On the Way to the Ecumenism of Tomorrow

Prof. Dr. André Birmelé
Prof. Dr. André Birmelé

A 65th birthday is an occasion to look back, but we decided instead to look forward to celebrate our colleague André Birmelé’s 65th birthday on March 14, 2014. He has dedicated a large part of his life to the church and academic theology in the domain of ecumenism. For this reason we invited ten younger theologians to the Institute and asked them to develop their thoughts on the “ecumenism of tomorrow,” based on their own experience and scholarship. All this took place at a symposium in Strasbourg from March 12 to 14 of this year. The following is Theodor Dieter’s introduction to the symposium, outlining the topics covered by the various participants.

Introduction to the Symposium by Theodor Dieter

Dear André and colleagues at the symposium “On the Way to the Ecumenism of Tomorrow”:

I warmly welcome you to the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg! I am delighted to have you here and wish to thank you for your willingness to take part in our little experiment by contributing to this symposium. It is an experiment in that, on the occasion of this 65th birthday, we have chosen to look forward rather than backward. Time passes very quickly for those who are hard workers; for this reason it is appropriate to pause at this significant date and ask: what has been achieved in the past years, above all in the last forty years during which André Birmelé has been attached to the Institute and active in ecumenism? What has been accomplished? What of it will remain?

But we have another anniversary to celebrate next year, too: the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of our Institute. These questions will be asked once again on that occasion, and we hope to answer them to the satisfaction of the highest representatives of the church. But too much self-reflection turns out to be too much of a good thing and ends up only awakening suspicion of an incurvatio in seipsum. Therefore, we sought another solution for the celebration of André Birmelé’s birthday. Instead of inviting long-time professional ecumenists, we invited younger theologians, asking them to formulate their thoughts on the future of ecumenism out of the scholarship, experiences, and insights that they have gained in the course of their theological existence. We consciously avoided giving out any themes to be addressed; so it will be quite exciting to see what will emerge in the course of the Symposium. We expect no finished conceptions but rather new initiatives and suggestions from very different perspectives. The result will be a colorful academic bouquet of assorted lectures to present to André.

We begin with Rome, since it was only a year ago that something unheard-of happened. Informative observations on the situation there will come from Rome, and look at Rome, but from a Lutheran perspective—a unique intersection, indeed! Dr. Jens-Martin Kruse, pastor of the Lutheran congregation in Rome, will speak on how “Ecumenism Belongs to the Office of the Bishop of Rome: The First Year with Pope Francis.”

We continue then with Prof. Dr. Christoph Raedel, who has recently edited a volume with the title “‘Co-Workers of Truth’: The Witness to Christ and Critique of Relativism in Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI in Protestant Perspective” (“Mitarbeiter der Wahrheit”. Christuszeugnis und Relativismuskritik bei Joesph Ratzinger/Benedikt XVI. aus evangelischer Sicht). The Pope Emeritus thanked Raedel for this work in a very friendly letter in which he wrote, “It is comforting and encouraging for me that Protestant theologians have dealt with my work in a positive critical fashion and have entered into a common struggle for the right understanding of the Christian faith.” Raedel is a Methodist and teaches ecumenical theology at the CVJM-Hochschule in Kassel, Germany. He will present a constellation of forward-looking themes in Christian ecumenism under the title “Unity to the Greater Glory of God.”

With the breathtaking success of the Pentecostal movement—or movements—in the last hundred years, many old questions have appeared again and need to be discussed further in ecumenism. Pentecostalism has overtaken the usual controversies about clerical office and the general priesthood, the threefold office, and the role of doctrine and teaching authority, and is now bringing them back to the center of attention in a modified form. Prof. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, who has worked at the Institute for five years now, will reflect on the methodological problems of dialogue with Pentecostals.

Thursday morning will begin with a lecture which has the charming title of “Ecumenism: Elbow Room for Freedom.” Dr. Jennifer Wasmuth (Humboldt University, Berlin) is an expert on Orthodox theology and churches. I am excited to learn whether this “elbow room for freedom” will be secured in the spirit of Orthodoxy or in opposition to it! We then continue right on with a Finnish contribution. Docent Dr. Olli-Pekka Vainio, a lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Helsinki, will shed light on the old question of analogia entis in light of more recent discussions on the topic. As is well known, for Karl Barth the analogia entis was an invention of the Antichrist and the main reason not to become a Catholic, while his former student Eberhard Jüngel claimed that the analogia entis doesn’t say too much but rather too little about God, insofar as it emphasizes that the dissimilarity between creator and creature is much greater than the similarity, though in the light of the incarnation as specified in the Fourth Lateran Council it should be quite the reverse. This extension of ecumenical questions into philosophy and doctrine will be carried further by Dr. Madeleine Wieger (University of Strasbourg) into the domain of modern theories of religion, where she will examine the foundational issue of ecumenism, namely the question of unity and diversity. To see the basic issue of ecumenism taken up in such a different context promises to deliver interesting insights.

The afternoon begins with a lecture from Prof. Veronika Hoffmann (University of Siegen). She did her habilitation work on the theme of the gift, which for many years now has been intensively discussed in philosophy and theology and has proven fruitful in such controversial topics as justification, sacrifice, the eucharist, love of God and love of neighbor. Because questions of gift, giving, and receiving are to be found at the center of these controversies, discussion of the former should go a long way toward resolving the latter; that complex discussion is oriented around the phenomenon of giving rather than traditional concepts. The afternoon’s session will conclude with a contribution from Dr. theol. habil. Marc Vial (University of Strasbourg), who will recall to mind the discussion surrounding the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification and in particular the reactions of Eberhard Jüngel, which garnered a great deal of attention at the time.

Friday morning then turns to communities in which ecumenism is lived out, first of all Taizé, as seen through the unique angle of the relationship of the philosopher Paul Ricoeur to that community. It will be for many people surely a surprising aspect of his life that will make us especially curious to hear more. Dr. Beate Bengard (University of Leipzig) will introduce to us the results of her research on the subject. Sister Nicole Grochowina, a private docent in Erlangen in modern history, will finish off the lectures with a presentation on the meaning of intentional Christian communities for ecumenism. I think that the lived ecumenism within such communities as well as that between Protestant communities and Catholic orders is something like a proof of the Spirit and of the power of the possibility and efficacy of ecumenism. Thus this contribution is well suited to be the final flower for our birthday bouquet.

But the concluding high point of Friday morning will be the birthday boy’s own reflections on his more than forty years of engagement on behalf of ecumenism.

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