Overcoming Christianity by incorporation and verwindung

A crucifix grave marker slowly being incorporated back into the good earth 

You can hear a recorded podcast of the following piece by clicking this link

For many years now one of the central theological and philosophical questions I’ve been trying to address and, perhaps, answer in the context of both liberal religion and wider, liberal, civic society is how one might best overcome, and move beyond, many of the problematic, supernaturalistic theological ideas which still attach themselves to our culture’s inherited, underlying religious tradition, namely Christianity? — ideas which, often in hidden and obscure ways, continue to influence our European and North American culture’s worst, but also very best, ways of being in the world.

This question is more pressing than it has been for a long time because, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of us, in nearly all areas of life, are being forced to think very hard about how we might best overcome and move on from our past ways of doing things. 

In connection with this I’d like to start today by noting that the liberal religious, freethinking Unitarian tradition in which I work as a minister continues, in the UK anyway, mostly to be be made up of people who have been shaped by the majority Christian culture but who are, nevertheless, trying to move on, leaving properly behind what cannot be retained. It’s important to realise that this was as true at the movement’s birth in sixteenth-century Poland and Hungary as it is today. Indeed, it’s worth reminding ourselves at this point that a key eighteenth-century, British Unitarian minister and scientist, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), writing in a sermon of the 1770s, said:

‘But should free inquiry lead to the destruction of Christianity itself, it ought not, on that account, to be discontinued; for we can only wish for the prevalence of Christianity on the supposition of its being true; and if it fall before the influence of free inquiry, it can only do so in consequence of its not being true’ (“The Importance and Extent of Free Inquiry in Matters of Religion: A Sermon” in P. Miller, ed., Joseph Priestley: Political Writings, Cambridge: CUP, 1993, xxiv).

Although I’m sure Priestley himself would have been deeply disturbed to discover that, thanks to free inquiry, many Christian claims about the nature of the world and our place in it have, indeed, turned out not to be true, I trust that he would still willingly acknowledge that we, the modern beneficiaries of free inquiry, have no choice but to take him at his word and continue to move on beyond his and, indeed, our own, former beliefs. 

One popular way of attempting this moving on has been to try to bring about an immediate, wholesale, revolutionary replacement of the old, problematic ideas with a complete set of new ones and, in so doing, effectively setting up a new orthodoxy that fits more or less snugly in the footprint of the old. One of the most famous examples of this approach occurred after the French Revolution of 1789 when an attempt was made to replace Christianity and all understandings of God, firstly with the ‘Cult of Reason’ (Culte de la Raison), and then the ‘Cult of the Supreme Being’ (Culte de l'Être suprême).

Drawing on Heidegger’s terminology, the contemporary Italian philosopher, Gianni Vattimo, calls this hard and forcible way of overcoming an example of überwindung. But, as history reveals, überwindung never really properly overcomes and moves us on because by stamping down forcibly into the footprint of the old it always leaves in play all kinds of irreducible remainders, outlines and shadows of the old orthodoxies, whether in the shape of unresolved questions or in the ghosts of ideas which continue to haunt, taunt and threaten to overturn (or undermine) the new orthodoxy. In revolutionary France the speedy collapse of the Cults of Reason and the Supreme Being, and the subsequent return of Roman Catholicism and belief in God within popular culture, reveals this well. The most recent large-scale example of this was seen following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. This was a society which had forcibly attempted to overcome all ideas about God, the divine and the sacred by putting in place, even more vigorously than was attempted in the French Revolution, a new, secular orthodoxy (see some Soviet posters connected with this at this link). It’s worth recalling that before the fall of the Soviet Union the dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) wrote that 

‘Militant atheism is not merely incidental or marginal to Communist policy. It is not a side effect, but the central pivot.’ (‘Men Have Forgotten God’: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1983 Templeton Address). 

But, in the end, the Soviet Union’s attempt at moving beyond Christianity by employing the methods of überwindung failed properly to overcome God and religion just as the French revolutionaries had failed before them and, today, the Russian Orthodox Church is once again, an extremely powerful and highly influential social and political force in Putin’s post-Communist, and far from liberal, freethinking or democratic, Russia. 

As one recent commentator on the return of religion to the public sphere, Peter Thompson, notes:

‘What all of these things show . . . is that religion as both debate and way of life has not crumbled in the face of an apparently inexorable rationalist, scientific, modernising Enlightenment and the globalisation of the market economy, but retains a potency and strength which remains far in excess of its ability to explain’ (Introduction to Ernst Bloch’s “Atheism in Christianity”, Verso Press 2009, p. ix).

Thompson’s and my own basic point here is that, when it comes to God and religion, the divine and the sacred, forcible overcoming — überwindung — simply hasn’t worked. In the end it is has proved to be an approach which simply creates as many problems stresses and strains as it claims to have solved. Anyway, surely there must be a better way of proceeding, of truly becoming ourselves a mostly Christian derived culture that really has been able to move on into a post-Christendom and more religiously plural and open way of being in the world?

This is why I follow Gianni Vattimo in preferring to seek out ways to overcome many of Christianity’s problematic supernatural beliefs and practices that proceed not by überwindung but by verwindung. Verwindung literally means ‘twisting’ (as in the twisting of overlapping fibres to produce a rope) but, in the context of philosophy and religion, it has the sense of ‘going beyond’ or ‘winding out’ the old ideas in ways that allow them to be creatively transformed and incorporated, or woven, into new ways of thinking and new directions of exploration and travel. As Heidegger memorably insisted, here ‘[o]vercoming is worthy only when we think about incorporation’ (Martin Heidegger: ‘Overcoming Metaphysics’ in the ‘End of Philosophy’, trans J. Stambaugh, Harpur and Row, New York 1973, p. 91). Vattimo called this whole approach il pensiero debole, weak thought.

However, the term ‘weak thought’ can sound very unattractive and off-putting to many people — especially to those enamoured of, and tempted by, the language of strength that practitioners of überwindung love to use. But, in the sense that counts for us, it’s important to be clear that the ‘weakness’ of ‘weak thought’ is its very strength. Water is the obvious analogy here as the ancient author of Tao Te Ching knew well (Ch. 78, Addiss and Lombardo):

          Nothing in the world is soft and weak as water.

          But when attacking the hard and strong

          Nothing can conquer so easily.

          Weak overcomes strong,

          Soft overcomes hard.

Although this idea has always been marginal in the Christian tradition it is important to remember that it is not entirely alien to it as St Paul memorably, if allusively, suggests in 1 Corinthians when he wrote that ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’ (1 Corinthians 1:25).

All the foregoing serves, I hope, to indicate why I advocate keeping in liberal religion and liberal religious language a great deal that we might be tempted to overcome in a strong way. It seems to me to be almost self-evidently true that any attempt at the strong overcoming or replacement of problematic, practices and supernaturalist ideas simply will not work — it’s a process that will leave in play too many shadows and ghosts which, eventually, will come back to haunt and harm us. 

So, instead, I continually try to encourage the practice of employing ‘weak thought’, il pensiero deboleto affect this overcoming of Christianity by verwindung — that is to say to promote a transformative, incorporating, rather than destructive, way of ‘going beyond’ Christianity.

As I see it, the religious and civic project I’m trying to promote in my own work is one centred on a shared, free conversation that is designed to help us unwind our culture’s old (mostly Christian) ideas and stories about God, the divine and the sacred, in ways that gift us new interpretations of what is meant by these terms, and to do it in a fashion which, at the same time, doesn’t contradict the knowledge and understanding gained in other spheres of our life especially, but not exclusively, in the human and natural sciences.

We need to do this because, as Peter Thompson’s words quote earlier remind us, experience has taught us that it is highly unlikely human religion and ‘God talk’ is ever going to be entirely got rid of. Religion, and words associated with it such as ‘God’, the ‘divine’ and the ‘sacred’, will never ‘be reduced without remainder’ for they remain ‘simply too rich, too multifaceted, too plural’ in their expressions ‘to allow for such a reduction’ (James W. Heisig, “Tanabe Hajime’s God”, Nanzan Institute for Religion & Culture, Bulletin 38, 2014, p.40)

If you feel that this is the case — and, of course, I accept that you might not — there seems to me to be a real need to create the kinds of public, civic religious and philosophical spaces in which people have the opportunity genuinely and freely to ask, and make attempts at answering, the same kind of question James W. Heisig thought the twentieth-century Japanese philosopher Tanabe Hajime (1885-1962) was forced to ask throughout his life, namely:

‘How can I, who feel no need to believe in an other-worldly divine being, recover the impulse to such an idea and describe it, to my own satisfaction, in language that preserves the truth of that impulse without having to compromise my own philosophical impulses?’

Today, more than ever, we badly need places where we can freely explore together what other kinds of stories do indeed help us to move on and live different and better lives which remain true to the truth of our impulse to talk about God, the divine and the sacred but which do not require us to compromise our own philosophical impulses that push against belief in any supernatural things, realms or beings.

As many of you will know, my own twisting, verwindung-like lines of free inquiry suggest to me that the community to which I belong might creatively and compassionately become made up of Christians who have moved on by better articulating and then living out some form of ecstatic or religious naturalism. I explored with you something this position in episode 17 of this podcast.

You may well, of course, have your own alternative preferred, twisting lines of free enquiry that will share and echo some of my own lines of enquiry but run in different directions to others. But that’s fine because our twisting conversations had together about these connections and differences are, themselves, at their best anyway, going to be examples of verwindung and ‘weak thought’ under way, and will, in modest ways I think, play their part in moving us on beyond Christianity. 

Consequently, I wish to conclude today simply by expressing my hope that the gentle call to engage in the practice of verwindung is heard and heeded, not only in my own local church community’s conversations about God, the divine and the sacred, but also in our wider public, civic contexts. 


If you would like to join a conversation about this podcast then our next Wednesday Evening Zoom meeting will take place on 24th February at 19.30 GMT.  Link below.

Topic: Cambridge Unitarian Church, Evening Conversation

Time: Feb 24, 2021 19:30 London

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Meeting ID: 827 6364 0509

Passcode: 366955

Here’s the timetable:

19.15-19.30: Arrivals/login

19.30 - 21.00: Questions to, and conversations with, Andrew James Brown moderated by Courtney Whalen Van de Weyer

21:00: Event ends