By Uwe Siemon-Netto
The Reformation Quincentenary is still a decade off, but Concordia Seminary will start celebrating already this year. This is going to take the form of a symposium titled, German Days at the Sem, Oct. 12-13. Nine similar conferences are scheduled to follow every year as the Reformation’s 500th anniversary in 2017 draws nearer.
This year’s forum will feature prominent presenters from Germany and the United States discussing the state of faith in the birthplace of the Reformation. But it will also include a vintners’ festival with Missouri wines in the seminary’s quad and a cantata performance of the Bach at the Sem ensemble directed by Rev. Robert Bergt.
This early start of the countdown to the 500th Reformation anniversary in 2017 is historically justified. Martin Luther’s ministry actually began in 1507 when he presided at his first Eucharist in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt.
Organized by the Concordia Seminary Institute on Lay Vocation, this year’s conference will explore significant developments in Germany. One is the swift rise in the number of Germans joining the Church or returning to it. Another is the troubling growth of Islam throughout Western Europe.
Americans often hear complaints about the pace of Germany’s secularization. On the other hand, the very first sentence of the German Constitution stresses that country’s responsibility before God and man. And regardless of whether God will ever be mentioned in the still-elusive European constitution, there is no suggestion that His name will ever be removed from the preamble of the Basic Law of Germany most of whose cabinet members still use the formula “so God help me” when swearing their oath of office.
Moreover, if ethics constitute an important yardstick by which to measure a nation’s commitment to traditional Christian values, then Germany is in a sense faring better than America. At least its abortion and divorce rates are significantly lower than those of the United States.
The theme of German Days 2007 might therefore be less perplexing than it would seem on first sight: Labeled Germany – Post-Christian, Still Christian, or Pre-Christian?, this conference is really intended to raise the question of whether the current wave of secularization should be seen as a permanent development or a passing phase.
To this writer’s knowledge, the conference will mark the first time that the senior representative of the German government in 13 Midwestern states will visit Concordia Seminary. The Hon. Wolfgang Drautz, German consul-general in Chicago, will actually be one of the presenters.
Two German church leaders will be the keynote speakers. One is Rev. Dr. Hans Christian Knuth, until recently the presiding bishop of the state-related “United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany.” Dr. Knuth, bishop of Schleswig, has just caused a nationwide stir with a new book titled, In Zukunft Luther (“With Luther into the future”). This then will be the topic of Bishop Knuth’s presentation.
Another bishop, Dr. Jobst Schöne of Berlin, formerly leader of the Independent Lutheran Church (SELK), a sister denomination of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, will tackle the same issue from the opposite end. He will simply ask, “Does Luther have a future in Germany?”
Does he indeed, or will Germany be an Islamic republic before long, given the low birth rate of ethnic Germans and the rapid growth of the Muslim immigrant community? Rev. Albrecht Hauser, who served in the leadership of the territorial church government of Wuerttemberg and is now vice chairman of the Bonn-based “Islam Institute,” a Protestant think tank, will explore this question. Hauser once worked as a Lutheran missionary in Pakistan.
Another seemingly insuperable problem is the decline of the Church in the former East Germany, the very cradle of Protestantism. This writer, a refugee from Soviet-occupied Saxony, will attempt to analyze this bewildering matter. He will also talk from personal experience about the sudden growth of the Christian opposition in the 1970s that helped bring about Communism’s downfall but was followed immediately by a mystifying implosion of Christian faith in the land of Luther.
Still, there is reason for hope. New mission fields are opening up, notably in the corporate world. Already after the collapse of Communism, West German industrialists urged East German pastors to start evangelizing the work force. Now this idea has been taken up in the West. Rev. Michael Stollwerk, the former Lutheran pastor of the bi-denominational cathedral of Wetzlar north of Frankfurt, has become a corporate executive with the explicit task of reintroducing Christian values to his company’s staff.
A similar development is underway in the United States, which is why Rev. Powell Woods, an LCMS pastor and former executive vice president of the Nestlé Corporation has been invited to respond to Dr. Stollwerk’s presentation. Other respondents at the symposium will be Kathryn Galchutt, chair of the History department at Concordia College New York in Bronxville N.Y., and senior professors of Concordia Seminary.
One positive aspect of religious life in Germany is the harmonious relationship between the church and the quality press, which covers theology, as it covers thought in general, to an extent unknown in the United States. Perhaps the most outstanding publication in this respect is Rheinischer Merkur, a weekly newspaper owned by the National Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Germany. Lutherans have equal representation on its board; indeed, its religion section called Christ und Welt (literally, the Christian and the World) has inherited the title of a Lutheran newspaper with which Rheinischer Merkur merged years ago.
The editor-in-chief of Rheinischer Merkur is Prof. Michael Rutz, who also teaches journalism at a college in the former East Germany. He is a Roman Catholic. Prof. Rutz will offer, from the perspective of a renowned journalist, a tour d’horizon on the theme of the entire conference: Germany – post-Christian, still Christian or pre-Christian?