Reflections on the Impact of Jürgen Moltmann on My Theological Journey

I was saddened to hear of the passing, on Monday, of Jürgen Moltmann. I am told he was working on one more manuscript, even at age 98. As I thumb through my well-worn copy of the Crucified God with its copious underlining and notes in the margin, it brings to mind my excitement in reading Moltmann as a missionary in Japan, and for the first time finding an explanation of Christ’s saving work, with immediate implications. Moltmann displaces legal justification with the turn to liberation from bondage as the focus of salvation. What particularly struck me was his picture of psychological liberation and the turn to Sigmund Freud to explain both the problem and the solution.

Moltmann describes the passage from an Oedipal conception of God to a religion of brotherly love: “In origin Christianity is not a father-religion; if it is a religion at all it is a son-religion, namely a brotherly community in the situation of the human God, without privileges and without the rebellions that are necessary against them.”[1] This would point me toward the work of Slavoj Žižek, with its primary focus on getting rid of the oppressive force of the obscene super-ego father, which functions in both human personality and religion as an oppressive, punishing, law-giver.

In Moltmann’s portrayal, deploying Freud’s mythical picture of the Oedipal horde, both the human sickness and its expression in human religion can be traced to (either an unconscious or conscious) guilt. He describes Freud’s prehistoric primal horde father, who prohibited his sons from possessing their mother or sisters, by castrating them. Even should the mother allow it, the sons can only sire children through the permission of the father, thus the sons kill their father. “Totem religion emerged from the sons’ awareness of guilt as an attempt to relieve this feeling and to reconcile the injured father through subsequent obedience.. . . It makes it a duty to repeat the crime of parricide again and again in the sacrifice of the totem animal.”[2] As Moltmann explains, “The parricide and blasphemer is out for annihilation and therefore falls into apathy. He rebels against the restrictions laid down by the authority of the father, but his rebellion does not free him from being a mirror image of his adversary. In the Oedipus conflict he remains clamped to his opponent.”[3] This sickness is both religious and psychological: “These are two sides of the same coin. There are psychological and religious forms of straitened and hindered humanity, sick and on the way towards death.”[4]

Christ on the cross demythologizes the obscene father who laid down the law and its castrating effects. “God allows himself to be humiliated and crucified in the Son, in order to free the oppressors and the oppressed from oppression and to open up to them the situation of free, sympathetic humanity. Knowledge and acceptance of the new situation extends God’s freedom from the gods and antigods who produce the universal feeling of guilt and the need for compensation, right into the unconscious.”[5] Moltmann acknowledges that the obscene father and idols may still haunt us, “But if one can laugh at them, one need no longer repress them. They are still there, but they have lost their power.”[6]

The idols with their punishing guilt are replaced by a loving and suffering God that is psychologically liberating. The situation of the “the crucified God” presents us with the “pathos of the loving and suffering God” and the idols and fetishes – and their implicit “refusal of the cross,” are defeated.[7] Combined with the power of the resurrection, this affords one to abandon the imposed suffering of guilt, and allows for hope, even in the face of death. “Christian faith understands itself as faithfulness to hope as it is mindful of the resurrection of Christ, and as faithfulness to the earth as it is mindful of the cross of Christ. Because it leads man into this history of God, it frees him for an acceptance of human life which is capable of suffering and capable of love.”[8]

Moltmann pictures the human disease as a rejection of life, an incapacity in the face of repression and fear, and an overall apathy, which is summed up in fear of death. He launches his book with the pronouncement that the cross of Christ can enact a reorientation to death which changes everything: “only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes the world because it is no longer afraid of death.”[9] God and the world are reconceived in light of the cross, and the task of theology is to speak of God and the world in light of the cross. “As far as I am concerned, the Christian church and Christian theology become relevant to the problems of the modern world only when they reveal the ‘hard core’ of their identity in the crucified Christ and through it are called into question, together with the society in which they live.”[10] The Crucified God comes after his Theology of Hope, but as he explains, his theology of the cross is the “reverse side” of the focus on resurrection in the theology of hope.[11] The theology of the cross addresses the problem of death as it is construed in religion, society, psychology, and politics. With the cross there is a new diagnosis of the human situation: “the cross alone, and nothing else, is its test, since the cross refutes everything. . . .”[12] The cross is the means of diagnosing and curing the problem of death denied.

A society, psychology or politic founded on death denial cannot recognize the depth of suffering it inflicts, and a church caught up in defense mechanisms against death, absorbed by the social environment, is worthless before the suffering inflicted by the world. A church at home in the world has become the problem, and only the rediscovery of homelessness can offer hope and healing. The various reformations of the church are a rediscovery of homelessness: “It is this inner homelessness which enables it to perpetuate its institutions, even when they become an established part of society.”[13] Only in continually rediscovering its origins does the church become “a dangerous and liberating reality.” This “faith becomes aware of the incommensurability of the cross of Christ with the revelation of God, and realizing this, becomes aware too of its own strangeness and homelessness in its own Christian world.”[14] The world is built on death denial, and the cross deconstructs this false understanding, leaving the church and Christians strangers in the world.

Perhaps this strangeness is most sharply felt in Moltmann’s depiction of the way in which Christian knowledge functions. Knowing God on the basis of analogy and metaphysics is part of the human problem (knowing God through the world). The God of metaphysics “is determined by its unity and indivisibility, its lack of beginning and end, its immovability and immutability” but this God is not directly knowable or capable of love. This form of knowing is a defense mechanism: “As the nature of divine being is conceived of for the sake of finite being, it must embrace all the determinations of finite being and exclude those determinations which are directed against being. Otherwise finite being could not find a support and stay against the threatening nothingness of death, suffering and chaos in the divine being. Death, suffering and mortality must therefore be excluded from the divine being.”[15] Theology as a defense mechanism against death has dominated the theological project. Moltmann’s statement of this made a lasting impact: “Christian theology has adopted this concept of God from philosophical theology down to the present day, because in practice down to the present day Christian faith has taken into itself the religious need of finite, threatened and mortal man for security in a higher omnipotence and authority.”[16] The metaphysical concept of God rules out the death of God – “evacuating the cross of deity.” It is this notion, of a distant, unmoved mover which Moltmann attacks at every stage of his theology.

Rather than beginning with analogy, and the finitude of the world to describe how God is known, with Luther and Hegel, Moltmann presumes God is only directly known in the cross.

The theology of the cross therefore takes quite seriously God’s interest in his knowledge through man. God reveals himself in the contradiction and the protest of Christ’s passion to be against all that is exalted and beautiful and good, all that the dehumanized man seeks for himself and therefore perverts. So God here is not known through his works in reality, but through his suffering in the passiveness of faith, which allows God to work on it: killing in order to make alive, judging in order to set free. So his knowledge is achieved not by the guiding thread of analogies from earth to heaven, but on the contrary, through contradiction, sorrow and suffering. To know God means to endure God.[17]

To know God in Christ is to abandon the “dreamed-of-exaltation” of knowing God in his divinity, and it is to turn to God in the humanity of Christ – abandoned, rejected and despised. This “brings to nothing his dreamed-of equality with God, which has dehumanized him, and restores to him his humanity, which the true God made his own.”[18] Man’s inhumanity is his pursuit of deity, and he is made fully human only in the embrace of the crucified God.

With Luther, Moltmann concludes one can know God indirectly through the world (the focus of the theologians of glory) but he can only be known directly in the cross with the saving knowledge of God. Knowing God directly is to know of his deliverance. “His grace is revealed in sinners. His righteousness is revealed in the unrighteous and in those without rights, and his gracious election in the damned.” God is fully God not in his eternality, but in what is opposite to eternality. “God is only revealed as ‘God’ in his opposite: godlessness and abandonment by God. . . . The epistemological principle of the theology of the cross can only be this dialectic principle: the deity of God is revealed in the paradox of the cross.”[19]

The Unmoved Mover is not the Father of Jesus Christ, and Moltmann prophetically declares it is time to make an absolute departure from such notions, so as to recover the Christian faith. This is not the faith of bourgeois conservatives or of Christian nationalists but this faith “breaks the spell of the old philosophical concept of God, at the same time destroying the idols of national political religions.”[20] The death of God on the cross cannot be understood or accepted on the basis of Greek metaphysical presuppositions, but “God’s Godness” is known only in the event of the death of Christ. The omnipotent God of metaphysics is impotent in his incapacity for suffering, finitude, and love. This God that cannot suffer or die is incapable of relating or being known. This God that we project upon the idols of our imagination is the God from which Christ delivers:

Thus at the level of the psychology of religion, Christian faith effects liberation from the childish projections of human needs for the riches of God; liberation from human impotence for the omnipotence of God; from human helplessness for the omnipotence of God; from human helplessness for the responsibility of God. It brings liberation from the divinized father-figures by which men seek to sustain their childhood. It brings liberation from fear in the ideas of political omnipotence with which the powers on earth legitimate their rule and give inferiority complexes to the impotent, and with which the impotent compensate their impotence in dreams. It brings liberation from the determination and direction from outside which anxious souls love and at the same time hate.[21]

The projection by finite human beings of the impassable God, threatened as they are by their finitude and creation, is a counter salvation system to that of Christ. But the God of metaphysics, the Oedipal father, is an impotent and incomplete being in his inability to experience death, finitude, helplessness and powerlessness. Worship of omnipotence by the helpless, as a defense mechanism, deprives them of the love of God. It is this love by which the Father of Christ is defined. The “almighty” is a being without history or experience or destiny or love.[22] This God that oppresses human beings is the devil from which Christ delivers in his love.

For Moltmann, faith always speaks of a practical liberation from the various forms of oppression foisted upon man by social, religious, and political institutions. He notes that both institutional and psychological oppression must be addressed simultaneously. “Personal, inner change without a change in circumstances and structures is an idealist illusion, as though man were only a soul and not a body as well. But a change in external circumstances without inner renewal is a materialist illusion, as though man were only a product of his social circumstances and nothing else.”[23] This fullness of salvation and liberation cannot make peace with the principalities and powers which beset him inwardly and outwardly. Liberation is a real world throwing off of oppression.

It is interesting (or was to me, being in Japan) that Moltmann turns to the example of Christian students in Japan who recognize Christian complicity in the problem. Students at Meiji-Gakuin declared, “God does not exist in this church, but rather in the living deeds of a man involved in human relationships.” Thus, they barricaded the church as by “making our church a refuse dump we want to proclaim to the university authorities and our fellow students that Christianity and worship can become symbols of the absence of humanity and contempt for it.”[24] Moltmann concludes, “Only someone who finds the courage to be different from others can ultimately exist for ‘others’, for otherwise he exists only with those who are like him.”[25] This critique of society can only occur through identity with the Crucified, by “a witnessing non-identification with the demands and interests of society.”[26] Christian identity is founded upon this act of God in Christ, the crucifixion, in which God identifies with the godless and abandoned.

When faith becomes fearful and defensive, it is focused on morality and penal law and misses the identity of God in Christ.  “He who is of little faith looks for support and protection for his faith, because it is preyed upon by fear. Such a faith tries to protect its ‘most sacred things’, God, Christ, doctrine and morality, because it clearly no longer believes that these are sufficiently powerful to maintain themselves.”[27] A faith that is afraid for itself and its Christ is a lack of faith. Fearful faith would build a defensive wall so as to defend “true belief, pure doctrine and distinctive Christian morality.” “They accept the increasing isolation of the church as an insignificant sect on the margin of society, and encourage it by their sectarian withdrawal.”[28] The God of metaphysics, of conservative social and moral ethics, is not the God who died on a cross. Where the cross is not kept front and center, the tendency will be either decay by withdrawal or decay through assimilation. Both are forms of fear, unbelief, and ultimately death denial. True faith is willing to confront the world and acknowledge Christ as effective ruler, and in this faith, fear is overcome.

Moltmann described in real-world terms the freedom of the children of God through faith. This freedom can be described in concrete and specific psychological terms and entails a fully embodied (political and social) deliverance. Moltmann describes the need for a “psychological hermeneutics of the word of the cross”[29] and this set the course of my theological journey.

Thank God for the faithful witness of this servant of Christ.

[1] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press,1993) 307.

[2]  N. O. Brown, Love’s Body, (New York 1968), 122. Quoted in Moltmann, 304.

[3] Moltmann, 307.

[4] Ibid, 313

[5] Ibid, 307.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 312.

[8] Ibid, 313.

[9] Ibid, 1.

[10] Ibid, 3.

[11] Ibid, 5.

[12] Ibid, 7

[13] Ibid, 10.

[14] Ibid, 37.

[15] Ibid, 214.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, 212.

[18] Ibid, 213.

[19] Ibid, 27.

[20] Ibid, 215

[21] Ibid, 216.

[22] Ibid, 223.

[23] Ibid, 23.

[24] Ibid, 14-15.

[25] Ibid, 16.

[26] Ibid, 17.

[27] Ibid, 19.

[28] Ibid, 20.

[29] Ibid, 291.