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Public Theology: The Protestant Academy: Retrieving the Reformation Heritage of Liberation
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The Protestant Academy: Retrieving the Reformation Heritage of Liberation
Protestants need to come together in new ways for substantial theological and biblical interpretation applied to current affairs for inspired lay leadership in the world today.

By Peter Berger

Editor's Note: The following article ends with a statement ridiculing the habit of Protestant denominations to publish social statements. I disagree with those remarks as well as Berger's call for a disinterested "forum" as if it is possible to carry on a rational conversation with members of the current religious and conservative right wing in politics today. During my student days I read several of Berger's books, including his Noise of Solemn Assemblies and The Homeless Mind; since those years he unfortunately turned toward a more "neoconservative" orientation.

However, I was interested in the history of the "Protestant Academy" as Berger describes it here. We need this sort of thing in Protestant churches across the country. Every metro area should have a place where the primary Protestants can come together for spirited discussion and learning, not just "workshops" to "train" the laity, but real substantial engagement in debate over theology and biblical interpretation applied to the concrete issues and challenges people in churches face today as they try to carry out their vocations in the world. To be successful such academies should be independent of current higher educational institutions even as they wisely draw on the professional resources of those institutions. And these academies ought to be specifically focused on "Protestant" history and theological substance emerging from the Reformation churches, not general inter-faith or ecumenical orientations. What is missing today is the substance and strength of the Reformation heritage to provide Protestants with the anchors of their liberating tradition.

Bad Boll is a village in Wuerttemberg, in the southwest of Germany. It is located in the so-called Swabian Alps, a landscape of gentle hills and modest forests, as averse to drama as the proverbially sober regional culture. Yet this village has played an anything but undramatic role in the history of German Protestantism. Johann Christoph Blumhardt, the pastor of the nearby village of Moettlingen, was moved in 1841 to exorcize a demon who had supposedly taken possession of a woman in his congregation. He entered what he called “the struggle” with the demon very reluctantly, since it was totally out of character with the decidedly sober Protestantism of his regional church. Despite some difficulties with the church authorities, Blumhardt continued an increasingly popular healing ministry. He acquired the thermal spa that had existed in Bad Boll since the Middle Ages and made it a widely known center of spiritual healing. His son, Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, took over the spa and made it into a different center, one of concern for what was called “the social question” in the second half of the nineteenth century. Blumhardt fils became one of the leading figures of the so-called Inner Mission, which was intended to express the social responsibility of the Protestant church and which created a network of institutions for the care of sick, old or otherwise needy people. These institutions are still an important component of the welfare state in Germany. Arguably the idea of the Inner Mission inspired the birth of that welfare state in the nineteenth century, not only in Germany under Bismarck, but also in the Lutheran countries of Scandinavia. It still serves as at least a partial refutation of the common allegation that Lutheranism lacks a sense of responsibility for society.

The spa is no longer a church institution, but Bad Boll saw the beginning of an innovative and very original institution of German Protestantism in the wake of World War II. In a curious way this institution has continued the two things that made Bad Boll famous a century or so earlier—the exorcism of demons (this time political rather than individual) and a concern for healing (here too social rather than individual). Already during the war a group of pastors connected with the so-called Confessing Church, the movement that sought to resist the inroads of Nazi ideology in the Protestant community, had an ongoing conversation about the role of the church after the anticipated (and hoped-for) demise of the Nazi regime. A key figure in the group was Helmut Thielicke, who became an influential theologian after the war. He had the idea of a new institution, which would be a contribution of the church to the purpose of never again allowing a German government comparable to the tyranny of the Third Reich. That idea was realized immediately after the war with the foundation of the Protestant Academy—Evangelische Akademie. (Note: “Evangelisch” in German does not have the same meaning as “Evangelical” in English; it simply means “Protestant”.) The term refers both to the institution generically and to its various regional embodiments. The first Academy was inaugurated in Bad Boll, weeks within the end of the war (I believe the first meeting was in the spa, though an adjacent building was soon acquired.)

The founding director of the Bad Boll Academy was Eberhard Mueller, an impressive and very energetic individual. He too had been affiliated with the Confessing Church and was a passionate anti-Nazi. The very first conference of the Academy dealt with the question of how Germany was again to become a Rechtsstaat, a state under the rule of law. The postal system was not yet functioning, and invitations were delivered from church to church by bicycle. The idea of the Academy spread rapidly, and similar centers sprang up throughout Germany (including the then Soviet zone of occupation, later the German Democratic Republic, where obviously it encountered much greater difficulties than in the West). The Academy was to have two goals: to train the laity for service to society; and to be a place for free and open discussion about problems facing the society, especially between groups (such as management and labor) which did not normally meet under such conditions. This second goal was the most innovative. The Academy was not to be a place for evangelism. Nor was it to take positions of its own. That was its most interesting aspect. Mueller summed it up in the phrase describing the Academy as “forum, not factor.”

In an earlier post on this blog, one dealing with religion in the military, I told of a meeting I attended at the Bad Boll Academy while I worked there as a newly minted sociologist in the late fifties. The topic was the form that military chaplaincy should take in the new army of the Federal Republic, which was then being designed by a commission of the Bonn government. Very different stakeholders were present, and very different views were expressed. The Academy never made recommendations of its own. It remained “forum, not factor.” Yet important practical consequences came out a series of forum-type discussions about the new army. One concerned the form of the chaplaincy. Another, probably more important one was the so-called “Innere Fuehrung” (literally, “internal guidance”), a program of education for democracy within the army.

The Academy (in the generic sense) has become a well-known and respected presence in Germany. There are now 18 Academies (in the sense of individual centers), with about 2,000 events per year—conferences, workshops, seminars, short courses. There are over 100,000 participants annually. With a history of over half a century now, the institution has naturally changed. Its role as “forum” is no longer unique—it competes with the media, think-tanks, foundations, universities. It is still distinctive in its emphasis on moral reflection, with Christian faith at least in the background. Mueller’s maxim “forum, not factor” has not always been adhered to. Especially following the cultural revolution of the later 1960s and 1970s, some Academies did indeed become “factors,” advocating various more or less fashionable causes. Also, the German churches have encountered financial problems, losing income from the “church tax” because of a loss in members. (Note: The term “church tax” is misleading. It is not a compulsory tax. Amounting to about 8% of an individual’s income tax, it is collected by the state on behalf of the various churches from those who voluntarily declare themselves to be members. An individual can save himself the “church tax” by simply declaring himself to be konfessionslos—without religious affiliation.) The Academies (almost all directly supported by the several regional churches) have had to look for other sources of support: state funds for civic education, foundation grants, even renting out their facilities. Nevertheless, I think that the core idea is still operative, still original, and still (though somewhat less) socially effective.

The association of Academies (which recently moved from Bad Boll to Berlin) issues a summary program of all the centers for the upcoming half-year. The one for the first six months of 2011 has just come out. It makes for interesting reading. Of course not all the centers are equally important. There are four “big boys”: Bad Boll, Loccum, Tutzing and Berlin. Bad Boll is still where it was, but now operating from a mini-campus of buildings. One of its projected conferences will deal with a problem Germany has not faced for many years—the traumas of veterans returning from active war service (in Afghanistan). Loccum, the Academy of the regional church of Hannover, is located in buildings built around a medieval monastery—supposedly the only monastery that was taken over by Lutherans after the Reformation. It continued as a separate institution, though not exactly a monastic one—the Academy is its legal successor and the director of the Academy still has the title “Abbot of the Monastery of Loccum.” In 2011 there is to be a conference about the crisis of the euro and another about the financial troubles of cultural institutions in this era of austerity. Tutzing is the Academy of the Lutheran church of Bavaria, located in a lovely lakeside castle. It hosts the Political Club, a periodic gathering of elite individuals to discuss major problems of the time. The last meeting was attended by Jean-Claude Trichet, head of the European Central Bank, and the former German foreign minister Hans Dietrich Genscher. The offices of the Berlin Academy are located in Berlin-Mitte, the government district, across from the historic Huguenot church (originally founded by Protestant refugees from France given refuge by the Hohenzollern king of Prussia). The Academy uses this church for many of its events. Conference topics for 2011 include policies on poverty reduction and refugees. There have been some imitators of the Academy model outside Germany, including some Catholic ones. But the Protestant Academy in Germany has developed the model more extensively than any of its imitators—a network of centers, effectively church-run think-tanks, covering an entire country and trying to engage in a kind of moral monitoring of important social and political developments.

In Western democracies the exercise of social responsibility, beyond undisputed works of charity (from food kitchens to refugee relief), has taken two major forms—lobbying government and making public statements. Both are commonly called “prophetic” and described as “speaking truth to power.” The ascription of prophetic status to statements put out by committees of church bureaucrats is not very persuasive, to say the least. More troublesome is the simple fact that many of these statements are very far from any “truth” that can be empirically assessed. The monotonous flirtation with leftist illusions by denominational and ecumenical organizations is a depressing case in point. It is no wonder, then, that “power” often pays only polite inattention to these putative prophets. The model of the Protestant Academy, “forum, not factor,” represents an alternative that is still relevant today. It may also be seen as an intriguing contribution to conflict resolution, at least in a democracy.

This article appeared at The American Interest.

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Date Added: 4/11/2011 Date Revised: 4/11/2011 12:40:48 PM

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