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A plea for faculties which pursue research into all religions
At the beginning of March 1998, as a professor of New Testament on
a state faculty, I declared publicly that I was no longer a Christian.
Thereupon, several church organizations as well as groups lacking any
ecclesiastical affiliation suggested to me that I should transfer to
the philosophy faculty and thus make room for a successor who was a
believer. I refused to do this, because my analysis of the New
Testament still follows the same scholarly criteria and because in
Germany the theological faculties have traditionally been places for
scholarly research into Christianity. Since this refusal I have
increasingly become the target of church sanctions, and now even my
own colleagues are calling unanimously for me to be transferred to
another faculty, in spite of the state's establishment of an
additional parallel chair in New Testament. The decision now lies with
the president of Göttingen University.
The events I have described are unique in German Protestantism.
They nurture the suspicion that the theology being done in Germany is
not an academic discipline at all. Clearly, it cannot be, because it
is governed by a confessional approach. In view of this patent
contradiction, in view of the dramatic decrease in church attendance
and the declining place of Christianity in culture and education, and
perhaps especially in view of the seemingly exotic claim of Christian
doctrine that Jesus as God's Son suffered for the sins of the world,
thereafter to rise incorrupt - in view of all these it is the more
puzzling that the theological faculties, ironically divided into
Protestant and Catholic branches, are still thought to be an
indispensable element of the German university.
The reunification of Germany has not led to any far-reaching
changes in this untenable situation, which is based on agreements
between the two dominant churches and the state. Like the GDR
government previously, the several state governments have in principle
respected the existence of state theological faculties, and recently
have made generous agreements with the churches – even though in
the new federal states only about one third of the population belongs
to a church. This support for theology as a discipline is unparalleled
anywhere else in the world, especially in its financial aspect, and
can be explained only by the long-standing influence of the church.
But that is no help: as the following remarks show, the very
foundations of present-day academic theology are crumbling.
Most academic theologians begin with two presuppositions. First,
theology is a discipline related to the Bible perceived as the word of
God. Second, theology assumes the truth-claim of Christian talk of
God. Given these axioms, does theology deserve to be called a
Since both assumptions are articles of faith, which on critical
investigation prove to be empty, the question must be answered with a
firm negative. First of all, the Bible is the word of man, and second,
it contains a considerable number of different images of God. From a
purely scholarly perspective one must ask which God people are to
agree on. When the issue comes down to truth claims, the theologian
may argue from faith and with greater insight. But that has nothing to
do with scholarship; we must not confuse the lecturer's desk and the
Furthermore, no one can accede a professorial chair in the German
theological faculties without a baptismal certificate and the assent
of the respective churches: a Jew cannot be called to a chair in the
theological faculties or even gain the necessary qualifications; being
unbaptized, he or she can neither take the qualifying examination nor
earn a doctorate by scholarly work on the Jew Jesus. The status of the
faculties may be guaranteed by law, but sooner or later the anomalous
situation will call for changes in legal protocols, and a radical
transformation of the existing theological faculty will necessarily
result. There are two reasons why this will happen.
The first is purely academic: theologians of the two Christian
confessions approach texts in the same way, employing philology,
historical criticism and comparative religion.
The second is a matter of social policy. In the next few years
Germany will increasingly become the homeland of members of other
religions. If one follows the legalistic logic, these religious
communities, as public corporations, likewise deserve to have their
own theological faculties. In that case, in the future we would have
not only Protestant and Catholic, but also Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist
faculties – perhaps even faculties of Jehovah's Witnesses and
Mormons. It must be clear to everyone that this would be not only
financially impossible, but in terms of scholarship as anachronistic
as the present Christian faculties. For scholarly research into
Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist faith can no more be Christian, Muslim,
or Buddhist than criminology can be criminal. Science and scholarship
eschew presuppositions and recognize a duty to objective truthfulness.
In this matter, the present situation in German theology is
unhealthy, if only on legal grounds. By law, the Roman Catholic Church
can block the appointment of disapproved lecturers, and even exclude
candidates it deems undesirable. And now, in my case, the Protestant
Church has claimed the same right for itself.
The need to transform the theological faculties can be seen also
in the increasing unification of Europe. The German situation is
unique, and in the long term cannot survive in the European Community.
In other European countries, as in North America, people are following
the discussion in Germany - once the Mecca of scholarly theology
– with amazement and dismay. The clear and present remedy is for
far-sighted politicians to prune back the dead branches and permit
scholarship to bear its appropriate fruit.
The requirement of the hour is a new faculty of theology or
religious studies, one which delves into all religions of the past and
present. This faculty would include members of the traditional
Protestant and Catholic faculties – in considerably reduced
numbers – along with the occupants of chairs in the history of
religion, religious studies, and, where appropriate, philosophy. The
practical and doctrinal training of clergy is the task of the
Christian churches and other religious communities; it is not the
business of the university.
(Translated from the German by Dr. John Bowden and edited by Tom
Frankfurter Rundschau: 4 December 1998