Theologian of Hope and of the Cross

(Yes, this is a Jürgen Moltmann theologian trading card. No, it is not – yet! – autographed. Yes, I realize that to most people just owning something like this makes me a nerd. And no, this does not bother me.)

After publishing my recent post on “Theology After Auschwitz” I couldn’t help but think “what a downer of a topic!”  Not because I find Moltmann’s approach to be unhelpful to the question of suffering, but because we don’t generally even like to talk about the question of suffering (and when we do it is with pat answers and platitudes). We are part of a culture that celebrates success and progress, and so much of the pop-theology out there has to do with obtaining these things in a “Christian” or “biblical” way. There is something alien about looking squarely at extreme forms of suffering and saying simply (as does Moltmann quoting Whitehead), “God is a fellow sufferer who understands.”
But before Moltmann articulated his profound theology of the cross in The Crucified God, he first made a splash in the theological world with his eschatological work Theology of Hope. Soon after this book was translated into English, the New York Times declared in a front page headline: “God Is Dead Doctrine Losing Ground to ‘Theology of Hope’” (March 24, 1968). The theological world of the 1960’s was buzzing with discussion of Moltmann’s thought. So what was the big deal?
Eschatology is usually thought of as the “doctrine of last things” and so gets pushed to the margins of theology. We get around to eschatology after we have discussed all the things in theology that we “really” want to say. You know, all those propositions about God and Jesus and the Bible and salvation.  Karl Barth never got around to a complete eschatology (even though he planned to do so in his massive, yet unfinished, Church Dogmatics). The result is that the playing field in this area gets dominated by speculative interpretations of the Book of Revelation and other biblical prophesies (hello, Left Behind!) and the neglect of eschatology by Christians who are less than interested in debates about the Tribulation or the Rapture. 
In contrast Moltmann proclaims that Christianity is eschatological. The future, for the Christian, is not something “out there”. It is concrete, inasmuch as when we talk about the “future” we are talking about Jesus Christ, who has been raised from the dead and goes out into the future ahead of us. The resurrection that is to come is experienced in the here and now. This approach to eschatology does not give room for speculative thinking about “the end of the age” but rather propels the church into active engagement with the world we live in today:

From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day. For Christian faith lives from the raising of the crucified Christ, and strains after the promises of the universal future of Christ. Eschatology is the passionate suffering and passionate longing kindled by the Messiah.
(Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, p. 16)

His work since that time has never moved away from that emphasis. Moltmann’s most recent book (and possibly his last), Ethics of Hope, as a follow up to his first, brilliantly brings together his life’s work into practical implications for the present (I’ve blogged about Ethics of Hope before here).  From first to last, Jürgen Moltmann is truly the “theologian of hope.”
So why would the “theologian of hope” take up a theology of the cross as found in CG?  Moltmann explains it this way:

I remember April 6, 1968. I was participating in an international “Theology of Hope” conference at Duke University when Harvey Cox stormed into the hall and cried, “Martin Luther King has been shot!” The conference ended immediately and the participants returned home because many cities in America were burning that night. I left a few days later for Tubingen, and I promised my American friends that whenever I returned to their country, I would not speak about the theology of hope any more but of the cross: “In a civilization that glorifies success and happiness and is blind for the suffering of others, people’s eyes may be opened to the truth, if they remember that at the center of the Christian Faith stands the assailed, tormented Christ, dying in forsakenness. The recollection that God raised the Crucified one and made him the ‘Hope of the world’ must lead churches to break their alliances with the violent and enter into solidarity with the humiliated.” I wrote this in 1970, two years before The Crucified God.
(Jürgen Moltmann, Passion for God, p 71-72)

Does that mean that CG is a change in direction from his original Theology of Hope? It is perhaps a slight change in focus. Many people misunderstood Moltmann’s first work to be a baptized version of secular utopian thought. However, I would like to emphasize two resonances between his Theology of Hope and CG.  First: The Crucified God is still a hopeful theology: When suffering happens, God is powerfully present and is not apathetic to what you are going through. I find this to be deeply comforting and helpful. Second, there are signs of the same cruciform center to Moltmann’s thought already in Theology of Hope (and I will close with this quote):

Faith does not come to its own in becoming radically unworldly, but by hopeful outgoing into the world it becomes a benefit to the world. By accepting the cross, the sufferings and death of Christ, by taking upon it the trials and struggles of obedience in the body and surrendering itself to the pain of love, it proclaims in the everyday world the future of the resurrection, of life and the righteousness of God. The future of the resurrection comes to it as it takes upon itself the cross.
(Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope  p 163-164)

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