Joachim Wach

Professorenkatalog der Universitaet Leipzig
Joachim Wach, persecuted by the Nazi’s, fled to the US where he thrived as a professor of religion. Image via Universität Leipzig.

Joachim Wach (1898-1955) was an influential German Christian scholar of religion. His family had converted to Christianity from Judaism. But the Nazis blackballed him in the 1930s, forcing him to seek a teaching position elsewhere. He ended up at the University of Chicago, holding a post from 1945 to 1955.

Wach asked some important questions about the study of religion, such as

  • Are researchers able to understand the essence of a belief system that they, themselves, don’t believe nor participate in?
  • Do researchers simply articulate some kind of marketable fiction that has little bearing on the intricacies of what really happens in the religious lives of so many individuals?
  • Are researchers able to discern a common thread among apparently different religions?

For Wach, the common thread among humanity is the tendency toward religion, itself.

Theodore M. Ludwig further notes

Wach repeatedly takes up the question of the “objectivity” of the interpreter, whether one who is not a committed believer can understand a religion, whether historical distance helps or hinders understanding, and the like. His position is argued at length: the scholar can by “bracketing” his or her own views enter into understanding of another religion, sometimes presenting it even more completely and accurately than believers can. But there must be, Wach argues, an empathy or sensitivity for religion on the part of the scholar, otherwise there can be no understanding.¹

English: Rudolf Otto (1869-1937)
Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wach is fascinated by the phenomenon of religious experience. So he defines the term Ultimate Reality in terms of a personal experience, an approach similar to Rudolf Otto‘s, as outlined in The Idea of the Holy.

Wach also differentiates religious from magical experience, an idea becoming increasingly less politically correct today.

For Wach, religious experience is a continuous response to a “powerful, comprehensive, shattering, and profound” experience of Ultimate Reality that simultaneously involves the hierarchical elements of intellect, affect and volition, and which leads to definite and imperative action. Religious experience may have intermittences but it differs from magic.

Magical experience, he says, is a series of “unconnected thrills,” this perhaps paralleling Otto’s and the Indian Sri Aurobindo‘s notion that some forms of interior experience are inferior to others.²

Wach’s definition of action seems quite progressive. It includes acts of contemplation, a perspective just beginning to gain recognition in our so-called enlightened age.

English: William James (January 11, 1842 – Aug...
William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In differentiating contemplation from slothful indifference, Wach quotes William James‘ Christian pragmatism: “Our practice is the only sure evidence even to ourselves, that we are genuinely Christians.”³

On this point, it seems that Wach exhibits a position often heard today—namely, that some people are in their bad state because they’re “lazy.”  However, any serious religious thinker should, I think, ask if even the apparently “indifferent sloth” is, in fact, consciously or unconsciously performing some kind of spiritual labor.

The idea that real work can be both visible and invisible is found in Catholic mysticism, Shamanism, and Hindu mysticism. It also echoes the Greek pre-Socratic, Heraclitus, who wrote:

Even sleepers and dreamers are workers and collaborators in what goes on in the universe.4

¹ Theodore M. Ludwig, “Review: Joachim Wach’s Voice Speaks Again” in History of Religions, Vol. 29, No. 3, Feb., 1990: 289-291, p. 291.

² Aurobindo outlines several different types of numinosity. Possibly “vitalistic” numinosity would fit with Wach’s understanding of magic.

³ Joachim Wach, The Comparative Study of Religions, Joseph M. Kitagawa ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958: 31-35.

4 Heraclitus in Philip Wheelwright ed., The Presocratics, Indianapolis: Odyssey Press, 1982, p. 79.

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One comment

  1. Fascinating… I never heard of Wach… I find these questions and philosophies mentally stimulating… thank you for enlightening me once again…


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