God.

Four more things are worth noting here. First, Bildung for Kierkegaard is not possible without de-formation or Entbildung—thus, quite similar to what Herdt has identified as characteristic feature of Meister Eckhart’s account of restoring the imago Dei (42–47). Second, in this twofold process human and divine agency are intertwined, much more than in Eckhart’s account. Third, this has consequences for the author’s relationship to the reader, and fourth, Kierkegaard’s writings can be understood as mediating the opposition of Kunst-Religion and the Pietistic condemnation of human craft.

Kierkegaard was deeply inspired by Eckhart and Johannes Tauler.11 Their influence plays a crucial role in conceptualizing Bildung as depending on its necessary counterpart, i.e., the Entbildung of worldly images. Kierkegaard maintains that in order to become an authentic self, one needs to empty oneself of the cultural imagery instilled by the Publikum and by one’s previous education. These images cover all aspects of life, serving a “secular human mentality that wants to settle down and fancy (bilde sig ind) that now there is total peace and security, now we have achieved the highest.”12 The images concern ethical values, e.g., what constitutes a good human life, religious ideas like neighbour love, and also the person of Jesus Christ. Kierkegaard criticises his culture for exchanging the image of the God-man in his suffering and abasement (a provocative, incomprehensible sign of contradiction) with a neat and pleasant “fantasy picture of Christ (et phantastisk Billede af Christus)” in his glory.13

In the Upbuilding Discourse “One Who Prays Aright . . .” (1844) and Practice in Christianity (1950), we can observe how this cleansing happens. It is a process of letting go of one’s expectations and one’s socially constructed understanding, of the image one has of oneself and of God. However, it is not simply a surrender of all individuality to God, as Eckhart and Tauler suggest. The ultimate goal of Entbildung according to Kierkegaard is the imitation of Christ, but he also stresses that human agency is not meant to be annihilated in order to provide de-individualized vessels of God’s will. Jesus Christ only draws individual selves to himself, as Anti-Climacus explains:

To draw to itself depends upon the nature of what is to be drawn. If this is in itself a self, then to draw to itself cannot truly mean merely to draw it from being itself, to draw it to itself in such a way that it has now lost all its own existence by being drawn into that which drew it to itself. . . . No, when that which is to be drawn is in itself a self, then truly to draw to itself means first to help it truly to become itself in order then to draw it to itself, or it means in and through drawing it to itself to help it truly become itself.14

Becoming a self thus involves a cooperation of divine and human agency. Even though at the end of the day, this is a matter between every single individual and God, others are allowed to help us in this process. Kierkegaard’s authorship can thus be understood as an assistance in becoming a self, focusing on the preparative part, on Entbildung. It is for the purpose of making the reader stumble and question her concepts and mental images that Kierkegaard applies many of his literary tools, like the narrative repetitions (e.g., of the Akedah in Fear and Trembling), catachreses and the clash of content and form (e.g., the scrofulous structure of the Concluding Unscientific Postscript that aims at deconstructing the very idea of philosophy as a system).15

However, there is a deep ambiguity regarding Kierkegaard’s aesthetics and his self-understanding (or his self-stylization) as an author. On the one hand, Kierkegaard wants his work to be perceived as an assignment given to him by God (Danish Styrelese), who seems to dictate the text, while his own task is solely to “write each word, each line, almost unaware of the next word and the next line,” without any “poet passion.”16 Thus, Kierkegaard reinterates the Pietists’ mistrust of human craft (Menschen-Kunst) as explained by Herdt in the second chapter. On the other hand, however, Kierkegaard also values the text as the last sanctuary where the reader can become essentially gebildet (an idea that bears close resemblance to Kunst-Religion). Furthermore, Kierkegaard has a clear, bold goal concerning the impact of his writings, and thus, of his agency as an author. He wants to be a gadfly like his role model Socrates, spurring his contemporaries to think for themselves and to take responsibility for their existence. The entertaining literary aspects of his texts, including the panoply of lively fictive author personalities or “pseudonyms” serve the purpose to catch the attention of the Publikum and fascinate the reader so intensely that at first she will not notice that she has embarked on the process of Entbildung and Bildung.

Admittedly, the ethics of such authorship bear an ethically problematic element: after all, Kierkegaard tried to “deceive” into the truth.17 However, since the “truth” is not a dogmatic set of values and ideas, but rather the radical individual responsibility for one’s life, such deceptive means are provisional. Moreover, many of the literary images, metaphors, and analogies serve an additional purpose. As Ettore Rocca has shown, Kierkegaard uses analogies in order to recall them, drawing our awareness to images and then making us experience their foundering.18 Undermining reading habits like that, Kierkegaard aims at cleansing the readers from their cultural imagery that clogs their receptivity for the divine. The playful, “aesthetic” works thus also have a theological goal: they prepare the reader for the Bildung or the edification in the veronymous discourses.

However, also in these upbuilding texts, Kierkegaard acknowledges that he can only offer his assistance. It is as if one would stretch out a hand to a young child that learns to walk. One can help the child find her balance and give encouragement, but in the end, we all have to walk by ourselves, everyone individually according to their particular physical constitution: “It is the same for the great ones as for the little people—first one creeps, then one walks in a walker, then one walks holding on to a person’s hand, then one walks alone.”19

Some of the questions arising from Kierkegaard’s account of Bildung are these: Do we need to be entbildet in order to become ge-bildet? If so, what are the “images” that we need to let go in the twenty-first century? The modern idea of Bildung arose in temporal proximity with mass print media, so what are the implications of today’s social media for forming humanity? What could be the role of a teacher, coach, and role model—and what must it not be? Does it still make sense to speak of a humanity that is to be formed, or is Bildung something that concerns the individual only? And, last but not least, how do we listen to the voice- and powerless, how do we become perceptive of a potential, genuinely “other” Bildung without idealizing, romanticizing and patronizing its proponents?

  1. See Joakim Garff, “Kierkegaards billeddannelsesroman—om at mime det sublime,” in Geni og Apostel. Litteratur og teologi, ed. David Bugge (Copenhagen: Anis Forlag, 2006), 11–27, and Arne Grøn, “Dannelse of karakter,” Kritisk forum for praktisk teologi 58 (1994) 19–35.

  2. Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages, in Kierkegaard’s Writings, XIV, ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 61; En Literair Anmeldelse, in Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter (in the following: SKS plus volume), ed. Niels-Jørgen Cappelørn et al., vol. 8 (Copenhagen: Gads Forlag, 2004), 60.

  3. Kierkegaard, The Point of View: On My Work as an Author, in Kierkegaard’s Writings, XXII, ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press, 1998), 65; Synspunktet for min Forfatter-Virksomhed, in SKS 16, 45; see Pia Søltoft, “A Literary Review: The Ethical and the Social,” Kierkegaard Studies Yearbook 1999, 110–29.

  4. Klaus-M. Kodalle, Die Eroberung des Nutzlosen. Kritik des Wunschdenkens und der Zweckrationalität im Anschluß an Kierkegaard (Paderborn et al: Schöningh, 1988), 174.

  5. See Kierkegaard, Two Ages, 84–85; SKS, 8, 81–82.

  6. Kierkegaard, Two Ages, 99.

  7. Kierkegaard, Two Ages, 99; SKS 8, 94.

  8. Kierkegaard, Two Ages, 104; SKS 8, 99.

  9. See Kierkegaard, Two Ages 6; SKS 8, 60.

  10. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, in Kierkegaard’s Writings, VI, ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 46; Frygt og Bæven, in SKS 4, 140.

  11. See Hjördis Becker, “Mirroring God: Reflections of Meister Eckhart’s Thought in Kierkegaard’s Authorship,” Kierkegaard Studies Yearbook 2012, 3–24; Becker-Lindenthal, “Kierkegaard’s Reception of German Vernacular Mysticism: Johann Tauler’s Sermon on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and Practice in Christianity,” International Journal of Philosophy and Theology 80.4–5 (2019), 443–64.

  12. Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, in Kierkegaard’s Writings, XX, ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna Hong (Princeton University Press, 1991), 88; Indøvelse i Christendom,in SKS 12, 97.

  13. Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, 97; SKS 12, 106.

  14. Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, 159.

  15. See Hjördis Becker-Lindenthal and Ruby S. Guyatt, “Kierkegaard on Existential Kenosis and the Power of the Image: Fear and Trembling and Practice in Christianity,” Modern Theology 35.4 (2019) 706–27.

  16. Kierkegaard, Point of View, 73.

  17. Kierkegaard, Point of View, 60.

  18. Ettore Rocca, “Analogy and Negativism,” in Hermeneutics and Negativism, ed. Claudia Welz and René Rosfort (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018), 161–75.

  19. Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, assisted by Gregor Malantschuk, vol. 2 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970), 1109; Pap. IV B 76, n.d., 1843.

  • Jennifer Herdt

    Jennifer Herdt


    The Knight of Bildung?

    In college I fell in love with Kierkegaard and his knight of faith, devouring all of the pseudonymous and many of the veronymous works, and writing a senior thesis on community and the individual in Fear and Trembling. First loves rightly retain a special place in the heart. I am therefore particularly grateful to Hjördis Becker-Lindenthal for delving into Kierkegaard’s place in the itinerary of Bildung.

    Becker-Lindenthal aims to contribute to the redemption of Bildung by introducing Kierkegaard into the mix, rightly noting that the Dane was so formed (!) by the German tradition as to render the attribution of cultural Germanity anything but a stretch. But Becker-Lindenthal seeks not simply to introduce Kierkegaard into the Bildung tradition, but also to clear his name of suspicion. Kierkegaard should not be lumped in with the autocratic humanism with which Barth associated Pietism. For all his emphasis on the single individual, Kierkegaard did not fall into autocratic humanism’s inability to encounter otherness, or repeat Pietistic tendencies to preclude genuine encounter by appropriating externality and otherness into the self. But neither does Becker-Lindenthal seek merely to portray Kierkegaard as instantiating “authentic humanism.” Rather, she suggests that Kierkegaard “undermines the dualism of autocratic and authentic humanism.”

    There are several interesting questions here. Is Kierkegaard a Pietist? What sort of humanism, if any, does he embody? My own engagement with Pietism in Forming Humanity is somewhat limited, largely confined to sketching seventeenth-century Pietism as a reaction to rationalism which itself provokes a secularizing reaction—but also a complex appropriation—from the likes of Goethe and Schiller. As Pietistic a thinker as Kierkegaard is, his project is a strikingly different one than that of Spener, Francke and Boehme. He is reacting not to rationalism but rather to a domesticated Christianity synonymous with bourgeois respectability. Rather than being part of the intellectual environment that formed Hegel, he offers a distinctive response to Hegel. He thus displays another, later, twist of the screw.

    In Forming Humanity, I explore the ways in which the project of Bildung was for Goethe and Schiller bound up with the formation of a public, of persons capable of reasoning together with others concerning how to order their lives in common. Yet as I note, this project, conceived in terms of aesthetic education, was scarcely launched before Goethe and Schiller began to lose hope in it. The masses sought entertainment, escape, not the sort of engagement with great art capable of forming self-forming political agents. We hear distinct echoes of Goethe and Schiller’s great disappointment in Kierkegaard’s own critique of the Danish Publikum, to which Becker-Lindenthal draws our attention. As I discuss in the book, Goethe envisions the novel (very much still a novelty in Germany at the time) as kind of secular scripture, a genre suited to the kind of intensive reading and rereading familiar in Pietist conventicles, but aimed at forming agents of active self-realization, rather than faithful disciples. Goethe refused to sanction the myth of domesticated Providence into which Pietism too easily slid, but he struggled to create the autonomous Kunstreligion (Religion of Art) to which he and Schiller aspired. Goethe’s novel Wilhem Meister’s Apprenticeship, still regarded as the epitome of the German Bildungsroman, realized his dreams only insofar as it ironically bracketed his own theories of entelechy and metamorphosis and renounced any claim to authoritatively pronounce on Bildung. The reader is pointed toward the pursuit of the good, true, and beautiful, but Goethe retreats from the role of guide—and so from autocratic humanism.

    While Goethe did not experiment with pseudonymous authorship, surely there are significant parallels here with Kierkegaard’s experiments in confronting the reader with the inescapable task of taking responsibility for the self, of “catching up with” herself, as he memorably puts it.1 But if Goethe sidesteps autocratic humanism by a hair’s breadth, caught up by the recognition of his own lack of author-ity, Kierkegaard’s very target is autocratic humanism, his aim to confront the comfortable bourgeois citizen with the otherness of Christianity, to open stopped-up ears to be newly able to hear the Word of God in scripture. Kierkegaard’s summons to singular selfhood is also a summons to genuine encounter of one self with another; Becker-Lindenthal rightly draws our attention to this, and to Kierkegaard’s insistence that genuine Bildung is more likely to be found on the margins and undersides of respectable bourgeois society, in the kitchens and coal cellars, than amongst cultural elites.

    Does Kierkegaard, then, undermine the dualism of autocratic and authentic humanism? No, or at least, I hope not. Not if autocratic humanism essentially involves the absorption of otherness into the self in a way that precludes both genuine encounter with the neighbor and genuine listening for the Word of God in the neighbor. Autocratic humanism names something that we should be concerned to diagnose, not to affirm or sublate. (In Kierkegaard, too, there may be threads of autocratic humanism to diagnose—as in the ways in which he used Regina, and his failed relationship with her, in order to deepen his spiritual journey.)

    Do I then want to claim Kierkegaard as a knight of “authentic humanism”? Well, insofar as Kierkegaard thinks that one can become a Christian only by emptying oneself “of the cultural imagery instilled by the Publikum,” his own understanding of Bildung, and of the human, is in need of repair. An individual self is a cultural self. It is not by withdrawing or abstracting oneself from one’s cultural formation that one is drawn to Christ. Rather, it is by engaging in redemptive critique of one’s cultural formations.

    In the book, I speak primarily of dialogical humanism, rather than of “authentic” humanism. Kierkegaard certainly gives us another dialogue partner for the never-ending task of assembling a usable humanism. My narrative of the Bildung tradition ends with Hegel, but it surely does not culminate with Hegel. Becker-Lindenthal is surely right that Kierkegaard offers a natural next stop along the way, in a task that rightly remains open-ended, charting a course of critically reparative reading suitable to a creation fallen but still beloved, still summoned.

    1. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 46.

    • Hjördis Becker-Lindenthal

      Hjördis Becker-Lindenthal


      The Dialectics of Bildung

      “It is not by withdrawing or abstracting oneself from one’s cultural formation that one is drawn to Christ. Rather, it is by engaging in redemptive critique of one’s cultural formations.” Jennifer Herdt’s critique of Kierkegaard’s account of Bildung, suggesting a need for repair, is actually not far from Kierkegaard’s own understanding of the matter. There are always risks involved when applying an anachronistic term, and I am thankful to Herdt for bringing the implications of the mystic idea of Entbildung – of emptying oneself of creaturely or cultural imagery – to my attention. I will therefore grasp this opportunity to further clear Kierkegaard’s name of suspicion.

      Kierkegaard reproached the mystics for their seeming acosmism, most extensively through the voice of Judge William in Either/Or. (This does not correctly depict Rhino-Flemish mysticism, his main point of reference, but that is a different story). He also condemns Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the founding father of modern cultural criticism, for fleeing away from culture and into the glorification of nature, thereby turning his back on his fellow human beings – pure egotism, Kierkegaard notes in his journal (NB24:70).

      In addition to the immoral aspects of escapism, such behavior is detrimental to selfhood. According to Kierkegaard, becoming a self is a life-long dialectic of Bildung and Entbildung. After the endeavor to cleanse oneself from the impact culture has on us, we are supposed to return to it, with a changed point of perspective, more attentiveness and kindness, and with the capacity to act. Only in this way are we able to form culture instead of solely and helplessly being formed by it. This double movement, echoing the exitus /reditus structure to which Herdt refers, is deeply rooted in Kierkegaard’s anthropology. In The Sickness Unto Death, he defines a self as a self-reflective relation of opposites, among them necessity and freedom, temporality and eternity. To become an authentic self, one must take a stand towards this relation. One must accept the necessities of being born in a particular time and into a particular social environment, whilst nevertheless acknowledging the chances one has to determine one’s life and recognizing one’s ability to develop and to relate to values that surpass the mere sustainment of one’s physical existence in the here and now.

      There are many ways to despair, that is, to fail at becoming a self. One could fail to develop a self-reflective attitude to the contradictions that we face in our lives. One could also live one’s life one-sidedly, i.e., with a stress on one of constituent of the contradiction pair. In other words: One could live one’s life as fully determined by the culture and its formative power, but one could also ignore these forms and formations and try to escape into the fictive worlds of aestheticism, the evasiveness of irony or the (seemingly) acosmic God-relation of mysticism.

      Not to despair is a permanent challenge. Authentic selfhood cannot be achieved once and for all. Thus, we are faced with the life-long task of what Kierkegaard, through the voice of Anti-Climacus, calls “to become concrete” (Kierkegaard’s Writings, vol. 14, eds. H.V. Hong and E. H. Hong, Princeton, N.J., 1980, 30 / SKS 11, 146). It needs to be understood in its literal sense: as concrescere, as making the contradictions of human existence grow uniquely together to the whole of individual selfhood. The organic metaphor implies two things. First, there is no original authentic selfhood, no “seed” of the self that just needs water and soil in order to grow and become what it already is. Quite stunningly, it also implies that there is no immediate mental or “spiritual” (Danish aandelig) health. We are born into unconscious despair, with a set of unconjugated opposites. Hence, one of the worst forms despair can take according to Anti-Climacus is an “imaginary health” (Kierkegaard’s Writings, vol. 14, 23; SKS 11, 139: Indbildning): the unconsciously despairing self is content with herself, living a one-sided existence without any attempts to let the constituents of selfhood grow together.

      Anti-Climacus (and, throughout his writings, Kierkegaard) acts like a doctor. The first step in the treatment is the Entbildung of an inadequate and all-too convenient self-understanding. Entbildung is thus not simply an emptying of the self of the cultural imagery instilled by the Publikum, the daily press and the zeitgeist. Herdt is absolutely right that we can never get rid of these – an individual self is a cultural self indeed. After all, we simply have to develop a relation to temporality, because it is one of the self’s constituents. What Kierkegaard advocates is a cleansing of the self’s uncritical relation to culture – a kind of existential reset.

      One can only become an authentic self in a culture. But there is more to it, something that has been mostly overlooked by Kierkegaard’s readers. Despite his harsh criticism of modern cultural phenomena, Kierkegaard actually maintains that these phenomena also are an aid par excellence in the process of becoming a true self. How so? Let’s look at two examples.
      Kierkegaard strongly attacks his age for its “leveling” of individual differences in the abstract crowd of the Publikum and its excessive reflection. Leveling allows people to forget their responsibility for themselves and others (it leads to “aping” and envy instead of individual decision and neighbor love). In addition, hyperreflection – for instance, indulging in an endless listing of pros and cons of an action when a decision is needed – makes them passionless and phlegmatic. Playing with the similar sound of the Danish terms for action (Gjerning) and fermentation (Gjæring), Kierkegaard stresses their opposition. “It is a period of fermentation, say the politicians, at any rate it is not a period of action”, he complains in From the Papers of One Still Living (Kierkegaard’s Writings, vol. 1, ed. J. Watkins, Princeton, NJ, 1990, 71/SKS 1, 27). Like this, he subtly criticizes Marx’ idea of a “revolutionary fermentation” (MEW 5, 202), but also Hegel’s description of the early 18th century’s turmoil as a “fermentation […], through which the Spirit, out of the decay of the dead Bildung, rises up to new life” (Hegels Werke, vol. 2, eds. E. Moldenhauer and K. M. Michel, Frankfurt/Main, 1986, 184).

      According to Kierkegaard, nothing arises out of the fermentation of hyperreflection, at least not by necessity. But critical exploration of the depths and shallows of the reflective culture can lead to more authentic, responsible action: “it must always be kept in mind that reflection itself is not something pernicious, that on the contrary the prerequisite for acting more intensely is the thorough kneading of reflection” (Kierkegaard’s Writings, vol. 14, 110f. / SKS 8, 105).

      In addition, the experience of leveling provides an excellent opportunity to become an individual self. It has formative potential, because when it is most intense and the negation of individuality is carried out absolutely, the self might start to realize what she is about to lose. It is a wake-up call that helps to relate to her self anew, and in a more profound manner. Thus, it can be “genuinely educative [Danish dannende, i.e. initiating Bildung] to live in an age of leveling” (Kierkegaard’s Writings, vol. 14, 87 / SKS 8, 84).

      In short: hyperreflection and leveling are a blessing and a curse at the same time, depending on how attentively and how critically one engages with them. Not only does Kierkegaard advise against turning one’s back to the woes of culture and becoming a hermit, he also points out the anthropologically grounded necessity to engage with one’s culture. He urges to stay with the trouble and points out the formative potential of even the most despicable cultural phenomena. True selfhood has no other option but to develop in time, in contingent cultural contexts. After all, it is “the consequence of the appearance of god [Guden] in time,” that it prevents the individual from relating “backward to the eternal”, demanding instead to move “forward in order to become eternal in time through the relation to the god in time” (Kierkegaard’s Writings, vol. 12.1, eds. H.V. Hong and E.H. Hong, Princeton, NJ, 1992, 583, 584 / SKS 7, 531).

Vincent Lloyd


The Denial of Death

In Forming Humanity, Jennifer Herdt tells a story that is wonderfully alluring. It is alluring because it aligns with conventional wisdom, in a deep rather than banal sense—with the emphasis on wisdom. While the book proceeds through detailed scholarly engagements with great thinkers, the thesis of the book is of general interest. Indeed, it addresses the deepest questions that we grapple with: how do we come into ourselves, how do we mature? The first person here means each of us, individually, but also all of us, collectively—all of us here, in this culture, or all of us in general, humanity. Herdt’s compelling claim is that these first person singular and first person plural versions of this question should be answered in the same way: what it means for me to mature, to come into myself, takes the same shape as what it means for us to mature, to come into ourselves.

We all grapple with these conjoined questions, and we call grappling with them well wisdom. It is easier to describe foolishness. The fool sees human maturity as moving from incompleteness to completeness. Moving from deficiency to sufficiency. Moving from the beta version to the fully polished, flawless product, ready for market. Just as children start with small feet and hands and bodies, and baby teeth, and with time grow into full-size adults, with adult-size feet, hands, and bodies, and grown-up teeth, each of us, in our humanity, grows from immaturity to maturity—or so the fool thinks. Similarly, a culture begins partial, grappling, babbling, and moves from stone age to bronze age to iron age, to classical culture to modernity, to the full maturity of postmodernity. This is the caricature of the Bildung tradition; Herdt seeks to distinguish the wisdom of Bildung from this caricature.

Why do such stories of maturity warrant the label foolish? Because our humanity is never complete. In fact, what makes humanity distinctive is the capacity to grapple with that inescapable incompleteness. Time does not bring us from the zero of an embryo to the one of a grown person, nor do we asymptotically approach that point of full maturity. Rather, Herdt in her wisdom, channeling the wisdom of the Bildung tradition she recovers, sees maturation as a process of becoming better and better at losing and recovering—at losing the sense of order and certainty and the work of recovering a livable life in conditions of disorder and uncertainty. This does not happen once, in a singular, grand drama, but again and again, forming the substance of life, individually and collectively—a structure Herdt suggestively identifies with the theological categories of exitus and reditus.

To mature now means to abandon foolishness, to become wise. When we are immature, when our humanity is in its childish stage, we run to order and stability or we run away from it. Put another way, the world of social norms dominates us, exercising its seemingly arbitrary authority over us, and we take comfort in complying or rebelling. As we mature, we come to realize that our relationship to social norms is not one of domination. Norms constitute us, and grappling with them makes it possible for us to become ourselves: our life’s work, our culture’s work. We grapple, but we never control: as soon as we feel as if we have things worked out, as soon as we have become comfortable with our place in the world, the world slips away, disorienting us, forcing us to once again try to seek out a mode of living that is sustainable, that offers comfort. We love and lose love, we become parents, our own parents become ill and die, we lose jobs and gain jobs, we discover new passions and find old passions inaccessible.

In Herdt’s writing, form matches content: she explicates a tradition of thought, and her mode of engagement is itself characteristic of the best of that tradition. She points to ways in which the great German intellectuals moved toward wisdom, and ways in which they remained caught up in foolishness, only to have their successors correct, sometimes overcorrect, for that foolishness. Her story nearly culminates with Hegel, not as all-wise master but as an exemplar of wisdom who himself, when it came to matters of race and history, exhibits stunning foolishness. Inextricable from this story is the theological, and particularly the Christian. Foolishness is another name for secularism, measuring humans and cultures exclusively against worldly terms, testing for completeness, ranking maturity (a trap Hegel falls into with his account of history). Wisdom names an appreciation for a world that is fallen but also creation that is abundant. Theologians, at their best, tell stories that involve the right doses of fallenness and abundance, that is, the right mix of the inexplicable and the chaotic and, out of that disorder, new possibility, new beauty, new life.

The real culmination of Herdt’s account is not Hegel but Barth. That towering theologian turns out, on Herdt’s reading, to be a friendly critic of the Bildung tradition rather than a sworn enemy. Hegel’s story does not get the balance quite right between fallenness and abundance, and the result is sacralizing European forms of life while denigrating others. On Herdt’s reading the way to correct for this error is to learn from Barth to listen, and in particular to listen to the margins, to those whose way of life is very different from one’s own (assuming one is at the center). This practice of listening can restore the proper balance between fallenness and abundance, and so make us, in the secular idiom, wise, in the theological idiom, faithful.

No one wants to be the fool. We all want to grow in wisdom, perhaps in faith. The framing of Forming Humanity is deeply appealing, as a story of self, of culture, and of humanity. I worry that much of that allure comes from the romance of youth. For reasons specific to European and North American culture, when we see a life, we see, first, growth, possibility, and creative transformation, each day after birth bringing new adventures. But each day that passes is also a day closer to death. We are living, but we are also dying. We will suffer in ways that will never open to new, creative vistas: the suffering will increase until our bodies cease, and we are no more. Indeed, in crudely biological terms, we grow for less than two decades, then we slowly and unpredictably move toward our end.

In our era of climate change, not to mention nuclear proliferation, polluted air and water, and other mortal hazards, it is similarly apt to talk about cultures, and humanity, dying rather than maturing. Only the fool imagines technological salvation that will bring collective eternal, worldly life. It seems quite plausible that North America, and humanity as a whole, is geriatric, moving in fits and starts toward our imminent end.

As Herdt explicates it, the German Bildung tradition offers eloquent wisdom for coming of age but has little to say about coming to death. By some calculations,1 less than half of Germans born in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries survived to the age of fifteen. Herdt is right that the great men of the Bildung tradition should have listened more, but they did not have to listen to the margins. Even at the “center,” right around them, millions of children were dying. And of course they themselves were dying, too, their bodies injured, sick, failing, moving in fits and starts toward final collapse. Moreover, in Africa and in indigenous communities in the Americas, millions were dying prematurely due to European adventures and economics, and whole cultures were dying, then died.

What do foolishness and wisdom look like from the perspective of life’s end rather than life’s beginning? What had been orderly, in mind and body, loses its order, likely never to be regained. Capacity for enjoyment, and even simply comfort, diminishes. We become less and less capable of partaking in the activities that once gave us pleasure, and the habits that once gave us solace become painful, eventually impossible. Instead of love opening new horizons of beauty, goodness, and truth, new possibilities for joy, bonds of love become essential for survival. The unpredictable heat of love becomes cooler and cooler bonds of dependency, fueled by obligation (which, of course, may still deserve the name love). Old friends fade, become inaccessible, and, eventually, die. Friendships that remain become rote and hollow, repetition of an imagined past. To imagine a peaceful death, a happy death, or a wise death is to be the fool. We will descend into a world of puss and vomit and excrement. Or perhaps we will die young, suddenly or slowly, painfully or in an instant, but with the same effect: a pile of bones and flesh, no life.

To be wise, from the perspective of death, is to recognize death’s inevitability and its gruesomeness, and still to live. It is to recognize that tremendous suffering approaches, nearer each year, each day, each hour, individually and collectively, and still to enter the fray. Rather than moments of collapse inevitably being followed by superabundance, from this perspective moments of superabundance are inevitably followed by collapse. The former strikes me as a comforting myth that the world tells, the latter strikes me as a story that calls for wisdom, or faith. To have a clear-eyed view of our status among the dying and to, nevertheless, find in the world moments of superabundance, of joy and beauty, of humor and goodness, how could this be possible but by deep wisdom, or deep faith?

And this I take to be the great insight of Christianity (remaining silent on the uniqueness of this insight). Death does not have the last word. Somehow, unimaginably but unquestionably, there is life everlasting. The joy and beauty, the humor and goodness we find in this world need not be dismissed as delusional given the magnitude of our impending suffering and demise. The promise of eternal happiness offers a warrant for happiness in this world, even as the world itself offers no warrant. From this perspective, it is the moments where we encounter fallenness that fill the soul even more than the moments where we encounter superabundance. For when we encounter the limits of worldly order, our belief is strengthened that the world does not have the last word, that death does not have the last word. Paradox and faith are, of course, twins.

In contexts of comfort, of relative privilege, it takes some work to see the time of our life counting down rather than up. But beyond those rarefied corners of the world, those enchanting refuges of the global 1 percent, people and cultures face decline, decay, and demise as their overwhelming realities. Life is lived in the shadow of death: paradigmatically, in the Atlantic slave trade and Native genocide, but also in the many places were poverty, disease, and pollution run rampant. Enchantments, the languages of fools, may try to distract from or deny death, but for most people, in most of the world, death’s shadow over everything and everyone is undeniable. Yet life goes on, sometimes with difficulty, sometimes with joy, often with suspicion of the wisdom of the world that attempts to give order and sense while really denying mortality and securing the status quo.

When we take such contexts—misdescribed as precarious, actually death-bound—at the center rather than margin of our reflection, or our scholarship, our understanding of tradition changes. Well-explicated norms are not the precondition for freedom and flourishing, as Hegel would have it. Engagement with the world, and worldly norms, matter, but what is essential are the punctuations, the encounters with paradox, with the limits of language and life. Tradition, at its best, laces together paradox. It does not capture, hold, and upbuild us; if anything, it purges us. The Bildung approach to tradition, in contrast, takes paradox as ornamentation, or occasion for further maturation. No amount of humbling by listening to the distant other will redeem the intellectual project of these German men.

  1. Our World in Data, “Mortality Rates of Children over the Last Two Millennia,” 2019,

  • Jennifer Herdt

    Jennifer Herdt


    The Foolishness of the Cross

    Vincent Lloyd damns sweetly. On his telling, Forming Humanity serves up deep but finally conventional wisdom, to be contrasted with conventional foolishness. While he does not quite say so, what seems missing from the book is the foolishness of the cross. Conventional wisdom is thus finally exposed as the deeper, more befuddled, foolishness. This is a telling question to put to my project. Lloyd poses it so very well, because he has first listened so carefully; I am grateful that he presses me on this question. How divided are we, at the end of the day? Not very, in my view. But of course that reflects our respective intellectual dispositions, his predilection for paradox and disjunction, my own for reconciliation and repair.

    On my telling, the Bildung tradition, in assuming the task of the individual and collective formation of humanity, carries forward a medieval Christian understanding of humankind. Human creatures are made to the image of God, finite, fallen, and in process of renewal, called through grace to participate freely, as principles of their own action, in the reditus of all creation into the harmony-in-diversity of the divine life. Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century German reflection on Bildung is a key site at which the political implications of this vocation are made explicit; human beings are recognized as responsible for the character of their own social and political institutions, responsible to one another for organizing their social practices in ways that honor human difference, dignity, and moral agency. The project of redeeming the Bildung tradition involves judgment, diagnosis of the ways in which its various thinkers fell and failed along the way: Herder’s lapse into shallow Providentialism, short of eschatological reference; Humboldt’s infatuation with Promethean strength; Hegel’s blessing of “historically grounded right,” his legitimation of colonizing, racist evils by way of their inclusion in the process of divine self-realization. But the Bildung tradition is not merely repudiated. It provided key resources for its own immanent critique, and remained open for critical theological reappropriation. Ethical formation emerges in eschatologically chastened form, as the dialogical encounter amongst myriad individual and collective realizations of the human, none immune from being called to account, or assured of historical victory, each fully human only in receiving itself from one another, and ultimately from an Other.

    Lloyd’s worry is that this redeemed Bildung, even as exemplified in unending critique of all of our best-yet attempts to take responsibility for naming our malformations and rectifying our sedimented privileges, nevertheless fails in its very orientation toward life, growth, and possibility. It fails to come to terms with suffering, age, dying, with life lived in the shadow of death. And Lloyd is quite right that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germans did not need to look outside the boundaries of their territories in order to come to terms with the shadow of death, for it was all around them. And he is right, too, to note that listening to the margins implies one’s own positionality at the center. But to listen to the millions of dying children would have been to listen to the margins. The margins are not geographical. The speaker is always at the center, is always author, claiming author-ity. This was something that the Hebrew prophets grasped. However abject Israel was, the nations could still be called to account before the throne of Jahweh.

    I focus in Forming Humanity on the Bildung tradition within late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Germany. But intellectual traditions with any vitality do not remain neatly bounded by time and place. One significant heritor of the tradition is W. E. B. Du Bois. In his early twenties, Du Bois studied at the Humboldt University in Berlin, named after Wilhelm von Humboldt, its founder. Fascinated by Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, the archetypal Bildungroman, Du Bois used it as a reference point for the interpretation of his own life in his Autobiography. Du Bois spoke, too, of his time in Berlin as the conclusion of his “apprenticeship years.”1 Allusions and epigraphs from Goethe and Schiller are sprinkled throughout his works.

    There are, of course, other influences on Du Bois; Paul Gilroy places him within the lineage of Black Atlantic humanism, along with Cooper, Senghor, Hurston, James, Fanon, Césaire, and Wynter.2 But this does not make Du Bois any less a champion of Bildung. There is no either-or here. Du Bois conceived not just of his own personal vocation, but the core responsibilities of his era, in its terms: not merely the advancement of Black education, certainly not Booker T. Washington’s brand of trade-school training, but the formation of fully human beings:

    The final product of our training must be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man. And to make men, we must have ideals, broad, pure, and inspiring ends of living,—not sordid money-getting, not apples of gold. The worker must work for the glory of his handiwork, not simply for pay; the thinker must think for truth, not for fame. And all this is gained only by human strife and longing; by ceaseless training and education; by founding Right on righteousness and Truth on the unhampered search for Truth.3

    We wince when we read Du Bois reflect on “the permanent uplifting and civilization of black men in America,” as when we read him speak of making “men.”4 But it is important to see that he is using the discourse of civilizational uplift to push back against a tendency he names, “born of slavery and quickened to renewed life by the crazy imperialism of the day, to regard human beings as among the material resources of a land to be trained with an eye single to future dividends.”5 To name “culture” and “character,” “adequate standards of human culture and lofty ideals of life” as worthy ends is to push back against the exploitative reduction of persons to units of labor. Du Bois sees with crystal clarity the warping of character that takes place as the oppressed seek to survive in contexts that reward silence, deception, flattery, and the countenancing of countless violations of self and others.6 Financial and even bodily security, he time and again insists, are not worth the sacrifice of human dignity so often required to secure it. Du Bois sees analogous malformations amongst Jews inhabiting anti-Semitic contexts; this insight gives rise to a strong sense of affinity between African Americans and Jews. But he is at the same time insistent that Americans of African ancestry, who have passed through the crucible of slavery, have made critical contributions to the building of the nation—they have brought gifts of story and song, of sweat and brawn, and a gift of the Spirit (of which more in a moment). The experience of oppression can warp character, but it can also yield priceless gifts. Notably, Jesus is for Du Bois emphatically a Jew, “a dark and pierced Jew, who knows the writhings of the earthly damned.”7 That is, Jesus is for Du Bois “dark,” non-white if not Black, one who knows the temptations of hate, despair, and doubt that are common to oppressed peoples. As J. Kameron Carter analyzes Du Bois’s “Jesus Christ in Texas,” the racial ambiguity of Du Bois’s Jesus “exists as a being-in-responsibility toward the other, even the stranger, in their suffering. This mode of being human is a being-in-love, a new and disruptive form of social and political life, a new politics of theology.”8

    Like Herder’s, Du Bois’s political vision is consociational in orientation.9 Yet Du Bois, unlike Herder, does not succumb to naïve providentialism. Salvation remains firmly eschatological. He has looked the blackness of human evil in the eye. Historical progress is not assured, and it does not legitimate suffering or evil, and the despair it so readily spawns. The gift of the Spirit of which Du Bois speaks has been an active wrestling to redeem a radically corrupt society—“we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. . . . Would American have been America without her Negro people?”10 Those who had passed through the valley of the shadow of death did not turn their backs on the nation that had enslaved them. Indeed, the formerly enslaved here take up author-ity, assume Yahweh’s voice, pleading with headstrong Israel to listen, to turn back.

    “No amount of humbling by listening to the distant other will redeem the intellectual project of these German men,” writes Lloyd. It is a judgment I can respect, given the evils they set loose on this planet. Yet do we not see in Du Bois something of that redemption? And that nothing is beyond redemption—is that not, after all, the foolishness of the cross?

    1. Hamilton Beck, “W. E. B. Du Bois as a Study Abroad Student,” Frontiers 2 (1996) 59.

    2. “Refusing Race and Salvaging the Human,” Holberg Lecture, New Frame, October 13, 2019, These themes are developed more fully in Gilroy’s 2014 Tanner Lectures, “Suffering and Infrahumanity,” and “Humanities and a New Humanism,” Yale University,

    3. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 66–67.

    4. Du Bois, Souls, 72.

    5. Du Bois, Souls, 72.

    6. Du Bois, Souls, 153–54. See the work of Lisa Tessman, Burdened Virtues (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

    7. Du Bois, Souls, 171.

    8. J. Kameron Carter, “Between W. E. B. Du Bois and Karl Barth: The Problem of Modern Political Theology,” in Race and Political Theology, ed. Vincent Lloyd (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 104.

    9. It thus resonates with peoplehood as articulated by Luke Bretherton, that is, as being “about mutual exchanges between different parts that together make up the commonwealth,” “an intricate, differentiated, intercommunal, or ‘consociational’ body.” Bretherton, Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019), 113.

    10. Du Bois, Souls, 198.

Molly Farneth


What Is Other and Different from Ourselves

Jennifer Herdt narrates the Bildung tradition not as a secularizing movement but as an expression of Christian humanism with continuing relevance. The second half of Forming Humanity focuses on a debate within the Bildung tradition about the role of human agency in processes of ethical formation. Herdt is not neutral about what she takes to be the theological stakes of this debate. She turns to Karl Barth to frame her challenge to those within the Bildung tradition who fall back on “autocratic humanism,” understood as a “self-authorizing humanity that has no need of God” (56). The failure of modern theology, for Barth and for Herdt, is the failure to listen for the voice of God, particularly in and through the voice of the neighbor. Herdt writes that “Barth rightly saw that what was at stake in autocratic humanism was a refusal to listen for the Word of God in what is other and different from ourselves” (59).

The last figure whom Herdt considers before returning to Barth in the conclusion is Hegel. As Herdt notes, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is itself a kind of Bildungsroman. Its protagonist, consciousness, sets off on a voyage of discovery. What it discovers is that its sense of itself—who it is, how it knows things, what grounds it has for action—is inadequate. Through experience, it comes to a richer and more adequate sense of what it is and what is authoritative for it—that is, what counts as a reason for belief or action. We, the readers, learn alongside consciousness, which is why Hegel insists in the preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit that its conclusions cannot be presented in advance. Like the bud that becomes a blossom and then a fruit—preserving, overcoming, and fully realizing the truth of the bud—consciousness and the reader are engaged in a process of becoming.

The role of human and divine agency in this process is a matter of debate in Hegel scholarship. On one interpretation—the one that Herdt appears to adopt—God does not just direct this process of becoming but is this process in some important sense. Herdt writes that “Hegel’s God is not fully or perfectly God apart from the historical process; the immanent Trinity is incomplete” (218). Thus, on Herdt’s reading, Hegel avoids one form of autocratic humanism; Hegel’s God is everywhere in the process of Bildung because God is in and through this becoming. But, according to Herdt, this way of avoiding autocratic humanism leads to a different theological problem, namely, that God’s becoming Godself appears to depend on conflict and evil. Herdt writes that, for Hegel, “God does not merely permit evils to happen, and stand in solidarity with sinful, suffering spirit, but is realized in and through this process of happening” (218). On Herdt’s reading of Hegel, the tragedies and catastrophes of history risk becoming part of God’s unfolding perfection. She argues that “Hegel finally regarded the historical process itself as necessary to divine realization. He could not but thereby legitimize historical evils” (241). Hegel’s Bildung avoids the form of autocratic humanism that plagued some members of the Bildung tradition, but, Herdt argues, at great cost.

But it is not obvious that Hegel means by God what Herdt takes him to mean when she criticizes him in this way. One outcome of consciousness’s voyage of discovery in the Phenomenology of Spirit is a different understanding of what “God” and “the absolute” are. At various points in the Phenomenology of Spirit, consciousness posits the absolute as an undifferentiated substance, a wholly transcendent Other, a divine inner voice. Even revealed religion’s understanding of the trinitarian God is, ultimately, sublated (preserved, overcome, fully realized) in philosophy’s conception of the absolute. For Hegel, it is in and through the dialectical method that one can see what is self-sufficient and authoritative. Christianity calls that which is self-sufficient and authoritative “God”; philosophy calls it the “absolute.”

It is only in history that what is self-sufficient and authoritative is achieved. That much is true. But that is because we, fallible humans, are social and historical creatures and our judgments about self-sufficiency and authoritativeness are both situated in social and historical circumstances and emerge from them. History’s “necessity” is necessary in a retrospective sense. We look back to see how we came to be the kinds of creatures that we are, the kinds of creatures for whom this and not that can be taken as authoritative for us.

In the conclusion, Herdt returns to Barth, writing:

The community in which confession arises is not first and foremost a community of virtue, of shared goodness or wisdom. Rather, it is a community of those able to be vulnerable in listening to one another precisely because they acknowledge their sinfulness, and with it their lack of self-sufficiency. “I can confess my faith . . . ,” Barth insists, “only with neighbors, that is with those known to me as fellow believers—and that means known above all as fellow sinners and fellow prisoners.” “We must have found one another mutually, not just in a sentimental brotherly love but in the criminality common to them and to us, and in the pardon for criminals common to them and to us.” Hence, he insists, confession takes place “in the muck and misery of this definite earthly place.” (247–48)

Given the centrality of repentance in Herdt’s final assessment of the importance of the Bildung tradition, it is surprising that she skips over significant parts of Hegel’s own account of repentance. For instance, as Herdt summarizes the final section of the “Spirit” chapter of the Phenomenology of Spirit: “Having displayed the bankruptcy of the Enlightenment critique of religion and the unsatisfactory character of the way in which Kant seeks to bring God in to overcome the dualisms he inscribes in morality Hegel turns from the dialectic of spirit to that of Religion” (210–11). But in this summary, Herdt omits one of the most profound sections of the Phenomenology of Spirit, particularly given her concerns: Hegel’s discussion of “evil and its forgiveness.” In that section, Hegel describes the confession and forgiveness between two fallible agents—confession and forgiveness that give rise to their reciprocal recognition. The recognition that emerges is the recognition not of the humanity of the other (in some bland or contentless sense), but of their mutual authority and accountability. Hegel says that this is “a reciprocal recognition which is absolute spirit” (Hegel, PhG §670). We can read our conceptions of “God” back into Hegel here, or we can think about what it might mean for people’s practices of grappling with fallibility and forgiveness to give rise to something that is worth calling “absolute.” I have my own reading of this section, and given our other interpretive differences, I suspect that Herdt would disagree with it. But I suspect that her charge—that Hegel’s repentance gives rise to a premature reconciliation with a God perfected in history—misses Hegel’s insistence on a reciprocal recognition that is premised on repentance and also on forgiveness, on the recognition that we are fallible, that our perspectives are partial, that we had better continue to listen to one another and cast our lots together.

Repentance is crucial to the avoidance of autocratic humanism—for Herdt, Barth, and Hegel; it involves recognizing and admitting our fallibility and remembering that no individual is self-sufficient. This is why, for Hegel, repentance is that which makes reciprocal recognition possible; it is in confession and forgiveness that what Hegel calls absolute spirit appears. But this is not the same as saying that we have achieved a premature reconciliation with a God perfected in history. For Hegel, confession and forgiveness are not a one-and-done kind of thing.

If Barth provides the standard by which the various figures in the Bildung tradition are to be judged, then Hegel may indeed fall short. Hegel’s absolute is not Barth’s God. Nevertheless, I think that Hegel’s account falls short only when the theological terms are set in advance. Living traditions, of course, are more dynamic than that. Terms may be set in advance, but they are never set once and for all. What the terms ought to mean, when they ought to be used, and what the consequences of their application ought to be are among the things that the members of a tradition argue about. Hegel’s project, in the Phenomenology of Spirit, at least, is to follow such arguments about the terms, and to proceed in such a way that the meaning of terms such as spirit, God, and the absolute are given their content only in and through such arguments, in which the flaws of the assumptions we bring to the table are exposed through our experiences—and where we engage in the ongoing practices of holding one another to account for those flaws. This process is Hegel’s Bildung.


Forming Humanity presents the Bildung tradition as a living tradition in the MacIntyrean sense: an argument across time. The figures on whom Herdt focuses—including Meister Eckhart, Luther, Boehme, Humboldt, Herder, Goethe, and Hegel—hold that aesthetic and ethical formation are crucial to the achievement of humanity, but argue about what that achievement might look like and how it might come about.

I love MacIntyre’s definition of a living tradition. I love its emphasis on argument alongside continuity. Not least, I love how it changes how we might think about who is included or excluded from our stories about traditions. There’s room for a great deal of disagreement within those stories.

This is one way in which I wonder about Herdt’s broader narrative of the Bildung tradition. Herdt highlights the goods shared by those whose stories she tells, as well as the argument they had or that might be had amongst them about how to understand and to achieve those goods. I have no qualms about including any of those figures in the tradition as she narrates it. But I wonder whether the boundaries around the tradition are too closely drawn. What would her story about the Bildung tradition look like if she included the German Jewish intellectuals who were concerned about the relationship among God, the Jewish people, and religious practice? How would that complicate her story about Christian humanism, and about what Bildung was supposed to achieve? Or what would it look like if she included the women, such as Dorothea von Schlegel and Rahel Varnhagen, who hosted salons in which the very topic of Bildung was discussed, debated, and practiced? Particularly given Herdt’s insistence, in the conclusion of the book, on listening to differently situated others as an aspect of Bildung, how might the shift from the written word to embodied dialogical practice change Herdt’s story about the arguments about what Bildung could be? This would not even take us out of the homes and neighborhoods in which figures such as Humboldt, Goethe, and Hegel lived and wrote, but might develop our picture of the tradition they occupy more fully.

I hesitate to criticize Herdt for the book she did not write. There are always hard choices to be made in crafting a book of this type. The story of the Bildung tradition that Herdt tells has many merits. It is ambitious in its scope, and careful in its details. It is deeply learned, and brings clarity to a set of texts and thinkers and intellectual movements that share concerns, if not conclusions. But in her focus on these texts and thinkers and not others—even others in their midst—Herdt sidesteps important questions: whose humanity, which formation?

  • Jennifer Herdt

    Jennifer Herdt


    Refusing Rationalization

    What I offer in Forming Humanity is a reparative Christian reading of the Bildung tradition. Acknowledging the standard account of this tradition is a secularization story, I set out to show that things are more complicated. I argue that the project of forming self-forming persons capable of recognizing themselves and one another as such, capable of forging together social worlds in which they could truly be at home, involved what I call “a partial recovery of the narrative logic of Christian humanism, with its vision of the exitus and reditus of creation, married to a new sense of historical particularity and creative novelty” (239). The medieval vision pictured frail and fallen humanity as entrusted with a special task, given their capacity for moral agency and responsibility—that of extending God’s invitation to friendship, especially to the vulnerable, strangers and enemies, not in competition with God but as healed and empowered by grace. Early modernity witnessed new awareness of human agency in the formation of social and political worlds, and new anxiety over the exercise of human agency and imagination. Pietist efforts to shut down Menschen-kunst, human imagination and formative agency, elicited a backlash valorizing human autocracy. But this backlash is not the whole story. The point is not to claim that Herder or Hegel were orthodox Christian believers. Rather, it is to argue that they are not well characterized by the charge of “autocratic humanism.” They understood themselves to be “interpreting and furthering, not displacing,” earlier Christian humanist understandings of the theological vocation of humankind, working out in particular “the radical social and political implications of this doctrine of creation in the image of God” (8). These were, I have argued, thinkers “intent on overcoming impoverished notions of God as contrastively transcendent to the world, of divine agency as competing with human agency, and so of finding more adequate ways of characterizing not just human self-realization but also the divine activity within which this self-creation was unfolding” (9). They failed in a variety of ways, which I diagnose in the book. But “their understandings of Bildung and the formation of humanity are nevertheless open to being critically reappropriated by a renovated Christian humanism that accepts the task of the formation of humanity through projects of individual and collective human self-realization as participation in the reditus of creation to a radially transcendent God whose life is overflowing self-gift and invitation into friendship” (9).

    Karl Barth serves as the primary theological interlocutor for this project because he is at one and the same time one of the sharpest critics of the Bildung tradition and one who in important respects stands within that tradition in his acknowledgment of “culture” as “the task set through the Word of God for achieving the destined condition of man in unity of soul and body,” a task realized only eschatologically, but anticipated in ongoing dialogical encounter with the neighbor whose alien character disturbs.1 Barth is important for the project of offering a reparative Christian reading of the Bildung tradition. He helps the project speak to Christians who too quickly dismiss modernity as autocratic humanism, who too easily adopt secularization narratives and anti-modern nostalgia. Not all audiences are subject to these temptations, or interested in a Christian reading of the Bildung tradition. I have nevertheless ventured to hope that they might find Barth’s claim that the Word of God comes to us always through our fellow creatures politically if not theologically compelling (18).

    There are of course many other ways of approaching the Bildung tradition, and other ways one might draw it within the bounds necessary to the all-too-finite project of a book. I love Farneth’s suggestions that one might narrate the tradition of Bildung through German Jewish intellectuals of the day, or through the women who hosted salons in which Bildung was being debated. They are very much in keeping with Herder’s vision of an ever-expanding consociational web of particularities, and with Hegel’s concern with reconciliation as mutual recognition. While these are paths not taken in my book, I hope that others—perhaps Farneth herself—will explore them, adding to the distinguished contributions she has already made to Hegel scholarship. I do in the book touch on the neuralgic point of Hegel on the Jewish question, and of the ways in which Hegel’s very effort to defend the granting of civil rights to the Jews at the same time enacts a form of misrecognition; Hegel is not able to recognize the Jews in their particularity, but only as “primarily human beings” and therefore as potentially assimilable into Christian Europe (227). I would be interested in Farneth’s own take on this question, and on Hegel’s not unrelated justifications of European colonialism.

    Farneth, understandably enough, has no interest in performing a reparative Christian reading of Hegel, although I take it that we share an attraction to what she terms “Hegel’s insistence on a reciprocal recognition that is premised on repentance and also on forgiveness, on the recognition that we are fallible, that our perspectives are partial, that we had better continue to listen to one another and cast our lots together.” After all, I end the book with the claim that “it is in mutual recognition of one another in all of our socially embedded particularity, and in the shared life, the friendship, that this recognition makes possible, that we become more fully human” (251). Farneth worries that I have missed this because I have passed over Hegel’s discussion of evil and its forgiveness in the Phenomenology. But do discuss Hegel on forgiveness (234), if not that particular passage, and I take it to be one of the real strengths of his thought that he pushes back against what he sees as the overly rosy picture of human nature propounded by his contemporaries, insisting on the ongoing need for repentance and forgiveness for reconciliation.

    Farneth does not need theological language in order to claim that “it is only in history that what is self-sufficient and authoritative is achieved.” But my worry about Hegel, and the focus of my critique, is that he does use theological language, and uses it in a way that identifies history as the site of divine self-realization. It is this move, this theology of history, that provides a justification for evil that should be named and rejected. A Christian philosophy of history can agree that we finite and fallible humans can only come to grasp the Concept in history, but not that there is lack at the heart of the Immanent Trinity. This point is critically important even for those who eschew the theological language, because of Hegel’s willingness to countenance evils and injustices as instances of “historically grounded right.” Hegel takes it that actual evils are legitimated by their inclusion in the process of reason’s realization in history. But this is a temptation we must refuse.

    1. “Church and Culture,” in Die Theologie und die Kirche (Zollikon-Zürich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1928), 337, quoted in Forming Humanity, 14.

Chad Wellmon


Christian Humanism Is a Wooden Iron

Barth and Post-War Humanisms

In the brief respite between total wars, most Christian intellectuals in Europe––from Catholics such as Jacques Maritain and Simon Weil to Protestants such as W. H. Auden and C. S. Lewis––professed an allegiance to humanism, as did an array of confessing and non-confessing Communists, Dada-ists, Futurists, liberals, and Marxists.1 But beyond a general commitment to the human, they tended to agree on little else.

After the Allies dropped the final bombs on Berlin and Dresden, the United States devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the world began to learn that the German National Socialist regime had murdered millions of Jews, disabled persons, homosexuals, political dissidents, and all those people they categorized as not fully human, the moral salience of the human could have collapsed. As Aimé Césaire wrote in 1950, at the end of humanism “there was Hitler.”2 After Hitler, however, there was yet more humanism.

Following the end of the war, intellectuals, politicians, scholars, and scientists across Europe returned to the question of the human. They debated it in periodicals and at conferences devoted to recovering “the human,” “humanism,” and “humanity.” In September of 1949, Karl Barth spent ten days in Geneva at one such event, a conference titled “Pour un nouvel humanisme.” Those invited to Geneva advocated a number of different humanisms, from ontological naturalism and idealism to existentialism and neo-classicism.

Reflecting on the event six months later, Barth described how after he and a French Dominican priest, Pierre Maydieu, had spoken “frankly” as confessing theologians, Karl Jaspers had complained of the “odious pretense to the absolute.” Like the other “respectable modern liberals” in attendance, explained Barth, Jaspers “feared us.”3

But these same “liberals” similarly feared Henri Lefebvre, the only communist in attendance. “Since the beginning” of the conference, interjected one attendee according to Barth, “I have felt caught between two jaws: on the one hand Professor Barth and Reverend Father Maydieu who tell us: ‘Repent and everything will be simple!’ And on the other hand, Henri Lefebvre who answers: ‘Imitate the homo sowjeticus.’” Whereas the “modern liberals” offered humanisms that simply consoled, the communists and theologians pointed to humanisms that “call[ed] one to decision and responsibility, to belief and obedience,” to action (“Humanismus,” 26, 107).

As I read Jennifer Herdt’s Forming Humanity, Barth’s description of the Geneva conference returned again and again. I could hear his refrain: it was all so “menschlich.” We got nowhere, we agreed on nothing, but it was all so nice. In what follows, I want to consider the fears expressed by Jaspers and his fellow “modern liberals” as well as expand on what I take to be Herdt’s own Barthian concerns, doubts even, about Christian Humanism.

Recovering a Christian Humanism with Barth and Hegel

Herdt wants to retrieve a Christian humanism through a reappropriation and reinvention of the German Bildungstradition. She hopes that such a reappropriation will provide a “renovated humanism that accepts the task of the formation of humanity through projects of individual and collective human self-realization as participation in the reditus of creation to a radically transcendent God whose life is overflowing self-gift and invitation into friendship” (9). She calls it a “groping after a form of immanent transcendence” in which Christian love for God leads not to a rejection of this world but sustains a commitment to “universal human solidarity in the face” of this world, this life, and these humans.

Herdt brilliantly succeeds in much of this, showing how elements of the Christian tradition are woven through modern reflections on cultivating, forming, and loving humanity. She shows how the Bildungstradition has been and can continue to be reinvented. She mines it for complex accounts of human agency and finitude; provocative descriptions of the relationship of human development and the natural world; examples of the importance of virtue and tradition in self-consciously modern traditions; instances of the living-on of an imago dei tradition; and, perhaps most clearly, a confidence in the potential of human reason chastened by profound awareness of human finitude and, even, evil.

Although Herdt closely engages an extensive array of historical figures, Barth and Hegel are central to her project. She identifies Hegel as the “culminating figure in the Bildung tradition’s retrieval of a dialogical Christian humanism,” and claims that “as far as the uncompleted theological task of Bildung is concerned, today we remain essentially where Hegel left us” (17). Herdt turns to Barth for what she calls an “immanent critique” of the Bildungstradition. His critique of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century philosophy an theology serves as a check on the Bildungstradition’s tendency to totality, the desire for completion, and the satisfactions that humanity as already been achieved. For Herdt, Barth provides eschatological restraint.

My question for Herdt is whether Barth’s “immanent critique” turns out to be more than a check on undesirable philosophical proclivaties. Is it not, more accurately, an explicit contradiction of the (post-Hegelian) Bildungstradition? And, if this were true, what are the consequences for Herdt’s own project to reinvent a Christian Humanism?

The Catechism of Philosophical History; or, How to Become a Hegelian

In Die Protestantische Theologie im 19 Jahrhundert, Barth wrote that what was “astonishing” about Hegel was not that he considered his own philosophy to be the culmination of the history of philosophy. That was simply an expression of the “self-assurance” Hegel had lent human thought. What was so “astonishing” about Hegel was how quickly he was forgotten, superseded by “the positivism, the pessimism, the materialism, and even neo-Kantianism” that characterized German intellectual life after Hegel.4 Herdt mostly follows Barth in identifying Hegel as a cesura between the speculative idealism, metaphysical aspirations, and foundationalism that characterized philosophy from Reinhold to Hegel and the anti-foundationalism, empiricism, and sense of crisis that characterized it after the Prussian meister.5

Yet, after Hegel these same metaphysical desires and philosophical ideals persisted even as they were reoriented to different ends in ways that prove consequential for Herdt’s reappropriation of the Bildungstradition for a Christian Humanism. This reorientation was especially evident in the transformation of eighteenth-century world or universal history into what I, following Ian Hunter, would call nineteenth-century philosophical history.

In 1789, Friedrich Schiller described world history as a “full and complete view” that enabled certain Europeans to look upon the “long chain of events lead[ing] from the present moment back to the beginning of the human race and link them together like cause and effect.” To “divine” that the

refined European of the eighteenth century is . . . simply a more advanced brother of the contemporary Native North American or the ancient Celt? All these accomplishments, artistic impulses, and experiences, all these creations of reason, have been cultivated and developed in humanity in the space of a few millennia.6

Kant, Hegel, and their acolytes endowed Schiller’s world history with a philosophical framework and metaphysical purpose. In so doing, they helped to transform Bildung from a primarily individual process to a civilizational one that proceeded over millennia. In his various essays on race and lectures on anthropology, Kant intimated how his moral ontology of human being––the purported gap between reason and feeling, mind and body––could be overcome in and through history. Hegel transposed this same moral ontology onto history and thought that the reconciliation of reason and its others (feeling, irrationality, myth, religion) would be achieved through historical progress.

Both right and left Hegelians of the 1830s/40s committed themselves to some version of this philosophical history. They believed that instances of particularity––aesthetic, religious, historical, legal, political––would of historical necessity ultimately be translated from their particular language of origin or representation into systematically articulated universalist, rational social structures and norms. Philosophical history linked individual Bildung to species Bildung.

Although the neo-Hegelians, especially those more to the left, largely rejected Hegel’s metaphysics, they believed in the identity of reason and history, the necessity of historical progress, and historical laws. They argued about the degree and form of these rationalizations and translations through the historical process of this intellectual, moral, and social learning process (or Bildung), but they presumed that the ultimate outcome of the history of reason would be a distinctly and identifiable European modernity. This developmental historical account––not intellectual intuition, self-evident principles, or a priori or deductive reasoning––legitimated the norms, ideals, and practices for which they argued. These philosophical histories were meant to alert one to the ubiquity and tragedy of alienation and induce a desire to participate in their reconciliation through history and, thereby, the realization of human autonomy and freedom.

Philosophical history demonstrated, as the left Hegelian Karl Ludwig Michelet put it in 1843, that the “goal of history is the secularization [Verweltlichung] of Christendom.” He also identified the primary agents of this progressive secularization: The “holy flame of Wissenschaft, which will bring life-giving warmth to all nations and lift up the human race in the image of God in reality, will be carried by the Germans, its true conservators.”7

After the failed Revolution of 1848, Hegelian-inspired philosophical history echoed far beyond self-identified Hegelians. It could be found in the Rankian critical methods of Prussian historians, the histories of science written by natural scientists such as th physiologist and secretary of the Prussian Academy of Sciences Emil Du Bois-Reymond, or, with renewed fervor, among the student movements that took shape at the turn of the century.

Herdt rightly worries about the entailments of Hegel’s identification of God and history for the question of evil, but does she think a post-Hegelian concept of Bildung can be fruitfully decoupled from the more basic and pervasive identification of Bildung with the story of intellectual, moral, and social development that takes a particular (European) modernity and form of human being as the necessary and normatively compelling outcome? Or should it entirely?

Habermas, Translation, and the Intractable Problem of Bildung

To put my concern differently, what would Herdt make of Jürgen Habermas’s recent arguments that what our current world needs now is more translation between “religious” and “secular” citizens? In a global world defined by sharply divergent social systems, increasing pluralism, and the persistence of religious faith, the most pressing question, writes Habermas, is this:

How can respect for the inviolability of human dignity, and, more generally, a public awareness of the relevance of normative questions, be kept alive in the face of growing and disarming systemic strains on the social integration of our political communities?8

Since 9/11, Habermas has repeatedly suggested that the prospects for shared normative commitments, common goods, and a “new form of [global] consciousness” rest on the possibility of translation between secular society and religious communities.

Habermas’s so-called post-secular notion “translation” is itself a translation of what he termed the “Versprachlichung” of the sacred in Theory of Communicative Action. There Habermas cast modernity as the “development” toward the communicative rationalization of the life world. According to his developmental model, changes from one worldview to another can be explained not only in terms of external factors but also in terms of progressive advances within a broader, more universal “process of learning” in which previous ones are “devalued.”9 He even associated these developments with “mythical” and “modern” worldviews.

Habermas tied this “learning process” and his theory of communicative action more explicitly to a historical account and narrrative of modernity. For Habermas, modernity refers to a particular historical process in which the socialization and expressive functions of ritual practices (religion) “changeover” [übergehen] to communicative action. The “authority of the holy,” he writes, is successively replaced through the “demystification” and “disempowerment” of the sacred. Or what he calls the “making-into-language of basic normative understandings secured in ritual.”10

Considered in these terms, Habermas’s post-9/11 argument that “secular reason” ought to “recover” or “salvage” [Bergen] the cognitive and semantic content of religious communities and traditions by translating it into “secular” forms does not represent a profound shift in his thinking.11 Like his nineteenth-century neo-Hegelian predecessors, Habermas presupposes that religious and secular (or properly philosophical) spheres, just like religious and secular languages, have been and will remain separate and mutually unintelligible. Any act of translation, then, just like any development in the historical learning process, is a movement from one domain or sphere into another; translation, just like neo-Hegelian forms of rationalization, moves in one direction––into a more rational, more universal, more verweltlicht future.

But what might be lost in translation?

Epistemologically and linguistically, religious communities and traditions function as cognitive and semantic Bestand for a (temporally) deficient secular reason. Ethically, the philosophical historical underpinning such acts of translation and encounter between the “religious” and “secular” citizen would, so it seems to me, cultivate a particular disposition, especially in the latter. Even if the “modern” and “secular” citizen imagined by Habermas is willing to engage a “religious” citizen, could she engage with humility, openness, and real interest if she knows that her interlocutor confesses and practices a mythical form of life that will in time be superseded by a more modern, more rational, more secular form of life? That is, the form of life to which she herself remains confidently committed. She assumes a basic disposition to herself and to the non-secular or religious other. She is the product of a distinct Bildung and relates to others in terms of this formation, a formation whose philosophical history has a clear ethical force.12

What would Herdt make of all this? There is a certain irony that in Habermas’s account, at least, the “more expansive conceptions of speech and listening” Herdt hopes for would ultimately be translated into readily recognizable forms of secular reason. Herdt’s theological figures would be transformed into Habermasian interlocutors.

Hegel and Habermas, Barth and Herdt

I think Habermas’s reinterpretation of the Bildungstradition––presumably elaborated in his recently published two-volume book Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2019)––serves to highlight what I assume Herdt would consider its own limitations. Habermas’s suggestion that modernity is the result of an intellectual and moral process presumes that “religious” believers and theologians live within less well-developed spheres of existence. Even with his purported rejection of totality, finality, teleology, and unilinearity, Habermas also reveals Barth’s critique of the Bildungstradition to be not only an immanent critique but a contradiction of the Bildungstradition, at least in its post-Kantian, post-Hegelian forms. My point is that if Herdt hopes to recover a Christian Humanism consonant with both the post-Hegelian Bildungstradition and Barth, the chasm she seeks to bridge may be wider than she acknowledges.

In order to bridge this divide, Herdt appeals, for example, to Barth’s account of revelation as listening for the Word of God, a “command and self-revelation [that] always comes to us through our fellow creatures” (Herdt, 18).13 Here and throughout her book, Herdt toggles back-and-forth from specific instances of this self-revelation to invocations of “humanity,” “humanism,” or “the fully human” (e.g., 19, 23, 251). It is at these moments that Herdt’s Hegelian tendency to identify, or at least analogize, fellow creatures in their shared here and now with “humanity,” “the human,” or “Christian humanism” that her rehabilitation of the Bildungstradition threatens to domesticate and ultimately blunt what she calls Barth’s “immanent critique.” Do such analogies not short circuit Barth’s critique or, at least, translate it into neo-Hegelian forms of rationality?

In 1949, Barth considered the various forms of humanism on offer in Geneva meaningful and legitimate “possibilities” for living a human life adequate to its “allotted time.”14 He contended that they were to be engaged, lived out, and cultivated, but also not mistaken as in themselves complete or comprehensive. And this went for Christians as well. “There is no Christian style of life,” he said. “There are styles, yes, in different ages . . . I refuse to imprison Christian life in a certain frame.”15

In the here and now of postwar Europe, Barth thought that it was imperative to reassess what theologians, philosophers, and historians had long taken to be the audacious claim of Christianity to a universalizable and sure moral order. Like any good post-Hegelian thinker, he was guided by the ideal that any self-evident, deduced, or intuited definition or analysis of concepts such as “human” or “God” would bear the all-too-human traces of our finitude.

“Christian humanism,” wrote Barth using an idiom both Feuerbach and Heidigger had used to describe the idea of a Christian philosophy months after the Geneva conference, is a “wooden iron [hölzernes Eisen].” Here, Barth treats “Christian Humanism” as a tool with particular affordances. Those who try to use it for their own purposes are induced to speak in abstractions and airy principles. They become beholden to the very factions they hoped to transcend. Whoever uses it risks self-delusion; once in the fire of this world, it burns to ash. “One must,” he concludes, “abstain” using it.16

Against all this Barth pointed to the witness of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ: “The Gospel is neither a principle nor a system . . . it is spirit and life, the good news of God’s presence and work in Jesus Christ . . . [and it] builds congregations that serve among all people.”17 Understood in this light, a Christian theology would aspire to know and understand the varied and incomplete practices of being human as pointing not only forward through Bildung, but backwards to a person and event beyond itself. Here, ethical practice points; it reports; it testifies to that which it is never fully is. It is, as Barth put it, “Einübung”: a learning process that unfolds in time through accumulated experiences, acquired habits of perception, and at an insurmountable distance from its only legitimate exemplar.18

Regardless of whether one shares Barth’s commitment to grace (or in Hegelian terms, the underlying negativity of his humanism), it seem clear to me that Barth ultimately contradicts all humanisms. Furthermore, Barth’s own critique highlights how an attempt to recover a Christian humanism by appealing to the Bildungstradition might end up, unwittingly or not, casting theologians and “voices” formed in religious communities within a developmental narrative that fates them to irrelevance, translated into “voices” they would not recognize as their own.

I think this situation is precisely what Herdt hopes to avoid by rejecting totality and embracing an eschatological ethical stance. But with both Barth and Hegel as her primary guides can she? What is to prevent another Christian humanism from becoming what it has so often been: a more humane, more moral sheen for all-too-human interests?

  1. For a fascinating account of these various inter-war humanisms, see Stefanos Geroulanos, An Atheism That Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).

  2. Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (New York: Monthly Review, 2000), 37.

  3. Karl Barth, “Humanismus,” Theologischen Studien 28 (1950) 13–28, 22, 26.

  4. Karl Barth, Die protestantische Theologie im 19. Jahrhundert: Ihre Vorgeschichte und ihre Geschichte (Zollikon/Zürich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1947), 343.

  5. See Herbert Schnädelbach, Philosophy in Germany, 1831–1933, trans. Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

  6. Friedrich Schiller, “What Is Universal History and Why Study It? An Inaugural Academic Lecture,” 29–44, in The Rise of the Research University: A Sourcebook, ed. Louis Menand, Paul Reitter, and Chad Wellmon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 40, 38.

  7. Karl Ludwig Michelet, Entwicklungsgeschichte der neuesten deutschen Philosophie (Berlin, 1843), 305, 400. For a discussion of nineteenth-century German notions of “secularization” to which I am indebted, see Ian Hunter, “Secularization: The Birth of a Modern Combat Concept,” Modern Intellectual History 12.1 (2015) 1–32.

  8. Jürgen Habermas, “‘The Political’: The Rational Meaning of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology,” in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, ed. Judith Butler et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 23.

  9. Jürgen Habermas, Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns: Handlungsrationalität und gesellschaftliche Rationalisierung (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1985), 1:104.

  10. Habermas, Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, 2:119.

  11. Habermas, Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion: Philosophische Aufsätze (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2005), 255.

  12. Compare this to Amy Allen’s similar discussion in The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), esp. 76–79.

  13. Compare to Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (London: T. & T. Clark, 1932–67), III/3, para. 69.

  14. Barth, “Die Aktualität der christlichen Botschaft,” Theologischen Studien 28 (1950) 3–12, 8.

  15. Barth quoted in the conference minutes as published Pour un nouvel humanisme: Textes des conférences et des entretiens organisés par les Rencontres internationales de Genève, ed. René Grousset (Geneva: Neuchâtel, 1949), 252.

  16. Barth, “Humanismus,” 21.

  17. Barth, “Humanismus,” 21.

  18. Barth, CD III/4, para. 52.

  • Jennifer Herdt

    Jennifer Herdt


    Karl Barth and God’s Humanism

    On Chad Wellmon’s telling, Barth is an anti-humanist, someone who contradicts all humanisms, including that of the German Bildung tradition. And there is something bracing about a staunch refusal of talk of the human that, after all, proves so protean, so easily deformed in the service of one’s own pet projects and peoples. Wellmon worries that an attempt to recover Christian humanism that moves through the Bildung tradition “might end up, unwittingly or not, casting theologians and ‘voices’ formed in religious communities within a developmental story that fates them to irrelevance.” He rightly notes that “this situation is precisely what Herdt hopes to avoid by rejecting totality and embracing an eschatological ethical stance.” This is correct; to engage in the “redemption” of the Bildung tradition is to engage in its critique, and part of what needs to be rejected is every tidy developmental story of the civilizational progress of modernity; a dialectical logic must be exchanged for a dialogical logic. It is Goethe’s ironic gestures beyond the authority of his own account of ethical formation, Herder’s consociational politics, Hegel’s ongoing critique of the social and political institutions that comprise “Objective Spirit,” ever failing fully to support freedom-in-community, that are to be reclaimed, not the narratives that legitimize “historical evils” and consign backward peoples to the dustbins of history. But Wellmon does not think that I quite pull it off; I cannot have my Barth and my Hegel too. It is a charge made weightier by Wellmon’s intimate knowledge of the historical context; Wellmon knows what he is talking about, and I am grateful for his penetrating reading.

    Anti-humanist stances, from Althusser to Foucault to Badiou, are attractive. They rightly reject developmental stories. But there is a difference between an anti-humanism that makes critique an end in itself, ceaselessly deconstructing every attempt to define the human in our own image, and one for whom critique flows from hearkening for the Word of God. Barth is the latter kind. But this latter kind of anti-humanist can just as fairly be termed a humanist. We can, to be sure, discard the term, if it is too tarnished. “Humanism” was not a term used by the medieval Christian thinkers whose understanding of humankind’s call to participate in the reditus of creation continues to animate the German Bildung tradition. It was not even a term used in the Renaissance, which did speak of the umanisti, and their engagement with the studia humanitatis. “Humanism” was coined by nineteenth-century German thinkers looking back on the Renaissance, hoping to glean from it inspiration for their own aspiration to a fully realized humanity.

    But Barth does not, for all his critique, simply discard “humanism,” even if he proclaims “Christian humanism” a “wooden iron.”1 At the 1949 Geneva conference on the new humanism, he chose rather to proclaim “God’s humanism,” just as in 1926 he had placed himself within the Bildung tradition in embracing the task of culture, of “achieving the destined condition of man in unity of soul and body,” accepting a “summons to cultural activity” addressed to “the problem of synthesis.”2 Barth offers no simple refusal of humanism or of Bildung, but a judgment that repairs. Barth articulates “God’s humanism” in four points; proclaiming humankind as created for the (1) love of God and (2) neighbor, (3) fallen and sinful, but (4) redeemed through grace. Unpacking each in turn, he theologically echoes, judges, and repairs the Bildung tradition. Let me try to show this in a bit more detail.

    God’s humanism, Barth declares, is revealed in the Incarnation, the Word of God: “Man is therefore exactly that creature which is defined according to this Word, and not a lower or a higher or another being.”3 This Word reveals, first, that the human “exists as coming from God and going toward God.” To exist in this way, as Barth explains, is to exist as a creature, but as a free creature, at a particular point in the history of humankind, able to be free for God, for gratitude and worship. The human is revealed, second, as existing in community: “We are human only in being together in a fellowship, seeing each other as men, hearing each other as men, talking with each other as men, helping each other as men, and doing all this with freedom because we like to do it.”4 The human existence in the mirror of Jesus Christ that vertically is a history between God and humankind is expressed horizontally as a history of human fellowship. Against both individualism and collectivism (represented for Barth by Nietzsche and Marx), this fellowship is “always meant to be constituted by the mutually free responsibility of different individuals.” Barth speaks in and with and beyond the Bildung tradition on both counts, echoing Herder’s invocation of the doctrine of the imago dei (“we are children of the eternal, whom we in this life should learn to recognize by imitating and to love”), and Herder’s consociationism in arguing that “the real man can only exist in a free fellowship with his equal.”5

    Third, Barth contends, humankind does not exist, in relation to either God or neighbor, as we were created to exist; “thus man’s twofold history comes to a standstill.” Instead of the reditus, we have to do with human reality as “a decaying reality, given over to nothingness and eternal death.”6 Barth notes that “classical humanism felt entitled to skip the indictment and the judgment. One has to wait and see if a new humanism will give heed to them.”7 If Herder’s optimistic providentialism here made him squint, the same cannot be said of Hegel, who worried that his contemporaries had failed to grasp the reality of the fall. Humankind has stepped forth into a cleavage from its implicit being, into evil—the refusal of the recognition and reconciliation that lies at the ground of being.8 Hegel rightly affirms “the life of the immanent Trinity, God’s eternal life, as infinite interrelatedness and the fullness of self-gift to the other free of this refusal” (217). Yet Hegel’s immanent Trinity was incomplete; Hegel’s God requires the historical process, and is realized in and through a historical process in which evil has become actual. Here Hegel’s humanism requires judgment and repair.

    Lastly, declares Barth, “the humanism of God is nothing else but . . . free and valid grace.” Here we might well expect Barth to stake out the territory of God’s humanism in a way that definitively excludes the Bildung tradition. But he does not, declaring rather that this grace is “the wellspring of life for the Jew and the heathen, for the atheist as well as for the misanthrope, though they do not know the truth and do not acknowledge it.” The humanism of God thus funds hope, even the hope of those who do not know the grounds of their hope. The humanism of God enacts “a protest against any pessimistic, any tragic and skeptical attitude toward life.”9 It is this grace, and this hope, that preserve reparative readings of the Bildung tradition from sliding into anti-humanistic rejection.

    I do not think, then, that Barth presents us with a sharp Either-Or to the Bildung tradition, or to the ongoing process of redemptively critiquing the social practices that have formed us, the malformations of every construal of the human we have inherited. The Word has become flesh, and we are left picking up the pieces, hopefully reweaving our convictions and practices. Jesus Christ became “Messiah” and “Son of God” because those who encountered him had no alternative but to name him with the vocabularies at their disposal, even as they took those vocabularies to have been broken open by his arrival. To be human is to domesticate in this way. God is not thereby domesticated. In the presence of the Word of God for which we listen, and in light of our own fallen finitude, we are always working with wooden irons.

    1. Karl Barth, Humanismus, Theologische Studien 28 (Zollikon-Zürich: Evangelischer Verlag), translated as “The New Humanism and the Humanism of God,” trans. Friedrich L. Herzog, Theology Today 8.2 (1951) 21.

    2. Barth, “Humanism of God,” 158. The 1926 lecture, “Church and Culture,” was originally published in Die Theologie und die Kirche (Zollikon-Zürich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1928); here 337–39. I discuss “Church and Culture” in Forming Humanity, 14–16.

    3. Barth, “Humanism of God,” 158.

    4. Barth, “Humanism of God,” 162.

    5. Johann Gottfried Herder, Herder’s Sämliche Werke, ed. Bernhard Suphan (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1877), 13.4.6, 163; Barth, “Humanism of God,” 163.

    6. Barth, “Humanism of God,” 163.

    7. Barth, “Humanism of God,” 163.

    8. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion, vol. 3, Die vollendete Religion, ed. Walter Jaeschke (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1984), 138; Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Peter Hodgson (Oxford: Clarendon), 3:206.

    9. Barth, “Humanism of God,” 165.