Theology of Joy: Conversation Between Jürgen Moltmann and Miroslav Volf (NEW Video with Transcript!)

Jürgen Moltmann & Miroslav Volf

Today Yale Divinity School posted a great conversation between Moltmann and Miroslav Volf on the topic of joy, which was recorded June 27th, 2014 in Tübingen. Enjoy!

[Updated 8/16/2014 – Transcript added below the video]

For more Moltmann media, check out the Moltmann Audio and Video Resources page.

Miroslav Volf: I’m sitting here with Jürgen Moltmann, one of the foremost theologians in the world today. We’re in Tübingen where he used to teach for many years. We’ve just finished a small consultation on joy and that’s the occasion why we’re talking together. Jürgen if I may, you have written a book about joy some 40 years ago. What have you learned in the meantime about joy?

Jürgen Moltmann: Well, 40 years ago, it was the time of the protest movement against the Vietnam war, and of the student unrest everywhere in the world. And at that time I was thinking about “how can I sing the Lord’s song in an alien land“. And 40 years after, I want to understand “how to sing the Lord’s song in the broad place of his presence“. So it is from the dialectic to the affirmation. And now hope is for me anticipated joy, as anxiety is anticipated terror. And today at least in Germany we live more by anxiety and terror than by hope and joy.

Miroslav Volf: And so in anxiety and terror, how does one find way to joy?

Jürgen Moltmann: Well, whenever I feel the presence of God, then my heart is lifted up, and I see more positive into the future of the coming of God and thus hope is awakened in me.

Miroslav Volf: Who is God for you?

Jürgen Moltmann: Jesus Christ is the human face of God. And without Jesus Christ I would not believe in God. Looking at the catastrophes of nature, and the human catastrophes of history, I would not come out with the idea that a God exists and that this God is love. This was unthinkable for me. But with Jesus Christ and his message and his suffering on the cross and his resurrection from the cross, my feeling that God is present in the midst of suffering is a firm trust of my heart.

Miroslav Volf: So you are not speaking right now simply as a theologian. You are speaking from personal experience, of discovery. Or being discovered by God. When you were… can you say more about this experience? Which was experience of anxiety, or aftermath of terror, a place where joy would not normally find an entrance?

Jürgen Moltmann: Well, when I was 16 I was drafted in the German army in 1943, and experienced the destruction of my hometown of Hamburg. In the midst of Hamburg there was an anti-aircraft battery, and we schoolboys had to serve in this battery. Well, the operation, called by the British was “Operation Gomorrah”, the destruction of the sinful city of Hamburg. And I was in the midst of it, and at that time I cried out to God for the first time. And later I was in prison in a prison camp in Scotland. There I read with consciousness for the first time the Gospel of Mark and then I came to the cry with which Jesus died: My God why hast thou forsaken me I felt, there is my brother who feels the same as I was feeling at that time. And this saved me from self-destruction and desperation. And so I came up with hope on a place where there was no expectation to come home soon. The imprisonment lasted for three years.

Miroslav Volf: You have later written a book that I’ve heard you say you consider to be the most important book that you’ve written, namely The Crucified God. And at the heart of that book in a sense is this cry of dereliction. How is this book related to your book of hope? How is this cry of dereliction of pain, related to the joy of jubilation, of resurrection?

Jürgen Moltmann: Well I started with hope and resurrection of Christ, as a ground of hopeful expectation in the coming of Christ, and the coming of the kingdom of God. And when I experienced in the U.S., that they took this as a reinforcement of the normally American pursuit of happiness, and the American optimism, I said when I returned I would only speak of the other side of Christ – on the cross. And so I came from the side of the resurrection, to the side of the crucifixion. And they are two sides of the presence of Christ.

Miroslav Volf: You wrote in the paper that was read by the participants of the consultation on joy, that Christian faith is a unique religion of joy, and you tied that to the key moments in the Christ-story: death, resurrection, and the coming of the Spirit. Can you say more about this uniqueness? In what ways and why is Christian faith uniquely a religion of joy?

Jürgen Moltmann: Well, at the center of Judaism is the Torah, at the center of Christianity is the euongelion, the Gospel, and this is good news. And this is the news that God has raised the crucified Christ to be the Lord of the world. And therefore Christianity is unique in this sense that it is a religion of joy: Christmas carols, and Easter laughter, and the awakening of Pentecost feelings, is unique in Christianity. I don’t mean that Christianity is absolute, but it is unique in this way. Compare it with Judaism and Islam and Buddhism – they are all unique in their center, but the center of the resurrection is unique in Christianity.

Miroslav Volf: You’ve earlier contrasted the pursuit of happiness, a certain form of optimism. Also in your paper you contrasted, you spoke of the [..?] fun society. And contrast all these: pursuit of happiness, optimism, fun, to joy. How are they different?

Jürgen Moltmann: Fun is a superficial feeling which must be repeated again and again to last. While joy is a deeper feeling of the whole existence. You can have fun at the side, but you can experience joy only with your whole heart, your whole soul, and all your energies. And therefore, Schiller thought that joy is divine. It comes from outside into our life in a surprise, in a turning from sadness to goodness, from sickness to health, from loneliness to communion. And this turning point awakens joy.

Miroslav Volf: So joy isn’t then, simply a feeling. Joy is a response to a certain states of affairs that have been changed, created, to which there is a particular way of responding. Would that be a way to express it?

Jürgen Moltmann: Well, you cannot make yourself joyful. This would be self-satisfaction. But you are always outside of yourself, watching yourself. “Am I being happy or not?” And this will never lead to joy. Something unexpected must happen. So, falling in love for example (to take it from natural life), or sudden success. Or in political life: the unification of Germany. Or the coming of Nelson Mendela out of 30 years of prison Robben Island. And he came and everybody expected civil war and nothing happened; Nelson Mendela came. This is a reason for surprise and joy.

Miroslav Volf: So you said its not a natural course of events that we expect to happen. It comes almost as a gift, as a gratuity from outside. Do you think there are – I can think of great events you are describing, and maybe I can give an example in a contrasting, something much more quiet may be a source of joy. Let’s say a child is born. That may be an event where something new comes. And there is joy, there is rejoicing in it. But the child is growing, and there is kind of a quieter joy that attends to relationship to something that’s there but that’s also always experienced as gift. Or one falls in love, but then love matures and every morning it is kind of new. So there is exhilarating joy, and there is also quieter joy. Does that make sense?

Jürgen Moltmann: Yes of course. I think the intention of love is the happiness of the beloved. So loves intention is not to own the beloved but to have the beloved happy. Therefore, love sometimes supports the beloved, and sometimes taking oneself back to let the beloved gain freedom. So both actions are actions of love. We are not loved because we are so beautiful and good, but we are beautiful and good because we are loved. And this is true for interpersonal relationships, and also true with the relationship of God who is love, as we say with the New Testament. And so he wants to see his beloved children on earth happy and joyful.

Miroslav Volf: And in a sense the contrast you made “we are not loved because we are beautiful, we are beautiful because we are loved” – it kind of breaks a cause and effect relationship, if I’m beautiful I’m loved, that my beauty elicits the love and its expected. But if I’m not, the love comes always as a gift, as a surprise, and lifts me up on those terms. And that is a cause of joy. So do you see a connection between joy and gratitude?

Jürgen Moltmann: Of course. Every child knows this at Christmas. [Laughter]

Miroslav Volf: So stance of perceiving oneself as having been blessed and therefore grateful is…. in other words, it may not be (at Christmas) enough for a child to get the present, right? They need to receive the present as a gift and be grateful for it, for joy to occur. They may be dissatisfied because they didn’t quite get the present they wanted, and then joy is gone. But when it works well, then the present, gratitude and joy form kind of a nexus.

Jürgen Moltmann: But every child and every person knows that anticipated joy is the best joy.

Miroslav Volf: But if you always anticipate only…

Jürgen Moltmann: There is the melancholy of the second day of Christmas. If you get what you anticipated, what then?

Miroslav Volf: But if you never get what you anticipated, if you only anticipate, right? So its like a dialectic between the two. At one point you have also connected the character of the God as Christian faith embraces or believes in – a God who is love, but God who is also a passionate God, a God who is engaged with the world with the issue of joy. So the passion of God is the foundation of joy.

Jürgen Moltmann: Yes, and I feel at one with Abraham Heschel from Judaism, who spoke of the pathos of God, a passionate God is on every page of the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament as we say. But we in the Christian tradition have still to wrestle with the absolute God of the Greek metaphysics, who is apathetic by nature; God doesn’t feel joy, God doesn’t feel pain – he is above pain and joy. So the apathetic God, makes man apathetic too. This is the sovereignty of the soul, which is above feelings of joy and pain. And the pathos of God, or the passion of God, makes the believers compassionate. They participate in the suffering of others and participate in the joy of others. Sometimes it seems to me that compassion with the suffering of others is easier than the compassion with the joy of others. We feel so good if we can have mercy with somebody else, and we feel some envy if somebody else feels joy and success. At least in the academic world this is the case. [laughter]

Miroslav Volf: The rest of the world is spared from that temptation I’m sure. The joy of God, its almost like a revolutionary idea, that the God, the creator of all that is, would rejoice. At least against the backdrop of some of the Greek philosophical thinking and much of the Christian tradition too.

Jürgen Moltmann: Yeah. How can we speak of the love of God if we don’t dare speak of the joy of God? Because God loves somebody – joy and participates in the joy of his creation. And in the New Testament we have Luke chapter 15, where there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than of the 99 just people. Which is not true according to the parables given in this chapter, because the lost coin could not repent. And the lost sheep could only make a noise, but not repent. Only the prodigal son repented, but his father was not interested in his confession of sin. He loves him as soon as he saw him. And so it’s God’s finder joy in these parables.

Miroslav Volf: You have — I think yesterday if I listened to you rightly- you have connected love of God with joy, but you’ve also connected love of God with wrath of God. So that joy and wrath and love would go together?

Jürgen Moltmann: Well I interpret the wrath of God as God’s wounded love. If you feel the wrath of another person, you feel also the interest of another person in you. Only if that person turns away, and turns his back to you, then you feel indifference. And this is the most terrible thing we can experience of God, that he has turned his countenance away from us. Jews call this hester panim, the back face of God – the contrary or opposition to the shining face of God, from where the blessing comes according to the Aaronite blessing formula, “let shine your countenance over us and give us peace”

Miroslav Volf: But joy is more lasting and stronger than wrath?

Jürgen Moltmann: Yeah. We have certain testimonies for this, even in the Old Testament: “My wrath is only for a moment, and my grace is everlasting.”

Miroslav Volf: So joy, in the end, wins.

Jürgen Moltmann: Yeah, I’m convinced of that.

Miroslav Volf: Thank you Jürgen.

8 thoughts on “Theology of Joy: Conversation Between Jürgen Moltmann and Miroslav Volf (NEW Video with Transcript!)”

    1. I’m always on the lookout for new Moltmann sightings (especially in English!)! 🙂

      He was at Claremont earlier this year and gave a pretty darn good lecture on Ernst Bloch and Hope; I didn’t find out about it until too late, but was pretty excited to find the video just days later: Also, I understand that he’ll be at the Barth Conference at Princeton next year (June 21-24). Hopefully we can get a nice crowd of Moltmanniacs to attend!

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