Reading German, Learning the ‘Other’ … Slowly

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In my own discipline (New Testament and Christian Origins), German- and English-language scholarship have dominated modern critical study, with very different presuppositions, and therefore oftentimes very different results, marking the histories of these different settings of research. Despite the differences, previous periods in this history have been marked by mutual knowledge: scholars in Germany aware of and reading their English counterparts, and vice versa.

But while acquiring modern research languages such as German remains a prerequisite for PhD work in the English-speaking world, the actual engagement between these two broad streams of scholarship is increasingly banal, where it is happening at all. One would think that ease of travel and more sophisticated translational tools would have increased the cross-pollination, but while globalisation has brought important insights in my discipline from the majority world, German, British, and American scholarship have drifted further apart.

As a first step in attempting to bridge that gap in my own research and work, I traveled to Germany with sixteen other postgraduate students from across Britain and the United States from 6-24 July for the first ever ‘German (and) Theology International Summer School’ at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. The focus, every morning, was on German language—a full-immersion sort of experience reading Luther, Goethe, Novalis, Gogarten, Barth and Bultmann in their native ‘tongues’—and every afternoon on setting these theologians, philosophers, historians, and biblical scholars into the context of broader historical, cultural, and philosophical movements in Germany from the sixteenth century to the present. Weekends were spent visiting Reformation-era sites—the Ebernburg Castle and the city of Worms, where Luther famously went before Charles V (1521)—both of which served as medieval reminders that, as today, ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ are not nearly so separable as some may wish. It was, in other words, a three-week crash course that attempted to bridge, as best it could, the German/English divide for young researchers and emerging scholars.

It was a whirlwind, but it was wonderful. Before going, I was worried about small things—the level of my German, the other students who would attend, interaction with leading German faculty—and about bigger things—leaving my wife and two daughters behind for three weeks. And while elements of the trip were difficult, and the summer school itself (of course) far from perfect, I come back to Edinburgh confident that the purpose of the trip did very much come to fruition. I still read German frightfully slow, but I read it. And I do not read it just as words on a page, but as a participant in a conversation that, while still foreign, is becoming familiar. I honour my German counterparts, in other words, by seeking to understand them, and to do so on their own terms.

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