Welker and Tanner Bring Cutting-Edge Scholarship to HDS

Each academic year, Harvard Divinity School is fortunate to claim an impressive roster of visiting professors and lecturers because of its numerous endowed lectureships and several semester- and year-long teaching opportunities for professors from other universities. This year, due to an adjustment in the way an endowment is being administered, HDS has been especially graced with not one but two renowned theologians under the Horace De Y. Lentz Lectureship—Michael Welker and Kathryn Tanner—both of whom are doing scholarship that is breaking the bounds of their field.

Michael Welker, chair for systematic theology at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, filled the semester-long teaching and lecture position in the fall, and Kathryn Tanner, a professor of theology at the University of Chicago, is at HDS this spring. In keeping with the history of the Lentz endowment, each scholar is required to give a public lecture during his or her term of residence. Welker delivered the lecture "Who Is Jesus Christ for Us Today?" on October 31, 2001. Tanner's lecture, "What Does Grace Have to do With Money? Theology Within a Comparative Economy," was delivered April 16, 2002, in the Sperry Room of Andover Hall.

In addition to the public lectures, Welker and Tanner were able to teach two courses apiece. Welker's courses were a seminar, "The Holy Spirit: Crucial Topics in Pneumatology," and "From Kant to Nietzsche and From Schleiermacher to Ritschl: Philosophy, the Critique of Religion, and Christian Theology." Tanner is teaching two courses, "Religious Eros" and "Creation and Providence."

These two academic heavy-hitters are a perfect fit for this newest incarnation of a lectureship that was created in 1963 by a Harvard College alumnus. Originally, the lectureship involved "the giving of one or more lectures every third year by some outstanding Christian priest, minister, or layman upon the inspiring things he may discern in the words 'Christo et Ecclesiae,' which appear upon the Harvard seal." In the 1980s and 90s, the School attached the Lentz Lecturer title to a full-time member of the Faculty of Divinity, but with a recent departure it took the opportunity to realign the lectureship with Horace Lentz's original intention to attract eminent visiting scholars to Harvard. At the same time, administrators envisioned positioning the lectureship as an important international forum for Christian theology in its encounter with contemporary culture.

"We would like for the Lentz Lectures to develop along the lines of the Gifford Lectures in Scotland, as an opportunity for theologians to have an important place in today's larger intellectual world," explained David Lamberth, associate dean of academic affairs and Associate Professor of Theology.

Tanner and Welker have both served other institutions in similar lectureship capacities in the past, showing their willingness to immerse themselves in different academic environments but also revealing the commensurate desire of universities in the United States and Europe to bring Tanner and Welker to their campuses to share the intellectual prowess these two theologians possess.

Tanner has most recently been a Scottish Journal of Theology Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen in fall 1999, where she gave a series of four lectures on the topic "Agents in Relation": "Who Is Jesus?"; "Who are We?"; "Why Are We Here?"; and "Where are We Going?" She has also been the Williams Lecturer at the Methodist School of Theology in Ohio (1997-98), the Gest Lecturer at Haverford College (1993), and, while she was a professor at Yale University, the Sharpe Lecturer at the University of Chicago Divinity School (1992). (She received all of her degrees from Yale, starting with her BA in Philosophy in 1979, two master's degrees in 1982 and 1983, and a PhD in theology in 1985.)

Tanner says her lecture titles, including the one for the April 16 lecture at HDS, are "pretty typical" of her work, "in the sense that I've spent a lot of time reading in the history of Christian thought and I know 'the tradition' pretty well, but I like to put a new spin on it, especially methodologically."

"I'm trying," she continued, "to come up with a broader framework in which you can talk about the usual things that theologians talk about, like grace, creation, salvation, justification, and sanctification, but so that you can see them on a continuum with and as a way of commenting on other social, political, or in this case, economic ideas. I don't think you can look at theology in isolation from those wider currents."

Tanner says she does this by "having a different understanding of the history of theology, so rather than reading the texts independent of their cultural context, you put them into the times and see how they were functioning culturally, politically, and socially." She has become very interested in social scientific and anthropological-cultural studies methods for doing theology work, so much so that she wrote a book specifically on theological method, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology, which has become a popular title on religion-course reading lists. "It's about rethinking the way you do theology in light of those kind of methods, again to think of theology as less of a kind of abstruse, philosophical pursuit and more bound up in peoples lives."

Related to this is political theology, one of Tanner's main interests, which she defines as "the way religious beliefs, images, and symbols affect one's behavior toward others and how one envisions society." She has reflected on popular and social culture, including "the new social movements" such as feminism and ecological justice and has also written articles on political struggles within major institutions, including "Theology and Cultural Contest in the University" and "The Religious Significance of the Culture Wars in the Churches."

Tanner's interest in both university and church is more than academic, as is reflected in her professional activities, which include varied groups within those very different worlds. She is co-editor of the Journal of Religion and on the editorial boards of several other theology journals. She is also active in the American Theological Society (Eastern Division) and the American Academy of Religion. But she also has been involved in colloquia and projects with topics as varied as "Public Theology and Religion," "Property and Possession" and a multiyear discussion on eschatology including scientists and theologians. Meanwhile, she has served on several Episcopal committees, currently on the Episcopal House of Bishops Theology Committee and, in the past, on the Episcopal Presiding Bishop's conferences on the Mission of Theology and on Bioethics.

In addition to her book on theological method, Tanner has written her own "brief, sketch-like" systematic theology, called Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology, as well as two other books: God and Creation in Christian Theology and The Politics of God: Christian Theologies and Social Justice.

Tanner says she has enjoyed the students in her classes at HDS. "They are great—thoughtful and engaged with the readings," she said. She said she also likes observing the ways Harvard Divinity School is different from other institutions in which she has taught and lectured. "Each institution is distinctive, their student bodies and preoccupations and their canon." She says one of the greatest attractions of HDS for her is "not just the amazing people who are regular faculty members, but also that there are so many other names here giving courses or somehow affiliated with the school." She gives the Women's Studies in Religion Program—with its five research associates—as just one example of this, and notes the impressive list of visitors is not equaled at other places she has taught.

Welker was also impressed by the other professors at HDS and by its student body. "In Germany, most of my students are between 20 and 25 years old," he said in an interview later last year. "Here, there are many second-career students. I taught, for example, one man who had been a doctor for 20 years and a woman who'd been a lawyer for 15 years. They come with different life experiences and different ways of questioning." He said he also appreciates the religious diversity among HDS students, because "most students in Germany who end up studying Christian theology are Christians."

He was also excited by the opportunities he found at HDS to have conversations across disciplinary lines and to encourage students to do the same. He himself has two doctorates, one in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg (1978) and an earlier degree in theology from the University of Tübingen. He appreciated the "good interdisciplinary climate at HDS" as well as the emphasis on "contextual theologies" here, since this is one of his interests.

Welker was especially thrilled to be invited to Harvard, he said, because he looks back fondly on the time he spent at Harvard in 1977 doing research on Alfred North Whitehead, who had taught at Harvard beginning in 1924. While he was a student, Welker's thought took a significant "turn" when he became fascinated by Whitehead's work, "particularly in its approaching the world not only with mathematized theories but also with commonsense, religious and other modes of thinking, thus creating multi-systemic, pluralistic theories." Welker describes these as "theories that do not only look for commonalities but also allow us to appreciate systemic difference."

Although he was disappointed to discover that Whitehead had ordered that all of his unpublished papers be burned after his death (in 1947), Welker discovered other Harvard scholars who shared and furthered Whitehead's "multi-systemic and polycontextual" way of thinking, including sociologist Talcott Parsons, theologian Bernard Lonergan, philosopher Nelson Goodman, and Whitehead's student Susanne Langer and her student Cliford Geertz. Niklas Luhmann, who Welker calls "the most significant recent German sociologist," spent a defining year in Harvard collaborating with Parsons.

Welker was pleased to be on this particular campus again, but he is hardly new to the experience of being a visiting lecturer and professor at American universities. He was a visiting professor and Scheide Fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1999-2000 and a Visiting Professor at Princeton in 1998-99 and in 1995. And he is an ongoing member of the Consultation on Science and Theology at Princeton since 1993. He also, among others, given the Jan-Amos-Comenius Lectures in St. Petersburg, Russia (1996) and the Warfield Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary (1991).

Welker has ended up crossing the ocean so many times because his kind of work lends itself well to the many organized professional societies and smaller working groups in theology here in the United States, which, he says, do not exist on the same level in Germany. "We don't have any equivalent of a well-organized AAR, though we have professorial circles and working groups," he said.

He has participated in some of the same projects as Tanner, such as the Lilly-funded "Property, Possession" group led by William Schweiker of the University of Chicago (1996-2000). He has also participated in many religion and science colloquia. For instance, his work at Princeton included a multiyear project on eschatology, The End of the World and the Ends of God: Science and Technology on Eschatology (published by Trinity Press in 2000). 

"We first analyzed possible end-of-the-world scenarios," Welker said, "not only possible events like a collapse with a big meteor, but also the definite finitude of our universe. We then investigated eschatological symbols which all deal with continuity and discontinuity between this world and the world to come, for example of religious symbols of 'hope against hope', the 'new heaven and earth' or the resurrection. Both science and theology deal with realities unseen after quantum physics, though they have different issues, different methods and different forms of exploration. In this project, (theologians and scientists together) attempted to spring some of those cultural traps which blur our perspectives on reality and block interdisciplinary discourse, and to look for broader frameworks, cognitive and conceptual."

As with Tanner's, Welker's scholarship has ended up focusing on the methodology of doing theology. His work has been called "a dramatic overhaul of theological categories." In addition to his work exploring the intersection of science and theology, Welker is interested in looking at biblical materials from a systematic way. He notes that biblical scholarship in the past and even into the present has been "archaeologistic," which he says treats complex historical events "like a wall with a simple location in space/time." He finds the newer understandings of history helpful and "less naïve," in that they involve examining social contexts and doing rhetorical research to investigate "canonic memory, which involves "entering at any point in space and time and open a horizon so that you get fields of memories."

Yet Welker wants to go even further, because some postmodern methods and theories can "block us with relativism." Instead, he wants to "integrate these multiple perspectives in a structured pluralistic framework." In his lecture, Welker explained his methodology in this way: "If we want to understand reality, we must both distinguish and interrelate natural/scientific, religious, ethical, and aesthetic paradigms and forms of thought. ... Universal theories must be bridge theories that enable us both to bring to light and to appreciate different symbol systems and rationalities, rather than leveling and homogenizing them."

As Welker describes himself, he is "a bottom-up thinker" interested in central theological topics. He has looked at everything from law, spirit, creation, eschatology, resurrection, and recently, he has focused on "What Happens in Holy Communion?" (Eerdmans 2000). His methodology involves "the investigation of processes of growth in certainty and growth in specific insights. Only the interaction and the co-enhancement of these processes put us on the path of the search for truth."

Welker stresses that the necessity to work with truth-claims both in the academy and in the church "should not be confused with the assurance that a certain group has found it and now possesses it. The development of procedures to test truth claims is crucial." 

This allows, Welker explains, "for the discovery of complementary perspectives in the academy and in the church. This also allows for an appreciation of pluralism without giving up the important task of truth-seeking communities." Welker is himself an ordained theologian of the Evangelische Kirche er Pfalz (Palatinate Church).

He has worked to bring his synthetic, interdisciplinary way of thinking and working to his home country. For example, he has been the director of the Internationales Wissenschaftsforum at the University of Heidelberg since 1996. This international scientific forum hosts between 50 to 70 events per year dealing with topics as varied as heart surgery, Egyptian death tombs, and the economic repercussions of European unification. "We make sure we have a breadth of fields, and we are international, interdisciplinary and intergenerational," Welker said.

Through these experiences in the U.S. and at home in Germany, Welker said he has developed a "credo" that these efforts need to be not only multidisciplinary in nature, but also multiyear in length if they are to accomplish anything. "One-shot things are limited, because you always need to go through the 'Tower of Babel' stage where everyone ends up asking, 'Can we bring together complexity and coherence?' You need to start with small groups and extend gradually."

Welker also has developed some critiques of the academic world. "We have to acknowledge a certain imperialism in the way we do things and we need to try to extend this discourse in areas that have not been part of the international discourse in the humanities," he said. Never is this need more urgent, he said, than after September 11.

He was, of course, here in the U.S. for those tragic events, and said the attacks were one of those huge events, "like the French revolution or Hitler seizing power" that provide an "enormous shaping of communal and cultural memory" and actually "tell us something new about the world."

In response to these cataclysmic events, Welker said, he plans to start a series of consultations on fanaticism, "how religion functions in breeding and also functions in cooling fanaticism." Welker said he spent the semester "listening and reading" and plans to do more empirical research on these kinds of social and religious conditions. Mostly, though, he was struck by the "compassion and intensity of response" that were "in the air" this fall. "That is one of the many inspirations I'll take with me," he said.

In this reflection, Welker reveals that what makes his work both unique and relevant is the ability to reflect on the present while drawing on a long tradition of philosophy and theology from the past. Tanner, too, shares this talent. As she describes it, "I like to make traditional ways of looking at things new again." As such, they model a way of thinking and teaching that has enhanced HDS this academic year.