I have just returned from Jena in Germany where I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität on Tuesday evening. This was awarded for my contribution to ecumenical work between the Church of England and the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland and for work in practical theology.
As I said on the night, I find this remarkable and bewildering at the same time. I am too embarrassed to explain what the thinking behind the award was, but I am deeply grateful for the kindness, generosity and hospitality we received.
This university has been around for well over four hundred years and had on its teaching staff luminaries such as Hegel, Schelling and Fichte. It was here that Goethe met Schiller. And it is here that I delivered a lecture last year, prior to preaching in the Stadtkirche immediately after. Most importantly, it is a university that does what universities should do: it allows for a proper interchange between the disciplines, breaking out of the silos we sometimes see in Britain.
The former Rektor of the university, Dr Klaus Dicke gave a lecture on 'Theology and Humour'. Now, most non-Germans will automatically see this as a joke in itself – there is a prejudice that the Germans don't do humour. Of course, as with many prejudices, this is nonsense. Yes, the lecture was academic; but, it was also funny, clever and seriously informed. I felt a bit lightweight (I always do) when I responded by making two points: (a) theology is always practical – as John puts it in his gospel, “the Word became flesh and lived among us”, and the job of theology is partly to put the flesh back into word in order that others might discover the Word made flesh … and so the dynamic continues; and (b) there is no theology without humour – when Abram and Sarai hear the ridiculous news that they are to have a baby in their old age (Genesis), they laugh at God … and God doesn't resist or reject their laughter. In fact, their baby, Isaac, is given a name that means 'laughter'.
The event in Jena brought friends from Stuttgart, Schwäbisch Hall, Erfurt, Berlin, Hannover and elsewhere. Seeing them was wonderful. The opportunity to spend time with them on Tuesday evening and again Wednesday morning was wonderful, and I am inordinately grateful.
I find things like this puzzling. I do what I do (books, blog, preaching, lecturing, writing, journalism, etc.) because I like it and think the church needs to enjoy itself a bit more in the public square. We need communicators who enjoy the challenge of learning the languages of the world around us and speaking in a way that can be understood – even if, sometimes, we make a complete mess of it.
I might not be the sharpest theological knife in the drawer, but I am deeply grateful for the honour given to me by this prestigious and heavyweight German university.