Reforming the present
Secularization and Globalization

Reforming the Present - Game "Peace of Westphalia", LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur
Reforming the Present - Game "Peace of Westphalia", LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur | Photo: © Andrea Wöhr

Starting with various scenarios of secularization, Giacomo Marramao describes the current surrogate function of religion. The philosopher proposes a universalism of differences and a politics consisting in the translation of various ethics and ways of life.

Luther’s doctrine establishes a clear separation between “two regimes”, the “time of God” and the “time of man”: both are now distributed across the various topographies of body and mind.

In the break within Christianity that took place five hundred years ago with the Reformation, Kant saw the beginning of the Enlightenment as the principle of the autonomy of conscience, whereas Hegel recognized in this the throwing off of the fetters of tradition that marks modernity as the epoch in which the subject achieves its freedom.

We confront here a decisive stage in the development from the Middle Ages to the modern mind. Since Luther, the person has become the object of a very special attention. Priest and pastor must now intervene in a different and new “disciplinary” manner, and one begins to ask oneself towards which inner regions what Michel Foucault called the Christian “pastoral power” had to be directed. In this moment of history, the Augustinian doctrine attains again, thanks to Luther, a central position in European Christianity.

Without the “Gutenberg Galaxy” and the revolution it brought about amongst both authors and readership of the instruments of control, all this could never have happened. The emergence of the modern intellectual in the sixteenth century sealed the decline of the great preachers, the trump cards of monastic influence, and led to the ascendancy of the book, the decisive instance of the modern consciousness. A form of knowledge that was no longer called up, no longer corresponded to the dry, abstract patterns of Scholasticism and instead itself explored the path to salvation, hardly needed as an aid any longer the auctoritas of the Bishop of Rome and his appointed preachers, but much rather that of the book.

Examination by the written word

Every assertion made orally, including the statements of influential theologians, was now subjected to the decisive examination by the written word – the indispensable means for explaining questions of salvation and establishing news rules for the conduct of practical life. For example, through Luther, the German translation of the Bible became the preferred means of transporting ideas that before had been set into circulation in the streets and squares.
On the Catholic side, the doctrine and educational system of the Jesuits represented the most effective response to the Lutheran challenge. Its great plan of learning, the Ratio studiorum, confirms the principle of two-fold control over both spheres of education, the outer and the inner: a bold refutation of the dichotomy, regarded as artificial, which the Protestants erected between individual and community, faith and ritual.

Under this aspect, Baroque syncretism is the effective representation of the Jesuits’ programme for the reconciliation of the Protestant dualisms in the bosom of popular piety. While Luther “overthrew provinces and empires”, as one of the most important historians of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuit Daniello Bartoli, wrote, the Jesuit system “would, through sermon and instruction, in dispute and written polemic, turn school against school, pulpit against pulpit, voice against voice, knowledge against knowledge and book against book, and so topple the lecterns of heresy and strike down its teachers”. According to the Jesuit plan, the authority of the Church must be freed from the mere repetition of ritualized forms, so that it could be entrusted to the power of knowledge.


Secularization, however, also has to do with the long-term effects of the rupture within Christianity brought about by the Reformation: Europe thereby ceased to be a “res publica Christiana” because, after Luther, Christianity was no longer a binding force of European community but was rather transformed into a terrain of radical conflicts, resulting in the wars of religion. The political turning-point, which came only after more than a century of bloody clashes between Catholics and Protestants, was the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which brought the Thirty Years’ War to an end. During the peace negotiations in Münster and Osnabrück, the French envoy Longueville used the term “secularization” (séculariser) in a broader sense than that which it originally had in canonical law, where it described the passage of a cleric from the “monastic rule of observance” to “worldly life”, from the monastic or regular position to the position of a secular prelate.

The expression “secularization” now gained the meaning of the appropriation of ecclesiastical goods and possessions by the laicist and non-denominational state, structured according to the principle of territorial sovereignty. Thus the division within Christendom produced by the Reformation led to a new political ordering of the continent: the pan-European system of sovereign states, which superseded the uniform edifice of the Holy Roman Empire.

In the course of the nineteenth century, Hegel’s philosophy of history and its concept of secularization was to further extend the term, until Max Weber made secularization an indicator of the complex process of the modernization and rationalization of society. 

Polarized global modernity

To what extent and in what form does our present condition – a Europe that is part of the “post-national constellation” (J. Habermas) of a globalized world – differ from that of the past?

The relationship between the once opposite poles of Catholic and Protestant Christendom has changed radically. Both are today confronted by the same scenario: the processes of secularization no longer exclude religion as a constitutive moment of those ethics which furnish the principles of human action in economics and politics, but rather render it again problematic.

The vast comparative picture sketched by Max Weber in his sociology of religion has thereby been given a fresh currency. It remains an indispensable comparison. Nevertheless, it must also be amended and updated in the face of a global modernity that, though it is much more complex than the national modernity, is, contrary to the widely-held view, anything but mobile – precisely because it is polarized by ethical-religious groups, which have again emerged from the depths of history with the disappearance of ideologies.

Religion as surrogate: rethinking Max Weber

Today globalization seems to be characterized less by “uniform thinking” and general “mobility” than by a “multipolar” and deeply conflict-laden structure in which religion functions not only as a universal driving force but also as a post-ideological source.

As such, it fosters processes of symbolic identification that are highly differentiated and sometimes drastically opposed in their goals. This is not the “clash of civilizations” discussed by Samuel Huntington, but pertains rather to the role that religion today plays as a surrogate for ideology and as the binding agent of different identities. One need think only of Islam, or above all of the function that Confucianism (of course redefined and modernized) has exercised in the economic growth of China, a phenomenon which requires that Weber’s comparison of religions be searchingly reconsidered. According to Weber, Confucian ethics, with its anti-individualistic and paternalistic-communal spirit, is unsuitable for the development of a dynamic and productive economy. Yet, paradoxical as it may appear to those who still adhere to the thesis of a pre-established harmony between the Protestant ethic and the genesis of capitalism, Chinese communitarianism seems much better suited to the imperatives of productivity and global rivalry than does the West’s principle of individualistic competition.

This phase of “interregnum”, between the no-longer of the old international order of sovereign states and the not-yet of a new supra-national order that has still to emerge, follows a global scenario in which the world is divided into vast regions. These are not only, and not necessarily, geopolitical spaces (although some philosophers who maintain we are facing the recurrence of the 1930s have invoked the return of Großraumpolitik); they are rather “geo-economic” and “geo-cultural” regions, which no longer coincide with national states but rather with continental states, ranging from the United States and China to India and Brazil.. 

And Europe?

And Europe? The European Union today sees itself in the grip of a double challenge in the form of two antithetical models of globalization: America’s principle of individualistic competition and the communitarian-authoritarian principle of Asia. Thanks to its great cultural and political history, Europe has the possibility of developing an alternative tertium between the two models by taking from its tradition the idea of an individual who does not only acquire and compete, but is also capable of solidarity and of a non-paternalistic-authoritarian community, which draws on the creative resources of the particular.

To pursue such an alternative would mean to pave the way for a “great politics”, capable of mastering the problem of immigration by creating a form of citizenship possible beyond the dualism between the “republican model of assimilation” and the multi-cultural “mosaic model”, between the neutral universalism of the French model of the “Republic” and the anti-universalism of the “Londonistan model”. Only a politics such as this would have the power to exploit the universal potential of religion by defusing the destructive, excluding moment of its identitary obsessions through the prospect of a universalism of differences and a policy of translation amongst the various ethics and ways of life (cf. G. Marramao, The Passage West: Philosophy After the Age of the Nation State, Verso, London/New York 2012).

Apart from a few significant exceptions in Germany and Italy, however, the political class of Europe seems to be light years removed from such a task.

Giacomo Marramao Photo (detail): © Giacomo Marramao Giacomo Marramao,  is professor of Theoretical and Political Philosophy at the Department of Philosophy, Communication and Performing Arts of the University of Rome III. He studied at the University of Florence, and he was Fellow Scholar on behalf of the Italian CNR and the Humboldt Foundation at the Goethe-University Frankfurt (1971–1975). He was a visiting professor at various European and American and Asian universities. At the beginning of the 1980s he was co-founder of influential magazines such as Laboratorio politico and Il Centauro.
In 2005 the Presidency of the French Republic has awarded him with the "Palmes Académiques". In 2009 he received the International Price of Philosophy "Karl-Otto Apel", and in 2013 the title of Doctor honoris causa by the Universidad Nacionál de Córdoba (Argentina). He is member of the Collège International de Philosophie of Paris, professor honoris causa at the University of Bucharest. He is Director (with Silvana Borutti) of "Paradigmi" - a magazine of critical philosophy - and Director of the International Basso Foundation in Rome.

Many of his books have been translated into foreign languages, such as:
Kairós: Towards an Ontology of Due Time (Davies), The Passage West: Philosophy After the Age of the Nation State (Verso), Against Power: For an Overhaul of Critical Theory (John Cabot University Press).
The Bewitched World of Capital (Brill - forthcoming).