Jürgen Moltmann on Protest Atheism

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This post is a part of my ongoing (slow and steady) blog series on The Crucified God by Jürgen Moltmann (CG). You can view the other posts in this series here.

For anyone used to the typical debates that go on between “atheists” and “theists” in the world today, Moltmann’s take on this topic can seem a bit out of place. He frequently says something to the effect that “without Jesus I would not believe in God” (for example: here). While he has his own brand of natural theology (exemplified especially in God in Creation), he does not attempt to “prove” God’s existence through the cosmological arguments. After all, the “God of the cosmological proofs of God could not suffice for the new horizons of an open, explorable and changeable world.” (Science and Wisdom) So, when Moltmann talks about “protest atheism”, he is not talking about the same type of atheism that is typically set up in debate with Christian apologists:

Crude atheism for which this world is everything is as superficial as the theism which claims to prove the existence of God from the reality of this world. Protest atheism points beyond both God and suffering, suffering and God, sets them one against the other and becomes an atheistic protest against injustice ‘for God’s sake’.
The Crucified God, 227

As we’ll see below, Moltmann thinks that the kind of theism that flippantly “answers” protest atheism is idolatrous. We don’t refute protest atheism; rather, we work our way through its questions in our theology of the cross. Tony Jones and Moltmann had a great exchange on this topic at the Emergent Village Theological Conversation:

Tony Jones: Someone in this room said that it seems that Moltmann fell in love with Christ and then kind of backed in to theism. Jesus first and then theism later. Does this accurately depict your conversion?

Jürgen Moltmann: No. Atheism and theism are outside of the Trinity. And I only believe in the God of Christ, whom he called Abba Dear Father. So looking at Christ I see his God and in community with Christ his God becomes also my God. But theism is a general understanding of transcendance, that there is a higher being somewhere somehow. So theism is no answer to the problem, and atheism is difficult. You see, in the 19th century you had this type of protest atheism….Heinrich Heine said this in the 19th century already: the theodicy question is, “if there is a God, why is there evil?” The best answer is, “There is no God!” That is the best excuse for God. And then the whole question of why there is evil collapses. So only the presupposition that there is a God keeps the question of evil alive. So let us hunger for righteousness on earth!
(For more of this exchange see my previous post: Atheism and theism are outside of the Trinity).

In CG, Moltmann uses The Brothers Karamazov as a classic example of protest atheism:

Ivan Karamazov tells a story of a poor serf child who hit his master’s hunting dog with a stone while he was playing. The master had him seized and the next morning he was hunted and torn to pieces by the master’s hounds before his mother’s eyes. Ivan says:

And what sort of harmony is it, if there is a hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want any more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to make up the sum of sufferings which is necessary for the purchase of truth, then I say beforehand that the entire truth is not worth such a price. I do not want a mother to embrace the torturer who had her child torn to pieces by his dogs. She has no right to forgive him. And if that is so, if she has no right to forgive him, what becomes of the harmony? I don’t want harmony. I don’t want it out of the love I bear to mankind. I want to remain with my suffering unavenged. Besides, too high a price has been placed on harmony. We cannot afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket of admission. And indeed, if I am an honest man, I’m bound to hand it back as soon as possible. This I am doing. It is not God that I do not accept, Alyosha. I merely most respectfully return him the ticket. I accept God, understand that, but I cannot accept the world that he has made.

This is the classical form of protest atheism. The question of the existence of God is, in itself, a minor issue in the face of the question of his righteousness in the world. And this question of suffering and revolt is not answered by any cosmological argument for the existence of God or any theism, but is rather provoked by both of these. If one argues back from the state of the world and the fact of its existence to cause, ground and principle, one can just as well speak of ‘God’ as of the devil, of being as of nothingness, of the meaning of the world as of absurdity.
The Crucified God, p. 220 – 221

As the words of Ivan Karamazov illustrates, protest atheism is not concerned with the abstract question of whether or not there is a God, but with the goodness of creation. It is a protest against God for the sake of God’s righteousness, which is called into question by the existence of unjust suffering. And so Ivan “returns his ticket” in protest. This can take its most extreme form in the act of suicide:

The peak of metaphysical rebellion against the God who cannot die is therefore freely-chosen death, which is called suicide. It is the extreme possibility of protest atheism, because it is only this that makes man his own god, so that the gods become dispensable. But even apart from this extreme position, which Dostoevsky worked through again and again in The Demons, a God who cannot suffer is poorer than any man. For a God who is incapable of suffering is a being who cannot be involved. Suffering and injustice do not affect him. And because he is so completely insensitive, he cannot be affected or shaken by anything. He cannot weep, for he has no tears. But the one who cannot suffer cannot love either. So he is also a loveless being. Aristotle’s God cannot love; he can only be loved by all non divine beings by virtue of his perfection and beauty, and in this way draw them to him. The ‘unmoved Mover’ is a ‘loveless Beloved’.
The Crucified God, 222

We find here that Moltmann is not “answering” protest atheism, but taking it up into his theology of the cross (since the theology of the cross has its own critique of theism). Moltmann contends that “a God who is only omnipotent is in himself an incomplete being, for he cannot experience helplessness and powerlesness. Omnipotence can indeed be longed for and worshiped by helpless men, but omnipotence is never loved; it is only feared”. (p. 223-224) Mere omnipotence would be a limitation on God; it makes God free to be all powerful (but not free to be vulnerable); it gives rise to the question of God’s seeming inaction when we look at the atrocities of history and catastrophes of nature. As we’ve already seen, Moltmann thinks that omnipotence should be rethought in light of the cross; God is not “in control” of everything, he is “carrying and bearing everything”.

If innocent suffering puts the idea of a righteous God in question, so conversely longing for the righteousness of the wholly other puts suffering in question and makes it conscious sorrow. It makes consciousness of sorrow a protest against suffering. Sorrow is a special feeling in general suffering. It takes upon itself the freedom to see suffering as some thing special and to protest against it. If we call the sting in the question unde malum? [Why?] God, then conversely the sting in the question an Deus sit? [Does God exist?] is suffering. Cosmological theism answers this double question with a justification of this world as God’s world. In so doing it passes over the history of suffering of this world. Either it must be tolerated, or it will be compensated for by the second world in heaven.
This answer is idolatry.
The Crucified God, 225

We live in a world that is not fully recognizeable as God’s good world. Therefore, our attempts to prove that God exists and that this God is both all-powerful and good will always be bound to fail, as protest atheism is quick to point out to us. Our way forward comes with help from the Crucified One, who suffered with and for the godless and godforsaken – taking up into himself the tension between the coming righteousness of God and the present suffering of this world.

The only way past protest atheism is through a theology of the cross which understands God as the suffering God in the suffering of Christ and which cries out with the godforsaken God, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ for this theology, God and suffering are no longer contradictions, as in theism and atheism, but God’s being is in suffering and suffering is in God’s being itself, because God is love.
The Crucified God, 227

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