Listening for God’s eternal ‘Yes’

by
27 March 2020

Now 93, Jürgen Moltmann sits down with Natalie Watson and looks back at a theology of hope

Picture Partnership/Westminster Abbey

Professor Moltmann delivers the 2020 Gore Lecture at Westminster Abbey, this month

Professor Moltmann delivers the 2020 Gore Lecture at Westminster Abbey, this month

BORN in 1926, in the same year as the Queen, Jürgen Moltmann has become something of a household name, or even an icon, of the theology of the 20th and early 21st century. There is hardly a reading list for theology students on which the name of this German theologian does not feature prominently.

And Britain features prominently in the life of the 93-year-old, who, at the beginning of this month, delivered the Gore Lecture at Westminster Abbey. The topic was “hope”, and his book Theology of Hope (SCM Press, 1967) was what put him on the theological map of the world. In the English-speaking world, this is by no means his best-known book: his later works The Crucified God and Trinity and the Kingdom of God (theology students will remember the “social doctrine” of the Trinity) are classics.

Moltmann was born in Hamburg, north Germany’s largest city. It was the time of the Weimar Republic — pre-war Germany’s short-lived and ill-fated attempt at democracy — and religion had almost no place in the life of the family of teachers into which he was born. His grandfather was a freemason and grandmaster of a lodge.

By the time he was sent to take instruction in preparation for confirmation — the rite of passage into adulthood at age 14 — the Nazis were in power, and the pastor who instructed him and his peers was a German-Christian sympathiser who told the boys that Jesus was an Aryan, really. There was no indication that the young Jürgen would become one of his country’s most celebrated theologians. He was planning to study mathematics.

His childhood and youth were, in many ways, typical of his generation. Their world was secular, and was interrupted only when war broke out in 1939. In 1943, Moltmann received his call-up papers, and, in July of that year, he experienced the firestorm: the destruction of Hamburg, an important port and industrial centre. One of his closest friends was killed by a bomb that spared him, and the question on his mind was “Why?”

“That was the first time I called out to God,” he tells me as we sit in the bar of a central London hotel. What follows is a story that has been told many times, not least in his memoirs, A Broad Place: An autobiography (SCM Press), published in English in 2007. In the last months of the war, Germany was already in chaos: the war was lost, and allied troops were on German territory. Moltmann’s unit had been dispersed, and he was straying through a forest on his own when he encountered a British-Canadian unit. Having learnt English at school, he called out: “I surrender!” “They didn’t shoot me.”

Moltmann was duly taken prisoner, and, as he relayed to the audience at Westminster Abbey, the next morning one of the soldiers brought him a mess tin of baked beans. “Since then, I have loved baked beans. For me, they taste of life.”

After six months in a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp in Ostende, in Belgium, the prisoners were loaded on a ship. The war in Europe had ended, and they assumed that they were on their way back to their home cities in Germany, Hamburg, or Bremerhaven, perhaps. In the morning, they were allowed to go on deck, and, to their surprise and perhaps shock, what they saw was Tower Bridge. From London, they were taken to a POW camp in Scotland, and Moltmann and his comrades were sent to work building roads near Kilmarnock.

Moltmann has often spoken about how he and his fellow prisoners — former enemies, after all — experienced the hospitality of the local populace as incredibly kind and yet deeply shaming. Altogether he would spend three years in Britain. As the Cold War began, and the attitudes of the Western Allies towards Germany changed, education programmes for young Germans were set up. Young German POWs were able to complete their schooling and to qualify for university entrance.

Picture Partnership/Westminster AbbeyProfessor Moltmann delivers the 2020 Gore Lecture at Westminster Abbey, this month. The Abbey’s Canon Theologian, the Revd Dr Jamie Hawkey, chaired the event

Watched by an armed British officer, Moltmann was taken south to Nottinghamshire, to a camp near Mansfield. He later described the time spent at Camp Norton as the most intellectually intense and rich time of his life. Here, he studied his first semester of theology before eventually returning to Germany in April 1948.

In the autumn of 1948, he took up his studies in Göttingen, completing them in 1952, with both the examinations qualifying him for service in the Church, and a theological doctorate under his belt. On many occasions, he has ascribed the latter to the fact that, on a journey with fellow students to Copenhagen, he had met a young theology student, Elisabeth Wendel, well known in her own right as a theologian and one of the pioneers of feminist theology. “So I asked Otto Weber [her doctoral supervisor] for a thesis topic, so I could get to know her.”

The couple married in 1952, and, until Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel’s death in 2016, their theological working lives were closely intertwined. I told Moltmann that the final question in a Church Times interview is always: “With whom would you like to be locked in a church?” He hesitates, and then says: “With my wife.” And, after a moment, “and my friend Hans Küng.”

The former is certainly no surprise: Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, like her husband, was an ambassador of theology from other parts of the world to Germany. In her case, it was the work of the North American feminist theologians, and, as I reminisced about Moltmann’s work with other audience members in Westminster Abbey, one of them mentioned their joint book God His and Hers. Moltmann said that he owes to her the ability to speak subjectively, to say “I” in theology: “As a man, I had learnt to say ‘God is love’, but I should also be able to say ‘I experience God as loving.’”

 

THE ability to speak for oneself in theology, for many different voices to be heard, and to be heard authentically has been a constant in the many theological conversations that he has been involved in over the years. His political theology of hope inspired the liberation theologians of the 1970s and ’80s.

In 1976, he famously responded to the critique of his work by liberation theologians, in an open letter to the Argentine Protestant theologian José Míguez Bonino. In the letter, he warned against the provincialisation of theology, but also criticised liberation theologians for relying too much on the voices of their European antecedents (reminding them that Karl Marx had, after all, been born in Trier) rather than speaking with an authentically Latin American voice and remembering to “turn to the people”.

Thinking and speaking for oneself is still important to the nonagenarian. What would he say to young people now, perhaps those setting out to study theology? “Process your own experiences. Seek adventures in other countries, and work through them theologically. Take the earphone plugs out of your ears and sing, yourselves; switch off your smartphones and start to think for yourselves.”

He speaks of his great respect for the young generation and their engagement in political and environmental matters, and then adds, wistfully, “I would love to be young again.”

 

FOR most of his professional life, his home was the University of Tübingen, in south Germany — perhaps in some ways an unlikely place for a northerner. Here, he worked as an ordinary professor for systematic theology from 1967 until his official retirement in 1994.

In many ways, Moltmann is a very German theologian, steeped in the tradition of “systematic theology” — Reformed rather than Lutheran — and in dialogue with the German intellectual and cultural tradition. The focus of his Gore Lecture this year was a quotation from the 19th-century German poet and philosopher Friedrich Hölderlin: “Where there is danger, salvation grows also.” There were also references to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s play Nathan the Wise (1779), and the idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Yet, even after a career as a professor at several German universities, spanning five decades, Moltmann’s work is much better known and has had a much deeper impact beyond its borders. Once again, perhaps the prophet is not without honour, save in his own country.

Long before his contemporaries, he was aware of, and entered into dialogue with, theologians from other parts of the world. He was the first to introduce German Protestant theologians to the political theologies of Asia and Latin America. I ask him where this journey began, and he talks about his regular visits to Korea, beginning in 1975. Nine of the most eminent theologians of that country undertook their doctoral studies with Moltmann in Tübingen. He also mentions Nicaragua, where he helped to found the first Protestant university, in Managua.

In the English-speaking world, the Croatian-American theologian Miroslav Volf, the author of works such as Exclusion and Embrace, undertook his doctoral studies with Moltmann in Tübingen. Increasingly, Moltmann’s theological work opened out into multiple conversations rooted and grounded in God’s active presence in the world, perhaps best evident in his second book on Christology, The Way of Jesus Christ (SCM Press, 1989), where — still somewhat unusually for a German systematic theologian — he engages with the political theologies of Africa and Latin America, and also with feminist and disability theologians.

But, in the beginning, there was the “theology of hope”. While his work in the early years of his career had largely been historical, and focused on theology in the Dutch and German Reformed tradition, by the 1960s he was becoming increasingly interested in developing a theology that engaged with the questions of the present day.

For him, this meant returning to Christian theology, and also to the People of God, its authentic hope for the future, to restore to the Christian message a strong emphasis on God’s eternal “yes”, given in God’s promise proclaimed by the prophets of the Old Testament, in the hope for the resurrection of the dead promised in the raising of the crucified Christ, and in understanding human history as the mission of the Kingdom of God.

But it was an encounter with the Jewish Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, the author of The Principle of Hope, that sparked what was to become an epoch-making theological work — a departure that gave Moltmann his own voice and continues to be his subject today. It marked a new beginning for a theology that was public and political, confident and credible, in calling people together to work for the common good.

 

THEOLOGY OF HOPE (SCM Press, 1967) struck a chord not only among theologians; it made it on to the front pages of Newsweek and Time — and also on to the index of forbidden books of the East German Stasi. Where the United States, full of the optimism of the Kennedy era, saw cause for hope that new beginnings were possible, even in the Church, the Stasi sensed danger. “A distribution of the book in the GDR [German Democratic Republic] would encourage a Christian attitude which, in contrast to the socialist reality, looks for this reality to be surmounted in the future, and is oriented towards a future Christian society,” the Stasi censor wrote in 1966.

The book was duly banned, and Moltmann was barred from lecturing in the GDR for the next ten years. But the rest, as they say, is history; and, among the readers of copies of Theology of Hope smuggled behind the Iron Curtain were the pastors whose invitations to open conversations about the future of the planet and prayers for peace sparked the peaceful revolution of 1989.

In the 1960s, Moltmann was writing for a world that had lost its innocence: in Germany, through the experience of the Nazi dictatorship and the Holocaust — for Moltmann, as for most of his generation, this is still very present; and for the world, through the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. The human race had entered its own endtime.

Picture Partnership/Westminster AbbeyProfessor Moltmann delivers the 2020 Gore Lecture at Westminster Abbey, this month. The Abbey’s Canon Theologian, the Revd Dr Jamie Hawkey, chaired the event

Theology of Hope is a book of its time, but it is certainly not a baptised version of Bloch’s philosophy, as Karl Barth alleged. At its heart is not Marxism, but messianic hope. In his Gore Lecture, Moltmann spoke of the dangers of our time: the poison of hatred (citing Camus’s observation that Europe no longer loved life); the rising new nationalism after the end of the Cold War; nuclear rearmament and the possibility of a nuclear suicide of the world; and, of course, the impeding ecological catastrophe. “It is too late for pessimism,” he said. “We must act as if the future depended on us, and trust that our children will survive.”

Life, for Moltmann, is not an accident of nature, and, therefore, he holds that we must create a culture that recognises the common life of humankind. This, for him, is not merely Christian brotherhood, but is to be extended to all people. Human life not only implies the gift of life, but also the responsibility of being human. Life must be lived both privately and publicly.

He speaks of the importance of human rights, of democracy, and, in answer to a question from the audience about what should replace the word “power”, he replies “Solidarity.”

I ask him who his conversation partners would be now, after the end of the Cold War and the discreditation of Marxism. He replies: “The Chinese,” and calls for the nations to work together in the face of impending dangers, be it the coronavirus, climate change, or carbon poisoning.

 

DURING a conference about the Theology of Hope at Duke University, Durham, in North Carolina, the news broke of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.: an event that became the catalyst for writing The Crucified God, first published in German in 1972 and in English in 1975, and, most recently, reissued by the SCM Press in 2015.

Beyond Germany, this is, perhaps, the book that has had the most profound impact. Moltmann told me that, even now, more than 40 years after its publication, he receives at least one letter a month from somewhere around the world telling him about how this book has changed the reader’s life.

The Crucified God was an attempt to speak about God in the wake of Auschwitz, after the death of God. In the preface to the 40th-anniversary edition, he tells of a letter that he received in 1990 from the American theologian Robert McAfee Brown, about the murder of six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter in San Salvador.

One of the soldiers who had dragged the bodies of the martyrs through the Jesuit study house at the University of Central America, in San Salvador, had knocked a book off the shelf in the study of Jon Sobrino, the only surviving member of the community because he was out of the country at the time of the massacre. The book, stained with the blood of one of the slain priests, Juan Moreno, and now under glass at the memorial, was El Dios Crucificado.

The reality of violence and cruelty demanded an answer. Moltmann writes about not being interested in the simple question how a good and loving God could allow such evil to happen; another question is far more essential: “Was God present in the inferno of those burning nights I remembered, or was he untouched by them, in the heaven of a complacent blessedness? Where is God?”

In his memoirs, he writes: “In these years my theological interest shifted from the resurrection of the crucified Christ, and the horizon of hope which it throws open, to the cross of the risen Christ and the spaces of remembrance of the experience of absolute death. The Crucified God was intended to be the other side of the ‘God of hope.’”

The statement that God was in Auschwitz, suffering and dying with the millions that perished there, whose lives are etched deeply into God’s own life, was bold at the time and remains so today.

 

MOLTMANN is a Protestant theologian, deeply rooted in the tradition of the Reformed Church, which he chose over the Lutheran tradition of his native Hamburg — not least because of the clearer stance of Reformed theologians such as Barth, in the Barmen Declaration, which voiced the Confessing Church’s opposition to Nazism. But it is in his encounters with theologians from the wider Christian Church, in the ecumenical movement, that much of his theology was shaped.

Among his collaborators and friends are many Roman Catholics, most notably his fellow political theologian Johannes Baptist Metz, and his Tübingen colleague Hans Küng. For many years, Küng and he worked on the ecumenical section of the international periodical Concilium, the English edition of which is still published by the SCM Press.

By now, several generations of students have studied Moltmann’s books, most of them published in the US by Fortress Press, and in the UK by the SCM Press. Nearly all of them were translated into English by Margaret Kohl, who made a substantial contribution in her own right by enabling consistency of language and terminology.

As a theologian, this German professor is a citizen of the world, and yet Britain retains a special place in his life and in his heart. More than 70 years later, he still speaks warmly about the hospitality of the farmers of Kilmarnock. There is his 1981 joint lecture with Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, “Becoming Human in a New Community of Women and Men”, presented at an ecumenical conference in Sheffield in 1981, and also one of the key moments of his life as a theologian, as well as his 1985 Gifford Lectures, published as God in Creation (SCM Press, 1985).

When asked by the chair of his Gore Lecture if there could ever be a good nationalism, he replied: “British nationalism”. In his view, it retained an innocence that his home country lost in the face of the atrocities of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Maybe this was the polite answer of a guest, although when I asked him about his impression of Britain today, he mentioned ever greater divides within society and the threat that the Union could break up. None the less, this guest has gained a firm place in the theological canon of his former captors, and his theology of hope still strikes a chord.

 

Dr Natalie K. Watson is a theologian and writer based in Peterborough. She studied with Jürgen Moltmann in Tübingen in the early 1990s, and was Senior Commissioning Editor of the SCM Press from 2007 to 2015.

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