Address of Prof. Dr. Eckart Otto at the Autumn Graduation Ceremony 20 April 2007 due to the Conferment of an Honorary Doctorate
Magnificence, Spectabiles, meine Damen und Herren, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am grateful for the opportunity to address this high audience. A history and many stories of now ten years are connecting me with the University of Pretoria. After lecturing as a Visiting Professor at Stellenbosch I visited the Faculty of Theology here in Pretoria and had a meeting with the colleagues of this faculty for a discussion about ethics in a modern market society and the contribution of religious ethics to this field, what that contribution of theology to our modern ethical problems in a globalized world could be, what it means that the cradle of our cultural origins of our modern globalized world were not only Greece and Rome, but Asia and Africa, the Ancient Near East from South Mesopotamia to Egypt and Sudan – in other words: how far away are our origins geographically and how old can be what is actually relevant?
What can be learnt is the fact that culture was and is always a kind of amalgam of very different streams of interests and ideas, following the material and ideational interests, and this includes the Bible. What does it mean for our struggle for a good life, which includes a material basis and a fulfilment of our ideational needs, that wherever we are living, we are confronted with different claims of truth which are connected with different material and ideational interests?
Discussing these questions during my first visit to Pretoria ten years ago with my colleagues from the Faculty of Theology, I was asked why I had come from Germany to Africa to stay here for several months. And my answer was that in some aspects South Africa is ahead of the German society, trying to find out how people with different cultural background can live together peacefully and with equal legal rights and material chances. We are just realizing that we have a multicultural society in Germany. The South African experience can be helpful for us and this includes also the field of plurality of competing religions. What can be the contribution of an academic scholarship of religion and theology to promote a better living together of different religions and their world views and claims in one and the same society, so that it really can function? It only will function if we – each different religion – learn to understand our origins historically, learn to read the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavadgita and Veda historically, realize that all the religions are part of one history in this one world.
These questions I was discussing with my colleagues of Pretoria University ten years ago and this was the origin of many further discussions, projects and cooperations between the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität and the University of Pretoria. All my experiences at Pretoria University were and are a deep enrichment for my academic studies and works in Germany, and I am sure my students profit from them.
So I want to thank all of you for all the good you have done to me in these ten years. I shall remember the moments when I experienced the way your Dean of the Faculty of Theology, Prof. Cas Vos, guided his faculty with a sensitive heart and an open mind. And I think of my colleague in the field of Old Testament studies, Prof. Jurie Le Roux, who is working hard to combine the needs of Africa with two thousand years of Christian thinking without giving up one for the other. And I think of my younger colleagues in the field of Bible Studies, Prof. Dirk Human, who studied with a scholarship of the German Humboldt Foundation in Germany, and Dr. Alfonso Groenewald, who also studied with a scholarship of the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst in my country and wrote his dissertation with a German professor. They will keep the ties between Pretoria and Germany when we shall have left already the scene.
Both our countries, South Africa and Germany, are just involved in important historical experiments, South Africa overcoming the apartheid and integrating the different parts of society peacefully, Germany acting as partner of a new European Union, a necessity after 60 million people killed in two world wars in the twentieth century. I am convinced that religious studies and theology will contribute to successful ends of both processes in Europe and in South Africa. But this is not the only substance of our projects we have installed in Pretoria and Munich. There is a deeper and in a global perspective even more important one. The decisive question for us in Africa and Europe will not only be how we can integrate our multicultural societies but we have to choose between culture and economical naturalism. Culture means a world of human rights that protects the poor, a world of human rights for everybody. Naturalism means a kind of Darwinismus, the survival of the economically fittest. I do hope that we shall choose culture and protect the poor all over the world. Religion will be one of the strongest powers, which will help us to make the right choice.
Thank you for all, thank you to all of you. May God bless us.