I hear what some of you are saying. “That’s not Kant!” Fear not, friends. The next Kant post is coming soon. But right now I have another task at hand. This school year, a group of twelve Emmanuel College professors (we like to do things in Bible numbers here at Emmanuel) are reading through Moltmann’s The Crucified God as part of our faculty-development obligations, and I wanted to write up some reflections here, a week or so before each discussion session meets, so that folks whose background is in natural science or teacher-education or other things less critical-theory-heavy than English or theology will have a jump-start for the conversation. And since folks seem to have enjoyed our other read-throughs (including the one on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which should be rolling again soon), I figured I’d do this as a read-through as well. So here we go!
Actually, two caveats: One, I’m going to be using page numbers from the 40th Anniversary edition, to which I link above. Older editions will have different page numbers. Two, because I don’t have the keyboard shortcut for the first vowel in Moltmann’s first name memorized, you will periodically see me call him Jurgen here rather than what’s printed on the cover of the book. I’ll trust you, O Reader, to do a bit of translation in those moments.
Don’t Be a Bildad
Moltmann’s thematic introduction situates this book in his own biography: as a prisoner of war returning from World War II, he and his fellow veterans found the preaching in the churches empty, continuing to preach an optimism that was alien to those who had seen the horrors that optimism, among other ideologies had wrought (xx). Theology that could speak to survivors of Nazism and Stalinism had to be a critical theology (xxi), a theology that recognized, from the outset, that God’s central moment of revelation comes when Temple and Praetorium, Rome and Jerusalem, Empire and Temple put Jesus on a cross. All of theology, starting with the doctrine of God, had to stand before the cross of Jesus and confess our own role, moral and intellectual, in being the sorts of people and propping up the sorts of ideas that crucified Jesus, and without that theology of the cross, no true theology of Christian hope could be possible (xxv). Thus while “the cross is not and cannot be loved” (xix), its critical, deconstructive work is necessary if we’re to clear away our intellectual idols and hear the God who would speak in the person of Jesus and of Israel’s Scriptures.
In the preface to the paperback edition, Moltmann frames the project in more explicitly Biblical terms: when we do theology without subjecting every thought to the very-human crime of crucifying Jesus, we’re less like Christ or Paul or Isaiah and more like Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu, those figures in Job who defend standard-issue, Middle-Eastern Wisdom thinking with such an intensity that they would ignore that Job is genuinely wronged and even accuse him of a crime when he laments that he’s wronged (xiii). Like Job, those who do theology after Auschwitz (xiv) must look unblinkingly at the suffering of our neighbors and at the grand ideas that led to the suffering of our neighbors and stand before the cross, ready to have even our most time-honored ideas critiqued, negated, and refuted by Christ crucified.
Crisis of Identity and Crisis of Relevance
The cross puts everything to the test.
That’s a rough translation of one of Martin Luther’s tweetable one-liners, and Moltmann’s first chapter explores two ways in which the cross calls the church into question. For churches that we conventionally call conservative, the cross puts this question into play: if all that we can say about our relationship with “the world” is that we remain sealed off from it, retaining our distinctiveness by refusing engagement with “the least of these,” in what sense can we say that Christ, acting through Church, is involved at all with the world that God loved? (2). And to the liberals the cross puts the mirror-question: if, in our pursuit of social justice and a more civil secular society, Christians become interchangeable with not-Christians in the world, in what sense can we say of the Christ whom we represent that His Kingdom is “not of this world”?
To his credit, Moltmann does not attempt to solve that contradiction with clever phrases or by redefining key terms. Instead, he lets the contradiction sit there and makes the contradiction itself a key point of this theology: since the cross indeed puts everything to the test, that includes your next move as much as it includes the moves you’ve made up to this point. And yet, despite the continuous negation of the cross, Moltmann notes that Christianity, like Marxism, continues to be attractive despite the well-known historical abuses of the Church and of Stalinism (5). That strange attraction is a hopeful note: paying heed to the cross and its critical force might yet sound a call to the world to repent!
So to the liberals Moltmann puts this challenge: realize that abandoning the provincialism of the Christian tradition for national or even international movements does not remove the particularity but substitutes one particularity for another, a particularity of highly-mobile elites for the particularity of more grounded parishioners (7). Realize that becoming theological chameleons, jettisoning central tenets of the faith in order to appeal to broader audiences, threatens to throw away precisely what Christianity has to offer a waiting world (8). Instead the relativity of human intellectual activity should lead not to relativism but to relationships, stories of the faithful and our neighbors in which God offers and threatens to change everyone involved (7). To exist for others, one must be other. To help those who are different, one must remain different (16).
Theological conservatives don’t get off the hook any easier, though: Moltmann warns that conservatives as well are in danger of losing Christianity (10-11). To exist as a “religion of fear,” framing the faith too much as a defense of certain traditional subjects and predicates, seeks to protect a God who does not need the protection that mortals can offer and in reality threatens to smother the faith of people who work and study in a changing world (21). Faith cannot exist for the sake of faith alone but must wait for a God who does unexpected things and sometimes even challenges the ways that we speak of that God (20).
Living in the Tension Before it Was Cool
Moltmann, again to his credit, does not offer a solution to this tension but an exhortation: do not forsake this contradiction between distinctiveness and outreach but be ready, in every moment, to be negated in your efforts to hold on to either (24-25). This is not a balancing act between readily-distinguishable love of God on one side and love of neighbor on the other but a realization that our love of neighbor always threatens to turn our good ideas for loving them into idols, and our love of God always threatens to turn us into little Pharaohs because we love the lofty as we lose the lowly (28). So the crisis of identity and the crisis of involvement are not unique to our moment, and they’re not going away, but they’re perennial features of faith in a God who reveals God’s-self first and foremost in the person of Jesus, whom we crucified (29). The theology of the cross is always a theology of criticism and a theology of crisis, and if it ceases to be any of the above, that might be an early sign that something has gone wrong (30).
So Moltmann’s project, as he foreshadows it in the closing pages of this first chapter, is going to be to seek out God in the anti-God, to find justification among the outcast and beauty among the forgotten and righteousness in love for wicked souls (34). Our knowledge of God always happens as an analogy, by thinking and talking and writing about the ways in which our notions of goodness are true in that God is not bad but false in that we cannot conceptualize a goodness capacious enough to encompass God. But that analogy always comes with dialectic, with contradiction (33): supreme divine power comes in the form of a weak mortal man, and the act which brings justice into the world is the supremely criminal act of executing the Son of God as an enemy of the state. For the Christian who would follow Jesus, “the theology of the cross must begin with contradiction” (35), and the danger of contradiction, though always a cross to bear, is ultimately the only way to follow Jesus.
We’re only one chapter into this thing, and I’m already excited for the conversations that we professors are going to launch as we take on this difficult book together. I encourage you, whether you’re in the in-person discussion group or not, to jump in with us in the comments section and let us know what you think as we roll along.