Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Theological Problem Meme

juergen_moltmann.jpgAt the beginning of this just-past Holy Week, Halden Doerge, who blogs at Inhabitatio Dei, challenged theology bloggers with this horrible theological problem meme.  The idea is take our favorite theologian (or one of them, as Halden Pointed out, the Princeton bloggers will probably argue about who gets Karl Barth), one who has been enormously influential on our thought, and then write at least a paragraph on something we consider to be a major theological problem in his or her work. I put off taking up this exercise in masochism until after Easter.  Halden told me that he expected me to tackle John Howard Yoder and this is fair since Yoder has played a very large role in my theology (and life).  But I am chickening out on that one. There are many theological bloggers who have been hugely influenced by Yoder and I am going to let one of them respond to Halden. Why? Because every time I have seen major, serious criticisms of Yoder, they have turned out to be wrong, to be misinterpretations.  And since many of his writings are still being published posthumously, I want to wait to be sure I don’t follow down the same path. JHY is hardly beyond criticism–none of us are.  But there have been so many sloppy ones, that I want to make sure that before I level one, especially in public, that I am sure I am right about it.

Still, I don’t want to chicken out of Halden’s challenge altogether.  So, I am picking an influence almost as strong as Yoder’s and a mind as brilliant (so I could end up looking just as foolish). Yes, that is a picture of the great Jürgen Moltmann. Regular readers of this blog might remember that I nominated Moltmann for greatest living theologian. 

A brief description is in order, before I try for Halden’s paragraph of critique.  Moltmann (b. 08 April 1926) came of age in Germany during WWII. He grew up in a secular home and began university studies in science and mathematics. His education was interrupted because he was drafted into Hitler’s army in 1944, sent to the Belgian front, where he surrendered to the first British soldier he met. He spent time as a prisoner of war in the U.K.(1945-1948)–an experience that led him to study theology after repatriation–both to understand his own suffering, his nation’s defeat, and how ideology can capture a people. Moltmann was never a member of the Nazi Party, nor a Hitler devotee, but he has not spared himself the criticisms launched at all of Germany for failure to resist the Nazis. That sense of collective guilt (as well as personal) has not only motivated his theology of grace, but also his interfaith dialogue with Jews and Judaism.

Karl Barth was clearly a major influence in his theological formation, but Moltmann has never been classed with the “pure Barthians” (something Barth would have appreciated considering his many negative remarks about Barthians). He first burst onto the global theological scene with A Theology of Hope(1964) which was a political theology whose context was the global upheavals of the 1960s, whose starting point was the resurrection, and which saw the eschatological framework of the New Testament as a way of facing revolutionary upheavals in hope born of trust in the God who meets us from the future. He was horrified when this was work was widely read in the U.S. as justification for triumphalist optimism and so responded with the powerful The Crucified God(1972) which placed the cross squarely at the center of both theology and life, an alternative to theodicy in understanding that God suffers with all the sufferings of humanity and creation, precisely because Christ died godforsaken. (Reading this book in seminary, I finally understood the doctrine of the Trinity as more than a numbers game, as Moltmann showed that only a Trinitarian God is adequate for the experience of the cross–in which the Father experiences the death of the Son, the Son experiences dying and the absence/abandonment of the Father, and, in the Resurrection of the Crucified the Spirit communicates these experiences throughout the Godhead.) In the crucifixion, we see death IN GOD and in the resurrection (and ascension) of the Crucified, all of human life, human concerns, and the experience of human death and dying, are taken up into the Triune life of God.

Since those early days, Moltmann has continued to write major works in theology, always uniting individual and political concerns, in dialogue with Marxists in Eastern Europe, liberation theologians in Latin America and South Africa, Black Liberation theologians in the U.S., feminist theologians (having married the feminist theologian Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel in 1952, this dialogue became “familial,”–and as the husband of a feminist minister, I can relate!), and–unusually for someone from a German Reformed background–with Anabaptist peace theologians, and with Pentecostals. 

His work has been powerful and compelling, but not beyond critique. For instance, I am not sure why, after seeming to agree with the Eastern Orthodox about the problems of the filioque(the clause the West added to the Nicene Creed which says that the Holy Spirit proceeds not just from the Father, but also from the Son; an addition that was one of the causes of the tragic split of the Church into East and West), Moltmann then proceeds to retain it.  However, I think his greatest problem is intertwined with one of his greatest strengths.

Unlike many late 20th C. and early 21st C. theologians in the North Atlantic world, Moltmann is not captured by what Yoder criticized harshly as “methodologism.” We can all think of theologians from many different schools of thought which have been so absorbed by problems of theological method, that they never get around to substantive theology. How many essays in method (prologoumenae) did David Tracy write without ever getting beyond that? Or from the “Yale school,” all we ever got from the likes of George Lindbeck were (anti-foundationalist) essays in method!  By contrast, Moltmann has continued writing both smaller works and a major series of works focused on central theological loci, which, while not a traditional systematics or dogmatics, combined outlines (and furthers, challenges), the major doctrines of Christian faith.  The volumes are informed by more exegetical work than almost anyone since Barth, but unlike Barth, clearly interacts with contemporary critical biblical scholarship. The volumes also interact with science, philosophy, the history of Christian thought, and that amazing set of dialogue partners throughout. It’s singularly impressive.

Yet, without at least some reflections on method, I find myself at a loss in trying to find a unifying center (obviously Jesus Christ is central!) to Moltmann’s work. WHY do exegesis at this point, and not there? Why interact with certain dialogue partners here and others there? Examples: Why in God in Creation, in responding to the strong challenges of Process theologians and defending creatio ex nihilo, does Moltmann turn from both exegesis of relevant texts and interaction in post-Einstein physics to Jewish mystical concepts from the Kabbalah?  The result is creative and powerful, but gives a very speculative feel (at least as speculative as anything the Whitehead/Hartshorne process crowd has generated) to his work at that point.

Or why are his major dialogue partners in The Crucified God Latin American and Black Liberation theologians, but in The Way of Jesus Christat a similar juncture, they are Anabaptist voices (especially Yoder’s)? Without SOME methodological reflections, Moltmann’s work can appear haphazzard.  I don’t think it really is, and if I have to choose between someone who is preoccupied with theological method and someone who actually does theology (especially when the results are as powerful as Moltmann’s), I’ll take the latter every time.  But it is difficult to get a handle on Moltmann’s entire project and I think this is one reason why.

And now I pass this problem meme to someone else.

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April 17, 2007 - Posted by | theology

4 Comments

  1. This is a solid point. Since I haven’t read enough of Moltmann’s work to get a picture across the spectrum I would not have picked it up, but even from my limited engagement I can see what you’re saying. I often wondered how or why he chose the directions he did, indeed it often seems to be more “thematic” than “systematic”.

    Comment by Aric Clark | April 17, 2007

  2. Oh, Aric, you simply have to commit yourself to reading all of Moltmann’s major works. He calls his dogmatic volumes “contributions to systematic theology,” but Moltmann would be the first to shy away from a rigid system. His theology flows from and relates back to the practices of the church–despite his years as a university professor.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 18, 2007

  3. Have you read Experiences in Theology? As I understand it (I’ve only read one section so far) he aims to give some kind of an account of his theological influences and ‘method’, though he believes the way to do this is retrospectively (hence this book comes at the end of his major series).

    Comment by Byron | April 30, 2007

  4. Byron, I just heard of this book about 3 days ago. I had heard a rumor that Moltmann planned to write something like this, but not even a title. I look forward to reading it, but it would have been more useful to students earlier in his career. But I’ll take it–if it helps me get a handle on the whole project.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 30, 2007


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