Interview with Hubert Knoblauch

Today, the second part of my interview with Professor Hubert Knoblauch from Technical University of Berlin appeared at The Immanent Frame. In the first part, published two days ago, Professor Knoblauch and I discuss the state of the sociology of religion in Germany today and what sets the subdiscipline as well as the religious landscape in Germany apart from other contexts. Especially compared to the U.S., Professor Knoblauch emphasized the need to understand the institutional arrangement that governs church—state relations in Germany, which influences not only how religion is lived in Germany, but also how it is debated in public:

I cannot emphasize enough that we have one of the highest levels of institutionalization in our church structures, even when compared to other European countries. The hiring process for professorships at public universities, not just in theology but in sociology as well, involves bishops. We don’t see this state of affairs as a scourge, but I assume that elsewhere it is difficult to imagine that professors for secular subjects at public universities would be hired in this way. That’s just one example of this institutionalization. The concept of religion in Germany is strongly pegged to these enormously strong institutional structures.

(Professor Knoblauch told me that he has been in the position of having church officials involved in decisions about whether or not he would be hired at public universities.)

I also asked Professor Knoblauch a number of questions about the work of Jürgen Habermas from the last decade, in which the public role of religion is a major concern. Reading over the transcript of the interview (which I translated and edited slightly for clarity), it is clear that Professor Knoblauch has an ambivalent relationship to the work. On the one hand, as a sociologist influenced by the work of Alfred Schütz and others in the phenomenological tradition, he appreciates Habermas’s project of a communicative ethics. On the other hand, he sees Habermas as somebody who, due to the relative “provinciality” of his thinking, failed to anticipate current developments. Then he makes an assessment that is likely to surprise some American readers: “Habermas is not a critical theorist, or only to a degree, so that may be why he was able to make his most recent turn [toward a reassessment of religion] rather easily.”

In part two, we turn to Professor Knoblauch’s research and his understanding of spirituality. Spirituality always retains something of the “essence” of religiosity in that it entails, at least to a degree, a transcendence of the self, so it is never simply a self-referential affair. Paul Heelas and others who build on the Durkheimian notion of self-sacralization in their understanding of spirituality miss this dimension. Even so, as a result of a broad social process Knoblauch calls “subjectivization,” the self does play an important role in spirituality:

One of the unique characteristics of religious movements is the emphasis on the experience of the self. What phenomenologists have been saying all along is has now become a historical reality. What counts as evidence of the religious–even in traditions that foreground dogma–is now a phenomenon of experience, and this experience doesn’t have to be individual, but in the best case it is authentic, as one’s own experience (which, due to communities and communication, may be and often is quite the same as the experience of others).

Read the full interview here: first part, second part. To find out more about Hubert Knoblauch’s work, consult his list of publications.