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.

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World: The Defeat of Evil as the Revealing of the Mystery

Paul describes Christ as revealing the mystery which has remained closed to every previous generation of humankind (Eph. 3:5). Matthew pictures Christ as fulfilling the words of the prophet: ”I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matt. 13:35). René Girard explains that this mystery hidden since the foundation of the world is the mystery of scapegoating, that which organized primitive culture and religion and which controlled violence. The violence unleashed on the innocent victim served to channel violence to a singular sacrifice (rather than unleashing violence of all against all) and it made of the scapegoat the sacred deliverer, delivering the sacrificers from whatever plague or sickness they imagined threatened. And as Girard explains, the scapegoat really did deliver from uncontrolled violence, and allowed the crops to be planted and the society to survive, rather than succumbing to all-out violence.

The efficacy of the scapegoat, however, depended on its true function being a compounded mystery. In the first instance, the innocence of the scapegoat is not a possibility that poses itself in the original murder, but then the murder itself is obscured as the myth of the scapegoat as a sacred deliverer hides the murder. Those who kill the scapegoat do not know what they are doing, first in the blind rage in which they kill the scapegoat and then in the myth which hides the murder. The killers are blind (they are doing it but obscuring the fact) to the murder and then to the sacralization of the innocent victim. The end of the story, in Girard’s telling, is that the innocent victim Jesus, speaks for the oppressed scapegoat and reveals the scapegoating mechanism as that which stands behind all sacrificial religion, and he makes impossible the mystery, that up to his exposing it, stood at the center of religion and society.

Girard’s theory, for many, provides a complete theory of the atonement and an omnicompetent explanation of the work of Christ. Whether Girard saw it that way may be beside the point, but it is no critique of his theory to suggest that what he describes is a pattern that repeats itself in a variety forms, not limited to sacrificial violence but characteristic of the lie that stands behind all violence. That is, the mystery of which Paul speaks and which Jesus exposes, is a mystifying lie, an obscuring of origins, a false dialectic, which stands behind sacrificial religion but which also stands behind all human violence at an individual and corporate level. The equation of violence and power is the original form of the lie, that expresses itself in the scapegoating mechanism (among other forms of the lie). Violence not only reifies and deifies the scapegoat, but this is always the work of violence. The larger principle is not simply that the violence directed against an innocent scapegoat sacralizes and reifies the scapegoat, but all violence “mystically” reifies.

In fact, Girard begins his theory with a reexamination of Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex, which illustrates the point that the violence of the superego directed against the ego (death drive) reifies the split between the ego and superego, creating the registers of the Subject. The superego, in the voice of the father or the oppressive force of the law, is directed against the ego and the tripartite (ego, superego, id) dynamic is “born” (which is the wrong word, as this is a living death in Freud’s estimate). But what is to be noted is that the oppressive violence of the id, channeled through the superego, taking the ego as its victim, gives rise to the very notion of a self. Even if one rejects this Freudian picture of the dynamic of self, it illustrates the point, of how a lying violence gives birth to a fictional “reality.” Karl Marx’s picture of the functioning of capital, Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s picture of the dialectic of life and death or something and nothing, and Peter Berger’s explanation of religion, all illustrate the same point.

As Berger explains, the phenomenon of religion depends upon a mystifying lie:

Whatever may be the “ultimate” merits of religious explanations of the universe at large, their empirical tendency has been to falsify man’s consciousness of that part of the universe shaped by his own activity, namely, the socio-cultural world. This falsification can also be described as mystification. The socio-cultural world, which is an edifice of human meanings, is overlaid with mysteries posited as non-human in their origins.[1]

In Berger’s depiction, the dialectic process of society consists of three steps – externalization, objectivation, and internalization.

Externalization is the ongoing outpouring of human being into the world, both in the physical and the mental activity of men. Objectivation is the attainment by the products of this activity (again both physical and mental) of a reality that confronts its original producers as a facticity external to and other than themselves. Internalization is the reappropriation by men of this same reality, transforming it once again from structures of the objective world into structures of the subjective consciousness.[2]

Berger concludes, “It is through externalization that society is a human product. It is through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis. It is through internalization that man is a product of society.”[3] The notion that religion or society is a sui generis or self-constituting construct blocks all questions of genealogy and simply poses the social world as reality itself.

Berger explains he is appropriating Marx and Hegel, who illustrate this three-step process in regard to capital and the human psyche. As he notes, “The terms ‘externalization’ and ‘objectivation’ are derived from Hegel (Entaeusserung and Versachlichung), are (sic) understood here essentially as they were applied to collective phenomena by Marx.”[4] Capital is externalized in paper and coins, objectivized as intrinsically valuable, and internalized as a prime marker of value. Hegel, Marx, and Freud are each building upon a constricted Judeo-Christian understanding. So, for example, Isaiah’s picture of the idolater (Is. 44:15-18), carving the idol with one half of a piece of wood (externalization), turning and cooking his lunch with the other half (allowing for the obscuring objectivation), and then turning back and bowing to the carved piece (internalization) as a god captures the same movement.

Religion is accounted for in this process as the obscuring or mystification of the process – the disconnect between externalization and objectivation. “The sacred or numinous begin as perceptions ‘externalized,’ projected upon the skies (thus sky-gods are recognized) and upon persons and natural objects (hence shamans and sacred groves and springs). The externalized sacred objects thereby acquire status as factors in social life (so magic, incantation, and worship arise).”[5] The religionist, like the idolater, does not recognize he is the one shaping the idol and reifying or absolutizing what is essentially a projection (a product of the imagination).

The religionist does on a corporate level what Freud describes is happening on an individual level. The Oedipal-self obscures the fact that it is the engineer arranging the oppressive self-relation as the religionist obscures or falsifies the fact that religion is a projection (a necessary sacred canopy) of the socio-cultural world. The child externalizes its own image as seen in the mirror, then it objectivizes or reifies the image as perceived through the projection of the superego, then the internal life is made up of this dialectic between ego and superego.

As indicated, Berger, Marx, and Freud, are building upon the dialectic first worked out by Hegel. An easy entry into Hegel is provided by Slavoj Žižek’s understanding of Hegel as building upon the cogito of René Descartes. Descartes’ isolation of himself in the “heated room” and reduction of the real world to a category of doubt and his reconstruction of that world, up to and including God, is pictured by Hegel, according to Žižek as following the course of every Subject:

when Hegel determines madness as withdrawal from the actual world, the closing of the soul into itself, its ‘contraction’. … Was this withdrawal into itself not accomplished by Descartes in his universal doubt and reduction of the cogito … which … involves a passage through the moment of radical madness? … That is to say, the withdrawal into self, the cutting off of the links to the Umwelt, is followed by the construction of a symbolic universe that the subject projects onto reality as a kind of substitute – formation destined to recompense us for the loss of the immediate, presymbolic real.[6]

The passage into subjectivity involves the “ontological necessity of madness”… the mad gesture of radical withdrawal from reality that opens up the space for its symbolic (re)constitution.”[7] There is a sacrifice of one world and subjection to an oppressive symbolic order (the law has a totalizing effect). To maintain that the product of thought is objectively true, or to fuse thought and being, involves a form of madness that is at once so universal so as to be nearly inaccessible or a complete mystery.

As David Bentley Hart describes the Hegelian system:

the system in its entirety, depending on the angle from which it is viewed, is susceptible of every possible characterization or interpretation: disembodied abstraction or radical empiricism, mystification or disenchantment, absolute idealism or dialectical materialism, Mandarin detachment or bourgeois conformity, historical essentialism or essential historicism, a “totalizing metaphysics” or the ultimate “deconstruction of metaphysics,” and so on and so on.[8]

There is a seeming impossibility of getting beyond the all encompassing system described by Hegel, but this, I believe is precisely Paul’s depiction of what is accomplished in Christ. That is, the obscuring of origins through an originary violence or an originary hostility is precisely the dialectic Paul pictures as exposed by Christ.

Paul, in Ephesians, has in mind the peculiar dialectic of Jew and Gentile which creates a dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14), but which organizes the Jewish world (2:15: “which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances”). The enmity of the law which creates the fabric of this fictional construct is not a reality (created by God) but a human system built upon human enmity and violence (2:15 – Christ abolishes the enmity in his flesh, which is not from God but is cured by God in Christ). For a Jew, Gentiles are nothing at all and Jewishness is over and against the nothingness (of the Gentile) as an absolute something. The organizing hostility for Jews and Gentiles alike, something on the order of the sacrificial violence described by Girard, is undone in Christ: “to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). This is the archetypical mystery revealed as Judaism depended upon this division, and Christ is reconstituting humanity, showing the divine purpose in creation: “by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity” (Eph. 2:15–16). Jewishness depended upon division and enmity and it was from this hostility, marked by the dividing wall in the temple that the religion, rightly or wrongly, was conceived. But Judaism is a case in point of the obscurity of every culture and religion founded upon a dialectic (inside/outside, near/far, citizen/alien, something/nothing).

In Paul’s depiction, there is a cosmic order of darkness dispelled in this revealing of the mystery. God’s will, God’s eternal purposes for the cosmos, have been revealed in Christ: “To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things” (Eph. 3:8). The purposes of creation, once obscured behind the mystery of enmity and division are now revealed in a unifying vision in which all things are being incorporated into God: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4–6).

The mystery revealed in Christ is the exposure of the lie, which pictures reality as a violent dualism (e.g., divine/human, creator/creature, nothing/something, life/death, Jew/Gentile, ego/superego, immanent Trinity/economic Trinity, heaven/earth, transcendent/immanent). The mystery revealed is an exposure of the mystification of evil, dependent upon alienation, dialectic, and dualism. The picture of God’s purposes worked out in Christ brings together absolute difference into a unified whole:

But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. Eph. 4:7-10

[1] Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Anchor; Reprint edition, 1990), 90.

[2] Berger, 3-4.

[3] Berger, 4.

[4] Berger, 21.

[5] Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1966) 4-25. As summarized by James McClendon, Witness: Systematic Theology Volume 3 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000) 28.

[6]Slavoj Zizek, F.W.J. von Schelling, The Abyss of Freedom/Ages of the World (University of Michigan Press, 1997), 8-9.

[7] Ibid.

[8] David Bentley Hart, You Are Gods (p. 70). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.