This is one of those weeks I will always remember. I drove Wednesday morning from Detroit to Chicago to join around 300 others for a conversation with Jurgen Moltmann, a conversation hosted by the Emergent Village bunch. I will cap the trip with a U2 concert in Soldier Field on Sunday night. Bono and Moltmann, two of my favorite theologians. Awe and wonder all the way around.
Moltmann is 83 years old. His life is an amazing story (you might want to read his autobiography, A Broad Place). He was a German soldier in WWII, taken priosner, and found God in a Sottish prison camp. Amazing story, and consequently his career as a theologian finds few parallels. His work has sounded the themes of hope, justice, and ecology, all in the pursuit of knowing the God of Jesus Christ. His work is important for my dissertation in many ways. I am currently immersed in his books as I prepare for my comprehensive exams in a few weeks. I am richer for this engagement, by a long ways.
Here's the one thing you should know about Moltmann (from my perspective). HE refuses to think about God apart from the human experience of Jesus. Which sounds kind of obvious to many of us Bible-believing type folks. But Moltmann shows that for most of us, this simply is not the case.
Most of us begin with a version of God based on certain assumptions that we inherited from the Greek philosphical tradition. For God to be perfect, God must be simple, free, unchangeable, impassable, independent, etc. This is sometimes called classical theism, and Moltmann suggests that this view of God results inevitably in a kind of monism--God as a single acting subject and everything else as an object. Christian theology in the West has often assumed this view of God. God was thought of as a single substance, identified with the Father, and the Son and Spirit were sometimes thought of as modes of this one substance. The beginning assumption is the unity of God, the three persons being the hard thing to explain.
Now, here's the deal. There are a lot of problems one gets into when accounting for the real problems of the world if God is thought of as as single acting subject. For the Greeks, the problems of monism were expressed in the problem of theodicy. If God is all powerful, and if God is good, then how can bad things happen? Either God is all-powerful, and not good. Or God might be good, but not all powerful. There are current forms of Christian theology that opt to begin with the assuption that God is all powerful and the goodness of God will work itself out in the end. The tornado that swept through the Twin Cities a few weeks ago was God's punishment for the ELCA's decision to ordain homosexuals, says John Piper, the most prominent voice in the new Calvinism that explains every event as an event under God's providential control. But as Moltmann suggested yesterday, such a God is a monster.
In milder forms, Christian monism simply puts the world on the receiving end of all of God's stuff. The world is perpetual object to God's perpetual subject. All the arrows point one way, and the church is often thought of as being on God's side of the arrows. We've got all the good stuff. The world is simply our target, our strategic concern. This leads easily to mission as a kind of imperialism, or benevolence and evangelism as a kind of paternalism. This is the implication of the criticism Moltmann brings to Barth's theology. (God is a single-acting subject in Barth's theology, from Moltmann's perspective).
Moltmann does not begin with the assumptions about God located in classic theism. He begins with Jesus as the Son of the Father. We know God as the Father of Jesus, the Son. It is in this relationship of mutuality that we begin to understand God. This is true also of the relationship between Father and Spirit and Son and Spirit. God is not one substance in three forms, or one acting subject in three modes. God is three persons who each have centers of action and have a dynamic and reciprocal relationship. And in any relationship, any reciprocity, there is need and vulnerability. There is openness to the other.
In fact, it is this openness to the other that constitutes God as love. And it is this love that makes room for creation. And it is this love that leaves space for a free creation. And it is this love that marks itself as suffering, enduring love. As Moltmann said yesterday, God's power is not expressed by the fact that he controls all things (the opposite of love), but in that he bears all things and suffers all things. This is a game changer in so many ways.
At the conference yesterday, people talked to Moltmann about how his book, The Crucified God, gave them a lease on life--new hope--in the most tragic of circumstances. The loss of an infant son, the persistent struggle of disability, the opression related to class and race and gender. That's a pretty hefty theological legacy. I doubt that Piper's theology has many stories like that. The answer to why in Piper's theology is always God, and that causes more problems that it solves. For Moltmann, there is no answer to the question why and if there were it would not satisfy us. But in the crucified God there is a who and a where and a when related to suffering. There is a God who suffers all things, who lashes himself to the world on a cross, and whose resurrection will not allow suffering to be the last word.