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from issue no. 11 - 2008

Thirty years from Heinrich Schlier’s death

Being homeless in this world

An interview with Veronika Kubina-Schlier, daughter of the great German exegete who died on 26 December
thirty years ago

Interview with Veronika Kubina-Schlier by Lorenzo Cappelletti

Heinrich Schlier

Heinrich Schlier

On the thirtieth anniversary of Heinrich Schlier’s death, the great Lutheran exegete who converted to Catholicism in 1953, 30Days thought it fitting to remember him through an interview with Veronika Kubina-Schlier, the youngest of his four children. Professor Veronika Kubina-Schlier, who also converted to Catholicism at the end of her high school education, has kindly agreed to go into some episodes in the life of the family she was born into that further show, were it needed, the Christian witness of Heinrich Schlier.

Can you tell us something about the history of your family? Did any of you continue on the path of theological and exegetical study your father had already taken?
VERONIKA KUBINA-SCHLIER: We do not know much about the history of our family. My father came from a family of doctors, my mother from one of shopkeepers. They had four children and we have all chosen very different professions: one is a physicist, another is an expert in political economy, my sister is a teacher and journalist, only myself, the youngest, has somehow followed in the footsteps of my father and my mother, who was one of the first female Evangelical theologians. I completed my studies in theology at Freiburg im Breisgau in 1974 with a doctorate on the Book of Job with Professor A. Deissler, and still work as theologian.
What resonance was created in your family by the research, the discoveries, the advances made by your father in the exegetical and theological field, and the discussion he maintained with other great scholars such as Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Martin Heidegger, Erik Peterson and others? Did you ever meet any of them in person?
KUBINA-SCHLIER: My mother valued my father’s work, and went along with him over the years in knowledgeable and critical fashion. At home my father spoke rarely of his discussions with those people you call “other great scholars”, and I must also say that there weren’t many opportunities for doing so since our family life was burdened, even in the years following the Second World War, with the hardships of those times: the dangers my father faced, the destruction of our house in Elberfeld and the consequent separation from where my parents had lived. Rudolf Bultmann, Günther Bornkamm and Peter Brunner were related to us as god-parents, Erik Peterson came to visit us from time to time in Bonn. From what our mother told us I got to know a lot about their years of study and their teachers, and in later years also through what my father told me, with whom, in a more relaxed atmosphere I was able to talk comfortably about all that.
Opposition to the Deutsche Christen (the nationalist Evangelical Christians) during the years of Nazism seems to have been a moment of particular significance not only in your father’s life but also in the evolution of his thought. Do you remember anything, perhaps the way he spoke of it afterwards?
KUBINA-SCHLIER: For my father the Nazi period was neither a moment nor an episode: his life and his theological thinking were decidedly marked by Nazi ideology and political and ecclesiastical happenings. As a Christian and a man of clear political views, from the beginning my father (as well as my mother) made a lucid assessment of the Brown Shirt movement, showing resistance where it was possible. As a leading figure of the Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche), for example, he made a decisive contribution to the foundation of the Theological University in Elberfeld and was its undercover director. When immediately after its opening, in 1935, the regime put a ban on the University, my father did not hesitate to hand back, that same year, his venia legendi [permission to teach, ed.] for Marburg, explaining his action as a refusal in principle to remain in a “teaching post conferred by the State”. The threat to his (and our) life from the Nazis led, inter alia, to the tragic separation of our family which made itself felt for many years even after the war. My father didn’t speak much of those years, it was my mother who kept the memory alive for us children.
Heinrich Schlier’s book, <I>On the Resurrection of Jesus Christ</I>, republished by <I>30Giorni</I>, in Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German and English , with a preface by Joseph Ratzinger

Heinrich Schlier’s book, On the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, republished by 30Giorni, in Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German and English , with a preface by Joseph Ratzinger

In the short journal in Latin drafted at the moment of your father’s acceptance into the Catholic Church, he is described as a “deeply religious man of great talent, very polite, humble and reserved”. Do you find those adjectives catch him? And what others would you think apt to delineate the personality of your father?
KUBINA-SCHLIER: I don’t think a list of adjectives can do justice to my father. Biographical evidence from others and also from himself, for example in his letters, give a much more vivid image. Nevertheless, if I were to add something to the list of qualities that emerge from the report of my father’s conversion I would say: vulnerable, warm, critical, witty, generous...
How was your father’s move to Catholicism taken by his family and the milieu around you? He was not an ordinary believer, he was a professor and an Evangelical pastor.
KUBINA-SCHLIER: Since it took place in Rome father’s conversion was perceived by my family only at a distance, and we accepted it without problem. Thanks to the open and tolerant attitude of both my parents, the words “Evangelical” and “Catholic” were not watchwords. The reactions of the circles around us were, as might be expected, very different and went from open jubilation (on the Catholic side) to full acceptance and mutual understanding, to incomprehension and concealed and malignant hostility. Many friends and associates from the difficult years, however, remained loyal to my father, sometimes despite serious differences of opinion on the issues. I should like to mention just a few names among others: Ernst Bizer, Helmut Gollwitzer, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Günther Bornkamm and Peter Brunner.
The year of your father’s death was a crucial year for the Catholic Church, the year of the three popes: the death of Paul VI, the election and the sudden death of Pope Luciani which was followed by the election of John Paul II. Do you remember your father’s feelings about those popes?
KUBINA-SCHLIER: I don’t know what my father’s relations were with those popes. Despite his obedience to the hierarchy, he preferred to keep his distance from “Rome”. He would sometimes quote a phrase of Erik Peterson’s: “He who converts having known ‘Rome’ must have a deep love for the Church”.
And about Pope Ratzinger, already known as a theologian from the years of Vatican II and made cardinal by Pope Paul VI in 1977, do you recall any words of your father or any anecdote? Do you know that in his speech on 10 May 2003, on the first centenary of the establishment of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, took as his model the paper given by your father in 1936 on the ecclesial responsibility of those who study theology?
KUBINA-SCHLIER: My father worked willingly with Joseph Ratzinger on various committees and on different occasions. He thought well of him as a dogmatic theologian, but he complained at times about his lack of sensibility for biblical theology and thought modeled on the Bible. “He really is a dogmatic theologian!” he once said after a week of joint work in a seminar. I know nothing of a reference made by Cardinal Ratzinger to a paper given by my father in 1936 but, given the present pontiff’s predilection for quoting from famous scholars of the past, I’m not surprised.
Heinrich Schlier, <I>Breve rendiconto. 
Il racconto autobiografico della conversione al cattolicesimo di uno dei  più grandi esegeti<I>, translated and published by Omicron – 30Giorni, Rome 1999, 64 pp.

Heinrich Schlier, Breve rendiconto. Il racconto autobiografico della conversione al cattolicesimo di uno dei più grandi esegeti, translated and published by Omicron – 30Giorni, Rome 1999, 64 pp.

One reads in many colleagues and interpreters of your father that already in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council he was rather isolated, almost as if what he himself had written at the end of his short autobiographical work Kurze Rechenschaft (Brief account) had come true in fact, that it was in a foreign land that he had found his home. Is that true? And if so, why?
KUBINA-SCHLIER: As for any relative exclusion of my father already in the immediate post-Council years I wouldn’t know. Both in the scholarly field and in the spiritual interpretation of Scripture he was very highly esteemed up to the time of his death, as shown by the words of Karl Rahner and Günther Bornkamm: “... a charismatic of theological thinking”, or those of Rudolf Schnackenburg: “... a master of interpretation of the New Testament”. Assessments that don’t come from people... given to exaggeration. For that matter, his scholarly commentaries are among the texts recommended in the theological faculties, something which does not exclude, indeed entails, criticism of them. His short writings were very much demanded in various areas, while several church commissions asked for his advice, so that he was active at different levels in ecclesial mediation, from the parish council of Sankt Michael in Bonn, to the Commission on Faith and Morals of the German Bishops’ Conference, to which he was a consultant. No wonder if, in the proliferation of theological currents after Vatican II, there have been judgements of another kind. As to the question about what my father meant with that phrase from his Kurze Rechenschaft, it would require a much more detailed answer. Personally I think it sprang from a profound feeling of being homeless in this world, from a way of perceiving life drawn from various sources. Sometimes what sidelined my father was the envy and jealousy of his Catholic colleagues. An example: when he was about to be called to Munich – it was the chair of Romano Guardini that was empty if I remember correctly – “people” worked effectively to prevent it, resuscitating an old provision prohibiting a layman from teaching in a Catholic post. Witnessing that deep jealousy, almost “envying one’s livelihood” deeply wounded my father, though, in gentlemanly fashion, he preferred not to talk about it. He had learned not to depend on external success and not to seek his life’s achievement in honors. He’d already experienced the obstacles to his professional projects, in relation to Marburg, Königsberg and to Halle also! Because of his commitment to the Confessing Church (the Bekennende Kirche).
In the thirty years since his death has interest in the work and witness of your father grown or waned as far as you know? And if there has been such, how and where has it come from? Do you know that in 2005 30Days gave all its readers a new edition in Italian (with a preface by Cardinal Ratzinger) and this year new translations in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, of the short book On the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, which have stirred much interest?
KUBINA-SCHLIER: I welcome the stir caused by the translations of the short book On The Resurrection of Jesus Christ published as a supplement to your magazine. In the thirty years since his death interest in my father’s work has shown an accelerating decline, and there are many reasons for that: exegesis has developed new methods, has acquired new knowledge, is asking new questions. His scrupulous language, used frequently, however, with biblicist and existentialist overtones, is now understood almost only by “insiders”. So it is rather my father’s spiritual writings that still arouse interest. More rarely his major commentaries are studied by experts who want to tap into the riches of his “clarification of context”. The issues on which my father’s thinking focused, the Church, the ministry, the priestly ministry, are inexhaustible, but, from what I see, they are not currently the subject of open debate and controversy, and the reasons are not necessarily relevant. Even if the interpretations given by my father may have been unilateral and bound up with the situation of the time – which is true for any scholarly work – the debate in future must face up to his textual analysis.