Fate. History and Facets of a Religious Concept in Modern Times

In cultural studies the human necessity to conceive the course of life as being directed by some kind of divine power (in order to come to terms with what is seen to be foolish and senseless) very often is accepted as a universal characteristic of mankind. The concept of "fate" always served to provide orientation and to overcome the burdens of life. In religious studies it has even been acknowledged as the origin of religion on occasion (Widengren 1938). The project, a study in conceptual history, will discuss the concept of "fate" in relation to similar concepts such as "contingency" (Zufall) and "providence" (Vorsehung), exploring the status of man in a world determined by transcendent powers. In religious discourses it seems such concepts cannot be ignored when describing the future status of man and his freedom of action. They are therefore used in most societies and religious discourses all over the world. Yet it is also true that the concepts "fate", "providence" and "contingency" have changed over time. That makes it worthwhile to describe their specific semantic content in various religious cultures and discourses. Confronted with the aspects of determination and of freedom of human actions, the concept of "providence" - in pre-modern times an important characteristic of God - has become questionable in modern times. The emergence of an open horizon of future expectations played an important role in this change, when religious providence was displaced by rational prediction. But even in modern times, the future has turned out to be unpredictable on the whole. In the 19th and 20th century this made way for further religious reflection on the mythological status of "fate" in political discourses, with a trend of growing importance in political ideologies. Finally, in the religious ideology of National Socialism the concept was adopted as a key concept in public political religion. Even today it is present in religious systems such as astrology or some forms of new-age religiosity. From the perspective of religious politics, the concept of "fate" plays an important role in critical discourses on Christianity in modern times. This makes it an interesting object for a study of conceptual history. The methodology of the project is based on the practice of semantic and discourse analysis, which has been established in the German Begriffsgeschichte as a form of structural analysis of modern societies. The approach of Begriffsgeschichte does not take pre-defined concepts as a starting point, but searches for conceptual differentiation in contemporary discourses. Only by aggregating such historical findings and implying modern aspects and theories, does the approach come to create meta-linguistic categories.


The aim of the project is to shed light on the use and function of the key concept "fate" (Schicksal) and its parallel and counter concepts in modern times. By doing so, structures of modern religiosity will become clear which cannot be grasped by the concept "religion" alone. Subjects of investigation are "freedom versus determination", "fatalism versus morality", "teleology versus contingency", "anonymous fatum versus personal God", "individual versus collective fate". All these fields of research include mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, concepts of past and future etc. Of special interest are periods of frequent use and high reputation, or semantic conflicts, in which the concept of "fate" was used with different meanings. Additionally, the concept must be discussed by comparing it with similar concepts in non-Christian cultures: For instance in the interaction of Christian and Islamic discourses processes of reception and of definition can be observed, which point as much to cultural contacts as to the establishment of separate cultures.

Affiliated Persons

Photograph of Prof. Dr. Lucian Hölscher

Prof. Dr. Lucian Hölscher

Project Leader

Universitätsstr. 90a
44789  Bochum
Office 3.14
+49 234 32-24691

Dr. des. Franziska Rehlinghaus

Individual Researcher