Confessing Secularism

The history of theology could be told through theologians’ reaction to war. In times of war, theology’s debates over seemingly inconsequential distinctions come face to face with the lived reality of religious communities’ encounters with power and powerlessness. War is when we discover how truly dangerous theology can be. The history of modern theology is, sadly, replete with reminders of theology’s capacity to legitimate violence. The most traumatic case of such legitimation came in the run-up to the first World War. The theologian and church historian Adolf von Harnack led the ill-fated and ill-conceived effort to defend the war to the ‘civilized world’ of European academics and churchmen. Harnack stood for, as Rowan Williams has suggested, the supreme achievement of German culture. Harnack, who was arguably Germany’s most prominent academic personality, argued, through the lips of Kaiser Wilhelm II, that Germany had a ‘moral case’ for going to war in 1914.

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