Introduction to the life of Jurgen Moltman
Jürgen Moltmann was born in Hamburg, Germany, on April 8, 1926. He was raised in a rather "enlightened secular" home; therefore, he underwent no very profound Christian socialization, but grew up with poets and philosophers of German Idealism: Lessing, Goethe and Nietzsche. He was, for the time being, far from Christianity, the church, and the Bible. On this account he has always thought that he must discover, learn, and comprehend for himself everything that others had already learned from an early age. Thus theology has always remained to him even until today an "incredible adventure."
Moltmann was drafted, at the end of 1944, into the German army at the age of eighteen to fight in World War II. At that time he took with him Goethe’s poems and Faust as well as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra as intellectual nourishment. He served as a soldier for six months before surrendering, in Belgium in 1945, to the first British soldier he met in the woods. For the succeeding three years he was confined to prisoner-of-war camps in Belgium, Scotland, and England. In the Belgium camp he saw how other prisoners collapsed inwardly, how they gave up all hope, sickening and dying for the lack of it. Moltmann was saved from the same fate only by a religious conversion that began in a POW camp in Belgium. When he was given a Bible—a copy of the New Testament and Psalms—by an American military chaplain, he started to read it behind barbed wire. Though he began largely out of boredom, he was surprised to find that the words of Scripture fed his imagination and emotional need. They opened his eyes to the God who is with the broken-hearted. Moltmann found the God who was present even behind the barbed wire. But whenever he tried to profess or grasp this experience of the presence of God, the experience evaded him. "All that was left was an inward drive, a longing which provided the impetus to hope" (Moltmann 1980, 7). His inexpressible experiences led Moltmann to become interested in theology. Fortunately he was allowed to study theology in a Protestant theologians’ camp, Norton Camp—an educational camp run by the YMCA and supervised by the British army—near Nottingham in England. Since then, the experiences of the life of a prisoner have left a lasting mark on him: the suffering and the hope which reinforce each other.
After he returned to Germany in 1948, Moltmann began to study theology regularly at Göttingen University. He studied there under teachers strongly influenced by Barth; he imbibed thoroughly the theology of Karl Barth. Therefore, he initially became a disciple of the great master of dialectical theology. Later, however, he saw some need to move beyond the narrow understanding of Barth and "Barmen orthodoxy"—solus Christus—when he wanted to give positive answers to the political possibilities and cultural challenges of the post-war period. Thus he became highly critical of Barth’s neglect of the historical nature of reality, while remaining indebted to Barth. Moltmann could come out of the dilemma by D. Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. From Ernst Wolf as well as from Bonhoeffer’s work he developed his concern for social ethics and the church’s involvement in society. In addition, he was also influenced by Luther and Hegel through Hans Joachim Iwand. Luther and Iwand convinced him of the liberating truth of the Reformation doctrine of justification and the theology of the cross; Hegel and Iwand helped him develop his dialectical interpretation of the cross and the resurrection. Moreover, he gained his solid grounding in biblical theology from Gerhard von Rad and Ernst Käsemann. Above all, Otto Weber, who supervised the doctorates of him and his future wife—Elisabeth Wendel, helped him gain the eschatological perspective of the church’s universal mission toward the coming kingdom of God
Moltmann received his doctorate in theology from Göttingen University and got married, in 1952. Then he served as pastor of the Evangelical Church of Bremen-Wasserhorst for the following five years. In 1957 he got to know the Dutch theologian Arnold van Ruler, from whom he discovered the Reformed kingdom of God theology and Dutch apostulate theology. At the urging of his teacher Otto Weber, he became a theology professor at an academy in Wuppertal—Kirchliche Hochschule—operated by the Confessing Church in 1958. There he came into contact with Wolfhart Pannenberg. Then he joined the theological faculty of Bonn University in 1963. The following year he published Theology of Hope. After his brief stint at Bonn University, Moltmann was offered the prestigious position of professor of systematic theology at Tübingen University and taught there from 1967 to 1994. Now he is emeritus professor of theology at Tübingen University.
Since his marriage Moltmann has received help from his wife in doing theology. Continual discussion with her opened his eyes to many things which he should "probably otherwise have overlooked"; it also made him conscious of the "psychological and social limitations" of his "male point of view and judgement." (Moltmann 1990, xvii). His wife, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel—the author of The Women Around Jesus, A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey, and I am My Body, etc.—also has played an active part in feminist theology.
The Shamefulness of the Cross
Jurgen Moltmann does away with any “imperialistic” interpretation of the Cross of Jesus Christ rather he emphasizes the fact that the Cross was something to be ashamed about. In the book of the law this kind of death is given to a blasphemer, he is abandoned by the people of the law and the God of the law and he is hung upon a tree as someone rejected by everybody. This is the cross of Christ. Jesus was rejected by nearly everybody close to him including the disciple that he loved the most. Early Christianity was considered to be a very crude faith that lacked esthetics. The Roman citizens would not even talk about the cross for it was something perverse for a gentleman to discuss yet it is the Cross that gives identity to a Christian. The cross marks the center of every Christian church. The cross is the center of Christian worship and liturgy. Moltmann is concerned because the cross of today is a cross that is “adorned with roses”.
Nietzsche says “Modern men, with their obtuseness as regards all Christian nomenclature, no longer have the sense for the terribly superlative conception which was implied to an antique taste by the paradox of the formula, 'God on the cross'. Hitherto there had never and nowhere been such boldness in inversion, nor anything at once so dreadful, questioning and questionable as this formula: it promised a transformation of all ancient values (Beyond Good and Evil, III, 46).
He called its morality the pitiful 'morality of a child made to stand in the corner', which had made the morbid virtue of compassion out of the necessity of suffering. He treated Christianity as a nihilist religion which had developed from Judaism. One statement which sums up his criticism is: 'Basically there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.' Down to the present day, everything else was morality for slaves. Karl Marx also directs his criticism of Christianity to the 'roses' in the cross of reality'
His main idea on the cross was
The cross is the utterly incommensurable factor in the revelation of God. We have become far too used to it. We have surrounded the scandal of the cross with roses. We have made a theory of salvation out of it. But that is not the cross. That is not the bleakness inherent in it, placed in it by God. Hegel defined the cross: 'God is dead'—and he no doubt rightly saw that here we are faced by the night of the real, ultimate and inexplicable absence of God, and that before the 'Word of the cross' we are dependent upon the principle sola fide; dependent upon it as nowhere else. Here we have not the opera Dei, which point to him as the eternal creator, and to his wisdom. Here the faith in creation, the source of all paganism, breaks down. Here this whole philosophy and wisdom is abandoned to folly. Here God is non-God. Here is the triumph of death, the enemy, the non-church, the lawless state, the blasphemer, the soldiers. Here Satan triumphs over God. Our faith begins at the point where atheists suppose that it must be at an end. Our faith begins with the bleakness and power which is the night of the cross, abandonment, temptation and doubt about everything that exists! Our faith must be born where it is abandoned by all tangible reality; it must be born of nothingness, it must taste this nothingness and be given it to taste in a way that no philosophy of nihilism can imagine
Thus according to Moltmann the Cross is truly the center of Christian faith and worship and it is an act of shamefulness, that shame was the pride of the early Christian community and that is the reason why St Paul declares “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes……”
The Pain and Mutability of God
Jurgen Moltmann believes that God truly suffers and dies on the cross.He is a critic of popular religion that believes that God is immutable and cannot suffer, the Greek God for Plato and Aristotle was a “necessary” cause, he was the “uncaused cause and the unmoved mover” and the Church is guilty of borrowing this idea from Greek culture and this is visible in the God of Calvinism too. He draws inspiration from the writing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who says “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering . . . Only the suffering God can help . . . That is a reversal of what the religious man expects from God. Man is summoned to share in God's sufferings at the hands of a godless world.”
At about the same time, and in a similar political situation in his country, the Japanese Lutheran theologian Kazoh Kitamori was writing his book Theology of the Pain of God in which he developed a similar theology of the cross: the pain of God heals our pains. In the suffering of Christ God himself suffers. These suggestions must be taken further.
Similarly, the piety of the Negro spirituals sung by black slaves in the southern states of the USA concentrates upon the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. For them his sufferings and death were a symbol of their own sufferings, their despised condition and their temptations in an unfriendly and inhuman world. They saw their fate in his sufferings. On the other hand, they could say that when Jesus was nailed to the cross and the Roman soldiers stabbed him in the side, he was not alone. The black slaves suffered with him and died with him. Were you there, when they crucified my Lord?' begins one of their songs. And the answer is: 'We, the black slaves, were there with him in his agony.' In Jesus' death black slaves saw themselves, and they unleashed their imagination in describing what they felt and saw . . . His death was a symbol of their suffering, trials and tribulations in an unfriendly world. They knew the agony of rejection and the pain of hanging from a tree . . . Because black slaves knew the significance of the pain and shame of
Jesus' death on the cross, they found themselves by his side. By his suffering and death, Jesus identified himself with those who were enslaved, and took their pain upon himself. And if he was not alone in his suffering, nor were they abandoned in the pains of their slavery. Jesus was with them. And there too lay their hope of freedom, by virtue of his resurrection into the freedom of God. Jesus was their identity with God in a world which had taken all hope from them and destroyed their human identity until it was unrecognizable.
Mysticism of the Cross
Mysticism of the passion has discovered a truth about Christ which ought not to be suppressed by being understood in a superficial way. It can be summed up by saying that suffering is overcome by suffering, and wounds are healed by wounds. For the suffering in suffering is the lack of love, and the wounds in wounds are the abandonment, and the powerlessness in pain is unbelief. And therefore the suffering of abandonment is overcome by the suffering of love, which is not afraid of what is sick and ugly, but accepts it and takes it to itself in order to heal it. Through his own abandonment by God, the crucified Christ brings God to those who are abandoned by God. Through his suffering he brings salvation to those who suffer. Through his death he brings eternal life to those who are dying. And therefore the tempted, rejected, suffering and dying Christ came to be the centre of the religion of the oppressed and the piety of the lost. And it is here, in the theology of the mysticism of the cross in the late Middle Ages, that we first hear the monstrous phrase 'the crucified God', which Luther then took up.
The gospels intentionally direct the gaze of Christians away from the experiences of the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit back to the earthly Jesus and his way to the cross. They represent faith as a call to follow Jesus. The call to follow him is associated with Jesus' proclamation of suffering. To follow Jesus always means to deny oneself and to take 'his cross' on oneself. He gathers about himself a circle of disciples who follow him. Outwardly, there is no distinction between this and the picture presented by the scribes and their disciples. But the relationship was of a different kind. The disciples of Jesus did not request to be accepted into his 'school', but were called by him. Presumably calling and following were originally concerned with God alone. Thus for Jesus to call people to follow him was an unparalleled claim to authority on his part. His disciples did not follow him in order to become rabbis themselves one day. They were to call each other brother, rather than rabbi . For Jesus did not found a new rabbinic school, but proclaimed the imminence of the kingdom. His call to discipleship was made under the sign of the kingdom of God which was beginning, and this sign was Jesus himself in person. Consequently, the call to follow him was absolute, and no motive was given at the time or later. Instead, there was a direct appeal: 'Follow me!'
Those who followed this call abandoned everything, and others refused and remained what they were. To follow Jesus was to break all links with one's family, job, etc., and indeed to break the link with oneself, to deny and hate oneself, in order to gain the kingdom: 'Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it'
Thus the call to discipleship is a call to suffer and die with our crucified Lord, suffer seeking no reward but the shamefulness of his cross. This is a call to glory in the sufferings of this world. To quote St John
"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."
Christ overcame the world through his suffering and this is the spirit of Moltmann’s Christology.