The Night I Met Jürgen Moltmann

Published June 13, 2024

First Things

Jürgen Moltmann, who died on June 3 at age 98, was the last of the great German post-Barth theologians whose influence, like that of Wolfhart Pannenberg and Eberhard Jüngel, stretched well beyond his native land and language. His contributions to Liberation Theology, Christology, social Trinitarianism, theodicy, eschatology, and political theology were in their time immense.

For me, news of his death brought back a personal memory from some thirty years ago when he delivered a lecture at the University of Nottingham. At that time, I was the most junior member of faculty in the Department of Theology. After the lecture, I found myself seated in the back of a colleague’s car next to the distinguished theologian as we headed to dinner. I asked him two questions. First: Had he been to Nottinghamshire before? He had, he told me. Had he enjoyed it? No, he replied, I was being held here in a prisoner-of-war camp. I recall a minute or two of awkward silence after that. Then I mentioned his book The Crucified God and expressed my fascination with how he had developed Luther’s Christology in his attempt to offer a theological account of Auschwitz and suffering. I had found the work powerful and moving, if ultimately unconvincing. I then asked my second question: Did he still find Luther a useful source for theological dialogue? Again, the answer was Nein! Luther was too focused on individual salvation to be of any constructive theological use in the present, he declared.

Over dinner, Moltmann discussed his initial theological development, which culminated in his famous trilogy: Theology of HopeThe Crucified God, and The Church in the Power of the Spirit. These works, especially the first, had been strongly influenced by the Marxist Ernst Bloch. Moltmann thus emerged in the 1960s as a theological example of Hegelian Marxism, folding a reading of Marx refracted through strands of German idealism into the narrative and idioms of the Bible and of Christianity. The result was a heady revolutionary vision that would profoundly shape Latin American Liberation Theology of the kind that would later influence Pope Francis. Moltmann never produced subsequent work that matched this trilogy for its sense of intellectual excitement or influence.

It seemed that Moltmann knew this. Toward the end of the evening, his conversation became wistful. He wanted, he said, to be a voice for the oppressed, but the world was changing and he knew he was being left behind. He operated with traditional Marxist categories based on class and rooted in economic relations. But now new discourses of oppression were emerging.  Feminist theory granted sex a key role, but he was not a woman. Race was becoming potent as a revolutionary category, but he was white—and, worse, a German, carrying all that corporate guilt for the Holocaust. Sexuality was beginning to shape political thought and action, but he was happily married. Standpoint epistemology and intersectionality were not yet the commonplaces of progressive cocktail party conversation that they have become, but it is clear in retrospect that these were the concepts that were haunting him as he spoke.

Moltmann was aware that night that his time had already passed. Indeed, it was over 20 years since Michel Foucault had declared open war on Hegel and Hegelianism in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France. Old-style Hegelian Marxism espoused by straight white males was no longer the avant-garde of radical thinking. It was more a relic of the era of grand theories, just another manipulative bid for power and domination. And its theological expression by Moltmann had burned bright for a decade or so before becoming just another failed theological experiment. By the time I met Moltmann, theologically he was already a dinosaur. And he seemed sadly aware that that was the case.

Today, I often think of his answer to my second question—when he dismissed Luther as having no relevance for contemporary times—and see in it the source of the problem. For Moltmann, the categories of this immediate world context drove his theology. He had no sense of transcendence and no final sense that God’s Word breaks into this world from outside, rather than merely emerging as part of an immanent historical process. And those who marry their theology to immanence are oddly doomed to divorce their theology from relevance. That is why his contributions to Liberation Theology, Christology, social Trinitarianism, theodicy, eschatology, and political theology are all now museum pieces, fodder for courses in modern church history rather than systematics.

The Moltmann I met that night was a learned, kind man, concerned for the poor and the marginalized. He did not stand on status and treated me, the least of all at the dinner table, as if I were his equal, engaging in conversation and offering encouragement to a very junior academic at the start of his career. But ultimately, his theology was tied to immanence, and thus each and every one of his contributions marked a wrong turn, a deviation from orthodoxy, and a dead end. And yet thirty years on, I still read Luther every week.

Carl R. Trueman is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping civic leaders and policy makers better understand the deep roots of our current cultural malaise. In addition to his scholarship on the intellectual foundations of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution, Trueman is also interested in the origins, rise, and current use of critical theory by progressives. He serves as a professor at Grove City College.

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