Religion, Utopia, and Ideology: Reflections on the Problems of Spiritual Renaissance and Social Reconstruction in the Sociology of Karl Mannheim1

By Nielsen, Donald A. | Human Architecture, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Religion, Utopia, and Ideology: Reflections on the Problems of Spiritual Renaissance and Social Reconstruction in the Sociology of Karl Mannheim1


Nielsen, Donald A., Human Architecture


The contemporary spiritual situation of western humanity extends back especially to the nineteenth century.2 Although our contemporary civilizational crises have deeper roots in the sixteenth and seventeenth and, ultimately, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, new and distinctive phases of our experience began to become evident from the nineteenth century forward and have continued apace in different forms into the present.3 From the present standpoint, the 1830s and '40s represent a particularly decisive breaking point with the past and a line of continuity with the present.4 Whether we characterize the situation as "modern" or "Post-modern" (or some combination of the two) is less important than our identification of the precise qualities of this new phase of experience and our comprehension of its historical roots.ation as "modern" or "Post-modern" (or some combination of the two) is less important than our identification of the precise qualities of this new phase of experience and our comprehension of its historical roots.

From the present standpoint, the central experiences of the new era are best seen as manifestations of a civilizational crisis whose main feature is, on one hand, the evanescence of the idea of a created cosmos, the collapse of the "transcendental" moorings of social existence, and disappearance of the idea of a chain of existence, and, on the other, the emergence of an orientation based more purely on an "activism" uncoupled from any hierarchy of value rationales.5 The turning point can be seen clearly in intellectual history (a central focus of this paper) in the move from Hegel to Marx. The latter could still see the philosophical contemplation of history and existence as a road to the overcoming of alienations of the spirit and a way back to a unified sense of reality, even as a step toward a higher ecstatic experience. With Marx alienation is overcome in history through collective human self-changing in which the objective becomes not the interpretation of reality but the changing of it, a standpoint stated with special clarity in his theses on Feuerbach, notably the eleventh thesis.6 However, all across the cultural horizon of the last century and a half there have appeared ever renewed symptoms of this spiritual condition in agonistic and anomistic movements of varying types. The oft noted triumph in our own century of the "principles" of instrumental rationality and utilitarian cost-benefit analysis is itself only the most massive symptom of a deep shift in cultural sensibility and in no way do these "principles" represent a new "ethic." On the contrary, their preeminent position today reflects the attempt of societies and cultures to function-often quite successfully as "systems"-in the very absence of any hierarchical value structure. Even the "innerworldly" ethics of Protestantism, already a step toward modern "activism," represent a bygone era, one eclipsed by these principles of "functioning" in society, and the "otherworldly" standpoint of the Medieval world is merely an echo found in thinkers still committed to the now ossified versions of Medieval theology.1

As Weber pointed out, a "polytheism" of values is implicit in the functional or purposive rationality of our time and is only barely hidden by the attempt of calculating utilitarianism to turn statistical averages into social and moral norms. No hierarchy of values can any longer be convincingly offered under these circumstances, despite the fact that the reestablishment of such a hierarchy has been on the cultural agenda of Western humanity since the turn of the century.2

One author who early on gave a particularly interesting diagnosis of our situation was Karl Mannheim. He continued the insights of Weber into the understanding of the structures of consciousness of the twentieth century. From his earliest essay on "Soul and Culture," written during the tumult of the Hungarian revolution, and still under the influence of the intellectual circles of that time (ones which included the young Lukacs), to his most important statement in Ideology and Utopia (1929), to his final diagnosis of our time, in which "religion" once again plays an important role, Mannheim was deeply preoccupied with both spiritual renewal and with social reconstruction, although the balance between the two shifts away from the former and toward the latter as his life and career were transformed under the impetus of external events and his geographical exodus. …

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