General consensus has it that little is certain these days. Our era, many feel, is distinguished by the dwindling of certainties and fixed points of reference. Of course there are various causes for this. But still one has to ask if it is truly taking place. Certainties, I am persuaded, always have to do with paradigms and ideologies. Without a corresponding ideology there can be no certainties. And already this was so with Francke in his time. Francke’s certainty, of course, arose from his Christian-Biblical worldview, and that determined his life, his thought, his actions and also his vision. Now if someone has another worldview, for instance a materialistic one, his certainties, his vision, will ultimately have a very different character.
But in the final instance, the particular worldview is decisive. And there are, therefore, perhaps two basic attitudes. Some are satisfied with this analysis and become agnostics or consumerist-materialists who claim that it is no longer possible to hold anything in this world as a certainty. And others seek out novel certainties. We see this search for new certainties among an inquisitive youth. Not the majority of young people, of course. But it is interesting, for example, that so many so-called youth religions were established in the 1970s and 80s of the previous century. Of course this is especially interesting to me as a theologist and a scholar of religion: groups mostly of Asian origin that enjoyed a significant reception and became very popular among certain members of a youth culture stripped of any sense of certainty. It is interesting, and studies have proved it, that generally these were young people from an alternative scene who rebelled against their parents’ bourgeois mentality or whatever other mentality, who did away with that, took to the streets, became alternative, had no certainty anymore and sought out new certainties.
Now there is always the question as to where to find these new certainties. They are to be found in ideologies. We have this phenomenon in politics. Consider the question of the radical right, movements made up mainly of young people. We have this phenomenon in the area of religion, where, interestingly enough, we have a number of young people, young families, in neo-Pietiest and Charismatic groups. And we also see it, in fresh philosophical endeavours that have a renewed engagement with science and its limitations. There is a return to certainties, but it is hardly a mass phenomenon, rather these are groups attempting to contemplate life, to think about themselves, about the age-old basic questions of humankind – who am I, where do I come from and where am I going? And they come to fundamentally different certainties and to different results. Certainty can end in fanaticism, but there is no reason that it necessarily must. Certainty need not become intolerant. If one is convinced, as I am personally, that one day I will have to account for my life, my thoughts, my feelings and desires, for my motivations, and that there is a countervailing force and authority, then I will attempt to lead my life differently from somebody who says that there is no certainty here.
It was not long ago that the socialist camp thought you could proclaim that there was a comprehensive scientific understanding of the world. Science had exhaustively studied everything, especially the natural sciences, and what they had established was certain and to be taken as a given. Truly significant people – as a rule they have to be significant – from the various fields of the natural sciences, will validate that on the one hand, knowledge, which always has to do with certainty, has grown immensely, but will also confirm that our certainties themselves have diminished radically. A phenomenon that can again be interpreted from a secular perspective and that I, in my position, of course interpret this way: science, even the natural sciences, will never ever provide facts, certain facts of the philosophical variety that cannot be subjected to critical scrutiny. And here again we are confronted with the phenomenon, in my view, described by the quotation: the end of philosophy is to know that ultimately we must have faith. This is so for the religious person and it is so for the purely scientific thinker as well, for the consequences and the limitations of the natural sciences are absolutely restricted to the material world and to its fringes. And with regard to all that lies beyond it, neither I, as a Christian, nor the most famous scientist can say anything with absolute certainty. Here, both come up against the same wall and for both, ultimately, faith is necessary.
But in the humanities or in culture it is often the case that there is hardly anything truly new. In general it’s just old news that has been recycled and repackaged. Sometimes there’s an underlying vision – but in principle this vision will also be dependent on an underlying knowledge, on the underlying insights or convictions that determine it. Of course, the formation of any such vision is also markedly dependent on contemporary developments, on culture, on the political and economic environment. As I see it, such great, driving vision has been lost in our society. Doubtlessly, this has to do with historical developments. If we merely take a glance at the basic societal systems of the last 100 or 150 years, the vision of the empire or of an old monarchy, these were also visions not dissimilar from the kind that Francke had. The king or the leader as the first servant of the state, committed to the state’s wellbeing, not required to take any notice of the opinions of his thousands of subjects, but able instead to do a lot of good from his own position and based on his own convictions. This vision no longer really exists.
Here in Germany we’ve been so shaken by the past 100 years that we have become relatively visionless. That marks us or burdens us, depending on how one wants to see it, in the European context as well. There is perhaps no other people, no other region, where there has been such significant disillusionment as in Germany. But after the failure of the socialist enterprise in East Germany, this variety of great vision is simply lacking. That was one final driving vision and also a utopia that, theoretically, had something going for it. I have always got along well with persuaded Marxists, communists, despite a difference in standpoint, because I could always say – often they didn´t want to hear it but then finally conceded the point – that we are both believers, we both have visions of a kingdom come, to put it boldly, of the Kingdom of God in heaven and of the Kingdom of God on Earth, as Marxism had it.
In the Bible there is a saying: You shall know them by their fruits. We ought to take a good look at the consequences this diminishing of the unifying power of formerly great visions has. Doubtlessly, at least in my view, one destructive element threatening all of these visions, religious or not, is money and everything that goes with it, all of the striving and greed for a life of great affluence.