Christology

"In the Reformation, the theology of the cross was expounded as a criticism of the church; how can it now be realized as a criticism of society?" (Moltmann 1974: 317). Just as in Theology of Hope, Moltmann insists that eschatology makes all finite human action questionable, so in his second major book The Crucified God (2nd edn. 1973), he insists that the cross stands as a permanent objection to human certainties. It enables people "to criticize and stand back from the partial historical realities and movements which they have idolized and made absolute" (1974: 17). This change of emphasis, from a largely philosophical framework of eschatology to a more troubled meditation on the crucified Christ, is significant. The philosophical and theological arguments of Theology of Hope depend on sophisticated rethinking of the concept of reality through a reengagement with the Aristotelian tradition of describing things as either "potential" or "actual," transformed by the biblical witness to God's "promise." German philosophy helps Moltmann understand that the human imagination of what is possible has a strong influence on what people think is "real." Imagining the future affects life in the present in a fundamental way: this is one of the central themes in twentieth-century German thought including Heidegger, Bloch, Lowith, and Gadamer. Moltmann adapts this philosophy for theology by speaking not of "the future" but of "God's future" and engagement with scripture. This has enormous explanatory power, and is able to show how imagination is not separate from reality, but lies at the heart of how people understand the world and act in it. At the same time, it explains too much. Tragedy can be absorbed in advance by the knowledge that, although suffering is real, it can be interpreted and contradicted in the light of God's promises for humankind. Eschatology, Moltmann says, "must formulate its statements of hope in contradiction to our present experience of suffering, evil and death" (1967: 19). God's promise does not seem to include suffering. Moltmann changed his mind about this. The image of the crucified Christ cannot be absorbed by eschatology. The crucified Christ does not "contradict" suffering, but embodies it. Likewise, the theology of the cross does not lend itself to philosophical concepts like "anticipation," but is terribly resistant to all concepts. The Crucifixion is not thinkable. Suffering is not a concept. Here, philosophical reasoning is not merely questionable: it gets stuck, or should do, if it is done properly.

The Crucifixion of Christ cannot be assimilated into any neat account of history: there can be no easy talk about what the Crucifixion means. This changes the way Moltmann addresses the political tasks of Christians. It is no longer just a question of allowing eschatology to contradict and question the forms of life that perpetuate suffering and pain. There is also a deeper question: "What does it mean to recall the God who was crucified in a society whose official creed is optimism, and which is knee-deep in blood?" (1974: 4). This does not mean abandoning philosophical thinking and retreating into gnomic utterances. Rather, it means finding philosophical languages that are good at getting stuck, so to speak. Moltmann does not abandon Bloch, but corrects him with a different and difficult strand of German philosophy: the dark and sometimes melancholy philosophy found in the Jewish philosophers Franz Rosenzweig, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer.4 These figures struggle with the thought of Hegel, in which everything seems already reconciled in philosophy. In very different ways, the Jewish philosophers insist that it is not the task of philosophy to reconcile things, but rather to articulate and enact the difficulty of thinking in a world of suffering. Again, however, there are difficulties for Moltmann. These philosophies are largely atheistic, and their insights, instead of arising from meditations on scripture, often come from aesthetic criticism. In the more melancholy work, especially that of Adorno, the reasonings do not move beyond showing aporias in existing philosophical approaches. The nearest one can get to articulating the good life is to know that the damaged life is damaged and that, by implication, there must be in principle an undamaged life (but where?). How does Moltmann manage to use this philosophy without letting it force his theological hand? In general, Moltmann learns from this philosophy in a rather patchwork way: as with his use of Bloch and "anticipation," he tends to work with Adorno's "negation" without worrying too much about the metaphysics implied by it (e.g. 1974: 171). This leads to difficulties: chains of reasoning are abandoned at the last minute because they are not going where Moltmann knows he ought to go, the concrete political implications (or rather stark lack of them) implied by this thinking are ignored, and sometimes quite incompatible pictures of the world are sewn together with very visible seams. Nonetheless, this philosophy gives Moltmann a powerful language for exploring the ways in which meditating on Christ's suffering spoils the neat and tidy thinking so characteristic of human attempts to ignore or deny suffering.

Moltmann's political theology arises partly from this interplay between the philosophical practice of negativity and an attempt to articulate the significance of Christ's Crucifixion. He questions those periods of Christian history where theology has been used to support the power and policies of the state and serve the interests of the rich and powerful: there is nothing so neat and tidy as the theologies which have done this. Moltmann, learning from the work of Metz, furthermore rejects any identification between theology and the interests of the bourgeois classes in Germany or anywhere else. This does not just mean blatant abuses of power or collusion with authority: it extends to the tendency of religion to be seen by politicians as a useful contributor to social integration. Christians are under constant pressure to serve patriotic festivals, and find themselves caught between socialist "pantheistic materialism" and capitalist "fetishism involving gold and possessions" (1974: 323). Moltmann insists that the theology of the cross forbids Christians to become uncritical servants of the Roman Empire or any of its successors in history. "Christianity did not come into being as a national religion and therefore cannot be one. It does not bind the hearts of citizens to the state, but lures them away from it" (p. 324). This is not an easy matter, for it creates a dilemma for any political theology:

the more the churches become departments of bourgeois religion, the more strongly they must suppress recollection of the political trial of Christ and lose their identity as Christian churches, for recollection of it endangers their religio-political relevance. However, if they retreat from the social theme of "bourgeois religion," they become irrelevant sects on the boundary of society and abandon their place for others. (p. 324)

Those who seek to be "relevant" run the risk of abandoning their Christian difference and distinctiveness; those who seek a strong Christian "identity" run the risk of being unintelligible and unrelated to those victims of society they are meant to serve. Moltmann rejects this opposition in favor of a theology of the cross learned from Luther's criticism of the church, but adapted for his modern context: the identity of Christianity as a religion is already ruined as a secure haven because of its association with Christ crucified, and its relevance for society is not a product of assimilation to bourgeois interests but its opposition to all idols and its criticisms of society on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, and victims of injustice (p. 325).

The Pax Christi is far from identical to the Pax Romana, and the authority of God is certainly not represented directly by those in high positions. Human institutions and history bear God's presence only when they embody the service of Christ, a service which extends even to death on the cross (Moltmann 1974: 327). "The consequence for Christian theology is that it must adopt a critical attitude towards political religions in society and in the churches. The political theology of the cross must liberate the state from the political service of idols and must liberate people from political alienation and loss of rights" (p. 32 7). This does not mean an adolescent posture of rebellion: it does mean the rethinking of every institution with which Christianity comes into contact. "Wherever Christianity extends, the idea of the state changes" (p. 328). This is not a statement of historical fact. Rather, it is a criterion for judgment: if a state becomes "Christian" and the idea of the state does not change, this is a sign that Christianity itself has changed, and has assimilated itself to the interests of the ruling class. "The crucified God is in fact a stateless and classless God. But that does not mean that he is an unpolitical God. He is the God of the poor, the oppressed and the humiliated" (p. 329).

What does this mean in practice? Moltmann understands that scriptural interpretation cannot rest content with the general acknowledgment that God is the God of the poor and the oppressed. Christians have to make concrete judgments. Writing in the early 1970s, Moltmann offers five topics for consideration and action: poverty, institutionalized violence, racism, the environment, and people's increasing sense of their life's meaninglessness. In economics, Christians must fight practices of economic exploitation, promote social welfare, and insist that members of society receive a "satisfying and just share in the products they produce." Insofar as socialism serves these goals, Christians should be socialist (1974: 332). In politics, Christians should oppose the hegemony of particular classes and groups, insist on the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a standard for justice, and seek the liberation of all those who are the victims of political oppression. Insofar as democracy serves these goals, Christians should be democratic (p. 333). In cultural life, Christians should regard racial difference as a source of fruitfulness and productive cooperation. "The recognition of racial and cultural and personal differences and the recognition of one's own identity belong together." Insofar as movements for emancipation serve these goals, Christians should join them (pp. 333-4). In environmental life, Christians should oppose the wanton exploitation of nature, should promote partnership with nature, and should seek peace with nature rather than domination of it (p. 334). Lastly, with respect to socialization, Christians need to acknowledge that it is not enough to have economic, political, cultural, and environmental justice. These things have no "meaning"

in themselves, although without them people are in bondage. Christians have to understand these things as taking part in God's fullness. "The freedom of the children of God and the liberation of enslaved nature (Rom. 8: 19ff.) are consummated in the arrival of the complete and universal indwelling of God" (1974: 335). Christians have the gift of faith in God to offer the societies in which they live and work. This faith makes sense of and motivates all the other political actions so sorely needed.

The particular political interventions Moltmann suggests are dated, of course, above all in his omissions: of sexism (quotations from his work have been altered in this article to reflect current practices of inclusive language), of the disabled,5 of the elderly, of the abuses perpetrated by international corporations, and so forth. This is as it should be: unless concrete recommendations run the risk of being dated, perhaps very quickly, political theology remains mired in generalizations. Moltmann's particular choices are obviously open to dispute even without anachronism. What is more striking is the alarming contemporaneity of his concrete judgments: since they were written, not one of them has been adequately addressed. Updating Moltmann's vision means adding new items for discussion, but not crossing off old ones. It is perhaps not surprising that all the ills of the world have not been healed during one man's lifetime. Nonetheless it is surely cause for concern that, 30 years on, Moltmann's call for justice still sounds like a minority voice within Christianity, let alone within society. Given that Moltmann is himself a mainstream theologian of some significance, it is hard to escape the suspicion that theology itself is a minority voice in Christianity. For this reason, if for no other, Moltmann's discussion of the problem of "identity" and "relevance" in Christianity is still pertinent today.

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  • LUWAM
    How has feminist theology changed in christianity?
    7 years ago

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