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Feature/Gerd Lüdemann: The Academic Luther?

By Rob Simbeck


The whispers are those that go with fame. "There he is," says one student, pointing across the courtyard. "That's Gerd Lüdemann?" asks another. The venue is the convocation picnic kicking off the new semester at Vanderbilt Divinity School. The people pointing and craning their necks are about to spend the year in preparation for the ministry or a degree in biblical literature, or in pursuit of some self-defined goal. The man they are regarding with a touch of real wonder used to teach here. He is still a visiting scholar who maintains a home in Nashville, researches in the Vanderbilt library and speaks both locally and across two continents.

He is famous-or notorious, depending on one's predisposition-for saying what every liberal biblical scholar has heard and what a not insubstantial number believe: that many of the claims of classical Christianity, including its cornerstone, the Resurrection, are pious fluff that simply don't hold up in the face of modern historical research and post-Enlightenment sensibilities. They are, to take it a step further-and Lüdemann always does-part of what he calls "The Great Deception."

It is possible to believe as he does and yet flourish in modern-day liberal theology. Lüdemann, in fact, is adamant that a good percentage of his colleagues do just that, dissembling so that they may keep their jobs and careers. It is not possible, though, to drive the point home as baldly and forcefully as he has for nearly a decade and escape unscathed. Few of his colleagues believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus, but hardly any take that belief to its logical conclusion, at least not publicly. Lüdemann does.

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

That utterance alone was not enough to jeopardize the job he has held since leaving Vanderbilt-a professorship at Göttingen University, a German institution long synonymous with the best of modern-day biblical scholarship. But his statement that what passes for modern Protestant thought is "bankrupt" has embroiled him in a tempest that is beginning to spin little twisters across the West. He maintains that theology as practiced by present-day Christian churches is as dead as Jesus when he was taken down from the cross.

"The hallowed precincts of church and theological tradition often stand directly opposed to the human sense of truth," he has said. "If no bridge can be built here, then all is up with the credibility of theology and the church, and for all their apparent splendor, both are heading for rigor mortis."

What is needed, he says, is fearless and rigorous historical investigation, unencumbered by creed or edict and followed to its conclusion, no matter what the cost or consequence. Perhaps not surprisingly, Lutheran church officials in Germany decided a few years ago that a man with such views should not be instructing would-be ministers of the gospel. Since 1994, they, Lüdemann and the university have been involved in a complex dance of charges, public statements, court dates and faculty votes that have left Lüdemann a member of the theology department but with restrictions that have reduced his clout and university standing considerably.

For years now, his battle to teach as a non-theist in a Christian setting has been a rather remote matter, the stuff of university debate and the German-language press. All that may be about to change. The April issue of the journal Religion, which is to theology what Nature is to science, will feature a symposium on the Lüdemann case that will become the core of a book called Faith, Truth and Freedom: The Expulsion of Professor Gerd Lüdemann From the Theology Faculty of Göttingen University. The dean of Göttingen and world-class academics from Europe and the U.S.-including Vanderbilt Divinity School professors Amy-Jill Levine and Douglas A. Knight, and former Vanderbilt Divinity professor and Jesus Seminar founder Robert Funk-will weigh in on what some see as a pivotal showdown over academic freedom and the very nature of theological inquiry.

There is no doubt the Lüdemann case has touched nerves across the U.S. and Europe. It raises many questions, including whether an otherwise qualified non-theist can teach the Bible and whether historical research done under the influence of a church can be called a legitimate academic undertaking. It has renewed concerns over the fact that there are unspoken litmus tests that an academic must pass to teach in an American theological institution-one had better not be too liberal in a conservative institution, nor too conservative in a liberal one.

It has not been an easy road. Lüdemann is now teaching classes students have no reason to take-the area in which he teaches doesn't offer a major, and students would be hurting their advancement by getting close to someone who is a thorn in the university's side. Lüdemann is paying the bulk of his own quite sizable legal costs, selling a life insurance policy to help do so. With the exception of his sister, no one in his family shares his views. He has long been the object of the animosity of the church. Friends and colleagues have sometimes been hostile to his approach, if not his reasoning.

The German university system, which mixes church and state, makes the matter more complicated than it might be in the United States. Göttingen dean Reinhard G. Kratz, in a paper for the symposium, maintains that the church can require professors in such a setting to serve its interests, and that Lüdemann's actions made the school's withdrawal of his right to instruct ordination candidates a mere formality.

Many of those contributing to the symposium agree that there are split interests and rights. "It seems appropriate for Professor Lüdemann 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," says Stephen B. Presser, a professor of legal history and business law at Northwestern University. "Professor Lüdemann's 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."

"All I have claimed," counters Lüdemann, "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. As long as theology remains in the university, it has to research and inform, not reveal and preach; to bring people to maturity in matters of religion, not lead them astray into servitude toward an old superstition, no matter how modern it may claim to be."

While William Shea, professor of American Christianity at St. Louis University, grants that Lüdemann is "a professor who will not dodge and weave," he adds that "he is now paying the price. You do not say goodbye to Christianity and expect applause from Christians. Compassion perhaps, applause never."

Yet this case is relevant to America, in that theologians here have found their jobs in jeopardy for the same reasons that Lüdemann has. "There have been many cases involving confessional schools," says Knight, "where a conservative church has seen to the firing of faculty members who don't hold to the party line. That has happened entirely too much in the last two decades in our own country for us to feel indifferent toward what is occurring now in a major European university."

There are parallels in liberal American institutions as well, Levine points out. "Those schools which profess the ideal of open inquiry also often do not want faculty who are too Christian," she says. "Church membership is fine, but active proselytizers for a particular brand of (usually Conservative) Christianity are less welcome."

But if Lüdemann's fellow theologians disagree with him and sometimes regard him as someone too eager to seek the spotlight, they don't for a moment doubt his intelligence or his intellectual motives. "He did not invent this issue," says Knight. "It goes back to [German theologian Rudolf] Bultmann and others before him. But Gerd asked the question in a very radical form and stayed with it even in the face of church opposition. He is saying, 'If we say it among ourselves, why don't we say it out loud?' "

All content is © Rob Simbeck 2002.

Editor's Note: The full text of this abridged version originally appeared in the February 28, 2002 issue of Nashville Scene. Visit: www.nashvillescene.com

The book Faith, Truth, and Freedom edited by Jacob Neusner will be published in April 2002 by Global Publications. The symposium talks will appear in the April 2002 issue of Religion (Academic Press).

Copyright © Gerd Lüdemann
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