Conference Report: Ecumenism of Confessional Mentalities

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Jan Levin Propach and Peter Schüz

In July 2019 an interdisciplinary conference on confessional mentalities and their significance for the ecumenical dialogue took place at the Center for Ecumenical Theology of the LMU Munich (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München). The conference was organized by Michael Huber (Research Assistant at the Faculty of Catholic Theology) and Peter Schüz (Lecturer at the Faculty of Protestant Theology). A collection of all presented papers will be published soon.

Etymologically, mentalities form a category of ‘mind’. They thus form a ‘soft category’ for describing processes of self-assurance that lead to the formation of identities and their social and cultural formative forces. The concept of mentality was introduced into academic discourse through historical research: in the second half of the 20th century, people became increasingly aware that the complex course of history and the dynamics of its events and processes can by no means be described at the level of documents, doctrines, and systems alone (see for example Patrick H. Hutton, “The History of Mentalities: The New Map of Cultural History.” History and Theory 20(3) (1981), 237-259).

In addition to the prevailing constellations of power, beliefs, concepts, and institutions, it is also and in particular the “spirit” of an epoch, a cultural phenomenon, a social group, which has determined the thinking and actions of people and in consequence also the course of history. This is based on the idea that there are such things as dominant attitudes to life and collective feelings, which are revealing as a tool for describing and interpreting historical phenomena. Especially with regard to religion, these tools were particularly effective — a considerable number of studies on the history of mentalities also focused on religious contexts, as pointed out by Julian Müller and Mario Grizelj in their paper. Religious mentalities are highly significant in the social and political dynamics in Europe and the United States — as Andriy Mykhaleyko pointed out in his paper — even in a time of dissolving religious forms and signs (cf. Jäger, Margarete/Link, Jürgen. Macht – Religion – Politik. Zur Renaissance religiöser Praktiken und Mentalitäten. Unrast: Münster, 2006).

That is no coincidence, because undoubtedly religion, despite all hard church-historical basic conditions, also deals with soft and emotional contents, which individually and collectively became strong identity markers and life-determining forces. In this respect, mentalities are prominent and expectable characteristics of behavior, beliefs and patterns of action, world views, and values. They are attributed from the outside, or one becomes aware of them in the mirror of their environment. In both cases, mentalities are an integral part of one’s own identity and especially of religious groups (Cf. Scheer, Monique/Fadil, Nadia/Schepelern Johansen, Birgitte (eds.). Secular Bodies. Affects and Emotions. Bloomsbury: London 2019 and Michael Seewald, “Bekenntnistradition und konfessionelle Identität.” Theologie und Philosophie 91 (2016), 571-591). Mentalities are not limited to individuals but become visible and describable when they appear in a collective: as mental social groups and all the way up to nations and cultures. Thus, the concept of mentality is inherently ambivalent, which makes the concept and its function as useful as it is delicate: it simplifies, exaggerates, caricatures, underlines — and can thus have a positive and clarifying effect as well as a negative one — often both in one go. On the one hand, the attribution of mentalities can strengthen and shape the identity-forming self-assurance of individuals and groups, promote solidarity and cohesion, create familiarity, but on the other hand it can also serve to exclude, manipulate and discriminate.

In the context of the history of mentalities, numerous studies on denominational mentalities have been carried out in recent decades. What hardly came into view was the idea of using the mentality issue for ecumenism and confessional comparison (cf. Silke Dangel, Konfessionelle Identität und ökumenische Prozesse. Analysen zum interkonfessionellen Diskurs des Christentums. De Gruyter: Berlin, 2014). A key note by Olaf Blaschke explored the history of ecumenical mentalities specifically within the 19th century and highlighted some central problems: first of all, the systematically fuzzy definition of the concept of mentality is certainly a problem for theology, which is otherwise accustomed to classical formulas of dogmatics and philosophy. But the crucial problem is probably the shift of perspective to an area that is unusual for ecumenical discourses and belongs primarily to the field of sociology of religion and history of religion. Making not one’s own theological position but characteristics of one’s own mental configuration the basis of the ecumenical dialogue is ultimately also a risk.

A dedicated topic of this conference was the elucidation of the relation between an ecumenism of confessional mentalities and its practical attitude on the one hand and the doctrines and the law of the churches on the other. Claiming that the conception of confessional mentalities focuses only on the practical attitude is of course a narrow approach, but it is true to a certain degree. There is an interest in the origin of confessional characteristics: what is the reason for the appropriation of certain theological doctrines? Why are others repelled or only integrated with difficulty? In this respect, it is also a matter of “preliminary stages” of doctrine and law. So, it is not the case that an ecumenism of mentalities ignores doctrine and law — rather it sees them in a new light, mainly from the point of view of psychology of religion, sociology of religion, and history of religion. Therefore, ecumenism of mentalities asks about the potential for appropriation of confessional doctrinal content.

To what extent does an ecumenism of confessional mentalities overlap with classical forms of ecumenism and what are the benefits of an ecumenism of mentalities? Ultimately, the inclusion of confessional mentalities into the ecumenical discourse cannot imply a fundamental turn and paradigm shift. Rather, it is about a broadening of perspectives, which in the end is also already laid out in classical ecumenical debates. “Soft” aspects always play a role in the evaluation and meaning of classically dogmatic positions and doctrinal contents, which cannot be depicted in theological terms, but are nevertheless crucial for the foundations of confessional identity. Still it is important to take these pre-conceptual dimensions of confessional influence seriously as a separate level of ecumenical research. Therefore, the ecumenism of mentalities is no alternative to “committee ecumenism,” but would best be described as a stimulus for the latter to engage with aspects of mentality in the context of ecumenical discourses.

The advantage of an ecumenism of mentalities is that it has drawn the attention towards those dimensions of confessional identity which could be called “interior” or “intuitive” and it enables a greater sensitivity to spiritual needs and their expressions. It concerns about the origin of theological-dogmatic statements and about the status of their “liveliness” and their support for a confessional way of life. Whether theological statements or dogmas become “important” or fall into oblivion, whether they arise or are rejected, whether they have a spiritual “backing” or not — these are all questions on which classical ecumenism and ecumenism of mentalities touch upon.

The disintegration indicates that the substance of traditional confessional forms and teachings does not simply evaporate, but rather merges into other forms, and thus also reconstitutes its own essence. Describing these transitions and transformational processes is certainly one of the most promising fields of an ecumenism of contemporary mentalities and was one of the conference’s most challenging intentions. Dealing with money and possessions, with social issues, with death and illness, with sexuality and social taboos, with language, rituals, personality, etc. — all this proves to be deeply influenced by confessional traditions. It is precisely when the obvious confessional frames disappear that the question of their mental status arises.

Europe is a particularly good example in this context: the current debates on the political and cultural unity of the EU, on the economic and humanitarian pillars of Europe, have in recent years repeatedly made it clear that the deep cultural roots of individual countries and their history have a far greater impact than the political will to make decisions in Brussels. And here the confessional mentalities also become particularly noticeable — the striking differences in lifestyle and ethics, in political views, in economic policy, and in family and social image of the predominantly Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant countries are most obvious and certainly informative for ecumenism. As pointed out by Ulrike Sallandt, in North and South America there are similar trends that can be traced. Here, too, the dominant attitude towards ethical, political, and social issues is certainly marked by a heritage of mentality that has religious roots. The different immigrant groups have deeply engraved their confessional mentalities in America’s history and have left traces on the map to this day. In election campaigns and political debates, these traces of mentality still play a role that should not be underestimated.

Finally, the conference focused on the limits of the conception of confessional mentalities. The most striking boundary is the concept of mentality itself, whose effectiveness has yet to be proven. At the same time, care should be taken that the debate on confessional mentalities is not immediately turned into an ecumenical landslide, for it is very easy to dilute and relativize everything that was previously carried out in highly demanding theological debates under the banner of mentalities. Keeping an eye on the conceptual, methodological, and substantive weaknesses of the concept of mentality is certainly an essential prerequisite for a profitable debate. What is intended is, first of all, an expansion of the point of view, not a trivialization or exclusion of the classical contents of dogmatics — a point, which was clarified by a key note by Michael Seewald.

Jan Levin Propach and Peter Schüz are lecturers at LMU Munich.

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