KHK Fellow Interview: "Nietzsche's 'Joyfull Wisdom' in Bochum"


End of March 2020, the research phase of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg "Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe" will come to an end. This research project undoubtlessly has have an impact on the Center for Religious Studies (CERES) for almost twelve years since it has been the biggest project with an international reach. It is time to look both back- and forward and to give word to the visiting fellows of the Kolleg. The eigth and last interview in this series is with Helmut Zander. Since 2011, he is full professor of the Comparative History of Religions and Interreligious Dialogue at the Swiss university of Fribourg. The expert of anthroposophy and esoteric ideas was visiting research fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg between May 2010 and April 2011. His project in Bochum was to write a comparative history of religions in Europe. In the interview he tells more about the project and how it ended.


What attracted you to become a visiting researcher at the KHK Bochum?

Even before the existence of the KHK, I had been aware of the fact that rather in Nietzscheian terms a ‘gay science’ or ‘joyful wisdom’ is practiced in Bochum with the necessary linking between the reference of material and theory and with the willingness to destroy knowledge and to test new assumptions about the connection of things. Additionally, it was the subject, the dynamics of religio-historical exchange processes: This global history perspective was in the air after the break down of the world order that consisted of political blocks in 1989. And an institution, which provided the freedom of research to refocus entanglement-processes, was a stroke of luck. In Bochum, there was openly a feeling for time-diagnostic relevant historical research—and the courage to deal with a subject in a ‘big’ way.

How was your research stay in Bochum? And what were you focusing on in your research?

The most important thing about the KHK for me was the mixture of great, truly great freedom and structured offerings in the focus groups and workshops. Looking back, I feel sorry for not taking up the offer to organize my own conferences (with the help of highly committed colleagues).

I came to Bochum with the question, whether one could identify characteristics of an “European history of religions”, an intensively discussed approach within German academic circles for a revision of an histography of religions that is merely focused on Church history. It happened already in the first weeks that my submitted concept went the way of all flesh and received a first-class burial in Bochum. Debates with my colleagues made clear that my hypotheses had been undercomplex and not durable in this way. Nonetheless the main chapters that had been stated in the application, have survived as side stages of case studies. Then, I produced much less in Bochum than I had planned and hoped, and instead I discussed and I wrote and discussed and wrote and discussed.

My “’European’ History of Religions” was published by de Gruyter only in 2016 because I received a chair following my time in Bochum. But the ‘mother’ of this ‘offspring’ is clearly the KHK, where it came into the world, where it acted out its pubescent obstinacy. Basically my thesis is sociological but it is grounded in the history of ideas: Ancient Christianity accomplished a structure of belonging, which is conceptually not connected to birth but should be based on choice. It is self-evident that theory and practice are temporary far apart here. But in comparison to other religions (especially Judaism, Islam, Buddhism) it becomes clear, that the architecture of the religious systems is characterized by very specific elements (e.g. baptism, catechesis, conversions, mission) from this very starting point. Such a system is stabilized—and this is my accompanying thesis—with the help of a corpus of authoritative writings, in an extreme case by a canon.

Why is your research topic central for the understanding of religious dynamics and religion contacts?

I was interested and I am still interested to this day, how a particular religious culture stabilizes itself even though there is exchange, connection, hybridization, overlapping, compression etc., hence the whole range of 'inter-'processes, in which religious cultures emerge and develop their own characteristics. Why, asked briefly, do they not become similar or perhaps even equal?

If you investigate the main subject of the KHK, which is religious dynamics, not only through the eyes of their effects on change, but also with a regard to opposing processes, you have to focus on stabilization dynamics, too. This seems to be rather trivial, but it is not – presumably for one reason: In religious studies the reason for stabilization was often looked for in essentialist assumptions, classically in the ‘essence’ of one religion. Quod non. Instead, stabilization has to be looked for in the tension between exchange processes and religious contacts on the one hand and the entitlement to the determination of identity markers on the other hand. Stabilization is by far not ‘essential’ in this respect, but negotiated, also with regard to the meaning of elements, which, as a canon, are not up for disposal anymore.

In comparison to other institutions, what characterizes the KHK Bochum?

I have made my own experience as a fellow of the Zentrum für Religion, Wirtschaft und Politik (ZRWP) at the Swiss universities of Basle, Lucerne and Zurich, of the Institut for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton and at the University of Santa Barbara (California). Two dimensions made the KHK stand out:

Frist, the clear content program, which made it possible that fellows of extreme different research fields were brought together in scientific exchange by means of common questions (or sometimes just common perspectives).

Second, the situation in the Ruhr area that holds a virtually inexhaustible reservoir of stimulations, which are especially important by creating alienness to create that irritation in a bubble, which a research college unavoidable is and has to be, that is necessary for creative thinking. I remember the visits to Zeche Zollverein, the exhibitions in Haus Weitmar, a lecture by Günter Grass or the cooperation with the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (KWI) in Essen.

And when you walk from your apartment and past a one-euro-each-product variety store to a lecture on Jesuits at the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar, you can be sure for your life that you are not drown in the academic quicksand.

To criticize is not easy for me—which is fairly rare. Maybe this: Some fellows made themselves scarce, but it is part of the freedom that is important at the KHK.

What impact had your stay in at the KHK Bochum on your further research?

A very pragmatic impact of my stay at the KHK in Bochum are the collaborations with academics, which have partly survived until today, after I left this locus amoenus. A second effect is a toolbox of analytical instruments that has been carried in my head since. There is a kind of Bochum path dependency in my own research. At the moment I am trying to develop theoretical elements for the comparison of different cultures, whose material references are more open than the one in the theoretical material I had used for my book “‘Europäische’ Religionsgeschichte“. These considerations turn on two axes, on the concept of a cultural ‘grammar’ and on the ‘probability’ of the development of cultural characteristics; especially the historical perceptual research is a research field that has hardly ever been explored. I am dealing with these theory pieces on a material level, concretely: Why do civilzations that are hegemonically Christian or Muslim shaped, develop different provisions on the relationship between religion and politics with a certain probability?

A look into the future: Given the fact that the KHK Bochum is a temporary project, what and how should scholars deal with the history of religions in future?

When it comes to structures, maintain the diversity of disciplines (rare disciplines) at the universities including the necessary language courses for it. Without these investments academies will become a henchmen of hegemonic structures. For Germany, I advocate an improved cooperation between the disciplines of religious studies (Religionswissenschaft) and the theologies. The lead of particular fields of theology (e.g. in exegesis) will probably not be equalized in the long-run, by analogy there is a lead for methodical and theoretical reflection on the subject “religion” within religious studies. Apart from this, there should be more cooperation between research institutes to enable longer working phases for academics, who work on larger projects.

When it comes to topics, I support an improved interlinking between the general historical and religious studies research on global history. By now, the interlocking or exchanges are often meagre in terms of institutions and content—some exceptions (Bayly, Conrad, Osterhammel) prove the rule here, if I am right. Another aspect is the establishment of a strong focus on Christianity within religious studies. And finally, we should focus more on religious innovations offered by non-hegemonic groups or belief systems, which is admittedly still my little ‘esoteric’ pet research. We still know very little about it even in small milieus, and—if I see it right—the topic remains globally a terra incognita.

Interview by Ulf Plessentin, translated by Adrian Neuser.