On 26 November 2021, a memorial service was held at St Salvator’s Chapel at the University of St Andrews for our friend and colleague Christoph Schwöbel, one of the leading lights of a theological generation, who died suddenly in September. What follows is the tribute I gave on that occasion:
Before Christoph arrived at St Andrews, his books did. They came in 83 boxes, neatly labelled, “Aa – Ac,”…, “Ba – Ba.” We hurriedly commissioned a structural survey to make sure the floor of his office, under the roof of our old college, would sustain the weight; the mental image of sitting in an analytic theology seminar, which took place in the common room beneath it, only to have the ceiling collapse and be buried in books of German theology, stayed often with me.
Then the family arrived, and immediately became a focal point of community, first through the opportunity to bring them daily meals while their son Simon had to spend over two weeks in hospital in Dundee with an infection immediately after they’d arrived, and then through their own cornucopious hospitality: one always found at their house food on every table, good German wine, and – when it was a sit-down meal – musical rounds to give thanks for it all.
The students who didn’t know Christoph by his teaching knew him by his pipe, with which he marked the rhythms of the academic day. Perhaps my enduring image of him will be as the professor standing under the great Holm Oak in St Mary’s sixteenth-century quad, smoking his pipe, surrounded by students as if he were the stem of a bunch of grapes. And in many respects, that is what he was. He nurtured his students to fullness, urged them to perfection, as Rilke puts it in his ‘Autumn Day’. He listened to them, stretched their vision, their questions, and their range of interlocutors, and then urged them to occupy a perspective of their own within these widened horizons. Not so that they could distinguish themselves, but so that they had a voice to contribute to the great conversation that he saw theology, that he saw all of reality, as being.
As director of our graduate course in Systematic & Historical Theology, and for a while as director of all postgraduate research students, Christoph accepted the brunt of the reality that the challenges to finding one’s place or one’s voice were not only intellectual but often minutely practical ones. I remember him and his family biking out to a student’s rural residence, four and a half miles from here, during the first lockdown, to see whether they could help identify better mobile internet coverage, which the student was struggling to obtain to attend classes and do his research. I know that his students’ burdens burdened Christoph, and that their successes were precious to him.
He embraced these, and many other things, at the cost of completing the work he had intended to write in St Andrews, namely his systematic theology: the book laying out his understanding of theology as a whole, its parts and how they relate to each other. Always there were projects other or larger than his own that begged to rely on him, and to which he made himself accountable and, in many cases, indispensable. One was the student curriculum of the School of Divinity, which required a clearer shape, greater concentration, and new energy. He poured the wealth of his experience, scope, and wisdom into the reimagination of old modules and the creation of new ones. ‘Every scribe of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.’ Christoph knew the value of both, and their need for each other.
Another project, perhaps his most sustained contribution while here, was the St Andrews Encyclopaedia of Theology, which he shaped to a very significant degree. He had come to St Andrews having already helped create the monumental 4th edition of Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart and its English version Religion Past and Present, where he was subject editor of four central areas (fundamental theology, dogmatics, philosophy of religion and ecumenical theology) and author of important articles. His willingness to take on a Senior Editorship of this new project reflected his enormous capacity never to rest or rely on past work, but always to use the new vantage point gained from that work to reassess and then reimagine what lay before him, what could still be done. He grasped the unique opportunities of an online format, and threw himself into the conception and execution of this huge project. All through the lockdowns and disruptions of the last two years, the rhythm of the week was marked by editorial meetings with Principal Editor Brendan Wolfe, fellow Senior Editors Steve Holmes, Tom Wright, and me, as well as the team of academic editors. With encyclopaedic command both of the field of theology and of the people working in it, Christoph advised which articles the encyclopaedia required, whom to approach to write them, and how they should relate to each other. These meetings often turned into seminars, and I now wish I had written records, just as I hope that his letters of invitation to authors – outlining his vision of the articles we were asking them to write – are preserved.
More generally, a colleague and I commented once that the genre of Collected Letters was difficult to sustain in an age in which correspondence took the often brutally clipped and prosaic form of emails; but Christoph’s emails were often gems of feeling and eloquence, and he must have spent many, many hours on his correspondence. I often received unlooked-for comfort, compassion, and wisdom from it. In these settings, in seminars, and elsewhere, Christoph could also be a daunting opponent and, sometimes, an even more daunting friend. He did others the honour of expecting of them – not wholly, but nearly – as much as he expected of himself, and we did not always know it, or rise to it.
Today and for many years yet we will grieve the loss of one who expanded our range of possibilities as theologians and as human beings. His writings were scintillating, and his systematic theology, had he completed it, would have been a monument. But it is the very many colleagues, students, friends, and strangers whom he has shaped and connected who are the living body of his work; and if it will never be complete, then that is only because it lives. We are Christoph’s systematic theology.