June 30, 2000
Prof. Dr. E. Muehlenberg Faculty of Theology George-August University 37073 Goettingen Germany
Dear Prof. Dr. Muehlenberg:
I write in response to your letter of April 4, 2000.
Although an “open letter” would have been quite appropriate in such a case, it was not our intention that you would learn about our letter from in the press. As indicated in the covering note that accompanied the original text of our letter, the early publication in Die Welt was an unfortunate turn of events and we regret any embarrassment that it may have caused. While we will, in the future, attempt to address you more directly, it is not our intention to do so privately.
This is, in our view, not a private matter to be worked out among colleagues. It is a public matter, which concerns anyone who cares about religious and academic freedom. It is not a private relationship that compels us to address you, but our common responsibility to speak openly and honestly about matters that affect the public discussion of religion in our common culture.
The ocean that divides is not so deep as you might think. The names David Friedrich Strauss, Albert Schweitzer, and Rudolf Bultmann are just as familiar here as they are among you. American protestant theology has for years relied on the tradition of critical German scholarship to press us beyond the comfortable limits of conventional thinking, to explore new frontiers in theology. That is why the case of Gerd Luedemann is of interest to us. Regardless of whether we agree with his views, that he should be sanctioned for his (admittedly provocative) challenge to conventional theological wisdom, is a thing of grave concern for us.
Your letter makes a number of assertions to which we must respond.
First, you have charged that we have acted without knowing all sides of the story. This may be so, although we have availed ourselves of the public documents pertaining to the case. If our letter indicates that we have misunderstood the limits that have been placed upon Prof. Luedemann’s teaching, we would expect you to set the record straight for us. Moreover, if we have misunderstood the role played by the faculty in bringing about the decision to alter his status, we would welcome your clarification of the matter. We do have the text of the resolution of the faculty passed on 18 November 1998, asking that Prof. Luedemann be removed from the Theological Faculty.
Second, you have criticized us for not recognizing that the decision to alter Prof. Luedemann’s status was taken not by the church or by the theological faculty, but by the university and the Ministry of Culture. We are, of course, aware of the official process by which Prof. Luedemann’s fate was decided. But this in no way relieves the theological faculty of its responsibility and role in the matter. Was it not the resolution of the faculty that placed Prof. Luedemann’s status in question in the first place? What role the church might have played in this process is unclear to us. Nonetheless, that you should minimize the impact of your own actions, while appealing to the decision of higher authorities, is most unsettling.
So, too, is your appeal to the authority of the German courts. We are, of course, aware that the courts have refused to grant Luedemann an injunction against the decision of the university. But this does not resolve the matter. The case is still before the German courts, and will be subject to appeal. In any event, this is a very complicated case that will likely involve considering certain provisions of your Grundgesetz regarding the relationship between church and state. You will need to be part of that discussion. The church will need to be part of that discussion. You cannot abdicate your responsibility to participate in this decision by appealing to state authorities.
Having clarified these matters, we must now insist that you have not responded to our most fundamental point: that Prof. Luedemann ought to be allowed to teach students who are not preparing for ordination in the Lutheran Church. This is based on the conviction that a public university ought to serve all the legitimate interests of the pluralistic society which supports it. We realize that the status of theological faculties in German universities rests on a complex history, which we may not fully understand from our point of view here in the United States. And we recognize the need of the church to impose limits on what is to be considered doctrinally acceptable, and what is not.
We understand that this is a lesson you have learned in a most difficult way during the period of the Third Reich. Still, do you really believe that a theological faculty should not include voices that, in view of their own research, are very critical of church doctrine? Many of our private, church-supported seminaries now include professors who are Jewish, some even, who teach in the area of New Testament. And their presence has not harmed the church in any way. To the contrary, it has enriched the environment for preparing church leaders to serve the church in a pluralistic culture. How much more would this be true in your own publicly-supported institutions? And even if someone like Prof. Luedemann could not legitimately participate in those areas of the curriculum devoted to the preparation of candidates for ordained ministry, why should he not participate in those areas that are not devoted expressly to this function?
Here is the issue as we see it: Do the theological faculties of your state universities serve only the church, or do they also serve the broader needs of a pluralistic culture? If the latter is true, then voices critical of the church, its history, or its doctrines, ought not be excluded entirely from the lecture halls of the Theological Faculty. A pluralistic culture thrives on free thought. This much is basic. Some would even argue that the church can only be authentic when it, too, welcomes free and critical thought. Was this not the conviction of Luther, Schleiermacher, Troeltsch, Tillich, and so many others who have made the German theological tradition such an important part of western culture?
With such a tradition upon which to rest, what does the Theological Faculty of Goettingen have to fear from Gerd Luedemann?
Robert W. Funk Director, Westar Institute Chair, Jesus Seminar on behalf of the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar
Copies to: Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder Minister Thomas Oppermann Prof. Dr. Horst Kern Prof. Dr. Gerd Luedemann