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

Who is God for you? Jürgen Moltmann responds: “Jesus Christ is the human face of God”

 A while back I posted a video with transcript of Miroslav Volf’s conversation with Jürgen Moltmann on Joy. This clip is a 4 minute segment from that conversation where Moltmann answers the question, “Who is God for you?” I love his answer. 

As last time, the transcript for this portion is below the video.

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.