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Whither Theology?



We cannot envisage the disappearance of theological and ecclesiastical concerns from government. They have a solid backing, even in disturbed times when purse strings are tight. In Germany the churches, as public corporations, levy upon their members taxes which are collected by the state; and theological faculties are protected by agreements between the state and the churches. The Basic Law (Article 7, para.3) provides for offering religious education 'in accord with the basic principles of the religious communities'. And to be sure, theological studies have been part of the canon of disciplines since the foundation of the European universities in the thirteenth century. But things are beginning to change. We are presently witnessing a slow but sure decline in the popular acceptance, and indeed the very plausibility of many traditional Christian doctrines, and both with the public and within the university, theology is increasingly losing credit as an academic discipline, let alone a study to be funded by the state. Yet Protestant theology in particular has an impressive achievement to point to, and has been an important element of German intellectual history. At the beginning of this century Albert Schweitzer summed up its significance this way: 'When, at some future day, our period of civilization lies closed and completed before the eyes of later generations, German theology will stand as a great, a unique phenomenon in the mental and spiritual life of our time.' In this remark Schweitzer was referring first to the honest and objective investigation of the sources of the Christian faith appearing in the Old and New Testaments, and second, he had in view the attempts made by every new generation to relate the message of the Bible truthfully to the current world.

We may add that scholarly theology practised in this way from German professorial chairs set the standard for theological faculties throughout the world, and at least until the middle of the twentieth century German was the language of international theology. What is the basis of the power of a theology practised in this way?

First, its approach consists in making a radical historical investigation of its own religion. That commonly leads to many results which are diametrically opposed to statements in the Bible. Thus Jesus was not born of a virgin, he neither desired nor intended to die for the sins of humankind, and he certainly did not rise bodily from the tomb as the Gospels report.

Second, by means of objective comparisons it examines congruities between early Christianity and other religions contemporaneous with it. Contrary to the claim of the biblical authors, that tends to lead to a relativizing of Christian faith; for almost all the teachings of Jesus - from the injunction to love one's neighbor to the insinuations of the parables - can be found in the Judaism of his time; and countless parallels outside the early church correspond to what the New Testament calls 'faith'.

Third, sociological and psychological issues have become inherent parts of theological investigation, for they afford us a better understanding of early Christian communities and the persons active in them. Here again, however, we find manifest discrepancies with the scriptural accounts. When the Bible talks of the community and individuals 'being filled with the Holy Spirit', in reality it describes a mass hallucinatory phenomenon or the visionary experience of a highly excitable individual. In every case these represent intrinsically human psychic events, and not supernatural inspiration, as church dogma still declares.

In short, while scholarly theology generally relativizes the truth-claims of the Christian churches, German youth who aspire to lead these churches look to the state theological faculties for their academic training. The resulting conflict runs like a scarlet thread through the history of the theology of the last two centuries. Today, the dominant strain of theology resolves the problem by defining itself as a church discipline. The validity of a theology is thus measured by the degree to which it serves the interests of the church. Professors of theology seek to blunt the penetrating criticism of scholarly methods by making necklaces out of bent spear points. That may be charming, but it is irresponsible. Scholarship strives for objectivity, and precisely for that reason may never predicate the truth-claims of the churches. Theology cannot be a church discipline; either it is a free discipline or it is not a scholarly discipline at all.

The changed social situation similarly demands that theology may no longer understand itself as part of the clerical domain, but rather as an endeavor generally responsible for religion in the contemporary culture. Therefore its task is not solely the academic training of future pastors and teachers of religion it must also offer an introduction and an explanation to all those professions involving religious concerns: social workers, journalists, politicians, and funeral directors - but always as religious studies from the lectern, never as confessional matters from the pulpit.

As long as the churches are closely affiliated with the state and have a share in the culture of the present, there is every reason for their future pastors to continue to receive their academic training from the theological faculty. They will thus receive the preliminary knowledge necessary for an understanding of the Christian faith. Their professional training would then follow, when they must learn to put into practice their churches' belief in the Son of God, whose kingdom, as they themselves preach, is not of this world. Academic theology has its feet firmly planted on this earth where, financed by the secular state, it investigates and teaches religion as a function of the human spirit. If it is to mature and develop, it must unconditionally accept the precept of the English philosopher Bertrand Russell who offered this reassurance: 'Even if the open window of science at first makes us shiver with cold after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.'

(Translated from the German by Dr. John Bowden and edited by Tom Hall)

Frankfurter Rundschau: 16 April 1999

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