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An Interview with Professor Christoph Schwöbel

Monday 10 December 2018

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.

Ten years later, I had moved from being a lecturer in systematic theology in Marburg, to King’s College in the University of London, the conversations with my friend Colin Gunton (1941-2003) offered a new sense of excitement: the enthusiasm that accompanied the “renaissance of Trinitarian theology”. I had just discovered the significance of the doctrine of the Trinity during the last years at Marburg, and now it was the focal point of the weekly sessions of the Tuesday seminars in systematic theology with the “regulars”, Brian Horne, Francis Watson and, during the summer terms, John Zizioulas. Here, the sense of excitement was the rediscovery of the powerful resources of the tradition to deal with contemporary theological issues. Founding the Research Institute in Systematic Theology and becoming its founding director was the organizational response to this excitement. I remember Colin Gunton telling me on the train journey back from one of the first conferences I had organized for the Research Institute to our respective homes: “Christoph, isn’t it amazing? We are paid to do these things!”

The years in London also presented me with the reality of religious pluralism. Taking long walks through London I would come across parts of the town that were characterized by orthodox Judaism, to quarters where the dominant religion was Hindu and the language in the shop windows, Gujarathi, only to discover that a few streets further on the language, culture, and religion changed again. Having grown up with different versions of secularization theories, the discovery of the present public reality of the religions, was a staggering discovery. Could it be that the problem of the one and the many, so central to Trinitarian theology, was repeated in a very different constellation in the pluralism of religions?

When I accepted the call to the chair in systematic theology at the University of Kiel the inspiration from the time in London provided the stimulus for trying to work out how this Trinitarian perspective would change the different doctrines of material dogmatics. It soon became clear that I had to do that in a way that was appropriate to the traditions of the Lutheran churches in Northern Germany. When I found out that my students who were preparing for ordination eyed me with a mild skepticism because I was not ordained, I finally went to the bishop of our part of the church and asked to be ordained. He asked me to make a list of all the occasions when I had preached, or taught confirmation classes. It took me a whole weekend since I had always tried to help out with conducting services whenever it was needed. With parents who were both ministers serving a church in the centre of Frankfurt, this was the kind of bread-and-butter work one should do as a theologian. When the bishop saw my carefully compiled list, he laughed and said that he doubted whether one of the senior pastors in Hamburg would be able to produce such a list. And so I was ordained by the Bishop of Schleswig, Hans-Christian Knuth, and since Schleswig was twinned with the Diocese of Ely, with Gordon Roe, the Suffragan Bishop of Huntingdon, assisting. The time in Kiel was also the beginning of the cooperation with my friend from university days, Hans Wißkirchen, on the dialogue between theology and literary criticism on the work of Thomas Mann. Since then we have continued that with a compact seminar each summer semester, extending our focus from Thomas to Heinrich Mann, Hermann Hesse and Alfred Döblin.

During the time in Heidelberg, where I had the chair for Dogmatics and Ecumenical Theology, the exciting discovery was that two strands of my theology, the doctrine of the Trinity and my reflections on religious pluralism in our globalizing world came together, as related aspects of a theological working programme. The problem of the one and the many which is at the heart of Trinitarian theology also seemed to be at the heart of the problems confronting our societies worldwide, confronting us with a dialogical imperative. The first concrete outcome of that was a shared book of essays with Jewish and Muslim scholars on the religious roots of tolerance. Together we questioned the Enlightenment view that if you want to be more tolerant, than you have to become less religious. Our project pointed in the opposite direction: Becoming more tolerant is a spiritual discipline that arises from engaging with the roots of one’s religious tradition. One must become more religious in order to become more tolerant. When I became Visiting Professor at the Graduate School of Letters of Kyoto University, I tried this orientation out with representatives of various Buddhist schools of thought.

The time in Tübingen as the successor of Eberhard Jüngel offered many opportunities to bring the different strands of my theology together. After I had been invited to Korea to follow the footsteps of my Tübingen colleague Jürgen Moltmann, I founded with a number of Korean colleagues the East West Theological Forum. Its aim is to make the dialogue between Asian and European and North American theologians more reciprocal. The forum has now had five bi-annual conferences which offered many new insights for understanding Christianity as a pluralistic phenomenon in which theological reflection takes many forms which are dependent on being in conversation with one another. This experience also shaped my participation in a joint research project with the Lateran University in Rome, organized by my Tübingen colleague Eilert Herms who could gain the supports of the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith and later Pope Benedict XVI. for a research project on the fundamental theological problems of ecumenical dialogue. The research method in this group is very simple: Roman-Catholic theologians interpret the authoritative texts of their own tradition and the authoritative texts from the Lutheran tradition, Lutheran theologians interpret the texts from their own tradition and the authoritative teaching of the Roman Catholic church, following the rule recommended by Unitatis Redintegratio: to relate everything to the foundation of faith, the self-disclosure of the triune God.

One of the great privileges in Tübingen was to be one of the “Early Morning Preachers” at the Stiftskirche, professors from the Faculty who took part in regularly conducting servides. Out of this grew the cooperation with the organist and choirmaster at the Stiftskirche, Ingo Bredenbach, in the so-called Cantata services. In the service a Bach Cantata is performed and the sermon tries to read the biblical text through the music of the Cantata. Such services were an attraction for many people who found it an enriching experience to relate to the message of the Gospel in words and music. It did not have to be Bach. One of the most memorable services was structured around the Benjamin Britten’s St. Nicolas cantata. Only recently, Ingo Bredenbach, the church historian Volker Leppin, and I developed a compact seminar on the theology and music of a particular Bach cantata. On the second day the seminar turned itself into the choir singing the cantata in the Sunday service. The experiences from the seminar discussion and the rehearsal provided background material for the sermon.

A new departure for Tübingen was the establishment of a Centre for Islamic Theology a the University, in future probably an Islamic Theological Faculty in addition to the Protestant Theological Faculty and the Roman Catholic Theological Faculty. With my colleague for kalam, for Islamic systematic theology, Lejla Demiri, I have over the last four years engaged in a series of seminars on central theological topics, following the method of “Scriptural Reasoning” which we have recently expanded to scriptural and theological reasoning. With Muslim students interpreting the Qur’an and Christian students interpreting the Bible for one another in the significance it has for their respective faith communities we made the experience that we rarely come to doctrinal agreement but that we are enriched by the engaged theological conversation. Over the years these conversations have led to friendships between Muslim and Christian theologians, students and teachers. For me the exciting discovery in recent last years was the insight that Christian theology cannot understand its own past and present without paying attention to the constant interaction with the other religions, most importantly our theological relatives Judaism and Islam.

Looking back, I am very grateful that the excitement about engaging in theological scholarship was always rekindled by new conversations with teachers, colleagues and students. Over the years many of ‘my’ ideas have developed in ‘our’ conversations. The questions that are at the hear of my way of doing theology is: Could it be that this is not only the result of happy circumstances but also points to a profound truth, that we as God’s creatures are a conversation, mirroring the conversation that the triune God is. I hope that such conversations will continue in St Andrews.

How have these experiences shaped your approach to integrating philosophy into your theological studies?

 I am not sure that I have a philosophy. Philosophy was always a keen interest and a primary object of study, from my school days when I read the work of the Marxist Philosopher Ernst Bloch with a kind of drunken excitement. When I was in my first year of studies I came into contact with the philosophy of German Idealism and with the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. A group of older students who read Heidegger together and studied with Heidegger’s former student Wilhelm Anz at Bethel, invited me to their reading group. At these meetings one had to smoke a pipe. I am no longer a Heideggerian (if I ever was one), but the pipe has remained, surely, because it is not only associated with Heidegger, but was also the trademark of Ernst Bloch, Karl Barth, and Rudolf Bultmann. In Marburg, studying with Carl Heinz Ratschow gave me a basis for engaging with Descartes, Nicolas of Cusa, Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche, either through Ratschow’s reading programme for me or his seminars. Ratschow’s own philosophical hero was Leibniz, and I have only in recent years begun to understand the full significance of Leibniz’ philosophical and theological work – after all he wrote a Lutheran dogmatics, understood himself as an ecumenist and is one of the founding fathers of intercultural dialogue. At Marburg my friend John Clayton (1943-2003) introduced me to analytic philosophy in Wittgensteinian style which he had applied to Paul Tillich’s theology. Ratschow invited me to the European Conference on the Philosophy of Religion. There I met Vincent Brümmer, the South African who was philosopher of religion at the University of Utrecht. He had studied at Oxford during the time of ‘ordinary language philosophy’ and had received important inspirations from Ian Ramsay. When he went to conferences in Britain, to the Christian Philosophers’ Conference or to the Society for the Study of Theology he always took a few of his doctoral students with him. He invited me to join the ‘Dutch Contingent’ for these conferences and so I spent many hours discussing philosophy and theology on the way to and from a conference, in the car, on the ferry, and during the stopovers on the way. For the German systematic theologian who had grown a little tired of the mixture of hermeneutic and Marxist philosophies that dominated Germany at that time, the demands for clarity and conceptual precision had a lot of attraction. I thought I could pursue these interests when I came to King’s. However, when I arrived there I had the impression that the older style analytic philosophy had just died. The interesting philosophers used the tools of analytic philosophy to engage the classical questions of metaphysics.

Back in Germany I tried to integrate these various philosophical inspirations, tools for conceptual analysis and methods of constructing an argument into my theological work. It did not take a long time until there was a dramatic sea change in analytic philosophy. While I was a student, I always expected philosopher’s to be highly critical of all theological claims and one almost automatically took an apologetic stance, trying to make theological claims acceptable to the traditional forms of the 19th century critique of religion. Now, the most competent and technically most accomplished philosophers argued brilliantly for the truth of the doctrines of the Creed. Often I found myself confronted with theological views, defended in philosophical form, which I would sometimes find theologically problematical. I found that for a systematic theologian, even one who regularly had to teach philosophy of religion, there was a virtue in being philosophically eclectic. The question is not whether the philosophical elements that one employs in doing systematic theology are coherent in terms of the theoretical frameworks from which they originate, but whether these philosophical elements make sense in the context of their theological application, even this requires quite extensive – methodologically transparent – revisions in terms of the philosophical port of origin. Doing philosophical theology is, in my view, an exercise in which transcultural migration, from philosophy to theology and back again, is a virtue and not a crime to be punished by deportation.

Since the time in Heidelberg I have regularly conducted seminars with the philosopher Jens Halfwassen, a renowned specialist in Neoplatonist thought and a confessing Neoplatonist himself. Regardless whether we had seminars on John Scotus Eriugena, Nicholas of Cusa, Schelling or Hegel or on the problem of monotheism (with the Egyptologist Jan Assmann), I have always benefitted immensely from his scholarship. The more I understood about Neoplatonism past and present, the more careful I became with regard to its programmatic import into theology. Are there not good theological reasons, past and present, to regard the doctrine of the Trinity as a critical correction of the view of the world where everything cascades from the One in a series of cataracts? Does it not contain a constant reminder that the particular, the Three and the Many, have their own weight over against the One? Does this not contain the inspiration to think about participation in ways which takes the communicative mediation of this participation in the preaching of the Word and in the celebration of sacraments, where the many become one, with metaphysical seriousness?

I owe to Jens Halfwassen the suggestion to see my philosophical eclecticism not as a shortcoming but as a virtue, and call it a synthetic philosophy. The way in which my theological excitements have shaped my theological outlook I would now want to express in a metaphysics of communicative relations. In conversation with my colleague Friedrich Hermanni in Tübingen I have learned to rediscover many of the elements that I have come to see on rather roundabout routes as decisive for the philosophy of German Idealism, mainly that of Hegel and Schelling. In all the differences and divergences that enlivened our joint seminar for doctoral students over the last years there remained the shared conviction that the decisive questions are questions of metaphysics. Collegium Metaphysicum  is therefore the title of the publication series Friedrich Hermanni and I edit together with the philosophers Thomas Buchheim and Axel Hutter from the University of Munich.

What about St. Mary’s College and the University of St. Andrews compelled you to accept the 1643 Chair in Divinity?

The School of Divinity in the University of St Andrews has a unique constellation of research institutes that contribute to the degrees offered by the School. The Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics, The Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, The Institute of Bible, Theology and Hermeneutics, and the newly founded Logos Institute for Exegetical and Analytic Theology all develop particular avenues of research which are firmly rooted in the character, structure and contents of Christian theology. They resonate so strongly with some of my interests that I am very curious to learn more about their work. Curiosity is always a strong attraction for me, and I hope that I may occasionally be part of the conversations in each of the four institutes. I am sure that I have much to learn. If the School of Divinity can develop these particular areas expertise in constructive cooperation I believe that there is the possibility of strong synergy effects. With regard to this potential I think that the School is unique – and that was a strong attraction for me. However, it would not have exercised quite such a pull if these different areas of research and teaching were not represented by colleagues with whom I look forward to be in conversation, for the simple reason that I hope to learn a lot.

It is, of course, a particular honour to be the successor of John Webster here in St Andrews. We edited the International Journal for Systematic Theology, which John had founded with Colin Gunton, together for a number of years until I had to recognise that I could not simultaneously be one the editors of IJST and the editor of the other international journal in Systematic Theology, the Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie. The Neue Zeitschrift is now being published from St Andrews. While John and I disagreed over quite a number of issues, he once paid me the compliment of saying that we belonged to a small minority of theologians who held fast to the dogmatic task of theology.

On a personal level I am very grateful that St Andrews also offers the opportunity of working together with my wife, Katrin Bosse. After having been a research assistant at Heidelberg and having taught systematic theology for six years at the University of Hohenheim and after recently having training ordinands and ministers in the challenges of practicing Christian religious education in an interreligious context, Katrin brings a new perspective to systematic theology in St. Andrews. For me, it is of course, great that my most important theological conversation partner at home is now my co-lecturer in the course on “Theology: Issues and History”.

St Mary’s offers the unique chance of doing theology as a scholarly community, pursuing the tasks of theology in scholarly conversation. The research seminar in Systematic and Historical Theology in which we discussed almost the whole theological work of Anselm of Canterbury in this semester was for me a unique experience. A seminar in which all the teachers in the subject area work together with the postgraduate students in exploring a classic theological work that is quite unique.

One of your responsibilities since coming to St Mary’s has been leading the MLitt program in Systematic & Historical Theology. What are you most excited to see in the program this year? Where would you like to see it go in the future?

The great advantage of the MLitt program in Systematic and Historical Theology is that it focuses on the crucial questions at the centre of Christian theology and does so by engaging exegetical, historical and systematic disciplines in cooperation in the different parts of the degree. The module on the origins of Christian theology contains the invitation to relate all the contemporary problems of theology to its earliest and formative phase. It does so by presenting historical and systematic theology in a structured form of conversation. This collaboration offers, in my view, the opportunity of looking deeper into the origins and foundations of Christian theology than any approach that would be either historical or systematic. The two modules on the Trinity and Christology are both at the heart of Christian theology and those areas where we have at the moment the liveliest discussions. Students can participate in an ongoing debate that is conducted with passion and dedication so that the historical sources become alive when they are debated by scholars today. Because it is focused on key issues and not on particular theories, the different modules contribute to a style of doing theology which supports the independent judgment of students, and tries to equip them with the tools to offer the best reasons for their own views. And where else will one find a module on C.S. Lewis as an important modern theologian?

This is where I would like to see the program go in future: to continue focusing on the big questions, not on theories that go quickly from relevance to obsolescence; to concentrate on problems and not on positions and schools of thought; and to offer opportunities for acquiring the skills and tools with which theological problems can be tackled – and brought to a suggestion for a solution. Every good degree programme aims at making students independent in their mastery of the methodological skills, in developing conversational virtues in listening to and responding to one another, to the voices of the theological traditions and to those voices of others outside theology who remind theologians of the significance of theological issues. I also believe that one cannot master the art of doing theology without developing a sense of humility for the greatness of theology’s subject matter and of the commitment to truth that this humility reflects.

Often, people have vague ideas about the reasons for studying theology. Why do we teach theology in the university? Further, with the ever-changing landscape of the public sphere, why should folk study theology?

I am a little hesitant about immediately offering apologetic arguments for theology in the university. In interdisciplinary conversations theologians often feel that they have to justify first why they dare to take part in academic discussions. It is my experience, that our colleagues in other disciplines are singularly uninterested in hearing apologetic self-justifications. They are interested in hearing what theology has to contribute substantively to the questions under discussion. After all who could claim to understand history without having some understanding of the religious motives and theological justifications of historical agents and institutions? Who could claim to understand the worlds of culture without an understanding of the role of religious symbols, gestures and sounds and their theological interpretations? Who could assume to understand modern atheism without a sense for the similarities between theologies and atheistic a-theologies? This by no means restricted to the humanities. The theological interests of people like Leibniz, Newton, Leonhard Euler, or Kurt Gödel clearly indicate a convergence in the field of the ultimate questions where both sides of the conversation would have a lot to learn from one another. Perhaps we should not be too quick to argue what theology “is good for”. In my view, there is much to be said for the traditional view that God is “good for nothing”, because he has meaning in himself, is an end in himself and so the ultimate end of everything. Therefore worshipping God or having conversations about God does not a justification in terms of what this is “good for”. Only if we retain this sense that God as the highest good is good for nothing we begin to understand the point of the Gospel that this God wants to be good for us.

However, there is another reason why the study of theology is not only useful but much needed in a modern university. The history and the sociology of the sciences can teach us that scientific inquiries are often driven by assumptions and fundamental orientations that have a meta-scientific or pre-scientific character. What is the ideal of what it means to be human that drives research in the life sciences, indeed: what is character of “life” that the life sciences claim as their subject matter? Similarly, what is a “good society”? What are the assumptions we make about the “common good”? These, often implicit basic orientations that inform the direction which the sciences take must have a place in the debates of the university. Theology in the university is the institution of an ongoing dialogue about such basic orientations, about the borderlands where ultimate questions and penultimate concerns come together. That such questions are not outside the scope of methodologically transparent inquiry and can become thematic in a dialogue that aims at mutual understanding is the claim that theology’s existence in academia makes. That, however, requires a style of doing theology where theology dares to be in conversation with the other intellectual pursuits in a university in the hope to learn something that is also theologically relevant.

And the question an eager graduate student must ask: what projects are you currently working on?

Normally I just work on the things that I have been asked to work on. Apart from my inaugural lectures at the different universities I have worked in everything else on my list of publications is commissioned work and goes back to contributions to conferences, lectures I was asked to give for particular purposes. I have still quite a number of things on my “to-do list”. There is, however, one project which is almost too embarrassing to mention. Many years ago I signed a contract for a textbook on Christian dogmatics with a German publisher. Recently an American publishing house became interested in the project. I hope I can sit down and get on with the project, before the embarrassment becomes too painful.




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3 thoughts on "An Interview with Professor Christoph Schwöbel"

  • Ryan
    Wednesday 18 December 2019, 7.36pm

    Thank you for this interview with Christoph Schwöbel. You asked the type of questions I wanted to tackle while on the train with him after a conference. I didn't want to bother him more than I already had though. So, it was good to read about his intellectual background and pursuits. I especially enjoyed the response about how theology needs no justification as an intellectual discipline since the greatest good of the gospel is God himself. Perhaps I would have just liked to ask, "What is your favorite pipe tobacco?"

  • Frank D'Souza
    Frank D'Souza
    Friday 8 May 2020, 10.46pm

    As I labour to understand Karl Barth, as a prelude to writing an impossible Essay about his "connection between revelation and the doctrine of Trinity", I am compelled to seek reinvigoration, by excursions to the periphery. The above Interview was a joy to read, and I am grateful for it.

  • Hassan Musa
    Hassan Musa
    Wednesday 3 February 2021, 7.13pm

    Prof. Schwobel's life and interest in theology is so multidimensional and instructive. I enjoyed reading about his theological interface with philosopher and pluralistic dialogues and leave his life and contribution an open challenges especially to an African reader like me who aspires to grow into such interesting engagement. Schwobel, to me is another version of Barth, but a soft one at that. Blessings


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