Ernst Peter Wilhelm Troeltsch (1865-1923) was a German Protestant theologian and philosopher of history and culture. He taught theology at the Universities of Gottingen (1891-1892), Bonn (1892- 1894), and Heidelberg (1894-1915) before taking up his final post as professor of the study of culture at the University of Berlin (1915-1923). Troeltsch is wellknown for the way he used the concepts church, sect, and mysticism to characterize types of Christian groups as well as for his discussions of the proper Christian attitude toward other religions.
In his most famous published work, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (1912), Troeltsch details how, throughout Christian history, Christians have fallen into three main categories or "types" of social groups, which he designates church, sect, and mysticism. The church type, which seeks to accommodate itself to the wider society as much as it can, represents Christian society in its most highly organized and institutional form. Thanks to Christ's death and resurrection, the church possesses divine grace, and is therefore able to offer salvation to its members. There are no demanding entrance or membership requirements in the church type; it is open to the masses, to people of widely varying degrees of religious commitment and moral integrity. By way of contrast, the sect type is more a voluntary society than an institution. Rather than seeking to accommodate itself to the wider society, the sect tends to view itself as being in an adversarial relationship with society. Indeed, part of the sect's witness is to pass judgment on the evils of "the world." Membership in the sect is open only to "true believers," those who have had strong personal experiences of being "reborn." Members must maintain high standards of religious practice and ethical uprightness, or risk being expelled from the sect.
Mysticism emphasizes personal, inward religious, or spiritual experience over doctrines and public worship, and is therefore the least formally organized type of Christian association. Small numbers of likeminded Christians band together to share their mystical experiences, and encourage each other in their spiritual endeavors. Such groups tend to be temporary, rather than permanent.
Troeltsch's categories of church, sect, and mysticism can be viewed as an anticipation of more recent theories related to spiritual personality types, in which there is a recognition that "one size does not fit all" in the realms of religion and spirituality. People are fundamentally different, so different people will naturally seek different ways of forming religious or spiritual associations. Young people may want to begin the soulsearching process that leads to the discovery of which sort of religious society, or which type of spiritual association, best fits their own spiritual personality.
Troeltsch's other important contribution concerns his view of the proper Christian attitude toward other religions. Very significantly, his attitude toward other religions changed as he matured. Earlier in his life, Troeltsch was convinced that Christianity was the world's one and only "supremely valid" or "absolutely valid" religion-that its superiority over other religions could actually be demonstrated. He articulated this position in The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions (1902).
Upon further reflection, Troeltsch changed his mind on this crucial issue. In his Christian Thought: Its History and Application (1923), he concluded that Buddhism is just as "absolutely valid" for the Buddhist, Islam just as "absolutely valid" for the Muslim, and so on, as is Christianity for the Christian. This later position is a form of relativism, insofar as it recognizes that one's view of what is religiously or spiritually true "relates to," or emerges "in relationship with," the religious or spiritual tradition to which one is committed. Today more than ever, the survival and well-being of the world depend on interreligious understanding and tolerance. This question that Troeltsch struggled with through much of his life-"What is my stance toward the religious other?"-is a question all serious religious and spiritual people need to ponder, preferably beginning when they are still young.