Jürgen Moltmann’s Ethics of Hope: Eschatological Possibilities For Moral Action: A Review

A review of Timothy Harvie, Jürgen Moltmann’s Ethics of Hope: Eschatological Possibilities For Moral Action (Ashgate New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies; Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009).

It was Karl Barth who, in his Ethik (1928), reminded us that Christian theology is always ethics, that ethics belongs to theology proper precisely because God makes himself responsible for us, and that ‘ethics as a theological discipline is the auxiliary science in which an answer is sought in the Word of God to the question of the goodness of human conduct’. It is of little surprise, therefore, that such a commitment is shared by one of Barth’s most prolific students, Jürgen Moltmann, whose own articulations concerning theological ethics remain valuable though, in his own words, ‘an unfinished task and an unfulfilled wish’ (p. ix).

Timothy Harvie’s volume (a ‘slightly revised version’ of his doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Aberdeen and supervised by Professor John Webster) represents an attempt to consider and extend an unfinished trajectory in Moltmann’s theology; namely, and appropriately, an ethics of hope. It is, in the words of its author, ‘not a piece of applied ethics engaging specific moral quandaries or the nature of Christian virtues’ but rather ‘an attempt to theologically describe the sphere of Christian moral action and the means by which this is enabled to take place’ (p. 3). Harvie makes it clear in the Introduction that his essay will argue that Moltmann does not begin with antecedent ethical presuppositions and then mould dogmatics to fit these concerns. Rather, ‘Moltmann begins with an investigation of theological concerns stemming from the biblical history and then attempts to articulate the moral relevance this theological conception has for the current social situation of humanity’ (p. 6).

The book is divided into two parts. In Part I, Harvie attends to the christological, pneumatological and eschatological foundations for an ethics of hope, and offers readers (and particularly those unfamiliar with Moltmann’s oeuvre) an accessible entrée into a number of vistas fundamental to Moltmann’s theological project. Through four chapters, Harvie’s aim is to rehearse how Moltmann is principally concerned with articulating the Christian gospel, and subsequently concerned to point to how the Church’s convictions about the gospel inform her ethical assertions.

He opens with a chapter on hope and promise, noting that the generative thrust and unambiguous priority of Christian hope, for Moltmann, is birthed in the divine promise given in a particular locus in history, and creating and securing a new trajectory for history and for human existence: ‘In the midst of a history wrought with injustice, turmoil and sin, the promise of God (given definitively in the resurrection of Jesus Christ) secures a new future which contravenes the sinful status quo of the present with a new creative work of God for a redeemed cosmos. This new, creative work secured in the promise is a novum in history which moves towards the present’ (p.15). Harvie proceeds to cite Moltmann – ‘The simple prolongation of the status quo no longer provides a future for which it is worth living’ (p. 26) – and avers that eschatological hope grounded in the cross-resurrection means that Christian living becomes subversive, demanding not onlookers but, in Moltmann’s words, ‘combatants’ (p. 26). The promise of God in Jesus Christ creates in history an interval between promise and fulfilment, a Zwischenraum or ‘between-space’, which sets in motion a way of living adumbrated in the promised future but ‘enacted through the creative work of God in such a way that in Christ humans [i.e., the Exodus community, Exodusgemeinde] may now participate in this space … in contradistinction to the world’ (p. 28). This way of living is ‘life commensurate with the Kingdom of God’ (p. 36).

The Kingdom of God, another topic of decided importance for Moltmann, is the subject of Chapter Two. Herein, Harvie outlines the way that Kingdom and christology are inextricably bound up together, and attends to the way that, for Moltmann, the Kingdom represents not only a positive description of the content of Christian hope but also ‘a foil to critique societal situations [Moltmann] perceives to be unjust’ (p. 40). Jesus’ embodiment of the Kingdom, it is noted, means table fellowship with sinners, liberating proclamation and praxis for the poor, and healing to the broken.

Chapters Three and Four attend to the role that pneumatology and the doctrine of the trinity, respectively, play in Moltmann’s theology, and how each informs the ethical shape of his theology of hope. With clarity, Harvie outlines that while, for Moltmann, the trinitarian history of the divine life with the world begins with the history of the promise, a history which culminates in the death and resurrection of the Son, it is the faithful and historical efficacy of the Spirit which ‘constitutes the continuing presence of the Kingdom’ in both Church and world. ‘This’, he continues, ‘in no way denigrates the future horizon of Christian hope for the Kingdom, but rather structures the initial fulfilment of the divine promise, which creates a surplus of expectation and hope for the eschatological novum’ (pp. 57–8). He notes how, for Moltmann, those empowered by the Spirit are ‘led to be non-conformists with the unfulfilled present, which leads to death. The Church, through the work of the Spirit, is empowered to resist in its Zwischenraum of tension, to overcome death with life, violence with peace, and hate with love’ (p. 92). Harvie is critical of Moltmann’s emphasis on a ‘universal society’ (p. 85), arguing that such ambiguity blurs the distinction between the Spirit’s work in the Church and in wider society. In Chapter Four, Harvie gathers up many of the already-attended-to themes and brings them into dialogue with Moltmann’s exposition on the trinity, noting that the creature’s moral living does not equate principally to imitatio of the trine life so much as, by the Spirit, being ‘taken up into the divine communion as an-other … to participate in and live out of the divine love’ (p. 109). Herein, as Moltmann explains it, the ‘lived circulation’ (p. 118) which is the divine life has two kinds of openness: first, there is an intra-Trinitarian openness between the three persons; second, and implying no deficiency of being, the Trinity is open for communion with creation. ‘This divine openness’, Harvie suggests, ‘fundamentally alters the moral life of the Christian through justification and sanctification’ (p. 122). In an interesting conversation with work by Carl Schmitt and Richard Bauckham, Harvie notes how Moltmann’s thoroughly trinitarian theology creates an eschatological ethic which rejects both clerical and political monotheisms, and he follows Bauckham’s critique of Moltmann that the tendency to inadequately distinguish between the triune life in se and the social life of creatures has ‘no biblical basis’ (p. 128). Turning then to the way that creatures participate by the Spirit in the fellowship of love, Harvie considers how, for Moltmann, the notion of divine apatheia both sponsors a utopian hope and undermines the command to be ‘present in open, loving solidarity with those who suffer’ (p. 135).

Harvie then turns – in Part II – to a more focused consideration of the ethical shape that the theological foundations he has outlined in Part I take in creaturely existence. He does this via three discussions on hope: on (i) time and space for hope, (ii) hope for humanity, and (iii) hope for the economy.

In the first of these, what I found to be the most stimulating part of the book, Harvie draws upon Augustine and Bauckham to very helpfully explicate how Moltmann understands, and makes use of, christologically-determined categories of time over against, say, Kathryn Tanner’s ‘futureless eschatology’ (what Carl Braaten calls ‘eschatology sans eschaton’) and time’s modern myths, and how these then inform what Moltmann wishes to aver about the theo-ethical implications of such in the kingdom of God wherein space – conceived as both Zeitraum and Zwischenraum – is opened up for hope and moral action. The present earthly time – the time of promise – is ‘characterized by expectation and anticipation of the novum which is anticipated in the promise and ensured by the divine faithfulness’ (p. 151) and, by the tension created between the divine-human covenant which existentially orients creaturely perspective to the future, sensitises covenant partners to the incongruous nature of their surroundings. Contra Mark Lewis Taylor and Rubem Alves, Harvie notes that, for Moltmann, ‘the ethical space envisioned in a moral theology of hope is not simply the space of human structures where moral action is attempted through one’s own empowerment to one’s own end. Rather, it is a space created by the promise of God through the death and resurrection of Christ in which human structures are transformed by the efficacious work of the Holy Spirit to manifest the eschatological Kingdom. This space orients Christian moral action, through the divine promise, to the future. The result is that this space is then in tension with those structures, circumstances and actions which are not located within the Kingdom of God or brought about through the beneficent work of God through the Spirit’ (p. 167).

Harvie turns, in the final two chapters, to the subjects of human nature, human dignity and human rights, and to outline how he understands Moltmann’s theology of hope might inform conversations about economics. He rightly notes that for Moltmann, the imago Dei depends upon, and says more about, God than it does upon any human trait per se, that the imago Christi is paramount for an ethics of hope, and that ‘it is precisely at this Christologically focused point within eschatological history that the Zwischenraum of tension … is understood to constitute the sphere of Christian moral action’ (p. 172). He also rightly notes that ‘the claim that human beings have equal and intrinsic worth is difficult to maintain as a universal presupposition apart from God’s revelation as creator and redeemer of the world’ (p. 181).

These concluding chapters, however, are disappointingly conservative in their application of the ethic that Moltmann’s thought invites. Harvie proposes no genuine protest to the structures of that world put to death in the crucified God, and very little hint of the novum created by the radical interruption of Jesus’ resurrection and the life that this event births. The praxiological content of the eschatological Zwischenraum which is characterised as life in the Spirit, in other words, is left drastically underdeveloped. The ethical implications of Moltmann’s professional project call for a more radical engagement – or what Ernst Wolf calls a ‘creative discipleship’ – of the ecclesia than Harvie outlines here. Moreover, as Moltmann avers in Theologie der Hoffnung, we must speak not only of the historic transformation of social and public life but also of the suffering, self-surrender, self-expenditure and sacrifice that attend such ‘day-to-day obedience’, and which mark a different way from the glories of self-realisation and the miseries of self-estrangement arising from ‘hopelessness in the world of lost horizons’ – ways disclosed to the laos tou theou in the future of the crucified God in whose life they participate, and to whom they look for the coming of the kingdom in fulness. At the end of the day, Harvie tumbles into the very trap that Hauerwas outlines (and which Harvie cites on p. 183): ‘One of the things that bothers me about such discourse is the designation “us,” meaning Christians, and “them,” meaning the poor. Such language inherently presupposes that Christians have no convictions that might not make them poor. As a result we privilege our place as rich Christians who can justify our being rich because we are concerned about justice’.

While the essay is unduly repetitive, it is amiably unencumbered with distractive engagements with secondary literature and side issues. Where these are relevant, they are appropriately attended to, and that so as not to sidetrack the reader from the main line of enquiry; namely, Moltmann’s own presentation of a foundation for an ethic grounded in trinitarian space-making and orientated toward the future in the kingdom of life and love. And while the ethical implications drawn by Harvie are, to my mind, drastically undercooked, there can be little doubt that those interested in exploring a rich theological foundation for Christian ethics will find much here of value.

2 comments

  1. Hi Jason,

    I just want to thank you for giving such serious attention to and interaction with my book. The thorough dialogue is greatly appreciated. I take the critical points on board, with particular reference to some praxiological items being underdeveloped. However, I am not sure I was advocating a more “conservative” ethic than the one Moltmann espouses (if I am reading your use of this phrase right). Perhaps this is a natural fallout of leaving the ethical outcomes more implied than clearly explicated. Thanks again for the precision you brought to your reading of my text.

    Best wishes,
    Tim

    Like

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