Jürgen Moltmann on Christianity as a Religion of Joy

Makoto Fujimura presents Jürgen Moltmann with art inspired by Theology of Hope at the 2015 Karl Barth Conference (image taken by me)
Makoto Fujimura presents Jürgen Moltmann with art inspired by Theology of Hope at the 2015 Karl Barth Conference (photo credit: me)

Every man has a burning desire for happiness and enjoyment. But our world gives us little cause for rejoicing. To be happy, to enjoy ourselves, we must above all be free. But such freedom has grown scarce. We enjoy ourselves, we laugh, when our burdens are removed, when fetters are falling, pressures yield and obstructions giveway. Then our hearts leap within us and we suddenly find it easy to cope with other men and circumstances. We gain distance from ourselves and our plans move forward in a natural, unforced way. There is also, of course, a kind of laughter which bursts out in despair, we can laugh at others with scorn, and there is the snobbish smile or the cynical grin. But jubilant, liberating laughter is always unburdening and burden free. But how can we laugh, how can we rejoice without care, when we are worried, depressed and tortured by the state of the world in which we live? It sounds good to hear the promise of Psalm 126: ‘When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter….’But we do not yet find ourselves in that condition. In our situation we would rather ask with Psalm 137: ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’ or complain with an old black spiritual from slave days: ‘How can I play, when I’m in a strange land?’ (Theology and Joy, 26)

So begins Jürgen Moltmann’s famous essay, “The First Liberated Men in Creation” (1971), published as Theology and Joy (UK, 1973) and Theology of Play (U.S., 1972). These two titles aren’t exactly the same, but do share this same core text by Moltmann. The difference lies in the supplemental material:  Theology of Play includes responses to Moltmann’s essay by Robert E. Neele, Sam Keen, and David L. Miller (plus a response to their responses by Jürgen Moltmann), while Theology and Joy includes an introductory essay by David E. Jenkins (but of course, the biggest difference between the two today is the price tag, as Theology of Play is rare and out of print, making it $100+ used, compared to just $20 for a new copy of Theology and Joy).

Last year, Miroslav Volf produced a video with Moltmann, as part of the Theology of Joy project at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. (Moltmann is just one of many scholars and religious leaders consulted as a part of this project). Volf set up this conversation as a follow up to Moltmann’s earlier work on joy, with this opening question: “Jürgen if I may, you have written a book about joy some 40 years ago. What have you learned in the meantime about joy?”   Seriously, if you haven’t seen it yet, stop what you are doing and watch their video conversation now (link includes transcript)! It’s well worth the 20 minutes. 

I was thrilled to discover the other day that there is a companion paper to this interview that was written by Moltmann and is posted on the Theology of Joy website, titled Christianity: A Religion of Joy (mirror).  That’s right, 15 pages of Moltmannian goodness available free online! Here are some key quotations from this paper:

Theology of Play: Then and Now

My question at that time was: How can we laugh and rejoice, when there are so many tears to be wiped away and when new tears are being added every day? ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’, complained already Psalm 137, and an old spiritual asks, ‘How a play in a strange land?’ How can one rejoice when innocent people are killed in Vietnam? How can one laugh and play when children are starving in Africa? How can we dance when in the prisons of Latin American military dictatorships human beings are tortured and ‘disappear’? Don’t we live in one world? Do we have a right to joy if we do not cry out for those who suffer?
[…]
In this essay on God’s joy and human flourishing I am not asking: How can I sing the Lord’s song in an alien land?, but: How can I sing the Lord’s song in his presence, figuratively speaking: in the warmth of God’s shining face? I am presupposing the contrast of 1971, because globally seen it is not diminishing, but now I want to explore the positive dimensions of the ‘great joy’ in the ‘broad place’ of God, who is nearer to us than we believe and is enlarging our life more than we think. Joy is the power to live, to love, to have creative initiative. Joy awakens all our senses, energizing mind and body. How do we experience this power in the presence of the ‘living God’ (Psalm 42, 3; 84, 3)? How is our life resonating the immense joy of God?  (Pages 1-2)

The Joy of God and the Final Judgment

Blessings are proceeding from the “shining countenance” of God, and a blessed life is life in fullness and festive life. Human beings are not the only creatures who flourish in the presence of God, though, for it is also – and perhaps in the first place – the nature of the earth:

Let the heavens rejoice,
and let the earth be glad,
let the sea roar,
and the fullness thereof.
Let the field be joyful,
and all that is therein,
then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord:
for he cometh, for he cometh,
to judge the earth,
He shall judge the earth with righteousness
and the people with his truth. Psalm 96, 11-13


When God comes to judge the earth the whole of creation will rejoice. We should have this in mind when we speak of the Final Judgement. The Final Judgement is a day of rejoicing, not of terror.
(Page 3)

The Festivals of Joy in Christianity

It is a remarkable fact that the great Christian festivals are not distributed throughout the year but take place in the first half and are concentrated on the spring. The spring of the new year begins with the winter solstice, comes alive at Easter in the flowers and trees, and reaches its full flowering at Whitsun or Pentecost. This is, in my understanding, a way of showing that with the coming of Christ into this world, his death and resurrection, and the outpouring of the divine Spirit, the spring of eternal life begins for human beings, all living beings, and the earth. Mortal and earthly life is taken up into the divine, eternal and heavenly life. (Page 8)

The Joy of the Seeking and Finding God (reflections on the parables of the lost son, lost sheep, and lost coin)

The joy is only on the side of the finder. These are parables of God’s love for the lost and of God’s joy in finding them. Jesus had demonstrated this in accepting sinners without conditions and eating with them. Only the lost son is ‘repenting’, turning around from the way towards perishing and coming home. Before he can confess his sins, however, his father, seeing from afar, runs towards him and folds him in his arms (15, 20). Prevenient grace is the joy of the father: For this my son was dead, and is alive again, he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. 15, 24 The activity lies solely in the hands of the seeking and finding and rejoicing God. Repentance means to join in the rejoicing God. Repentance is not self-afflicting pain or self-punishment; repentance is the joy of God. God seems to take pleasure in finding the lost. It is the lost and forgotten people in whom this joy of God springs up, not the self-satisfied and complacent.  (Page 9)

On the difference between Joy and Fun

The difference between joy and fun is as great as the distinction between joy and a gamble of chance, or between a meaningful life and a lottery win. Joy is enduring and puts its mark on one’s attitude to living. Fun is short-term and serves amusement. True joy is only possible with one’s whole heart, whole soul and all one’s energies. The feeling about life which underlies the party-making fun-society is, I suspect, more boredom with life than true joy. True joy opens the soul, is a flow of spirits, giving our existence a certain easiness. We may have fun, but we are in joy. In true joy the ecstatic nature of human existence comes to expression. We are created for joy. We are born for joy.  (Page 10)

Joy is greater than suffering and motivates us to revolt against the destruction of life

The secret of life is love. In love we go out of ourselves and lay ourselves open to all the experiences of life. In the love of life we become happy and vulnerable at the same time. In love we can be happy and sad. In love we can laugh and weep. In love we can rejoice and must protest at the same time. The more deeply love draws us into life, the more alive and, simultaneously, the more capable of sorrow we become. That is the dialectic of the affirmed and loved life.
[…]

Joy in life’s happiness motivates us to revolt against the life that is destroyed and against those who destroy life.
And grief over life that is destroyed is nothing other than an ardent longing for life’s liberation to happiness and joy. Otherwise we would accept innocent suffering and destroyed life as our fate and destiny. Compassion is the other side of the living joy. We don’t accuse God because there is suffering in the world. Rather, we protest in the name of God against suffering and those who cause it. (Pages 13 – 14)

Be sure to read the entire paper here: Christianity: A Religion of Joy

Jürgen Moltmann shares about his friendship with Kelly Gissendaner

Jurgen Moltmann, Kelly Gissendaner and Dr. Jenny McBride (at Gissendaner's graduation from a prison theology program)
Jürgen Moltmann, Kelly Gissendaner and Dr. Jenny McBride (at Gissendaner’s graduation from a prison theology program)
I’ve shared a bit before about Jürgen Moltmann’s relationship to death row inmate (and fellow theologian!) Kelly Gissendaner (which received national attention via a story in the New York Times, and later other news outlets). On Monday, June 22, at the 2015 Karl Barth Conference, Jürgen Moltmann participated in a panel discussion with Eric Gregory and Dan Migliore. At the end of this conversation (prompted by Migliore), he shared a prepared statement telling the heartfelt story of how he came into friendship with Kelly Gissendaner. This portion begins at about 1:52:13 in the video embedded below. I’ve also typed up a transcript of his words for easy access, which you’ll find below the video. In the final paragraph he expresses a profound disgust for the retributive justice of the American prison system, offering a concise summary of his critique of the death penalty. Moltmann has long been firm in his opposition to the death penalty (see here and here), seeing this opposition as an expression of “protest hope“.

Panel Discussion with Moltmann, Migliore, and Gregory at the Karl Barth Conference

Transcript of Moltmann’s Comments on Gissendaner and the Death Penalty

I learned to know Kelly Gissendaner by chance or providence (which is very much the same). In 2005, I gave a lecture in Charlottesville and met Jenny McBride in Charles Marsh Bonhoeffer House. She had written an excellent dissertation on Bonhoeffer and was asking what to do after years of academic life. My advice was go to Atlanta to the Open Door Community and work with the jobless and homeless people and with prison chaplaincy. After a year she was engaged with a theology studies program in prison, and taught Bonhoeffer and Moltmann in a woman’s prison. And there she met Kelly Gissiendaner who was for the murder of her husband since many years on death row. And Kelly wrote a paper on Bonhoeffer which Jenny sent to me. It was astonishingly good. And then Kelly asked if she could write letters to me. And so a theological correspondence emerged. Up to now there are at least 30 letters and cards on theological and personal questions. But not of confessions of her side. I denied that. The prison chaplain heard her confessions, and I admired Kelly’s strengths of faith under the burden of a stone on her shoulders with the guilt of murdering her husband. My desire was to build her up as a theologian in prison, to be a pastoral caretaker for her fellow prisoners. She was developed from a bitter and self-centered human being into a mentor and mother figure in the women’s prison when I met her (“Momma Kelly”, as the younger prisoners called her).

In October 2011 I was invited to speak at the graduation ceremony at the Arrendale women’s prison for her class. I saw an American prison for the first time from the inside – no inhumane signs, no human signs either. Kelly gave a speech and her tears of what theology meant to her. And a Muslim girl who attended the biblical classes spoke of how much the biblical stories meant to her. And I gave a speech on the church behind barbed wire, because I remembered my own 3 years as a prisoner of war behind barbed wires, the temptation to give oneself up, to become bitter and cynical, and the consolation to find christ behind barbed wire. Afterwards Jenny and I had an hour to talk to Kelly privately in a room without handles. She had a real hunger for theology, and I had to send all of my books in English to her for examination. She wrote a spiritual book for her fellow prisoners on the journey of hope in faith.

And then in December last year, she received the date of her execution, February 25, 2015 at 7PM. I wrote some words of consolation and as a sign of solidarity sent a hankercheif with the words, “When the tears are coming, take my hankercheif”. She answered the hankerchief you sent was the most heartfelt thing that I have gotten in my 18 years that I have been locked up. And then came February 2015, and the board of parole and pardon denied clemency, because the family of the husband demanded retribution or revenge. I was deeply disappointed, also of God, because I had prayed daily for her life. I wrote a letter to prepare her spiritually for death by execution. And when the time came on Febuary 25, I lit a candlight and thought of Kelly. But the first surprise came next morning. There was an overnight snowstorm in Georgia and they couldn’t transport the prisoner to the men’s prison in Jackson where they had the facilities for execution. The time of execution was shifted to Monday March 1 at 7PM. I lit a candle again, and prayed for her. And the second surprise came next morning, because the execution drug had spoiled they switched the execution to indeterminate time. She wrote to me: “God is so good, so good.” And I blamed myself for not trusting God more. His providence can be so tricky and clever. But she was 3 hours before her execution twice, had her last meal, and was prepared, and now is still healthy in her mind and full of trust in her heart. I hope that next time clemency is granted and she can follow her calling to take spiritual and personal care of the inmates of the prison, and of the prisoners and the wardens.

The result: I am disgusted at the inhumanity of the American prison system. It is pure punishment, not educational justice. I am unconditionally against death penalty after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ for all the sinners. We cannot condemn sinners to death. And a democracy is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. And the people are told “thou shall not kill.” The government of the people shall not kill. Only dictatorships today use the death penalty. And people can change. There is always for everybody hope to change. And we must not nail a person down to the crime once committed. We condemn the sins but we love the sinners. So we must separate the person from the deed, and give the person a new chance.

2015 Karl Barth Conference Plenary Lecture Videos

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Updated post-conference (6/24) to include links to individual videos instead of the live stream.

Jürgen Moltmann delivered the opening lecture at the 2015 Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary. Other speakers included Bruce McCormack, Daniel Migliore, and Richard Bauckham. I was there, and it was an incredible event! Video was live streamed via the PTS Ustream channel, and (for the most part) can now be replayed. I have embedded Moltmann’s lecture below, and have included links to the others I could identify. Unfortunately as of now I am unable to find the video of Migliore’s lecture, but I will update this post with better links when it is made available.   (I am told that the videos will be cleaned up and reposted by PTS at a later date). Enjoy!

Jürgen Moltmann on “Predestination: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Election of Grace”

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

2015 Karl Barth Conference Plenary Lecture Videos

6/21- 7:30 – 9:00 p.m.
Opening Lecture, Jürgen Moltmann—“Predestination: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Election of Grace”; Audio MP3 (Mirror)

6/22- 8:45 – 10:45 a.m.
Lecture, Eric Gregory—“‘The Gospel within the commandment’: Karl Barth on the Parable of the Good Samaritan” including a panel discussion with Eric Gregory, Jürgen Moltmann, and Daniel L. Migliore; Audio MP3 (Mirror)

6/22- 11:00 – 12:15 p.m.
Lecture, Willie Jennings— “A Rich Disciple? Karl Barth on the Rich Young Ruler

6/22- 2:15 – 3:30 p.m.
Lecture, Paul Dafydd JonesThe Riddle of Gethsemane  (Uncut Ustream including Q&A); Audio MP3 (Mirror)

6/22- 7:00 – 8:30 p.m.
Lecture, Karlfried FroehlichKarl Barth and the Isenheim Altarpiece (Uncut Ustream including Q&A); Audio MP3 (Mirror)

6/23- 8:45 – 10:00 a.m.
Lecture, Bruce L McCormack — “The Passion of God Himself: the Cry of Dereliction in Barth’s Theology

6/23- 10:30 – 11:45 a.m.
Lecture, Beverly Gaventa – “Reading Karl Barth’s Reading of the Road to Emmaus

6/23- 2:15 – 3:30 p.m.
Lecture, Richard Bauckham – “Karl Barth’s Interpretation of the Prologue to John’s Gospel

6/23- 8:45 – 10:00 a.m.
Lecture, Daniel L. Migliore —“Barth, Balthasar, and the Parable of the Lost Son

The Jewish ‘No’ to Jesus is a ‘Yes’ to the Messianic Future

Genesis of Ann Arbor“, which hosts both Jewish and Christian Congregations

“We shall only put antisemitism behind us when we succeed theologically in making something positive out of the Jewish “no” to Jesus Christ’.” (F.-W. Marquardt, as quoted by Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ (WJC), Kindle Loc. 647)

Since Trinity and the Kingdom at least, Moltmann has been arguing that the divide between Christian and Jew is the first “schism” among the people of God, one that we should seek to overcome rather than simply accept (see previous post, “Overcoming Schismatic Thinking“). The divide between Christian and Jew centers around the question of what to do with Jesus. As Moltmann articulates at the beginning of his section on “Christology in Jewish-Christian Dialogue” in WJC: “At the centre of all Jewish-Christian dialogue is the inexorable messianic question: ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ The messianic hope leads us to Jesus, but it also hinders Jews from seeing Jesus as the expected messiah who has already come.” (Kindle Loc. 546) Continue reading The Jewish ‘No’ to Jesus is a ‘Yes’ to the Messianic Future