Christianity Untrue, Says Teacher
Church Wants to Stop Him from Training Students for Ministry
By Ray Waddle, Religion Editor, The Tennessean
[This article was originally published in The Tennessean, August 29, 1998, pp. 1B-2B.]
Gerd Luedemann no longer believes in Christianity, and he suspects a lot of Christians secretly agree with him.
The difference is that Luedemann, a noted author here and in Europe, is going public with his disbelief. The other difference is he teaches the New Testament in a school in Germany that trains ministers, and he wants to continue there despite threats by the churches to kick him out.
“People know Christianity is not true, but they won’t address it publicly,” Leudemann, a German who lives part time in Nashville, said last week.
“It’s the skeleton in the closet. But I want to get the discussion going. That can only happen if you don’t mind being stigmatized.”
Luedemann, 52, is a friendly man with a Web site, www.gwdg.de/~gluedem/, and a twinkle in his eye even as he declares traditional Christian belief is no longer possible.
He insists liberal Christianity is dishonest when it does not admit its skepticism about the faith’s miraculous claims. He thinks anybody who wants to be a serious Christian ought to take up fundamentalism.
His hunch is that many other churchgoers feel what he feels but don’t admit it — a deep disconnection between the miracurlous world of Sunday morning Bible teaching and the daily world of rational laws of nature and social change.
“Liberals are dishonest if they think the Bible is on their side,” said Luedemann, who taught at Vanderbilt Divinity School for three years in the early 1980s and still has research privileges there.
“The Bible is against democracy, against tolerance, against equality.”
He has come to embrace a private religion that honors the mysteries of nature and the subconscious. He believes his kind of mystical piety is the wave of the future in a post-Christian era.
Luedemann has been called a publicity-monger; he’s a scholar who doesn’t shy from notoriety. He’s written several books that question or attack core Christian beliefs, such as Jesus’ Resurrection and his Virgin Birth.
He happily appears as the token religious skeptic on local talk shows and national TV documentaries.
His latest book, however, has gotten him in hot water with the Lutheran churches that underwrite his teaching job at the University of Gottingen in Germany.
The book, The Great Deception, argues the Resurrection was a pious hoax created, intentionally or not, by Jesus’ apostles.
“Great Deception – it’s an ugly title, but if it’s true, why not tell the truth?” said Luedemann, a family man who was a passionate Christian preacher as a teenager and later considered joining a monastery. “Let’s not deceive people.”
The book opens with a “Letter to Jesus” in which Luedemann bids farewell to the beloved Jesus of his youth, urging the Redeemer to free himself from the confusions and conflicts of the modern church and return to the first century.
“You proclaimed the future kingdom of God, but what came was the church. Luedemann writes. “Your message has been falsified by your supporters for their own advantage, contrary to the historical truth.”
The “case of Luedemann” has stirred unease in Germany, triggered debate about the limits of academic freedom and raised questions about the aims of liberal theology.
The historical-critical methods of theology he teaches in Europe are the bread and butter of the most prestigious seminaries in the United States, too, including Vanderbilt Divinity School.
Luedemann argues that liberal theology pretends to affirm belief but is based on skeptical methods of scholarship that deny miracles and strip the Bible of supernatural origins.
“It sucks the blood out of the gods and in the end prays only to symbols,” be said.
The Vanderbilt Divinity dean says Luedemann is “marvelously” provocative but guilty of “arrogant presumption” if he thinks people can’t be Christian unless they embrace every traditional creed.
“I’m a great believer that the spirit of God is very active in the world today,” Dean Joseph Hough said. “What Jesus revealed was an extraordinary sensitivity to the presence of the Spirit. His message is that anxiety is misplaced because God is trying to create loving opportunities for people in the world.”
Hough said Luedemann’s analysis assumes Christian belief is static and unchanging, but that only puts limits on how God reveals himself to people.
“People are perceiving God in new ways all the time,” Hough said. “All those things in the ancient creeds – the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth – are being reaffirmed and reinterpreted all the time. More than 50% of the people I know believe most of that, but they reserve the right to interpret it the way they want to.”
Luedemann is also a member of the famous, or infamous, Jesus Seminar, which has declared many of -the New Testament words of Jesus were probably made up by later writers.
Luedemann said the Jesus Seminar vainly tries to “modernize” Jesus, turning him into a wandering philosopher instead of respecting him as a first century figure who is now out of reach.
Luedemann said he still views Jesus as a deeply moving figure, one of the world’s great religious teachers. But he argues Jesus’ grieving disciples, and then hundreds of others, suffered hallucinations after his death and called it the Resurrection.
One local conservative scholar, Michael Moss of Lipscomb University, applauded Luedemann for saying what conservatives have long suspected, that liberal theology “cuts the guts out of the Gospel itself by jettisoning the miracles from the story.”
Moss argued against Luedemann’s dismissal of the Resurrection.
“There were so many witnesses,” said Moss, associate dean of’ Lipscomb’s College of Bible and Ministry. “What do you do with those folks? It’s wishful thinking to say they all had the same hallucination. That can’t explain why they were willing to sacrifice their lives later to tell the Gospel.”
Meanwhile, a legal conflict is brewing in Germany between the Protestant church conference and the government over Luedemann’s faculty position at Gottingen.
The church conference has a say in who gets to teach on the theology faculty, but Luedemann’s tenured salary is paid by the state. In a statement released last month the church organization said Luedemann had in effect disqualified himself from teaching ministers-in-training because of his views against the faith. The churches want him off the faculty. Luedemann would remain a university professor there but would be isolated, without students or classes.
Luedemann said he wants to continue on the theology faculty, teaching the technicalities of ancient languages and Bible text analysis, and challenging students.
“It’s a ‘scientific’ approach to the texts. My beliefs wouldn’t matter,” he said.
At Vanderbilt, Hough was asked hypothetically if it would be appropriate for such a nonbelieving scholar to teach at Vanderbilt or other modern divinity schools.
“I wouldn’t rule it out in principle because he’s a fine New Testament scholar, despite some naive personal assumptions,” he said. “But we can’t have teachers renouncing Christianity in the classroom. If he had no sympathy for our mission to train Christian ministers, he’d have to decide whether he could teach in such a classroom. “
Luedemann said people owe it to their integrity to seek truth and risk abandoning cherished beliefs.
“Why are we educating people?” he asked. “Is it just a hobby? Are we interested in truth? It’s cynical to say that society can’t tell the truth to itself
“We live only once. We have to have the courage to seek the knowledge of who we are.”