Saturday, September 12, 2009

Moltmann's A Broad Place -- A Review

A BROAD PLACE: An Autobiography. By Jürgen Moltmann. Translated by Margaret Kohl. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008 (pb 2009), x + 404.

Most clergy have a favorite theologian or two, theologians whose work has influenced their own understandings of the ways of God. For me, one of those theologians, is Jürgen Moltmann, who is now in his 80s. Moltmann, who was for many years, Professor of Theology on the Protestant Faculty at Tübingen University, is nearing the end of his own life journey. From that place, Moltmann has laid down his own account of his life, and the title – A Broad Place – is an apt one, for his story is a broad one, full of experiences and responses to those experiences that have formed him as a person, as a Christian, and as a theologian.
For a theologian such as Moltmann, an autobiography may be the proper place to explore a theology, for his theology is not so much the working out of a theological system as it is a series of theological reflections on a life journey. His journey begins in the context of a secular German family. It is liberal but also nationalistic. His is a family of teachers, and there is nothing in that early biography that would suggest that he, a person without God or a church, would become one of the leading theologians of the second half of the 20th century and early decades of the 21st century. Yet, a war and time as a prisoner of war would provide an opportunity for an encounter with God in Jesus Christ that would transform his life and that of many others.

World War II raised important questions in his mind – including why he survived, when friends did not, and where God was in the midst of the terrors of war. As he was trying to put his life back together in a POW camp in Scotland, he was handed a Bible, and that Bible provided a starting point for seeking the answers to those questions. The texts that spoke most clearly to him were Psalm 39, which offers a cry of lamentation, and Jesus’ cry on the cross found in Mark’s Gospel – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” He writes:

I felt growing within me the conviction: this is someone who understands you completely, who is with you in your cry to God and has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now. I began to understand the assailed, forsaken Christ because I knew that he understood me. The divine brother in need, the companion on the way, who goes with you through this “valley of the shadow of death,” the fellow-suffer who caries you with your suffering. I summoned up the courage to live again and I was slowly by surely seized by a great hop for the resurrection into God’s “wide space where there is no more cramping.” (P. 30).
In this early reflection on the Scriptures you see the seeds of a theology of hope and a theology of the crucified God, the fellow sufferer who reveals God’s love to you. But more was to come, as the life of a Christian, a pastor, and a theologian began in earnest.

A Broad Place is a first person account of a life lived in the theological and ecclesial world. It alternates summations of his best-known works and projects with accounts of family, travels, conferences, debates, feuds, and academic politics. If one has never read Moltmann, this may be a good place to start, even if it is rather long. But by reading this, one better understands the nature of Moltmann’s theology and even his theological method. What one must do is not get bogged down in the names and dates and places. Moltmann does drop a lot of names, many of whom most American readers will likely not know. But even here there is a richness, because the reader realizes that his theological reflections have emerged out of real life conversations and experiences. His was not a life spent in the study, but was lived in public.

In the course of a long and distinguished career, in which Moltmann has reached the pinnacle of greatness, he has touched upon most of the major doctrinal issues, but he has not left us, and doesn’t plan to leave us, with a system. That isn’t his way, which may be a good thing. Although hope and eschatology are key concepts in his theology, it would be wrong to try to force his theology into a box called a “theology of hope.” His is Trinitarian, Christ-centered, Spirit-centered. It is a political theology and a public one. It’s influenced by Barth, but has gone beyond Barth. It is rooted in the Reformed tradition, but especially his view of the Trinity has been influenced by the Eastern church. It has engaged liberation theology, but isn’t liberationist per se – he recognizes his white male, first person context out of which he writes. It is distinctly Christian, but not in a triumphalist way. He was influenced by his encounters with the Marxism of his late Tübingen University colleague Ernst Bloch, but he’s not a Marxist. He has been touched by and influenced by, perhaps more than by any other person, the thoughts and work of his wife, a theologian of note in her own right, Elisabeth Moltmann Wendell. Just a note on his wife, she was a doctoral student at Gottingen, working under Otto Weber, even before he was.

Reading the book, especially in preparation for attending a conference in which the author was the featured presenter, gives a good sense of the person. Having read widely in his corpus of works over the years, incorporating many ideas as a result, the book provides context for these works – including ones I’ve not read or at least not read deeply enough. Perhaps it goes with the genre, but the book reveals a man of deep faith, but also a bit of vanity. He can be hurt and offended by critics, and he can offer some criticisms of his own. There is a bit of the name dropper as well. But again, that’s to be expected. He has traveled widely – and the book has a bit of the travel-log in it as well – and knows or knew many important people. He has received many honors, some of which he shares. As a side story, it was interesting to see him mention on several occasions in the book his friendship with Walter and Lois Capps, the latter of whom was my Congressional Representative until my move to Michigan. Walter was a professor of religion at UCSB until his election to Congress. When he died suddenly, Lois filled the term and has continued to represent the district. Thus, you not only learn theology, but you get a sense of the man of many talents and interests.

Although written in the golden years of life, the story is not yet complete. There are chapters still to be written, but the life lived so far has been influential on the lives of many of us, even if we have only known him through his many published works. If you have interest in Moltmann, then this is a book that needs to be read.


thechurchgeek said...

thanks for the review, I am so looking forward to getting into the book. It was nice to meet you and share lunch together on Thursday.

JoeBumbulis said...

Bob, it was good to meet you at the emergent convo! I read Broad Place too in prep for the convo, good read and great refresher for his thought. Thanks for the review!

I wonder if Moltmann is name-dropping or if those he lists are just people in his life, normal people that we feel like big names so to use them is to name drop.