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Belief vs. Academic Freedom

Theology Professor Fights Ouster From Post Teaching Prospective Ministers

By Rob Simbeck
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 6, 2002; Page B09


A German theologian who rejects the Virgin Birth and Resurrection, yet calls liberal Protestant theology "bankrupt," is fighting for the right to continue to teach would-be ministers, in a case that has drawn attention from religion scholars as a test of how far academic freedom should extend.

Gerd Luedemann, a biblical scholar who argues that the Resurrection was "a pious self-deception" by Jesus's followers, faults his liberal colleagues for believing as he does but not speaking out. Their re-interpretation of basic Christian dogma for a modern audience, he says, amounts to "worshiping a bloodless metaphor."

Germany's Goettingen University, where Luedemann has taught for two decades, declared in 1998 that he had disqualified himself from teaching ministerial students because of his views. Luedemann has sued to reclaim his full teaching status and will present his case in a German civil court next month.

The dispute is the focus of a new book, a collection of essays by American and European religious academics in which some support his legal battle and others criticize it.

Even in an era when the ultra-liberal Jesus Seminar has gained headlines for denying the Resurrection and questioning the veracity of New Testament statements attributed to Jesus, Luedemann stands out.

"The body of Jesus," he has said often, "rotted in the tomb if it was not eaten before then by vultures and jackals."

Luedemann, a member of the Jesus Seminar who is living in Nashville while on a semester's leave from Goettingen, has sovilified liberal Protestant theology that he is quoted approvingly by some fundamentalist Christian scholars.

He has called "contemptible" liberal attempts to redefine Christian doctrine in metaphorical terms and recently told a Swiss periodical that taking seriously the proclamation of Jesus as Lord of the world means "you would probably have to be a fundamentalist . . . [or] give up Christianity for the sake of honesty."

Such comments bring I-told-you-so's from many conservative Christians.

Luedemann "has discovered . . . that historic Christianity and Liberalism are indeed two separate, incompatible religions," Paul A. Hartog wrote last year in the Faith Pulpit, a publication of Faith Baptist Theological Seminary in Iowa.

Colleagues at the Jesus Seminar generally agree with Luedemann's assertions about New Testament texts, especially thenon-historical nature of the Nativity and Resurrection stories, said Marcus J. Borg, a professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University and one of the Seminar's best-known apologists. But Luedemann may have gone too far even for the Jesus Seminarians.

"As I understand Luedemann's position, he thinks that these stories were meant literally and factually," Borg said. "And because he can't accept them as literally factual stories, he thinks honesty requires that we abandon them to the fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals.

"I disagree. I would say, 'There's no reason to let the literalists have these stories.' "

Luedemann counters that "most of them [the stories] were meant literally and thus should remain in a museum."

"If the fundamentalists grab them, it is fine with me. A scholar has the duty to respect the text as it is and as it was meant," he says.

Goettingen University, an early seat of the modernist theology that has swept Western Christianity over the last century, hired Luedemann in 1982. Just 36 at the time, he was a rising star in the field of biblical criticism, having established himself as a careful and prolific historical scholar at Duke University, McMaster University in Ontario and Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville.

His early writings on the New Testament and early Christianity brought him international recognition, as did a commentary on the historical value of the Acts of the Apostles. His later work, on the Resurrection, heretics and the Virgin Birth, moved him to the edges of liberal thought.

Luedemann became convinced, along with other liberal scholars, that most of the comments attributed to Jesus involve later church doctrine and were put in His mouth by the writers of the Gospels – a process Luedemann calls "pious but unscrupulous."

The culmination of Luedemann's argument came with the 1998 publication of his book "The Great Deception: And What Jesus Really Said and Did." It includes his "Letter to Jesus," a dramatic farewell in which he sheds his ties to Jesus.

Attempts to oust Luedemann had begun earlier, and publication of "Deception" gave critics the boost they needed. In 1996, in the face of Luedemann's increasing disavowal of Christianity, German Protestant officials had begun calling for his removal from hisprofessorship of theology. In 1998, his Goettingen colleagues agreed.

The university renamed his chair, giving him dominion over a shadow department and taking away his only assistant.

The collection of symposium-style essays about the case, released this week by Global Publications at State University of New York in Binghamton, is called "Faith, Truth, and Freedom: The Expulsion of Professor Gerd Luedemann from the Theology Faculty at Goettingen University."

The university's action is a "significant event in the academic study of religion in the universities of the West," said Jacob Neusner, the Bard College, N.Y., professor who assembled the essays. At stake, he said, "is the intellectual integrity of the subject."

One Luedemann supporter, Douglas Knight, a Divinity School professor at Vanderbilt University, said in an interview that a key aim of the symposium is "to come to the defense of a fellow academic who has been mistreated by a system that has tried, if not to silence him, then at least to move him off to the side."

Voices sympathetic to Goettingen's position are also present in the book.

"It seems appropriate for Professor Luedemann to practice his scholarship in a way that doesn't involve a responsibility for preparing people to minister to those of a faith to which he no longer subscribes," writes Stephen B. Presser, professor of legal history and business law at Northwestern University. His "right to academic freedom ought to be viewed as guaranteeing him no more than a place in his university, but not on the faculty of theology."

The years of conflict have taken a heavy toll, said Luedemann, a congenial conversationalist with a rumpled appearance similar to that of Garrison Keillor.

His status as a pariah discourages students from taking his classes. His legal and other costs have risen to five figures, and he has sold a life insurance policy to help meet them. With the exception of his sister, no one in his family, including his wife of 32 years, shares his views.

Luedemann said he felt increasing frustration as he took his growing concerns to colleagues.

"All in all," he said, "I got the impression that some lacked the seriousness which is required to be a theologian or just did not want to be bothered. Political correctness was probably also involved and possibly a wisdom that I just did not and still do not have.

"Thus I felt terribly lonely and continued my rocky journey, keeping always in mind that yes is yes and no is no."

Yet Luedemann also has been heartened by a small number of friends and colleagues who have "deep sympathy" for his struggle.

"Had not Jack Neusner offered an opportunity to speak publicly about the whole mess, I would have been willing to stay quiet and wait for the decisions of the courts," said Luedemann, whose essay on the dispute is included in the new book.

At bottom is the quest for historical truth and its place in the modern university, he said.

"All I have claimed is that the pursuit of theology as an academic discipline should not be tied to the confession [of faith], and that if it is, it is not a true academic discipline."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

Copyright © Gerd Lüdemann
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