Jürgen Moltmann on ‘Predestination: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Election of Grace’

The 2015 Annual Karl Barth Conference, currently underway at Princeton Theological Seminary, has kicked off with a stirring opening lecture by Jürgen Moltmann on the topic ‘Predestination: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Election of Grace’. Professor Moltmann reminded us again why Barth was right when he wrote, in CD §32, that ‘the doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all the words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects humanity; that God is for humanity too the One who loves in freedom’.

For those who missed the lecture, here it is:

The main sessions are being live streamed here, and the Q&A time for this session can be watched here – great news for those of us unable to make it to Princeton for this wonderful event.

Moltmann on the interactions between science and theology

Is the world unfinished? This is the title of Jürgen Moltmann’s 2011 Boyle Lecture, given on 8 February 2011 at St Lawrence Jewry, London, and subsequently published in Theology. Herein, Moltmann explores interactions between theology and the sciences, the ‘readabilty of the world’, and the non-contradiction that exists between the empirical concept of nature and the theological concept of creation. Moltmann also reflects on some themes more traversed in his thinking; namely, the nature of time and history and their openness to the future. The lecture’s gracious respondent was Alan Torrance, who takes on naturalism, temporalist accounts of time (‘the past is not ontologically annihilated by the so-called “passage of time”‘, Torrance argues), and, albeit too briefly, Moltmann’s presentation and use of the doctrine(s) of kenosis (a doctrine which I believe was/is too easily dismissed by some theologians who share Alan’s surname and which I would love to see Alan engage with more seriously at some stage).

Some interviews with Moltmann

Moltmann 2Undoubtedly, one of the most stimulating minds among Reformed theologians today remains that of Jürgen Moltmann. I hope to post a lecture by Moltmann soon, but here I simply wish to draw attention to three interviews that I discovered and enjoyed this morning. The first two happen to be pre-conference interviews.

The first is from the 37th National Theological Conference held at Trinity Wall Street on the theme of ‘God’s Unfinished Future’ and can be seen here. (A snippet from the interview can be read here, and Moltmann’s lecture from the conference can be viewed here and here.)

And in the lead up to BMS’s one-day Catalyst Live event, the organisers have shared a wee interview with Moltmann in which he comments on atheism, anti-intellectualism, fundamentalism, and the necessity for involvement in politics.

Finally, there’s this interview on Bibel TV  Parts I and II.

Words to sink your ears into

Missing your lectures? Eyes need a break? Need to kill some time over the Christmas period? Want to impress your friends (and enemies) with your learnedness? Check out some of the following links (which are mostly from our friends at Holden Village):

H. George Anderson

Karl Barth

  • “Was ist für Sie Mozart?”. Gespräch mit R. Schmalenbach (Text Schweizerdeutsch Text Standarddeutsch). Aus “Musik für einen Gast” (Radio Interview vom 17.9.1968, geführt von R. Schmalenbach). [mp3]
  • Weihnachtsgruss 1960 (siehe auch Letter Nr. 12) [mp3]
  • Institutio-Jubiläum 1959 (siehe Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Nr. 158, vom 11./12. Juli 2009, S. B 3) [mp3]
  • Aus dem Gespräch mit den Tübinger Stiftlern vom 2. März 1964 über die Entstehung der Barmer Theologischen Erklärung (siehe K. Barth, Gespräche 19641968, hrsg. von E. Busch [Gesamtausgabe, Abt. IV], Zürich 1997, S. 111–114; auch in: K. Barth, Texte zur Barmer Theologischen Erklärung, hrsg. von M. Rohkrämer, Zürich 20042, S. 221–223) [mp3]
  • Aus dem Gespräch mit der Kirchlichen Bruderschaft Württemberg vom 15. Juli 1963 über die Bedeutung von Barmen (siehe K. Barth, Gespräche 1963, hrsg. von E. Busch [Gesamtausgabe, Abt. IV], Zürich 2005, S. 54; auch in: K. Barth, Texte zur Barmer Theologischen Erklärung, hrsg. von M. Rohkrämer, Zürich 20042, S. 191) [mp3]
  • Aus “Die Liebe”, Abschiedsvorlesung Karl Barths vom 1. März 1962 an der Universität Basel (siehe K. Barth, Einführung in die evangelische Theologie, Zürich 20045, S. 220) [mp3]
  • Aus “The Community”, Vorlesung Karl Barths vom 26. April 1962 in Chicago und 2. Mai 1962 in Princeton (siehe K. Barth, Evangelical Theology. An Introduction, Grand Rapids, MI 1979, S. 41) [mp3]
  • Aus “Commentary”, Vorlesung Karl Barths vom 23. April 1962 in Chicago und 29. April 1962 in Princeton (siehe K. Barth, Evangelical Theology. An Introduction, Grand Rapids, MI 1979, S. 9–12) [mp3]
  • Tondokumente aus Letter Nr. 6.
  • Gespräch mit R. Schmalenbach. Aus “Musik für einen Gast” (Radio Interview vom 17.9.1968, geführt von R. Schmalenbach). [mp3]
  • Gespräch mit der Kirchlichen Bruderschaft in Württemberg. Aus dem Gespräch am 15.7.1963 im Restaurant Bruderholz in Basel. [mp3]
  • Gespräch in Bièvres. Aus der Diskusion am 20.10.1963 über Fragen im Zusammenhang seines Buches «Einführung in die evangelische Theologie». [mp3]
  • Podiumsdiskussion in Chicago. Aus dem Schlusswort bei der Podiumsdiskusion in Chicago 26.4.1962. [mp3]

Carl Braaten

Walter Brueggemann

Nancy Eiesland

Terry Fretheim

Martin Marty

Bonnie Miller-McLemore

Jürgen Moltmann

Ched Myers

Lesslie Newbigin

John Polkinghorne

Dorothee Sölle

William Stringfellow

  • Civil rights movement – an interview with Robert Penn Warren: Part I, Part II (1964)

Helmut Thielicke

Vitor Westhelle

Rowan Williams

Umhau Wolf

John Howard Yoder

Revenge (‘keeping faith with the dead’) or Reconciliation (keeping Easter faith)?

In light of events dominating the news, there’s an interesting reflection by Michael Ignatieff in a book written in response to the Balkan crisis of the 1990s. In The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, Ignatieff argues that the virtue which underlies and motivates revenge is simply the matter of ‘keeping faith with the dead’. This is something known to us all, whether givers or objects of terror. He writes:

‘The chief moral obstacle in the path of reconciliation is the desire for revenge. Now, revenge is commonly regarded as a low and unworthy emotion, and because it is regarded as such, its deep moral hold on people is rarely understood. But revenge – morally considered – is a desire to keep faith with the dead, to honour their memory by taking up their cause where they left off. Revenge keeps faith between generations; the violence it engenders is a ritual form of respect for the community’s dead – therein lies its legitimacy. Reconciliation is difficult precisely because it must compete with the powerful alternative morality of violence. Political terror is tenacious because it is an ethical practice. It is a cult of the dead, a dire and absolute expression of respect’. – Michael Ignatieff, The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (London: Chatto & Windus, 1988), 188.

The Church, of course, is the child of the narrative at the heart of which is reconciliation, a narrative which is ‘difficult’, to be sure, but whose Author makes it possible to ‘from now on … regard no one from a worldly point of view’ (2 Cor 5.16), to live hopefully by the word that ‘in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us’ (2 Cor 5.19), and to rejoice in the vocation of being ‘Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us’ (2 Cor 5.20). Such is a narrative is difficult to live by because, as Ignatieff notes, it exists in relentless competition with ‘the powerful alternative morality of violence’.

Jürgen Moltmann, in The Power of the Powerless, bears witness to this ‘difficult’ way, a way which lives not from that narrative that is passing away but from what Moltmann calls ‘the superabundance of God’s future’:

‘The Easter faith recognizes that the raising of the crucified Christ from the dead provides the great alternative to this world of death. This faith sees the raising of Christ as God’s protest against death, and against all the people who work for death; for the Easter faith recognizes God’s passion for the life of the person who is threatened by death and with death. And faith participates in this process of love by getting up out of the apathy of misery and out of the cynicism of prosperity, and fighting against death’s accomplices, here and now, in this life. Weary Christians have often enough deleted this critical and liberating power from Easter. Their faith has then degenerated into the confident belief in certain facts, and a poverty-stricken hope for the next world, as if death were nothing but a fate we meet with at the end of life. But death is an evil power now, in life’s very midst. It is the economic death of the person we allow to starve; the political death of the people who are oppressed; the social death of the handicapped; the noisy death that strikes through napalm bombs and torture; and the soundless death of the apathetic soul. The resurrection faith is not proved true by means of historical evidence, or only in the next world. It is proved here and now, through the courage for revolt, the protest against deadly powers, and the self-giving of men and women for the victory of life. It is impossible to talk convincingly about Christ’s resurrection without participating in the movement of the Spirit “who descends on all flesh” to quicken it. This movement of the Spirit is the divine “liberation movement,” for it is the process whereby the world is recreated. So resurrection means rebirth out of impotence and indolence to “the living hope.” And today “living hope” means a passion for life, and a lived protest against death … Christ’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s rebellion. That rebellion is still going on in the Spirit of hope, and will be complete when, together with death, “every rule and every authority and power” is at last abolished (1 Cor. 15:24). The resurrection hope finds living expression in men and women when they protest against death and the slaves of death. But it lives from something different – from the superabundance of God’s future. Its freedom lives in resistance against all the outward and inward denials of life. But it does not live from this protest. It lives from joy in the coming victory of life. Protest and resistance are founded on this hope. Otherwise they degenerate into mere accusation and campaigns of revenge. But the greater hope has to take living form in this protest and resistance; otherwise it turns into religious seduction … Easter is a feast, and it is as the feast of freedom that it is celebrated. For with Easter begins the  laughter of the redeemed, the dance of the liberated and the creative play of fantasy. From time immemorial Easter hymns have celebrated the victory of life by laughing at death, mocking at hell, and ridiculing the mighty ones who spread fear and terror around them. Easter is the feast of freedom. It makes the life which it touches a festal life. “The risen Christ makes life a perpetual feast,” said Athanasius. But can the whole of life really be a feast? Even life’s dark side – death , guilt, senseless suffering? I think it can. Once we realize that the giver of this feast is the outcast, suffering, crucified Son of Man from Nazareth, then every “no” is absorbed into this profound “yes,” and is swallowed up in its victory. Easter is at one and the same time God’s protest against death, and the feast of freedom from death. Anyone who fails to hold these two things together has failed to understand the resurrection of the Christ who was crucified. Resistance is the protest of those who hope, and hope is the feast of the people who resist’. (pp. 123–26).

Robert Frost was right; we have a choice. That choice, in this case just as in others more domestic, is between Revenge (‘keeping faith with the dead’) and Reconciliation (keeping Easter faith):

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
and that has made all the difference.

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.

The modern time myth

In light of recent inklings of revolution in the Middle East, and in light of a conversation I had just yesterday with a friend about Robert Jenson’s notion of time, I was struck by these words from Richard Bauckham in his characteristically-helpful essay on Jürgen Moltmann’s understanding of time:

‘The modern time myth can be seen as an ideology of the powerful, for whom a future continuous with the present represents the continuation and extension of their position of dominance and privilege. (Here the critique can be applied to the time myth only in its liberal progressivist, not its Marxist revolutionary form.) A model of time which requires the future to be extrapolated from the past and the present, which denies alternative possibilities, radical changes, real novelty, unpredictable irruptions in the historical process, is a model in the interests of those who must suppress alternative possibilities if they are to maintain their own power in the future. It is the ideology which justifies their own power to determine the future … Thus the one-sided secular millenarianism of the modern world is a myth of power which provokes among the powerless and the dominated the hope of an apocalyptic end to the present order and an alternative future …’. – Richard Bauckham, ‘Time and Eternity’, in God Will Be All in All: The Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann (ed. Richard Bauckham; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 170.

On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XIV

‘Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never’. (Elie Wiesel. Night, 45).

So penned Elie Wiesel in the moving record of his childhood in the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. For Wiesel, as for countless others – both inside and outside the camps – the systematic extermination of millions of human beings – whether Jews, political activists, homosexuals, or others – meant the death of faith and of God. In fact, as John de Gruchy perceptively notes in his Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective, ‘suffering is especially a problem for the person who believes, or who wants to believe in God. Yet, paradoxically, the problem can only be handled from the perspective of faith’ (p. 102).

There can be no real argument that ‘suffering is built into the fabric of human existence’ (Ibid., p. 97), and that questions of suffering pose the most real and existentially-alive challenge to belief in God. Suffering, the kind of suffering that ‘plucks the tongue from the head and the voice from the heart’ (Daniel Berrigan in Hans-Ruedi Weber, On a Friday Noon: Meditations Under the Cross, p. 28), is both a challenge and opportunity for Christian belief as well as for pastoral ministry because it is held to demonstrate the logical incoherence of Christianity.

One of the most influential novels of last century was The Plague (1947) by the French-Algerian author, philosopher, and journalist Albert Camus (1913–1960). The Plague recalls a plague (oddly enough) which is causing untold suffering and death, underscoring the universal condition of humankind. Dr Reuss, the main character, a compassionate physician, says at one point, ‘Since … the world is shaped by death mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?’ (p. 128.). Elsewhere there is a scene where a priest, an unbeliever and the doctor surround the bed of a little boy who is dying. He suffers in pain. The priest asks God for help: ‘My God, spare this child’ (p. 217). The boy dies. Later the priest declares, ‘That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand’. The doctor responds: ‘“No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture”’ (p. 218).

At another time, Camus was returning home from church when a six year old girl asked him why little girls starve in Africa while she has plenty to eat: ‘Doesn’t God love them as much as he does me?’ His inability to provide an answer birthed the conclusion that there was no God. To this, C.S. Lewis may have replied (as he did in The Problem of Pain) that

‘The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word “love”, and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. “Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest “well pleased”. To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God: because He is what He is, His love must, in the nature of things, be impeded and repelled, by certain stains in our present character, and because He already loves us He must labour to make us lovable’. (p. 36)

On 4 June 1886, T.H. Huxley penned a letter to a Sir John Skelton. The letter concluded with these words: ‘… there is amazingly little evidence of “reverential care for unoffending creation” in the arrangements of nature, that I can discover. If our ears were sharp enough to hear all the cries of pain that are uttered by men and beasts, we should be deafened by one continuous scream! And yet the wealth of superfluous loveliness in the world condemns pessimism. It is a hopeless riddle’ (Leonard Huxley, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, in Three Volumes, 2:353). Again, the question of suffering is unquestionably among the most difficult for faith, and so for pastoral ministry. So Jürgen Moltmann in The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God: ‘It is in suffering that the whole human question about God arises … [Suffering] is the open wound of life in this world’ (pp. 47, 49). So too Lance Morrow, in a Time Magazine article entitled ‘Evil’:

‘The historian Jeffrey Burton Russell asks, ‘What kind of God is this? Any decent religion must face the question squarely, and no answer is credible that cannot be given in the presence of dying children’. Can one propose a God who is partly evil? Elie Wiesel, who was in Auschwitz as a child, suggests that perhaps God has ‘retracted himself’ in the matter of evil. Wiesel has written, ‘God is in exile, but every individual, if he strives hard enough, can redeem mankind, and even God himself’’.

This situation is, in Moltmann’s words, ‘the open wound of life’ in which honest pastoral ministry happens. In the post-Auschwitz world, questions of suffering and theodicy have determined, dominated and challenged theology. As Rabbi Richard L. Rubenstein put it in After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism:

‘I believe the greatest single challenge to modern Judaism arises out of the question of God and the death camps. I am amazed at the silence of contemporary Jewish theologians on this most crucial and agonizing of all Jewish issues. How can Jews believe in an omnipotent, beneficent God after Auschwitz? Traditional Jewish theology maintains that God is the ultimate, omnipotent actor in the historical drama. It has interpreted every major catastrophe in Jewish history as God’s punishment of a sinful Israel. I fail to see how this position can be maintained without regarding Hitler and the SS as instruments of God’s will. The agony of European Jewry cannot be likened to the testing of Job. To see any purpose in the death camps, the traditional believer is forced to regard the most demonic, anti-human explosion of all history as a meaningful expression of God’s purposes. The idea is simply too obscene for me to accept’. (p. 171)

And others too have asked:

‘You will sooner or later be confronted by the enigma of God’s action in history’. (Elie Wiesel, in One Generation After, as Cited in Richard L. Rubenstein and John K. Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy, p. 327)

‘Given the classical theological positions of both Judaism and Christianity, the fundamental question posed by the Holocaust is not whether the existence of a just, omnipotent God can be reconciled with radical evil. That is a philosophical question. The religious question is the following: Did God use Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as his agents to inflict terrible sufferings and death upon six million Jews, including more than one million children?’ (Ibid., p. 327)

‘The God of Holy Nothingness is ‘omnipresent’, although not in the usual sense meant by theologians. This God resides within destruction. The Holy Nothingness generates this-world and its vicissitudes from out of its own fecund plenitude. Yet, a God so involved in the world and its attendant suffering becomes deeply complicit and can only invite the wrath and enmity of her aggrieved children’. (Zachary Braiterman, (God) after Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought, pp. 99–100)

And Martin Buber, in On Judaism, asks, ‘How is life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz?’ He acknowledges that one might still ‘believe in’ a God who permitted the Shoah to happen, but he questions the possibility of hearing God’s word, let alone entering into an I-Thou relationship with God: ‘Can one still hear His word? Can one still, as an individual and as a people, enter at all into a dialogical relationship with Him? Dare we recommend to the survivors of Auschwitz, the Job of the gas chambers: “Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever”?’ (p. 224).

And we could go on, citing proposed responses from Epicures, from David Hume, from Gottfried Leibniz, from John Stuart Mill, from Richard Dawkins, from C.S. Lewis, from Thomas Aquinas, from David Bentley Hart, and from others. But the intro to this post has been long enough to introduce the point that one of the surprising features of life for many when they enter the ministry is confrontation with grief and suffering of immense depth. The pastor dare not trot out glib answers which only increase the suffering and betray her or his lack of understanding. But does this mean that pastors can only, and/or must, remain silent? Yes and No.

Enter one qualified to help pastors out at this point – the Lutheran pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945). And I want to draw here upon John S. Conway’s fine essay, ‘A Meditation upon Bonhoeffer’s Last Writings from Prison’ in Glaube – Freiheit – Diktatur in Europa und den USA: Festschrift für Gerhard Besier zum 60. Geburtstag (ed. Katarzyna Stokłosa and Andrea Strübind; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 235–44.

One of the most radical challenges to the traditional views of God’s omnipotence and of divine impassibility has come from Bonhoeffer’s pen. On 19 December 1944, from his bleak underground prison in the cellars of the Gestapo headquarters in central Berlin, Bonhoeffer sat down to write a Christmas letter to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer (For more on their correspondence, see Love Letters from Cell 92). In what was to be his final greeting, Bonhoeffer included in that letter a poem to be shared with his parents. The poem, which has been made into a wonderful hymn known as ‘By Gracious Powers’, reads like this:

With every power for good to stay and guide me,
comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,
And pass, with you, into the coming year.

The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening:
the long days of sorrow still endure;
Father, grant to the souls thou hast been chastening
that thou hast promised, the healing and the cure.

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

But should it be thy will once more to release us
to life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
that which we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us,
and all our life be dedicate to thine.

To-day, let candles shed their radiant greeting:
lo, on our darkness are they not thy light
leading us, haply, to our longed-for meeting? –
Thou canst illumine even our darkest night.

When now the silence deepens for our hearkening
grant we may hear thy children’s voices raise
from all the unseen world around us darkening
their universal pæan [song of triumph], in thy praise.

While all the powers of Good aid and attend us
boldly we’ll face the future, be it what may.
At even, and at morn, God will befriend us,
and oh, most surely on each new year’s day! (in Letters and Papers from Prison)

These seven short verses bespeak of Bonhoeffer’s trust in God’s enduring and comforting presence during what was the sixth Christmas season of the war and a time of impending and overwhelming disaster. By this time, Bonhoeffer had already been in Tegel prison for nineteen months, mainly in Cell 92. He had been arrested in April 1943 on suspicion of being involved in smuggling Jewish refugees into Switzerland. The investigations had dragged on without resolution for a year and a half. But then in October 1944 he had been transferred to the far more ominous Interrogation Centre of the Gestapo’s main headquarters in downtown Berlin. He now faced the even more severe charges of abetting the conspiracy which had unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler a few months earlier. He would likely be arraigned before the Chief Justice of the People’s Court, Roland Freisler, whose vindictiveness had already sentenced thousands to death for treason against the Reich, and was to do the same to Dietrich’s brother, Klaus. In the meantime the Gestapo was relentlessly trying to entrap him into incriminating confessions about his friends and relatives. What kind of a faith could withstand such ruthless pressures and still witness to God’s powers of goodness?

In this context, Bonhoeffer’s thoughts revolve around the cumulative and appalling suffering of so many people at this crucial stage of the war. From his contacts with the anti-Nazi resistance, he had learnt of the dreadful crimes committed by his countrymen against millions of Jews, Poles, Russians, gypsies and the mentally handicapped. He was equally aware that millions of his own countrymen, including members of his family, had been misled into losing their lives in the service of the Reich’s machinery of violence. How could this suffering be reconciled with a loving Christ? Where is God in all this? Why doesn’t God intervene to put a stop to it? It was just at this critical juncture that Bonhoeffer heard the news that the planned assassination of Hitler had failed. The likely consequences were all too clear, and the tone of his thinking and writing was from then on increasingly filled with foreboding. His preoccupation with suffering and death becomes even more forceful. The imagery and significance of Christ’s crucifixion became ever more real. Out of this came his shortest, but perhaps most memorable, poem, written in the same month, ‘Christians and Others’:

Men go to God when they are sore bestead [placed],
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead;
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Men go to God when he sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead;
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead,
And both alike forgiving. (in Letters and Papers from Prison)

This poem arose out of Bonhoeffer’s bible readings and meditations on the subject of suffering. He was certainly not just preoccupied with his own fate, but rather overwhelmed by the lethal prospects which all his friends in the resistance movement now faced. He knew enough about personal anguish to give authenticity to his statements on suffering. His purpose was to clarify his understanding of a theologia crucis, a theology of the cross.

The poem opens with the universal human desire for relief, for removal of pain, for cessation of suffering, for an end to hunger, for the cleansing of a guilty conscience, for deliverance from death. This makes their religion a form of spiritual pharmacy. But all too often these prayers are not answered. By 1944 the mass murders seemed unstoppable. And Bonhoeffer interpreted the events as Christ being tortured and crucified anew but this time on Nazi Golgothas. Why did God not respond to such heartfelt petitions? Why does it seem that heaven is silent?

Bonhoeffer proposed something of a response to these kinds of questions in his letter dated 16 July 1944:

‘The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world and on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and this is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 [‘This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases”‘] makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering’. (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 134)

Bonhoeffer argues that to be a Christian is to stand by Christ in his hour of grieving, on the cross, in jail, in the bombed-out streets and concentration camps. This is a reversal of what ‘religious’ people typically expect.

So Bonhoeffer:

‘Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age … opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness’. (ibid)

Abraham Heschel, in his brilliant work The Prophets, helpfully reminds us that for the Hebrew prophets, ‘divine ethos does not operate without pathos … [God’s] ethos and pathos are one. The preoccupation with justice, the passion with which the prophets condemn injustice, is rooted in their sympathy with divine pathos’ (1:218). So we read in Isaiah 63.9–10,

In all their affliction he was afflicted,
and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
But they rebelled and grieved his holy Spirit;
therefore he turned to be their enemy,
and himself fought against them.

God suffers because God is holy love. If God were incapable of wrath, of being moved to grief by injustice and oppression, God would not be holy; if God were incapable of suffering, of being moved to grief by the pain and agony of the victims of society, God would not be omnipotent love. In his The Crucified God, Moltmann draws out the connection between the wrath and the love of God as grounded in the life of covenant:

‘[If] one starts from the pathos of God, one does not think of God in his absoluteness and freedom, but understands his passion and his interest in terms of the history of the covenant. The more the covenant is taken seriously as the revelation of God, the more profoundly one can understand the historicity of God and history in God. If God has opened his heart in the covenant with his people, he is injured by disobedience and suffers in the people. What the Old Testament terms the wrath of God does not belong in the category of the anthropomorphic transference of lower human emotions to God, but in the category of the divine pathos. His wrath is injured love and therefore a mode of his reaction to men. Love is the source and the basis of the possibility of the wrath of God. The opposite of love is not wrath, but indifference. Indifference towards justice and injustice would be a retreat on the part of God from the covenant. But his wrath is an expression of his abiding interest in man. Anger and love do not therefore keep a balance. ‘His wrath lasts for the twinkling of an eye,’ and, as the Jonah story shows, God takes back his anger for the sake of his love in reaction to human repentance. As injured love, the wrath of God is not something that is inflicted, but a divine suffering of evil. It is a sorrow which goes through his opened heart. He suffers in his passion for his people’. (pp. 171–2)

 

God grieves, then, because of the rebellion of his people; God grieves because of the broken relationship between himself and his creation; God grieves because of the inevitable consequences of human sin and rebellion; God grieves because he remembers what might have been; God grieves because love always hopes! Moltmann talks about the way that God is ‘injured by disobedience and suffers in the people’ who deserve their suffering, but what of the victims of their injustice? What of those who because of the faithlessness of the people of God find it difficult to believe in God?

de Gruchy is helpful here. Again from Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis:

‘… it is not so much God who is beyond belief, but the church which has lost its credibility. Indeed, if God has become a problem it is precisely because those who claim to believe in God have too often denied him in practice. The credibility of the church’s testimony today is bound up not so much with its intellectual ability to defend the faith, to solve the theodicy problem as traditionally stated, … but far more with the willingness of the church to participate in the suffering of Christ for the sake of the world. And this means to share in the struggle for justice. To be sure, the justification of God can only be resolved eschatologically, but that takes place penultimately in history through authentic witness to the kingdom of God. The God in whom we believe, the God revealed in the crucified Messiah, the God who is present even when he is experienced as absent, and absent when we think he is present, this God has opted to be on the side of those who suffer because of the oppression of others’. (p. 123)

And de Gruchy helpfully reminds us that the suffering of God described so poignantly and powerfully in the Old Testament is not just grief caused by a sinful and disobedient people; it is also suffering with and on behalf of those who suffer as a result of Israel’s sin – the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the lowly and innocent ones (see p. 113). And he cites from Terence Fretheim’s The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, p. 108: ‘The human cry becomes God’s cry, God takes up the human cry and makes it God’s own’. This is precisely what Bonhoeffer, in Discipleship, called God’s ‘hour of grieving’, an hour in which and a grieving of such that God invites his people to participate. The church is not simply the community of Christ which suffers vicariously for others. It is also itself the suffering church and itself the victim of oppression.

Certainly Bonhoeffer knew well that the sufferings and deaths he was daily made aware of could not be ascribed to the moral failings of the individuals concerned. Rather these tribulations had, and have, to be understood as the result of collective human willful sinfulness. But God has not withdrawn into a remote impassivity. Rather, God suffers alongside his creation. To repeat:

Men go to God when he sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread …

 

The depths of divine suffering are reached in the cross where God finds himself ‘whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead’.

 

So what should the responses of Christians, and of pastors, be? Not like others, who merely pass by, to whom the sight of a dead Jew on a cross is nothing. But Christians in this situation of crisis have a particular and significant calling. As Bonhoeffer notes in the last line of verse 2: ‘Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving’. In a letter written to his friend Eberhard Bethge shortly after the poem was completed, Bonhoeffer expanded on this line:

‘This is what distinguishes Christians from pagans. Jesus asked in Gethsemane, ‘Could you not watch with me one hour?’. That is a reversal of what the religious man expects from God. Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.

He must therefore really live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. He must live a ‘worldly’ life, and thereby share in God’s sufferings. To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man – not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. That is metanoia: not in the first place thinking about one own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event, thus fulfilling Isa. 53 now …

This being caught up into the messianic sufferings of God in Jesus Christ takes a variety of forms in the New Testament. It appears in the call to discipleship, in Jesus’ table-fellowship with sinners, in ‘conversions’ in the narrower sense of the word (e.g. Zacchaeus), in the act of the woman who was a sinner (Luke 7) – an act that she performed without any confession of sin – in the healing of the sick (Matt. 8.17; see above), in Jesus’ acceptance of children. The shepherds, like the wise men from the East, stand at the crib, not as ‘converted sinners’, but simply because they are drawn to the crib by the star just as they are. The centurion of Capernaum (who makes no confession of sin) is held up as a model of faith (cf. Jairus). Jesus ‘loved’ the rich young man. The eunuch (Acts 8) and Cornelius (Acts 10) are not standing at the edge of an abyss. Nathaniel is ‘an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile’ (John 1:47). Finally, Joseph of Arimathea and the women at the tomb. The only thing that is common to all these is their sharing in the suffering of God in Christ. That is their ‘faith’. There is nothing of religious method here. The ‘religious act’ is always something partial; ‘faith’ is something whole, involving the whole of one’s life. Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life’. (Letters and Papers from Prison), pp. 135–6)

But where shall we find the strength and the grace to become such disciples? Verse 3 of the poem boldly asserts that, despite the sins we have all committed, despite the barriers we have all erected, despite all our efforts to behave like others, religiously, nevertheless God visits all people in their distress:

God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead,
And both alike forgiving.

The second line here draws our attention to the eucharist where by sharing with us his body and his blood, Christ draws us into his pain and suffering. To repeat from the poem which we began our discussion on Bonhoeffer with:

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

Here we are reminded of what Bonhoeffer explores more fully in Discipleship, namely that in his total identification with humanity in incarnation, and then by calling us into fellowship and discipleship with himself, Christ bids us to ‘come and die’.

‘The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest. Only a man thus totally committed in discipleship can experience the meaning of the cross. The cross is there, right from the beginning, he has only got to pick it up: there is no need for him to go out and look for a cross for himself, no need for him to deliberately run after suffering. Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him, a cross destined and appointed by God. Each must endure his allotted share of suffering and rejection. But each has a different share: some God deems worthy of the highest form of suffering, and gives them the grace of martyrdom, while others he does not allow to be tempted above that they are able to bear. But it is the one and the same cross in every case.

The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life. The call of Christ, his baptism, sets the Christian in the middle of the daily arena against sin and the devil. Every day he encounters new temptations, and every day he must suffer anew for Jesus Christ’s sake. The wounds and scars he receives in the fray are living tokens of this participation in the cross of his Lord. But there is another kind of suffering and shame which the Christian is not spared. While it is true that only the sufferings of Christ are a means of atonement, yet since he has suffered for and borne the sins of the whole world and shares with his disciples the fruits of his passion, the Christian also has to undergo temptation, he too has to bear the sins of others; he too must bear their shame and be driven like a scapegoat from the gate of the city. But he would certainly break down under this burden, but for the support of him who bore the sins of all. The passion of Christ strengthens him to overcome the sins of others by forgiving them. He becomes the bearer of other men’s burdens – ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ’ (Gal. 6.2). As Christ bears our burdens, so we ought to bear the burdens of our fellow-men. The law of Christ, which it is our duty to fulfil, is the bearing of the cross. My brother’s burden which I must bear is not only his outward lot, his natural characteristics and gifts, but quite literally his sin. And the only way to bear that sin is by forgiving it in the power of the cross of Christ in which I now share. Thus the call to follow Christ always means a call to share the work of forgiving men their sins. Forgiveness is the Chrislike suffering which it is the Christian’s duty to bear.

But how is the disciple to know what kind of cross is meant for him? He will soon find out as he begins to follow his Lord and to share his life.

Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his master. Following Christ means passio passive, suffering because we have to suffer. That is why Luther reckoned suffering among the marks of the true Church, and one of the memoranda drawn up in preparation for the Augsburg Confession similarly defines the Church as the community of those ‘who are persecuted and martyred for the gospel’s sake’. If we refuse to take up our cross and submit to suffering and rejection at the hands of men, we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow Him. But if we lose our lives in his service and carry our cross, we shall find our lives again in the fellowship of the cross with Christ. The opposite of discipleship is to be ashamed of Christ and his cross and all the offense which the cross brings in its train.

Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer. It is a joy and token of his grace. The acts of the early Christian martyrs are full of evidence which shows how Christ transfigures for his own the hour of their mortal agony by granting them the unspeakable assurance of his presence. In the hour of the cruelest torture they bear for his sake, they are made partakers in the perfect joy and bliss of fellowship with him. To bear the cross proves to be the only way of triumphing over suffering. This is true for all who follow Christ, because it was true for him’. (pp. 43–6)

In October, Bonhoeffer was transferred to the far more ominous and menacing Gestapo prison in central Berlin. But the evidence that we have is that his own faith and trust in his crucified Lord led him to identify more and more with the future hope of resurrection beyond death. So he could therefore face the inevitable testing through suffering by affirming his belief in God’s guiding hand, and the assuredness of God’s nearness. In his final poem ‘By the powers of Good’, the central verse takes up this issue:

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

When C.S. Lewis lost his wife he wrote at one point in his anguish: ‘Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll gladly listen. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand’ (A Grief Observed, 23). And yet the task of providing consolation has always been a significant part of the work of a pastor. It is, in many ways, a task among the most difficult for the pastor. It is difficult because questions of suffering involve us in the depths of our humanity. And it is difficult because mere human words have no answer to the mystery of suffering.

Here we could do much worse that simply listen to the experience of Nick Wolterstorff who, in grief after losing his 25-year-old son Eric in a mountain climbing accident, penned the wonderfully-moving Lament for a Son:

‘What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with wNicords of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.”

Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be the death of a child in the absence of love.

But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.

I know: People do sometimes think things are more awful than they really are. Such people need to be corrected-gently, eventually. But no one thinks death is more awful than it is. It’s those who think it’s not so bad that need correcting.

Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings-never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt.

And later, when you ask me how I am doing and I respond with a quick, thoughtless “Fine’’ or “OK,” stop me sometime and ask, “No, I mean really.” (pp. 34–5)

It is imperative to the integrity of its witness that the Church takes suffering and grief with the utmost seriousness. And as for death – Death sucks! There is simply nothing positive we can say about it, nor should we seek to live in peace with it. So Wolterstorff again:

‘Someone said to Claire, “I hope you’re learning to live at peace with Eric’s death.” Peace, shalom, salaam. Shalom is the fulness of life in all dimensions. Shalom is dwelling in justice and delight with God, with neighbor, with oneself, in nature. Death is shalom’s mortal enemy. Death is demonic. We cannot live at peace with death.

When the writer of Revelation spoke of the coming of the day of shalom, he did not say that on that day we would live at peace with death. He said that on that day “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

I shall try to keep the wound from healing, in recognition of our living still in the old order of things. I shall try to keep it from healing, in solidarity with those who sit beside me on humanity’s mourning bench’. (p. 63)

In the face of death, suffering and grief, what the Church is given to know and to hope in and to proclaim is the word of the cross and resurrection. We have no other word! Moltmann’s The Crucified God is characteristically helpful here:

‘The cross of Christ is not and cannot be loved. Yet only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes the world because it is no longer afraid of death. In his time the crucified Christ was regarded as a scandal and foolishness. Today, too, it is considered old-fashioned to put him in the centre of Christian faith and of theology. Yet only when [human beings] are reminded of him, however untimely this may be, can they be set free from the power of the facts of the present time, and from the laws and compulsions of history, and be offered a future which will never grow dark again. Today the church and theology must turn to the crucified Christ in order to show the world the freedom he offers. This is essential if they wish to become what they assert they are: the church of Christ, and Christian theology … Whether or not Christianity, in an alienated, divided and oppressive society, itself becomes alienated, divided and an accomplice of oppression, is ultimately decided only by whether the crucified Christ is a stranger to it or the Lord who determines the form of its existence … In Christianity the cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian’. (pp. 1, 3, 7)

‘We must not only ask whether it is possible and conceivable that one man has been raised from the dead before all others, and not only seek analogies in the historical structure of reality and in the anticipatory structure of reason, but also ask who this man was. If we do, we shall find that he was condemned according to his people’s understanding of the law as a ‘blasphemer ‘ and was crucified by the Romans, according to the divine ordinance of the Pax Romana, as a ‘rebel.’ He met a hellish death with every sign of being abandoned by his God and Father. The new and scandalous element in the Christian message of Easter was not that some man or other was raised before anyone else, but that the one who was raised was this condemned, executed and forsaken man. This was the unexpected element in the kerygma of the resurrection which created the new righteousness of faith’. (p. 175)

‘This deep community of will between Jesus and his God and Father is now expressed precisely at the point of their deepest separation, in the godforsaken and accursed death of Jesus on the cross’. (pp. 243–44)

‘The death of Jesus on the cross is the centre of all Christian theology … The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about God is to be found in this Christ event. The Christ event on the cross is a God event. And conversely, the God event takes place on the cross of the risen Christ. Here God has not just acted externally, in his unattainable glory and eternity. Here he has acted in himself and has gone on to suffer in himself. Here he himself is love with all his being’. (pp. 204, 205)

So in the face of death, suffering and grief, the Church is called to:

  1. point to Jesus, the Crucified God, who reveals God’s endangering goodness and suffering love;
  2. participate in God’s cruciform life by suffering with those who suffer and working to relieve and eliminate suffering. Such cruciformity constitutes the ethical dimension of the theology of the cross found throughout the NT and the Christian tradition. Paradoxically, because the living Christ remains the crucified one, cruciformity is Spirit-enabled conformity to the indwelling crucified and resurrected Christ. It is the ministry of the living Christ, who re-shapes all relationships and responsibilities to express the self-giving, life-giving love of God that was displayed on the cross. Although cruciformity often includes suffering, at its heart cruciformity – like the cross – is about faithfulness and love.

Many of those who have suffered devastating grief or dehumanising pain have, at some point, been confronted by near relatives of Job’s miserable comforters, who come with their clichés and tired, pious mouthings. These relatives engender guilt where they should be administering balm, and utter solemn truths where their lips ought to be conduits of compassion. They talk about being strong and courageous when they should just shut and weep … and pray to the God ‘who comforts the downcast’ (2 Cor 7.6), who is the ‘God of all comfort’ (2 Cor 1.3), who intercedes for us both when we can articulate what we want to say and when all we have are groans, and to whom not even death represents the end.

But there is a further posture that we are invited, by God, to maintain. And that is the posture of protest prayer. I am reminded here of Karl Barth’s statement, that ‘to clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world’ (cited in John W. de Gruchy, Cry Justice: Prayers, Meditations, & Readings from South Africa, 23). A Christian response to evil is not theodicy, but struggle – the struggle of taking God’s side against the world’s disorder, and of refusing to treat evil as an acceptable part of a larger harmonious vision. Only to the extent that we can confess that nothingness has been vanquished in the self-nihilation of Christ, and met with, struggled with, and overcome may we say that we ‘know’ something of sin and evil’s reality, and be able to speak hopefully of its end.

Finally, for now, the continuity/discontinuity of Jesus’ resurrection provides the ontological basis for Christian hope, promising that of whatever post-resurrection life consists, it is hope in something other than endless continuity. And as meaningful as life’s plots and subplots might be, it is the end (and the more improbable the better) that confers meaning on the whole. It is to bear witness to this end that pastors labour.

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Other posts in this series:

Thinking about the (living) nature of tradition

Igor Stravinsky once wrote that ‘Real tradition is not the relic of a past that is irretrievably gone. It is a living force that anticipates and informs the present’. I got thinking about this recently when sparked by a comment over at James Hoffmann’s blog, a blog mainly about coffee. Rejecting ‘the idea that tradition is something immutable, something to be preserved and studied’, he proposes that that we think about tradition as ‘little more than persistent ideas, roughly copied using the human mind’. He continues:

‘Their memetic nature means that a tradition will adapt and change in order to be valuable and be passed on. What distinguishes tradition from historical cultural artifact is relevance to the current culture. What is traditional is not correct, nor perfect, it is merely useful enough to keep alive as an idea’.

He then asks what this has to do with coffee. His answer: ‘Espresso is Italy in 1950 would be further away from espresso in Italy in 2010 than espresso in the USA in 2010. I hope, and strongly suspect, that espresso in Italy today will be abhorrent to an Italian in 2060. Tradition must evolve’.

I love this way of thinking about tradition (and coffee) as dynamic. Indeed, one nature of tradition is that the retelling of traditions typically births stories which themselves become part of the tradition itself. In other words, traditions are living things, birthing realities. So, for example, in his book, Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreams, Ian Bradley helpfully recalls how (through 6 epochs or distinct movements of what he calls ‘Celtic Christian revivalism’) the tradition has co-opted and even bastardised Celtic faith and created a mythology with serves its current interests, whether political, ecclesiological or missional.

Or we might prefer to think along lines drawn by Jürgen Moltmann in The Church in the Power of the Spirit:

The tradition to which the church appeals, and which it proclaims whenever it calls itself Christ’s church and speaks in Christ’s name, is the tradition of the messianic liberation and eschatological renewal of the world. It is impossible to rest on this tradition. It is a tradition that changes men and from which they are born again. It is like the following wind that drives us to new shores. Anyone who enters into this messianic tradition accepts the adventure of the Spirit, the experience of liberation, the call to repentance, and common work for the coming kingdom. Tradition and reformation, what abides and what changes, faithfulness and the fresh start are not antitheses in the history of the Spirit. For the Spirit leads to the fellowship of Christ and consummates the messianic kingdom. (p. 3)

Two further thoughts on tradition, the first from Steve Holmes, the latter from Katherine Sonderegger:

‘When we learn to listen to the tradition faithfully, not assuming that we already know what we shall hear, but instead allowing earlier voices their own integrity, we will inevitably be surprised by the strangeness of much what is said. At that point we will be faced with a choice: we might take the modern way of patronising earlier voices by assigning them to their ‘place in history’, and so pretending that they have nothing to say to us; or we might believe that to listen to these voices in all their strangeness, and to regard their positions as serious, and live, options is actually a theological imperative. Perhaps the most two obvious areas where this will be true are sexual ethics and biblical interpretation …’. – Steve Holmes, Listening to the Past, 86.

‘It is to be admitted on all sides, I believe, that religions are deeply traditional in character-to their glory or shame-and do not find transformation over and out of their past an easy act, or a welcome one. Indeed, it is this very traditionalism that has made observers of religion-sociologists or anthropologists-keen to compare or conflate religions with the social ideals and structures that they mirror and guide. It is not simply the reductionism of Ludwig Feuerbach, or rather only a caricature of him, that stands behind the association of religion with social practice and ideal. Instead, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber see in religion what historians have long recorded: the antiquarian nature of religious dress and language; the preservation of older, sometimes ancient custom in ritual and rite; the fondness for the old and customary in guilds and furnishings; the retention of laws, texts, and titles from an earlier age that slowly become the cultural and technical terms of the religious world; and finally, the backwardlooking posture of religious teaching that loves its own past and sees in those ancient teachings wisdom that shapes and instructs the new … Tradition is not simply the church’s past. It is not even its living or continuous past. Tradition is both a body of teaching, practice, and lore, and an attitude toward that body. Tradition – to echo a favorite phrase of the Protestant scholastics – is both the piety by which we honor the past and the piety that we honor. It is a communion with the saints and their witness to God that makes them our contemporaries in the life of faith. “The past,” William Faulkner wrote in a haunting phrase, “is not dead; it is not even past.” So we might say of tradition. It possesses a quality of the present that resides in our midst, not in fact because of our recollection or use of it, but rather because as a cloud of witnesses, it participates in the eternal history of God made present in the Spirit to us now. Tradition is itself, in this way, a part of the trinitarian and christological dogmas of the church, and draws its power from the divine reality on which it depends and is given grace to echo’. – Katherine Sonderegger, ‘On the Holy Name of God’, Theology Today 58:3 (October 2001): 387, 389.

Holy Spirit in the World Today Conference talks

Most of the talks from the recent Holy Spirit in the World Today Conference, a two day conference jointly sponsored by St Paul’s Theological College and St Mellitus College, are now available for download:

Jürgen Moltmann’s Ethik der Hoffnung

Now here’s something worth hanging out for: Jürgen Moltmann’s latest offering Ethik der Hoffnung. It’s due out on 26 July. In the meantime, all we have is the blurb:

‘Mit der »Theologie der Hoffnung« begründete Jürgen Moltmann 1964 seinen internationalen Ruf. Die politische Botschaft dieses Buches: Christliche Existenz und gesellschaftliches Handeln gehören zusammen. Jetzt folgt endlich die lang erwartete »Ethik der Hoffnung«. Darin entwirft Moltmann die Grundlinien einer Ethik der Hoffnung, die für ihn leitend waren und sind. Er macht deutlich, wie aus einer Perspektive der Theologie der Hoffnung ethische Sichtweisen, ethische Urteile und konkretes Handeln aussehen könnten.

Nach einem grundlegenden Kapitel über den Zusammenhang von Eschatologie und Ethik folgen drei Schritte: Moltmann fragt nach einer Ethik des Lebens in Abgrenzung gegen eine Ethik des Todes, nach einer Ethik der Erde angesichts der ökologischen Herausforderungen der Gegenwart und schließlich nach einer Ethik der Gerechtigkeit angesichts der wachsenden gesellschaftlichen und globalen Ungleichgewichte im sozialen Miteinander.

Dies ist kein Lehrbuch, aber ein auf ethische Praxis ausgerichteter Entwurf mit Handlungsvorschlägen in Hoffnungshorizonten’.

It’s almost as exciting as this.

Moltmann to give Lenten lectures: ‘Reflections on the Cross’

Jürgen Moltmann is to give the 2010 public Lenten Lectures at The American Church in Paris on the following topics:

  • “The Passion of Christ – Compassion of God” – Tuesday, March 16
  • “The Passion of Christ – God’s Solidarity with Victims” – Wednesday, March 17
  • “What does Christ’s passion mean for God?” – Thursday, March 18

More details here.

I’m so miffed that I can’t be there.

The Answer? Richard Bauckham

BauckhamThanks to all who participated in our latest Who Said It? competition here at Per Crucem ad Lucem. There were definately some intriguing suggestions. The correct answer, however, is Richard Bauckham, and the quote comes from his book Moltmann: Messianic Theology in the Making (Basingstoke: Marshall Pickering, 1987), 100. While there were no winners this time, those who guessed Moltmann deserve an extra chocolate.

We shall play again soon.

‘For myself I am an optimist – it does not seem to be much use being anything else’

invisible man

‘To believe means …’

Van Gogh - The Raising of Lazarus 1890I wish to follow up on my previous post on A Liturgy for a Miscarried Child with some words from the ‘Introduction’ to Moltmann’s groundbreaking thesis, Theology of Hope:

To believe means to cross in hope and anticipation the bounds that have been penetrated by the raising of the crucified. If we bear that in mind, then this faith can have nothing to do with fleeing the world, with resignation and with escapism. In this hope the soul does not soar above our vale of tears to some imagined heavenly bliss, nor does it sever itself from the earth. For, in the words of Ludwig Feuerbach, it puts ‘in place of the beyond that lies above our grave in heaven the beyond that lies above our grave on earth, the historic future, the future of mankind’. It sees in the resurrection of Christ not the eternity of heaven, but the future of the very earth on which his cross stands. It sees in him the future of the very humanity for which he died. That is why it finds the cross the hope of the earth. This hope struggles for the obedience of the body, because it awaits the quickening of the body. It espouses in all meekness the cause of the devastated earth and of harassed humanity, because it is promised possession of the earth. Ave crux – unica spes!

But on the other hand, all this must inevitably mean that the man who thus hopes will never be able to reconcile himself with the laws and constraints of this earth, neither with the inevitability of death nor with the evil that constantly bears further evil. The raising of Christ is not merely a consolation to him in a life that is full of distress and doomed to die, but it is also God’s contradiction of suffering and death, of humiliation and offence, and of the wickedness of evil. Hope finds in Christ not only a consolation in suffering, but also the protest of the divine promise against suffering. If Paul calls death the ‘last enemy’ (I Cor. 15.26), then the opposite is also true: that the risen Christ, and with him the resurrection hope, must be declared to be the enemy of death and of a world that puts up with death. Faith takes up this contradiction and thus becomes itself a contradiction to the world of death. That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present. If we had before our eyes only what we see, then we should cheerfully or reluctantly reconcile ourselves with things as they happen to be. That we do not reconcile ourselves, that there is no pleasant harmony between us and reality, is due to our unquenchable hope. This hope keeps man unreconciled, until the great day of the fulfilment of all the promises of God. It keeps him in statu viatoris, in that unresolved openness to world questions which has its origin in the promise of God in the resurrection of Christ and can therefore be resolved only when the same God fulfils his promise. This hope makes the Christian Church a constant disturbance in human society, seeking as the latter does to stabilize itself into a ‘continuing city’. It makes the Church the source of continual new impulses towards the realization of righteousness, freedom and humanity here in the light of the promised future that is to come. This Church is committed to ‘answer for the hope’ that is in it (I Peter 3.15). It is called in question ‘on account of the hope and resurrection of the dead’ (Acts 23.6). Wherever that happens, Christianity embraces its true nature and becomes a witness of the future of Christ’. – Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology (New York/Evanston: Harper & Row, 1967), 20–22.

Jürgen Moltmann on threats to theological education

A Broad Place‘At the end of the war, both seminaries [established by the Confessing Church] were reopened in order to make it possible to study theology both at state universities and in independent faculties. I still think this double strategy was a wise one, for one never knows from which quarter the freedom of theology may be threatened’. – Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography (trans. Margaret Kohl; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 71.

‘God will Transform’, by Jürgen Moltmann

Moltmann 2‘God will Transform: Destructive Judgement is a Godless Picture’

By Jürgen Moltmann

Since the Middle Ages, a conception of death and resurrection became fixed in Christian thinking that is deeply unchristian: the pictorial world of heaven and hell, the conception of a Last Judgement that rewards good works and punishes bad deeds to order the transition to the world to come. According to this notion, God’s judgement only knows two sentences: either eternal life or eternal death, either heaven or hell. If one asks what will come of the good visible creation, the earth and God’s other earthly creatures, the answer is everything will be burnt to ashes. This world will not be needed any more when the blessed will see directly in heaven without mediation by other creatures.

This idea of judgement is incomprehensible and hostile to creation. Are God the Judge and God the Creator different gods? Does the judging God destroy the faithfulness of the Creator to his creatures? This would be God’s self-contradiction or different gods. The Biblical trust in God is destroyed as well as trust in Jesus. The judging Christ with the two-edged sword has nothing to do with the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus of Nazareth healing the sick and forgiving sins. The idea of destructive punishment is an extremely godless picture.

However, there is another conception of world judgement. Injustice is a scandal. Victims do not die away. All the murderers do not find any rest. The hunger for justice remains as a torment in a world of violent crying. The powerless and oppressed hope for a world judge “who creates justice for those suffering injustice.” Israel’s psalms of lamentation are an eloquent example of true creative justice. God’s righteousness will “create” justice for victims, raising them from the dust and healing wounded life.

Later and under foreign influences, a universal criminal judge was made out of this saving Liberator in the biblical scriptures who judges good and evil and does not ask about the victims any more. A deed-oriented moral judgement according to the standard of retributive justice came out of a victim-oriented expectation of saving justice. Correcting this aberration means christianizing the idea of judgement so it is oriented in Israel’s original experience of God’s creative, saving and healing justice.

The New Testament offers staring-points. The New Testament understands Judgement Day as the “day of the Son of man” on which the crucified and resurrected Christ will be revealed and all the world before him. Both will appear out of their concealment in the light of truth, the Christ now hidden in God and the person hidden from him/herself. The eternal light will be revealed to them. What is now hidden in nature will be transparent because persons are physical and natural beings connected with the nature of the earth. We cannot be separated from the nature of the earth, neither in the resurrection nor in the end-time judgement.

Christ will be revealed as the crucified and resurrected victor over sin, death and hell, not as the avenger or retaliator. Christ will be revealed as the Everlasting One and leader of life. He will judge according to the justice he proclaimed and practiced through his community with sinners and tax collectors. Otherwise no one could recognize him.

God’s justice is a creative justice. The victims of sin and violence are supported, healed and brought to life by God’s righteousness. The perpetrators of sin and violence will experience a rectifying transformative justice. They will change by being redeemed together with their victims. The crucified Christ who encounters them together with their victims will save them. They will “die off” in their atrocities to be “reborn” to a new life.

Helping and supporting the victims and straightening the perpetrators as the victory of God’s creative justice over everything godless, not the great reckoning with rewards and punishments. This victory of divine justice leads to God’s great day of reconciliation on this earth, not to the division into blessed and damned.

Seen this way, the Last Judgement is not the end of God’s works. It is only the first step of a transformation out of transitoriness into intransitoriness. The new eternal creation will be created on the foundation of justice. Because the judgement serves this new creation of all things, its future-oriented justice is creative and not only a requiting justice referring to the past. It was the mistake of Christian tradition in picture and concept, piety and teaching to only see the judgement over the past of this world and not God’s new world through the judgement.

If a social judging occurs in the Last Judgement, it is in truth a cosmic judgement because the coming Christ is also the cosmic Christ. Already in the psalms, YHWH is called “to judge the earth.” All shattered relations in creation must be straightened out so the new creation can stand on the solid ground of justice and abide in eternity. All creatures should share in eternal being and in God’s eternal vitality. That will be a fundamental change of the cosmos and life. “God will indwell all things and be present in all things.” Then the nothingness will be destroyed and death annihilated. The power of evil will be broken and separated from all creatures. The misery of separation from the living God – sin – will end. Hell will be destroyed. Then the reign of glory will begin.

[Source: Publik-Forum; HT: Marc Batko, via Jürgen Moltmann group]

‘The Gospel of the Judgement and New Creation of All Things’, by Jürgen Moltmann

jurgen-moltmann

The Gospel of the Judgement and New Creation of All Things

By Jürgen Moltmann

What is the Goal of Christ’s Judgement?

The goal of helping victims and rectifying culprits is the triumph of God’s creative justice over everything godless in heaven, earth and below the earth, not the great reckoning with wages and punishments. This victory of divine justice leads to God’s great day of reconciliation on this earth, not to division of humankind into blessed and damned and the end of the world. On Judgement Day, “all tears will be wiped away from their eyes,” the tears of suffering and the tears of repentance. “There will be no mourning, crying or pain” (Rev 21,4). Thus the Last Judgement is penultimate, not ultimate and is not the end of God’s works. It is only a first step in a transition or transformation from transitoriness to intransitoriness. The new eternal creation created on the foundation of justice is definitive. Because the judgement serves this new creation of all things, its justice is a healing, creative justice re-establishing life according to this future, not a retaliatory justice referring to the past. The judgement serves the new creation, not sin and death as the great reckoning. It was the error of the Christian tradition in picture and idea, piety and teaching to see only judgement on the past and not God’s new world beyond the judgement and thus not believing the new beginning in the end.

The practice and endurance of evil are not always apportioned to different persons and groups of persons. Victims can also be perpetrators. In many persons, the perpetrator side and the victim side of evil are inseparably connected. The knowledge that the coming judge will judge us as perpetrators and as victims, reject the Pharisee in us and accept the sinner in us and reconcile us with ourselves. Judging victims and perpetrators is always a social judging. We do not stand isolated and dependent on ourselves before the judge as in human criminal courts or in nightly pangs of conscience. The perpetrators stand together with their victims, Cain with Abel, the powerful with the powerless, the murderers with the murdered. Humanity’s story of woe is inseparably joined with the collective history of culpability.

There are always unsolved and unsolvable social, political and personal conflicts where some become perpetrators and others victims of sin. As in the Auschwitz trials and the South African truth commission, victims have a long tormented memory while perpetrators have only a short memory if they have a memory at all. Therefore the perpetrators depend on the memories of their victims, must hear their reports and learn to see themselves with the eyes of their victims, even if this is frightening and destructive.

Dialectical Universalism

In conclusion, what practice follows from this future expectation? How do we visualize Christ’s coming justice?

An American friend asked his Baptist grandmother about the end of the world and she replied with the mysterious spine-chilling name “Armageddon.” According to Revelation 16,16, this is God’s end-time battle with the devil. Today the struggle of good against evil is generalized with the final victory of the good at the end. From this idea of the end, American fundamentalism developed a fantastic modern end-time struggle scenario. George W. Bush Jr. invented such a scenario, justifying “friend-enemy thinking” as a basic political category. To this end, he conjured the “axis of evil” reaching from Iraq to Iran and North Korea. “America is at war,” he announced after “September 11” and “whoever is not for us is against us.” America remains “at war” since no state had attacked the US but the criminal Islamic unit Al-Qaeda. In what war? The apocalyptic war called Armageddon has already started!

The judgement expectation common to Christianity and Islam has a very similar effect on the present. If the end of the world is God’s judgement over believers and unbelievers with the twofold end: believers in heaven and unbelievers in hell, the present will inevitably be ruled by religious friend-enemy thinking: here the believers in “God’s house” and there the unbelievers in the “house of war.” Since there is no hope for unbelievers, they can be punished here with contempt or terror. Unbelievers are enemies of believers since they are God’s enemies. Anticipation of the Last Judgement by separating people into believers and unbelievers and possibly persecuting unbelievers as God’s enemies is wrong because it is godless. God is not the enemy of unbelievers or the executioner of the godless. “For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11,32). Thus all people of whatever faith or unbelief must be seen as befriended by God’s mercy. God loves them whoever they are. Christ died for them and God’s spirit works in their lives. Thus we cannot be against them.

The all-embracing hope in God’s future explains this boundlessness of love. Why should we take seriously the faith, superstition or unbelief of others as God’s mercy? That was a theme for Christendom in the atheistic East Germany (DDR) state. This cannot be otherwise in our dealings with people of other religions that must be marked by God’s unconditional love. The difference between believers, persons of other faiths and unbelievers are real but are annulled in God’s mercy with everyone.

Christian universalism does not hinder but promotes taking sides for victims of injustice and violence. In a divided and hostile world, the universalism of God’s mercy with everyone is reflected in the well-known “preferential option for the poor.” God acts unilaterally in history in favour of victims and also saves perpetrators through them. Jesus calls the burdened and heavy-laden to himself, accepts sinners and sends the Pharisees away empty. For Paul, the community itself is a testimony for God’s unilateral action in favour of all people. “Consider your call, brethren: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth, but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Cor 1,26-29). Therefore we sing “Sun of Righteousness, Arise in our Time.”

Ecumenical Church Hymn

Sun of righteousness,
arise in our time.
Dawn in your church
so the world can see.
Have mercy, O Lord.

Wake up, dead Christendom
from the sleep of security
so it hears your voice.
Have mercy, O Lord.

Behold the divisions
that no one can resist.
Great Shepherd, gather
everything that has lost its way or gone astray.
Have mercy, O Lord.

Open the gates to the nations.
Let no cunning or power
hamper your heavenly race.
Create light in the dark night!
Have mercy, O Lord.

Let us see your glory
in this time
And seek what creates peace
with our little strength.
Have mercy, O Lord.

Let us be one, Jesus Christ,
as you are one with the Father,
remaining in you always,
today and in eternity.
Have mercy, O Lord.

Power, praise, honour and glory
Are yours Most High always
As Most High is three in one,
Let us be one in him.
Have mercy, O Lord

[Source: Christ im dialog; HT: Marc Batko, via Jürgen Moltmann group]

Towards a theology of the child: a series

childhoodHere’s my posts so far on a theology of the child in historical perspective. It’s a series that I’ve enjoyed doing and which I’d like to return to at some stage (but not for a wee while).

Jürgen Moltmann on Childhood: it all depends on perspective

kidsBy way of drawing a conclusion to a series of wee posts on exploring a theology of childhood (see previous posts on John Calvin, Friedrich SchleiermacherKarl Barth, David JensenKarl Rahner and Tony Kelly) I turn here to German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann. In his essay ‘Child and Childhood as Metaphors of Hope’ [Theology Today 56, no. 4 (2000), 592-603], Moltmann observes the difference in how parents or educators speak about the child, how a child speaks about herself, and how adults recall their own childhood. These three ways of speaking of childhood can also be referred to as (1) ‘pedagogical childhood’, (2) ‘child’s childhood’, and (3) ‘future childhood’.

1. A concerned parents and educators view of childhood.

From the view of concerned parents and teachers, childhood is an age that is meaningful and good in itself on the one hand; on the other hand, it is a stage that is to be overcome by the child’s own development, through training provided by adults and education provided by the society. Finally, parents have to bring up their children, so that they can become something and can be made fit for a life in the world of adults … The open future of children has been pressed into the prescribed adult world through parental and educational measures. Childhood has been viewed as the ‘evolving’ stage of human existence, while old age seems to be the ‘devolving-stage of human existence’. The model of full humanity thus has been the grown-up human being between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-preferably, of course, the ubiquitous man ‘in his best years’.

Moltmann proceeds to cite the work of Leopold von Ranke to sponsor his protest against those notions which would reduce childhood to a mere ‘underdeveloped stage that must be overcome’, or, in von Ranke’s words, as a ‘prologue of the future’, claiming that

‘every epoch is immediate to God’, since the Divine strives to manifest itself in every epoch, and cannot be manifest in its entirety in any one single age. The same is valid for the stages of human life. Children, adolescents, adults and seniors find meaning in each stage of their lives. Every lived moment has meaning for eternity and represents ‘life in abundance’. Thus, every child and youth has a ‘right to their own present’. Even a child who dies early could have had an ‘abundant’ life. Life in abundance is not measured in terms of length, but in terms of the depth of life experience, a quality that will never be reached by a mere quantity of years lived and time spent. Life that is abundant in every present moment has to be affirmed and respected by others, by parents and educators, and should not be sacrificed on the altar of progress.

girl2. A child’s view of childhood.

How children view childhood is an almost impossible mystery for adults to discern. Moltmann writes:

What childhood is for children or how children view their own childhood remains a mystery almost impossible for adults to access since our experiences get confused with both our desires and fears … Perhaps we only become conscious of our childhood experience when we are no longer children, since we can only recognize that from which we are already removed. I think that childhood is outlined and determined by the fact that we are no longer ‘in the safety’ of our mother’s womb, but not yet ‘independent’ … On the other hand, we recall the dependencies, the nightly fears, the powerless dreams of one’s own all-powerfulness and the empty days. We also call to mind how small we were and how big the father, how helpless we were and how omniscient our mother, as well as how the bigger children always seemed already capable of everything. And still we experienced and performed everything ‘for the first time’. With boundless amazement, we would follow the flight of a fly and would interrogate our parents with unanswerable questions of ‘why’. How entranced we were in our games, reacting spontaneously and with unpremeditated laughter and tears. The darkness of the lived moment” would often be very dark and would not become light, either before or after. Surely before we were ‘school children’, we were ‘playing children’ but even then we were watched by adults and we adopted their attitudes and opinions in order to please them. Still, we will have to find some way to respect the interior perspectives of a child’s experience: otherwise all of our analyses read our own projections onto the child.

childlike-wonder3. An adult’s view of their childhood or the child in themselves.

Moltmann names the sentimentality and regressiveness that keep us from making peace with the reality of our own aging, when our ‘beginning gets glorified’ and ‘childhood is retrospectively seen as a landscape of unlimited possibilities and objectified as the potential of beginning’. He continues:

Since there is always more in our beginnings than we can actually bring forth, given the complexity of our circumstances, childhood and youth come to be seen as the glorified dawn of life. When we think of our youth and of all we might have been, we discover the future in our past. Our past ‘beginnings’ become the source of our future, in such a way that a ‘future childhood’ is constructed. This childhood awakens deep longings inside of us: the longing to be secure, to feel warm; the longing to experience life as a mystery one more time, the longing to experience wonder; the longing for a new beginning; a longing for the child within that wants to be born anew, so that the miracle of life may begin yet again. From this perspective, the beginnings of life seem pure and good. Consequently, children always seem innocent to us: their eyes mirror dreamy innocence. Yet, when is it that humans become capable of guilt? The dream of a sexually innocent childhood may only be the reversal of the old, terrible doctrine of original sin, which taught that children were conceived and born in sin and therefore had to grow tip under humanity’s hereditary burden. But from this perspective of ‘future childhood’, ‘innocence’, ‘new beginning’, and access to a ‘world of unlimited possibilities’, we construct childhood as a metaphor of hope.