The Political Theologian

The theologian who has perhaps most shaped political theology in the world most, or at least European and North American political theology, is Germany’s Jürgen Moltmann. I have recently been reading biographies of theologians and scholars, including that of Charles Hodge, Rudolf Bultmann, and Karl Barth. Moltmann, however, tells his own story (A Broad Place: An Autobiography) and in so doing the reader gains entry to the “real” (quite optimistic — he was friends with Robert Schuller eventually) person more — I did not think I came to know any of the others the way I’ve now come to know Moltmann. Here are some dimensions of this autobiography:

First, Moltmann grew up in something on the order of a commune of families, what he calls a settlement. His education, therefore, was less than the norm for Germany. His brother was handicapped and — evidently — consumed in Hitler’s crimes. Moltmann was youngest; he had a fertile imagination; he was closest to his mother.

Second, Moltmann was conscripted into WWII and he experienced a horrific battle called Operation Gomorrah in July 1943 where he saw thousands of deaths. Moltmann was eventually captured and imprisoned in a prison camp in Scotland, where he encountered Scottish hospitality, and then found his faith and his vocation (he was basically given three options: teacher, general degree or theologian, and he went through the second two). In saying he found his faith what I mean is that he experienced in Psalm 39 was a divine echo of his soul, and he discovered that God entered into the depths of death and gave him hope beyond death. God has experienced forsakenness — and to readers of Moltmann this means his later book The Crucified God. “Jesus’ God-forsakenness on the cross showed me where God is present — where he was in my experience of death, and where he is going to be in whatever comes” (31). Thus he never feared patripassianism and saw in the cross a revelation of the heart of God in entering into this world’s suffering and death, and beyond that death the resurrection and hope for kingdom and new creation.

Third, he then studied at Göttingen, met Elisabeth (Moltmann-Wendel) who became a feminist theologian in her own right, became a pastor in Wasserhorst where he like Barth learned that good theology must be pastoral, got to teach Wuppertal and then Bonn, and then his academic career took off when he was offered a post at Tübingen. His life involved editing journals and ecumenical discussions in all directions: with other denominations and leaders, with Jews and Judaism, with liberation theology, with doctors and especially at times with feminists alongside his wife. He traveled the world including a number of lecture tours and longer periods in the USA.

Fourth, his first major effort was probably his most well-known book: A Theology of Hope, a theology that reshapes the “atheist” philosopher, Ernst Bloch’s, understanding of hope. He shaped an eschatology based on resurrection or a resurrection tied to eschatology. He participated in the heated exchanges amongst liberation theologians and was there when James Cone confronted the Latin American theologians over their treatment of the blacks in their country, and he joined others in learning that liberation theology must involved all the oppressed, including women.

Moltmann’s autobiography, riddled unfortunately with too many translation oddities and typos, probably demands endurance of the reader since he seems to have spent gobs of time going through his diary and saying “we went there and then we went there and then I lectured here and then I wrote this book.” There’s too much of this, but a Moltmannian wants all he or she can get from the man so it’s all here.

Fifth, Moltmann’s life shows lots of development theologically: from his early theology of hope to his crucified God where he set the tones for his kind of European version of liberation theology, which sent him round the world in lectures and learning and back home (where his study was) to retool his liberation theology, to a fertile Trinitarian theology emphasizing perichoresis and society within God that establishes all sorts of politics and ecclesiologies, to later workings through themes like creation and Spirit. Moltmann reminds me of Clark Pinnock in that his theology shows lots of reshaping and reforming and adjusting and changing. He is/was sponge-like in absorbing themes and ideas and new books and new ventures into a creative theology that grew and grew.

He’s an old man these days but seems to have energy … with joy and hope beyond the suffering.

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  • As one who has been greatly influenced by Moltmann, reading A Broad Place was extremely helpful and enlightening. I was blessed to have met him a few years ago at the Emergent Village Theological Conversation. Not often one gets to meet one’s theological heroes! In fact, I believe I got to meet Scot at that event as well!! Whatever the shortcomings, this is a book to be read!

  • Patrick O

    Great succinct discussion of the book!

    “we went there and then we went there and then I lectured here and then I wrote this book.”

    Sure, I might be a credentialed, card-carrying Moltmannian (I even have an autographed copy of Broad Place), so maybe I am guilty of wanting all I can get, but be that as it may I think the “going here” and “going there” portions are of wider interest. He’s gone so many places and met so many people that the book really is a great insight into the world of 20th century theology. Like getting a behind the scenes tour of Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland, a person learns the ins and outs of trends and personalities.

    His comments about Ratzinger, for instance, were very enlightening precisely because they were more about the man than the theology. We get glimpses of the real people rather than discussions of the isolated theology, making it a great companion book about more than just Moltmann. And since Moltmann is himself so entirely intentional about making experiences part of the theological task, this really is a key guide to understanding Moltmann’s twists and turns.

  • Great piece, Scot. I really need to read this one.