Originally a Dominican monastery, it has engaged in education for a thousand years. Apart from a guided tour in which we saw how the building itself has developed and incorporated the philosophies and cultures of its various epochs, we also sat in English and Religious Education lessons in order to get a feel for how these things are taught in a German church school.
The bit that grabbed me was the painting in the assembly hall. During the GDR the painting of Prometheus was underwritten by Karl Marx's ruminations on human value:
“Prometheus, the epitome of a fighter for the happiness of humankind.”
Well, make your own mind up about Marx's limited vision. What interested me was that the church school was not allowed to remove this piece of art on the grounds that it forms part of the 'story' that has formed the children who study here and must be somehow incorporated into their understanding of how they have come to be where they are. Clearly, even though it doesn't immediately strike one as the epitome of Christian iconography, it seems to me right that it has been retained.
I remember the first time I went into the Humboldt University in Berlin and was confronted by the staircase fronted with Marx and his statement from the Communist Manifesto: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.” A bit pointed, don't you think… in the entrance hall to a renowned university?
The lecture hall we went to was lined with busts of great Communist thinkers, writers or political leaders – or, at least, those thinkers of the past whom Honecker's boys wanted to retrospectively claim as proto-Marxist-Leninists. I wondered why, sixteen years after the GDR experiment had been discarded, they didn't take away the tacky cultural symbols that epitomised it. I am glad they didn't.
This then fed into the then raging debate in Berlin about whether or not to demolish the grotesque Palast der Republik – the brutalist cultural centre of Socialist Berlin, located opposite the Dom and close to the Museuminsel. In this case the argument was lost and the building came down.
What is going in here is how far we lose something which, however ugly or inconvenient, reminds us of our story. The built environment incorporates memory and ridding ourselves of it is not always the best course of action – even when it is entirely understandable.
I am familiar with two churches in south London which were seriously damaged by fires. In both cases fire-damaged stones and other elements were incorporated in the design of the new church – in order to let the building itself tell an honest story of a community living and worshiping at a particular time in history. I picked up this theme (badly and in a rather rambling way) in a sermon in Hull a few days ago: go around the church where I was a vicar in the 1990s (Rothley, Leicestershire) and the building itself tells a story of change, adaptation, development, suffering, celebration and all the stuff of life there during 1200 years. Baptise in a Norman font and you can't help but be caught up in the mystery of the people who, over a period of 1000 years, were baptised in or witnessed baptism in that same font in that same building.
'Stuff' matters. Christians who spiritualise or dematerialise faith have – literally – lost the plot. Christianity is always materialist – incarnation goes to the heart of it. In Genesis 3 it is God who comes to humanity, seeking him and her out in the Garden; in Jesus God comes to us as one of us; in the colourful and coded imagination of Revelation it is the heavenly city that comes down to earth and not the other way round. Christianity is rooted in stuff and memory and realism: it means not running away from the world or the inconvenient bits of the story that has formed us. It is never escapism, but engagement.
I think Marx actually had a limited view of human value – contrary to the humane passion that drove his economic thinking. Suspicious of fantasy or myth, he went for Prometheus. Maybe the students at the Martin-Luther-Gymnasium will learn to think deeply about an anthropology that does justice to the philosophies that have shaped the world they are growing into, giving them the critical competence to construct a world view that will hold water in a changing and challenging world.
Before spending this afternoon in the wonderful Bachhaus in Eisenach, I noticed this quotation on leaving the school: “Das Geheimnis der Versöhnung ist Erinnerung” (the secret of reconciliation is memory). Discuss…