The following commentary was a discussion post from a recent online course on 19th and 20th century theology. It is based on Roger Olson's extensive discussion of Moltmann in his recently published, The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (pp. 452-476). Since then I have read Moltmann's Theology of Hope and have begun to re-read his more recent, The Coming of God, as well as the extensive commentaries on Moltmann's eschatological vision by Richard Bauckham. The result of this more recent re-reading may result in some revision of the following commentary which I will let stand here as a provisional statement.
This week’s reading on Jurgen Moltmann helped to deepen my appreciation for the significance of his future-oriented emphasis on hope. It also raised recurring aspects of his eschatological theology of hope that I continue to find perplexing.
Through Olson’s discussion, I gained a deeper understanding of the biographical significance of Moltmann’s theology of hope, rooted in the hopelessness and despair he experienced as a German prisoner of war for two years after WWII. It was not only his personal experience, but the press of broader historical events rooted in the evil and destruction that permeated Europe during the 1930s and 40s, in which Moltmann found, through his conversion to Christianity, a more enduring reality—an alternative vision in the kingdom of God of what the world will become when God draws the future of his kingdom within the moving trajectory of human and broader creational history. This tension between the then current personal and historical reality he encountered in the mid-1940s and the indwelling vision of God coming to humankind in the form of the crucified Christ stimulated a profound sense of hope within Moltmann that he initially fleshed out through the insights of the atheist utopian visionary Ernst Block that he sought to Christianize.
Central for Moltmann was not so much the indwelling of God in any immediate personal or historical encounter, but God’s perpetual coming in leading creation to its destined future dwelling place, in which, in one of Moltmann’s most oft cited biblical passages, “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Based on this perspective, “From first to last [for Moltmann] …Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and 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 is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day” (Moltmann, cited in Olson, pp. 450-51).
While I am appreciative of his theology of hope, I have problems with Moltmann’s overarching emphasis on eschatology for a variety of reasons, one of the chief being his failure to grapple sufficiently with the deep-rooted; arguably, unfathomable tension between the already and not yet, as reflected in a great deal of orthodox Christianity across a wide theological stream. This is troubling and draws out, at least in me, a sense of unreality at the heart of his future-oriented vision. Is not God present to us now, in a real and vital sense, however ineffably so—providing us with a real presence that guides us through the veil of tears in the here and now—however much the “earnest” of the eschatological hope holds promises of a better day to come? Think, too, of the question the apostles posed to the risen Lord: [When] “will you restore the kingdom to Israel”? Recall the response: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons….But you will receive power on high” to do the work I am calling you now to do (Acts 1:6-8).
It is the relative lack of this tension between the already given fruits of Christ’s first coming (including the living power of the resurrection and ascension) and the future oriented hope when God brings in the entire creation into his full glorious presence that I am most troubled by the eschatological aspect of Moltmann’s very fruitful theology.
Through Olson’s discussion I have gained a clearer appreciation for the biographical role in shaping his vison. As Olson cites Moltmann: “I probably owe this hope,” my hope for my own very survival in every sense, “for it is what saved me from despairing and giving up.” With that hope I set “a new ‘personal goal’ of studying theology, so that I might understand the power of hope to which I owe my life” (Olson p. 453).
Well done, thou good and faithful servant, but what about those of us with a different set of personal trajectories, set within a different historical experience? In short, how universal is the theology of hope or Moltmann’s broader eschatological vision for our personal and collective early 21st century U. S. and Western context? How central is it as the all-important prism of any creative and vital theological work?
By way of concluding, I appreciate Moltmann’s role in bringing eschatology back into prominence where it had gone through considerable declension in much of late 19th and early 20th century theological perspectives. This was a major contribution through which Moltmann brought considerable credibility toward the restoration of the orthodox great tradition to Protestant mainline denomination, a work in progress, to be sure. One author has also noted that in his eschatological focus—so very different than that of the author of The Late Great Planet Earth—Moltmann has made a major connection with Pentecostal theology (Castelo, “Reclaiming the Future,” in Chung, ed., Jurgen Moltmann and Evangelical Theology, pp. 209-210). This, too, is a great contribution, as is his broader eschatological passion, in which Moltmann links his eschatology of the time when God will become all-in-all to his Trinitarian vision, not only of the crucified Christ, but of the crucified God, in which the crucifixion becomes an eternal presence in the heart of God, even in the glorious fulfillment promised, when human and creational history become one with their eternal destiny.
All of this is very fruitful, well beyond what can be explored here. This makes even more pressing the need to work through the perplexities and problems that I do find in his eschatological vision. Is there gold here in Moltmann evocative vision for a more fruitful evangelical theology? I think there is.
Inquiring minds want to know how much and how his insights can be fruitfully appropriated.