Religion can play key role in creating a ‘listening society’: sociologist

Scholar Hartmut Rosa gives a public lecture at the Vancouver School of Theology on March 1. Photo: Screenshot/Zoom
Published March 15, 2024

Modern society is built on domination and control, but could be based on listening and answering instead—and religion could play a vital role in that transition, German sociologist and political scientist Hartmut Rosa told attendees at a Vancouver School of Theology (VST) public lecture March 1.

Rosa, a professor at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, was lecturer at the G. Peter Kay lecture and workshop, an annual two-day event hosted by VST attended online and in person this year by hundreds. Rosa has gained attention among scholars for his interpretation of social phenomena through what he describes as a human drive toward “resonant” relationships. Harry Maier, VST professor of New Testament and early Christian studies, said in an introduction that Rosa’s “work on resonance has had a wide influence on many disciplines, including psychology, education, literary theory, and of course religious studies and theology.”

A key part of resonance, Rosa said, is the need to be able to listen and answer. “For me, listening and trying to answer is the basic form of what I call resonance as one mode of being in the world,” he said.

As an example, he referred to the story of King Solomon in the Bible—whose appeal to God, “Give us a hearing heart,” (1 Kings 3:9) inspired the title of the lecture. Solomon’s request, Rosa noted, was made in a political context.

“God made him a king,” Rosa said. “And he doesn’t ask for weapons or for wealth … but for a listening heart.” That approach, Rosa said, could potentially serve as a “a recipe for a better society.”

Rosa used the term “dynamic stabilization” to describe modern society, meaning it systematically requires material growth, technological acceleration and cultural innovation to reproduce its structure and maintain the institutional status quo. “In order to stay where we are, we have to permanently run faster,” he said.

Rosa described the concept of a good life in modernity as based on making the world “available, attainable, and accessible.” However, he added, striving for this good life manifests itself in a drive towards domination, aggression and making the world controllable.

The result, he said, is aggression towards nature, as in resource extraction and pollution; aggression towards others, as in competition and politics; and aggression towards ourselves, which can lead to increasing rates of depression and anxiety. The paradoxical result is a return of uncontrollability and feelings of powerlessness, which has given rise in recent years to populist political movements, he said.

As an alternative, Rosa put forward the idea of resonance, marked by a more responsive way of being in the world guided by affection, connectedness, and transforming of the self—not by having control over the situation or outcome, but by trusting in one’s capacity to listen and answer.

Belief in God, he said, offers an example of such resonance in that it involves “listening and responding to the ultimate ground of existence.”

“What is my relationship to the universe or nature or life? … For me, the idea of God is that the ultimate reality is not the silent or hostile universe, but the resonant other, being in a relationship of listening and answering to the world,” Rosa said.

Further illustrating this concept of resonance, he contrasted religious places such as churches, mosques and synagogues, which provide quiet space for reflection and prayer, to aggression-fraught places like shopping centres and office environments.

“Praying is really the mode of listening and answering with my whole existence,” Rosa said. “I try to give an answer to something calling me, even if I don’t really hear it. Blessing the Holy Communion or praying are modes and practices where, contrary to most things we do in our society, we are not in a mode of aggression.”

Rosa said ideas similar to his theory of resonance have precedents.  In conversations with theologians, he said, “I was surprised to learn that actually I wasn’t the first to think about resonance, because theologians have done that for centuries.” Indigenous cultures, he added, have also long provided a model of resonant living in the world: Indigenous peoples “have practices and rituals and ideas and languages which give you a sense of being in the world and being to the world which is not geared towards control, domination and so on.”

While religion can encourage a “listening society,” Rosa said, it also has the capacity to do the exact opposite.

“If you’re a dogmatic or fundamentalist religious believer, then you don’t want to hear the other person,” Rosa said. “God says you have to do this, therefore, ‘I don’t care how you feel.’ ” He described this duality as “the Janus face of religion”—a reference to the Roman god Janus, who was depicted as having two faces. For this reason, Rosa said, it’s important “to take the right form of religion.”


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

    [email protected]

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