By Dr. Natalie Carnes, Associate Professor of Theology at Baylor University, currently visiting St. Andrews under the “Baylor at St. Andrews” program. She is the author of Image and Presence and Beauty
Though the term iconoclasm has expanded its meanings and associations over time, it still evokes a more Protestant than Catholic approach to church life. Not only are Protestants on the whole warier about the dangers of images, but Protestantism was birthed in the pangs of Reformation iconoclasm. Even Anglican and Episcopal churches, many of which today commission and display powerful art, refused for a time to tolerate anything image-like, including crosses. Queen Elizabeth was rebuked for the silver ones she kept in her chapel.
In my own Protestant upbringing, I attended a church that did tolerate crosses, but little else. A floor-to-ceiling wooden cross positioned directly behind the preacher was the sanctuary’s lone adornment. There were no paintings, no sculptures, not even any windows. The carpet and chairs were dark brownish-orange, as if anything pleasing to the eye might prevent worship of the invisible God.
Like all official determinations, these aesthetic decisions were made by the elder and deacon boards, comprised entirely of men. Sometimes the women rebelled against the bleak setting by arranging flowers for the front or sewing Advent banners. I remember my own mother on more than one occasion trying to brighten the pulpit by wrangling greenery around it. It was fake, of course, because there were no windows.
And yet despite the possibility that aesthetic anxiety can lead to such dreariness, I want to commend an iconoclastic impulse as salutary to image-loving traditions like Catholicism, even like much of twenty-first century Protestantism. I believe the iconoclastic impulse need not lead to visual austerity, for it can actually help Christians love images better—and might even help Protestants and Catholics find more common ground on images. Attempts to maintain a stark contrast between iconoclasm and iconophilia break down in a way that leaves room for ecumenical hope. Certain forms of iconoclasm, like many images, can be modes of fidelity to Christ.
Professor Christoph Schwöbel, the 1643 Chair of Divinity, joined St. Mary’s this fall from the University of Tübingen. Below he offers thorough answers to questions pertaining to his position at St. Andrews, his plans with the MLitt program, and his academic interests.
Considering your career at the University of Tubingen and elsewhere, when have you felt most excited about engaging in theological scholarship?
I can still remember the excitement with which I started studying theology and philosophy at the Kirchliche Hochschule Bethel, a church college that has the status of a Faculty of Theology in Germany. Now I could really focus on the questions that had fascinated me during the last years in grammar school without any distraction. This excitement has never left me and has accompanied me to the University of Marburg where I got my theological doctorate and later my Habilitation, from Marburg to King’s College London, and from there to chairs in the Universities of Kiel, Heidelberg, and Tübingen. However, this excitement changed over the years and was shaped by conversations with fellow theologians who became friends.
My teacher at Marburg, Carl Heinz Ratschow, was an incredible scholar, specialist in 17th century Lutheran orthodoxy, but equally competent in Aristotle, Nicolas of Cusa or Charles Hartshorne. Since Ratschow had started his academic studies as Egyptologist and had moved to theology through the influence of the Old Testament scholar Albrecht Alt, he had a lively interest for the world of religions. He could study the Qur’an in Arabic, the Buddhist traditions in Pali and Sanskrit and predicted much against the secular spirit of the time, that the theological dialogue with the religions would be the big theological task in the future. All this scholarship notwithstanding, Ratschow regularly conducted services and preached at the local church in the part of Marburg where he lived. He took me under his wing when I arrived in Marburg in my second year and made me study one philosopher each semester. At the end of the semester I had to submit an essay and discuss it with him. On such occasions the excitement came close to fear, and I certainly entered his study every time with a lot of trembling. After a relatively short time Ratschow was keen to get me started on my doctoral thesis. Much to my disappointment, he suggested a topic in historical theology and not in the philosophical theology. The reason was quite simple: “You will do enough philosophy of religion later on. You should do something respectable first.” So I spent many days in the bowels of the university library in Marburg sifting through the papers of the “liberal” theologian, journalist and politician Martin Rade (1857-1940), trying to decipher his handwriting and his idiosyncratic system of shorthand. Nevertheless, this also became very exciting when I stumbled on his correspondence with Karl Barth who had been the editorial assistant at Martin Rade’s journal Die Christliche Welt. Continue reading