has changed profoundly the way Christians think about both this world and the next, with groundbreaking books such as Theology of Hope and The Crucified God. Simon Jenkins travelled to Tübingen to find him at home.
Photography: Andrew Firth
You had an unusual childhood in that you grew up in a settlement outside Hamburg where your parents had gone to live in the countryside. How did that shape you?
This was part of a movement in Germany before and after World War 1, to return to a simple and healthy life and raise one’s own vegetables, don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol. This was my parents’ idea, it was not my idea!
There was a lot of gardening involved, I believe…
Yes. Instead of going to church on Sunday, we had to labour in the garden. My sister and I were washed by my mother on Saturday evening and on Sunday morning we were dirty again!
And there was no religion in your lives, was there?
There was no church in this suburb of Hamburg – only after World War 2 a church was built there – and we were a secular family. My grandfather was a grand master of the Freemasons in Hamburg and very critical of religion and the church. At Christmas, my father said, we celebrated not the birth of the Saviour but the holiness of family: father, mother and the first child in the manger. Well, that was more or less all I learnt of religion in my youth.
I did have confirmation class and was confirmed – my parents did not leave the church, they just did not go to church. But it was a very strange confirmation class with a pastor who proved to us that Jesus was Aryan and not a Jew because he came from the Phoenicians, the [seafaring] people from the north. It was complete nonsense.
Do you think that, later in life, it made you an unlikely theologian that you had grown up outside the church?
No, I was accepted as a member of the church and as a pastor – that was no problem. But I was always a brother of atheists. When I was a pastor in Bremen, I often met with Social Democratic leaders who were atheists and I liked them because after the second glass of wine they always talked about God – in contrast to Heinrich Böll, the famous Catholic poet from [Cologne], who said: ‘I don’t like atheists. They always talk about God’! I felt like a comrade of those who had left the church for various reasons, although I did not go along with their protests against God.
It was after World War 2 when we had this type of ‘protest’ atheism. Because of the misery, many people [objected to] the traditional image of the loving and caring God and therefore they left the church as a protest – but this protest bound them to God! Today, we have people who have just forgotten about the church and have discovered that they can live a happy life without God or religion. It’s more an atheism of banality. And so the church should not only bring consolation to this society but stir it up, because (as a character in an Ingmar Bergman movie once said) ‘without God everything would be OK, but with God nothing is’ – because God gives us a conscience about what we do and what we let happen.
In 1943, I was in the centre of Hamburg with my battery and as thousands of people died in the firestorm around me I cried out to God for the first time: Where are you?
You’ve said that only a Christian could be a good atheist.
Well, I had an exchange with [the Marxist philosopher] Ernst Bloch, who said: ‘Only an atheist can be a good Christian, because he does not believe in other gods.’ I responded: ‘Only a Christian can be a good atheist, because he doesn’t believe in other gods.’ And he put that in his book on atheism in Christianity (and Christianity in atheism).1Published in English as Atheism in Christianity: The religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom (Herder & Herder, 1972)
Bloch was always a very religious person. When I first met him, I asked him: ‘In your lecture, you spoke in religious terms. Are you not an atheist?’ And he answered: ‘I’m an atheist for God’s sake.’ And that, only a Jew can say.
But it troubled you that he said that, didn’t it? You say in your autobiography2A Broad Place: An autobiography (SCM Press, 2007) that you lay awake thinking about it. It wasn’t a joke?
No, no, it was from the depths of his heart.
I became a theologian for God’s sake, and he spoke about atheism ‘for God’s sake’ – to follow no false gods in politics and economics and other areas of life. If you take the Second Commandment seriously, you should have no images of God but also no concepts of God, because he is not far away that we must represent him by images or even rational concepts of him. If my wife is travelling I look at a picture of her, but if she is present I don’t need pictures. And so in the full presence of God, if you feel that he is present, you don’t need pictures, or concepts of whether he is almighty or good or whatever. He is more present than you are. Or, as Augustine said: God is more in me than I am myself.
As Meister Eckhart said: If you enter into the way to God, you must leave all images of the way to God behind and be happy in his presence.
When you were 17, you have said, you cried out to God for the first time. Can you tell us about that occasion?
This was a terrible experience. We were drafted when I was 16 and in 1943 my whole class at school was put in the anti-aircraft batteries in Hamburg, and in the last week of July we experienced the destruction of the city by the Royal Air Force. This was given the codename Operation Gomorrah by the British.3Operation Gomorrah was a series of air raids by the RAF and USAAF from 24 July to 3 August 1943. Some 42,600 people died, most of them on the night of 27 July, when a firestorm producing winds of up to 150 mph incinerated more than eight square miles of the city. I was in the centre of Hamburg with my battery and as thousands of people died in the firestorm around me I cried out to God for the first time: Where are you?
You emphasise in your autobiography that you asked not ‘Why does God allow this to happen?’ but ‘My God, where are you?’ What is the distinction?
Well, the first question is asking for an explanation of the evil situation you are in; the second question asks how to get out of it. I don’t want it explained why I am in this misery, I want to be liberated from it, and therefore I cry to God: ‘Where are you? Save me!’
If you as a pastor visit a dying person and he asks you why he is dying and you explain his situation, he will have you thrown out of the room. The question of theodicy is, to my mind, one asked mostly by the onlookers, not by those who are in a hopeless situation.
Does the question of theodicy not interest you?
No, it is only asking why there is evil if God is almighty and good. It doesn’t ask about God’s other attributes – for example, love, compassion – only power and goodness. And it is a very speculative question, a question about the God of Plato and Aristotle. It is not a biblical question, or a personal question.
Do you think that is the God that atheists today are rejecting? That traditional God Almighty, rather than the God of the Trinity, or the God of the Bible…
The picture of God in Israel’s experience is not that he is more powerful than the Egyptians but that he carries his people on his shoulders just as a man carries his son or a woman carries her baby in her arms
If God is almighty, he has not only power over everything else in the world but also power over himself. So, he is free. A God who has everything under control is a God who is not free in himself. If he is free in himself, he can [limit] his power [in order] to let others be – and be free. So, the freedom of God is another attribute that is not included in the question of theodicy.
And the picture of God in Israel’s experience of the Exodus is not that he is more powerful than the Egyptians but that he is a carrying God, ein tragender Gott, all the time. He carries his people on his shoulders just as a man carries his son or a woman carries her baby in her arms. These are the more experience-related pictures of God in the poetry of the Bible.
When you were writing The Crucified God ,4The Crucified God: The cross of Christ as the foundation and criticism of Christian theology (SCM Press, 1974) a key text for you was Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross.
How strong, do you think, are the links between your theology and your own experience?
Certainly, this is the foundation of that book – my experience of the destruction of Hamburg, in the prison camps… By the end of the war, all of Germany’s cities had been destroyed and millions had been driven out of East Prussia and Silesia, so Germany was no fatherland, no home, any more. The only news I got from home was in October ’45, that my family were alive but our house was half destroyed by a bomb and my father was on a French prison ship.
You must have felt an immense sense of loss.
Yes, and then this feeling of guilt and shame because of the Nazi dictatorship which took us into this war, and the killing of Jews… So, it came from all sides.
The feeling of forsakenness came to me first, I think, with the experience of being a prisoner of war in Belgium, living behind barbed wire with no expectation of freedom. Everything broke down, even my inner equilibrium, which had been maintained by the poems of Goethe and Schiller. And then in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire we were working on the roads and it was always raining. I remember one evening we were taken down to the camp in big trucks and everybody was sitting there with their heads between their knees and it was a picture of real forsakenness. And then I discovered Psalm 39 and the Gospel of Mark, with the death cry of Jesus, and I felt that there is one who understands me, and from my own feeling of forsakenness I understood his forsakenness between Gethsemane and Golgotha. And so I came to a belief in Christ. It’s only for Christ’s sake that I believe in God, not the other way round.
And yet a lot of other people in such circumstances lost their faith, or found faith impossible. Some people said: There can be no God after Auschwitz.
In whom can we believe after Auschwitz if not God?
Also, Rabbi Emil Fackenheim made a good argument: If we abandoned our faith in God after Auschwitz, we would give Hitler a posthumous victory.
And as long as we know that the ‘Sh’ma Yisrael’ and the ‘Our Father’ prayers were prayed in Auschwitz, we must not give up our faith in God.
What, in honour of the people who said those prayers?
In your conversation with atheists after the war, they must have said to you: ‘There cannot be a God or why would he have allowed this to happen?’ Were you not then obliged to do theodicy?
The cherry tree blossoming in Belgium in May 1945, the humanity of the Scottish workers and their families and the Bible I received from a chaplain – these three things convinced me to love life again
No. I am convinced that God is with those who suffer violence and injustice and he is on their side. He is not the general director of the theatre, he is in the play.
In your new book, Ethics of Hope,5Published by SCM Press on 31 May 2012 you say that people can be awakened from a dark night of the soul and again experience an unconditional love for life. Is that what happened to you after the war?
Well, three things I still remember. One was the cherry tree blossoming in Belgium in May ’45, which gave me an overwhelming feeling for life after the darkness and coldness of the prison camp.
And then the humanity of the Scottish workers and their families, who were amazing. They felt solidarity with us because they felt they, too, were victims of violence and injustice from their own government, in 1926 when Churchill [broke] the General Strike [and sent them back] down the mines.
And then there was the Bible I received from a chaplain. These three things convinced me to love life again.
And it was Mark’s Gospel in particular that affected you, rather than Luke or John. Why Mark? Because he makes Christ more immediate and more human?
Yes. Christ is not as divine as he is in the Gospel of John, where you always feel a distance between you and this holy person. In Mark’s Gospel, to put it in simple terms, he is more your brother.
You were finally released and repatriated in 1948…
I think they had only one ship to take prisoners home to Germany, and those who had been captured first, at El Alamein, were sent home first. I was one of the last to be captured, so I was one of the last to be sent home.
It was just a logistical problem?
This is a secret wisdom of God which I don’t know; but I wish the House of Lords had listened to Bishop Bell of Chichester, a friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was always saying, ‘Send the prisoners home!’
Your book Theology of Hope6Theology of Hope: On the ground and the implications of a Christian eschatology (SCM Press, 1967) made a big impact when it came out in English in the late Sixties. The world was in turmoil around that time, with student riots in Europe and assassinations in the United States…
There was [Vatican II], ‘socialism with a human face’ [in Czechoslovakia], the liberation fronts in Latin America after the Cuban revolution – everything was in movement, and young Christians, and young theologians, were looking for a place in the action, because God must be involved in it.
So, you suggested a way to be involved?
My original motivation was to get beyond the [dichotomy] between Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann in Germany. Barth had come up with a theology from above down to earth and Bultmann one from the earth, from below, to above. Wolfhart Pannenberg and I were inspired by Gerhard von Rad’s [Old Testament Theology7First published, in two volumes, in 1957 and ’67] to think instead of the God of history. Pannenberg had more of a metaphysics of world history, and I [focused] more on the growing promise of Israel from the beginning and, all of a sudden, the coming of the Messiah – and not only the Cross and the Resurrection but the Parousia and the new creation of everything.
I was more on the new left of German thinking and so I was studying with my students Karl Marx’s early writings, which understand religion not only as the opium of the people but as der Seufzer der bedrängten Kreatur, the sigh of the oppressed creature. And that’s Romans 8! I can agree with him that that suffering and sighing are part of religion. On the other hand, religion is always also a celebration of life, but this festive side of religion was overlooked by Marx.
I think the churches are here not only for consolation but for justice. If you believe in an earth in which justice will dwell, you become sensitive to injustice and you protest
How does Theology of Hope apply to our current economic crisis and the kind of protests we are seeing now, such as the Occupy movement? Is its message still the same?
I think it is relevant more to the situation of two-thirds of humankind. The Occupy movement is a bourgeois youth movement but where we are really suffering is in Africa and Asia – if you want to learn the power of hope, go to these miserable quarters of humankind. The rich don’t have hope, they have only anxiety because they have something to lose; but those who have nothing to lose but their chains, as Marx said once, have real hope in an alternative future.
Today, I think we need a movement to liberate nature from suffering and violence and injustice. I think humankind will learn either through insight or through catastrophe, and I think most of the people in the First World are waiting for the next catastrophe. At the moment I am a little proud of Germany, which has given up atomic power because of Fukushima – but that is another story…
You say that hope ‘alienates people from their native land, their friendships and their homes. It brings us into contradiction with the existing present.’ Do you think Christians are called to be restless in that way?
Well, Abraham and Sarah were the first who believed in God, and belief in God means leaving your home and so on behind and searching for the future City of God. It makes Christians uncomfortable with the [status quo], with the growing gulf between poor and rich in our countries, though we say we believe in the equality of all people. I think the churches are here not only for consolation and the religious niceties but for justice. If you believe in an earth in which justice will dwell, you become sensitive to the injustice around you and you protest; and some churches are doing very well in this respect, others are more on the side of the [status quo].
You have said that a catalyst for The Crucified God was the assassination of Martin Luther King. What was the impact of his murder on your plans for your work?
Well, I’m not a great planner. I want to be surprised!
Well, yes, Hans Küng said you zigzagged. Is that true?
Hans Küng’s great enemy, Cardinal [Alfredo Ottaviani], had the motto Semper idem, ‘Always the same’, but this was never my motto. But no, I do not zigzag; I trust in the providence of God to lead me.
In ’67 I was at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and when Theology of Hope was mentioned on the front page of the New York Times my students came to me and said: ‘You’ve made it!’ We had a large ‘Theology of Hope’ conference at the university in April ’68 and I could sense how the forward-looking spirit of Americans was reinforced by the theology of hope. And then someone came storming into the room and cried, ‘Martin King is shot!’ By the end of the day there were pictures of cities burning everywhere – the black population was enraged by the murder of the prophet of the civil rights movement. And then Durham came under curfew and we broke off the conference and they all rushed home as quickly as they could.
And then I saw that the theology of hope is not the right way to speak the gospel to Americans: they need to get a feeling of the suffering and violence and injustice in their country. And I promised that whenever I returned to that country I would speak about the cross of Christ and the cross of Martin Luther King and all the black people who had been lynched. And so I came to write The Crucified God.
To pray means to open one’s eyes and watch what is happening, what is coming, the dangers and the opportunities
And in it you radicalise the meaning of the Cross, don’t you? You say that not only Jesus suffered but the Father suffered, too. It was a very bold thing to say.
I had some support from [A N] Whitehead, the founder of process philosophy. When his only son died in a car accident at the age of 21, he said: ‘God is a fellow sufferer who understands.’ At first I thought he was thinking of Jesus, but no, he was thinking of his Father.
Then I discovered those pictures of the Gnadenstuhl [Mercy Seat] where God the Father carries the crossbeam of his only Son, and I made the analogy: If we die, we suffer the process of dying but we do not suffer our own death, because we don’t survive our own death; but if our child dies, we suffer the death of the child because we survive it. And this is a different suffering, the suffering of the father or the mother. Christ suffers on Good Friday and the Father suffers on Good Saturday, when the Son is dead. I think this is quite obvious. Mark’s Gospel starts with the baptism of Jesus and ‘You are my beloved Son,’ and so we are led to understand that the loving Father must have suffered as a result of the death of Jesus.
I also found that Christ suffers in solidarity with all those who suffer violence and injustice. His cross stands among the thousands of crosses in the Roman Empire – those who were enemies of the Empire and its system of slavery were crucified. So, he carries the suffering of the world on the one hand and the sins of the world on the other. Where there are evildoers, there are victims, and Christ suffers both vicariously for the sins of the perpetrators and in solidarity with the victims. This is a broadening of the significance of the Passion. Church tradition was always oriented towards the perpetrators, but I think liberation theology, unconsciously perhaps, prepared the way for a theology of the victims.
I tried to convince the churches in Germany, Lutheran and Catholic, to overcome this one-sided orientation towards sinners and look also at victims. But the Augsburg Accord8The historic ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’ signed by representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church on October 31, 1999 refers only to the justification of sinners. Does God prefer sinners to victims? I think he has a preference for victims. If we look in the Psalms, it is always the victims who are justified by God.
Sinners need to confess their sin to God, but what about victims?
The truth makes free not only sinners who confess their sin but also victims who speak out, so they need a place where they can speak without shame about what they have suffered. They need a ‘conversion’ to be liberated from what they have suffered so that they can again walk with their heads held high and can forgive, to escape the long shadows of their victimhood.
What do you turn to for consolation or inspiration? Is it music, or art? Or do you have a favourite hymn?
Mostly watching nature, and especially the sea. I am from Hamburg and we always spent our holidays at the seaside. I’m always fascinated by the sea – I get mystical experiences! The music of the sea – we call it the Brandung – is like the sound of eternity, because it was there before human beings came and it will be there when human beings may have vanished from the earth.
Karl Barth famously had a portrait of Mozart in his study, didn’t he? I think that surprised some people, because they felt that Bach was the more serious composer.
I cannot stand Mozart longer than one hour. I’m more for Beethoven and the tensions in his music. In Mozart, I feel there is harmony everywhere and no conflict. But my friend Hans Küng is also for Mozart, so at least we disagree in our preference in music.
And a hymn? I like Easter hymns, of course. Easter is for me the most important Christian festival.
Evagrius of Ponticus, one of the Desert Fathers, said: ‘A theologian is someone who prays, and everyone who prays is a theologian.’ Would you agree with that?
You can’t say about God to other people what you cannot say to God himself, and therefore prayer is at least a test of theology – but it’s certainly more. When I pray, I see the world sub specie aeternitatis, with the eyes of God, and so I see it differently from other people who don’t have this perspective. I see as wrong things they call ‘good’ and so on.
So, prayer is the ground of Christian faith and theology; but the call in the New Testament is not ‘Pray!’ but ‘Watch!’ ‘Can you not watch with me for one hour?’ Jesus asks in the Garden of Gethsemane. To pray means to open one’s eyes and watch what is happening, what is coming, the dangers and the opportunities. Normally we close our eyes when we pray, but the catacombs of Rome show that the first Christians stood and prayed with open hands and open eyes.
So, we must learn this new type of praying with open eyes. We need a prayer of hope, an eschatological or a revolutionary prayer by watching.
This edit was originally published in the June 2012 issue of Third Way.
[ + ]
|1.||⇑||Published in English as Atheism in Christianity: The religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom (Herder & Herder, 1972)|
|2.||⇑||A Broad Place: An autobiography (SCM Press, 2007)|
|3.||⇑||Operation Gomorrah was a series of air raids by the RAF and USAAF from 24 July to 3 August 1943. Some 42,600 people died, most of them on the night of 27 July, when a firestorm producing winds of up to 150 mph incinerated more than eight square miles of the city.|
|4.||⇑||The Crucified God: The cross of Christ as the foundation and criticism of Christian theology (SCM Press, 1974)|
|5.||⇑||Published by SCM Press on 31 May 2012|
|6.||⇑||Theology of Hope: On the ground and the implications of a Christian eschatology (SCM Press, 1967)|
|7.||⇑||First published, in two volumes, in 1957 and ’67|
|8.||⇑||The historic ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’ signed by representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church on October 31, 1999|
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Jürgen Moltmann was born in Hamburg in 1926 and attended Walddörfer (‘Forest Villages’) School.
In 1943, he served as an airforce auxiliary during the firebombing of the city. A year later, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht as an infantryman. Sent to the Western front in 1945, he eventually surrendered and was held as a prisoner of war, first near Ostend, then in Kilmarnock and finally, from 1946, in a camp near Nottingham run by the YMCA. The following year, with other POWs, he attended a Student Christian Movement conference in Swanwick. He was released and repatriated in 1948.
He studied theology at Göttingen University, where he finally gained his doctorate in 1952.
He then served until 1957 as pastor of the Evangelical Church of Bremen-Wasserhorst.
In 1958, he began teaching theology at the Kirchliche Hochschule Wuppertal, a college run by the Confessing Church. In 1963, he joined the theology faculty of Bonn University.
In 1967, he was appointed professor of systematic theology at the Eberhard Karls University Tübingen, a post he held until his retirement in 1994.
His many books include Theology of Hope (1964), Man: Christian anthropology in the conflicts of the present (1971), The Crucified God (1972), The Experiment Hope (1974), The Church in the Power of the Spirit (1975), The Future of Creation (1977), The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (1980), God in Creation (1985), The Way of Jesus Christ (1989), The Spirit of Life (1991), The Coming of God (1995), God for a Secular Society (1998), Experiences in Theology (2000), In the End – the Beginning: The life of hope (2004), A Broad Place (2007), Sun of Righteousness, Arise! (2010) and Ethics of Hope (2012).
With his wife, the feminist theologian Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, he has written Humanity in God (1983), God – His and Hers (1991) and Passion for God (2003).
From 1963 to 1983, he sat on the Faith and Order Committee of the World Council of Churches.
He has been married since 1952 and has four daughters.
Up-to-date as at 1 April 2012