My "Journey" with Jürgen Moltmann

Diving for stuff in a discard bin isn’t the classiest way to spend one’s time, but for the academic diving in the free book bin at the used book store can be a true adventure. (Diving in the dumpster may be a necessity for the adjunct academic, and the new overtime rules don’t help a bit.) As I have mentioned from time to time, I count seminary academics as friends, and they have introduced me to authors (especially Protestant ones, although Henri Nouwen keeps coming up) I hadn’t read before. So it was an opportunity when one of those authors—the German Jürgen Moltmann—turned up in the bin. I couldn’t resist picking it up and taking a look.

Moltmann is a Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen. But he has also spent time on this side of the pond: he was the Robert W. Woodruff Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He studied, however, at Göttingen University.

Göttingen! The name rings clear with people in mathematics and the sciences. It’s hard to conceive of a greater single explosion of scientific brilliance and advancement than that at Göttingen. The names of those who studied or taught there are legendary: Gauss, Riemann, Hilbert, Dirichlet, Born, Oppenheimer, Planck, von Neumann, Pauli, Dedekind, Courant, Dirac, Fermi, Heisenberg, Prantl, Runge, Teller, Weisbach, and so on. The Nazi purge of the place was the beginning of the suicide of the Third Reich. So how does their theology result compare with this one?

The book I found, Religion, Revolution, and the Future, came from another one of his forays onto this continent. Not a true, cover-to-cover monograph, it is a series of his lectures at various institutions in the late 1960’s. This is not meant to be a comprehensive book review or synopsis of the work, but some observations at his idea and how he shows (or more accurately doesn’t) its implementation.

He makes some pithy observations that bear repeating. His thought about revolutions (and by those we’re primarily looking at the Marxist ones) is that they are more about trying to recreate a past ideal and not to create a future reality. That’s not easy to see; it certainly wasn’t when Moltmann delivered these lectures, although those of us who have spent time in such societies got that feeling. He is also aware that these revolutions, far from bringing the freedom that they promised, often ended up with results no more satisfactory than those in capitalist countries. That’s a major concession that needs to be recalled, especially in these days of people “feeling the Bern.”

If there is one idea that he wants to get across, it’s his “theology of hope,” derived from Ernst Bloch. Now you’d think that eternal life in Jesus Christ would be hope enough. But Moltmann doesn’t find this satisfying; indeed, he finds it escapist and decidedly “retro.” What he wants to do is to focus this hope on the improvement of the world, and thus turn the attention of Christians toward the future and away from just the past. To be fair, he’s not the only Christian thinker or theologian to deflect the centre of attention from the eternal goal; N.T. Wright does much the same thing, albeit in a different (and, IMHO, a better but not ideal) context. Although it’s self-focused for its adherents, you could say that prosperity teaching is another way of channeling Christian emphasis on this world. Moltmann isn’t unique in positing that modern (for him, the book comes before the advent of post-modernity) man cannot be swayed solely by eternal reward, it has been the pre-occupation of Christian leaders for a long time now.

The problem comes with Moltmann’s assumption that the Christian focus on hope and improvement for this world would come with Christians cooperating with other, more secular people to achieve the goal. This is one of the key weaknesses of liberal theology, that Christianity is a universal philosophy only to the extent that it meshes with those systems of thought and being around it. What happens is that, the process of this coöperation, Christianity loses its distinctive advantages and purpose. This has resulted in Main Line churches bleeding membership on both sides of the Atlantic; they become waystations for those headed for some form of secularism. In that respect Roman Catholicism, with its own self-contained universality, is in better position to endure this kind of then than Main Line Protestantism, although it’s perfectly capable of throwing away the advantages it has.

He also, to use the Liberation Theology phrase, wants the church to take the “preferential option for the poor” in its life and work. As I’ve discussed before, the “preferential option for the poor” and “preferential option of the poor” aren’t the same, and Moltmann (along with many in his day and even now) is blindly unaware of that fact. In conjunction with that, his world is totally Main Line; he totally ignores the rise of Modern Pentecost, which specialises in the latter. He wasn’t alone; Harvey Cox had to backtrack and write Fire From Heaven: The Rise Of Pentecostal Spirituality And The Reshaping Of Religion In The 21st Century after The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective. Here is a place where Christian social action can be both distinctive and more effective than its secular counterpart.

One place where Moltmann should read his own stuff is the issue of theodicy. On the one hand, he sighs that the terrible wars of the last century have put the issue of theodicy out of reach. That’s been a common sentiment of Europeans who went through these wars; it has been a big push in the decline of Christianity in Europe. In the 1980’s my mother had an English S.O. who became an atheist because of his experience in World War II; the effect was different over here. On the other hand, Moltmann points out that modern man is now the master of his own destiny. Then why did he allow these wars to happen? Why were humans out to lunch on this? This may not answer the theodicy issue to Moltmann’s satisfaction, but it should (usually doesn’t) give humanists pause as to the superiority of their idea.

I think it best to skip a detailed analysis of his theology, which is wanting at many points. Seminary academics are notorious for dense prose of very limited meaning, and Moltmann is certainly up to that task. To be fair, some of his talks are easier to follow than others. One is never sure with such people whether they think they are dealing with objective reality or not, or even whether they fully grasp the difference.

One place where Moltmann’s theology could use some help from the mathematicians is the issue of imminence vs. transcendence, which is a favourite occupation of theologians. Since the days of Dedekind and Cantor (who was inspired by mediaeval theologians) we’ve had reasonable ways of describing the infinite which could be very helpful in this matter. Moltmann is aware of this but is either unable or unwilling to avail himself of this kind of thinking.

Overall, I found going through his talks an education. It made me look at liberal theology in a different way, if not in a more favourable one. As far as Göttingen people are concerned, I’ll stick with the list I gave at the start and leave Moltmann to the liberal seminary academics.

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