Review: The Living God and the Fullness of Life (WJK Press, 2015)

[1] Jürgen Moltmann’s place in the history of Christian theology since the 1960s is secure. Together with Wolfhart Pannenberg he established the theology of hope in the 1960s, reclaiming the centrality of eschatology for Christian thinking and life and contributing significantly to the development of political and liberation theologies. His 1972 work, The Crucified God, advanced Luther’s theology of the cross and affirmed God’s suffering as paramount to understanding who God is. Moltmann’s work on the Holy Spirit and the triune God made great contribution to the renewal of pneumatology and Trinitarian thinking. Any one of these moments would have marked Moltmann as a giant among theologians. Taken together all these contributions make him, perhaps, the most significant theologian of our time.

[2]And in all this work Moltmann never strays from theology’s purpose: to lift up for consideration the reality of the living God and illumine what human life is like when shaped by encounter with the God of Israel and Jesus Christ. The title of this new book signifies how Moltmann continues this trajectory. He means, once again, to reflect on God made known in Christ and how this knowledge grounds an earthy and sensual life marked by joy and feasting, open friendship, attentiveness to what is before us, and solidarity with those on the margins.

[3] The Living God is addressed to our time with its loss of transcendent reference and its reduction of life to biology and utility. Moltmann affirms Kant’s identification of the problem as resulting from “self-imposed infancy.” We have lost the courage to use our own understanding and have surrendered to various forms of totalitarianism: dictatorships of Hitler in the Third Reich and Stalin in the Soviet world, and now to the global, totalizing forces of the market.

[4] Moltmann finds the origins of this self-imposed infancy represented in the German Aufklårung’s first and second waves, epitomized by Lessing and Feuerbach, respectively. Lessing participates in the Aufklårung’s reaction to the dogmatism and religious conflict that plagued Europe in the aftermath of the church’s splintering in the Reformations. As seen in his play, Nathan the Wise, Lessing reduces religion to a universal ethic of humanity in which the distinctive characteristics of particular traditions are ironed out. Religion becomes dispensable. And Lessing, like many of his contemporaries, sees himself and his age in messianic light—delivering humanity from the narrow confines and dogmatism of particularity.

[5] (As an aside I note here a brief encounter I had with Moltmann sometime in the decade of the 2010s. He was lecturing at Saint Paul School of Theology where I teach and joined faculty at a dinner in his honor. When I was introduced as a Schleiermacher scholar, Moltmann scoffed and wondered aloud why anyone would bother with Schleiermacher. Of course, I understand that Moltmann shares Barth’s deep suspicion of 19th century liberalism and that Schleiermacher doesn’t reclaim incarnation and Trinity the way Hegel does. At the same time, Schleiermacher transcends the Enlightenment’s understanding of religion as universal morality by affirming religion’s irreducibility and ineffability. Schleiermacher also champions the particularity and distinctiveness of redemption wrought by Christ. In these ways, at least, Schleiermacher is Moltmann’s ally.)

[6] Moltmann argues that Feuerbach and the second wave of the Enlightenment take Lessing a step further. For Feuerbach God is a creation of human reason, and religion is an expression of a divided and alienated humanity. And one can have either God or free and authentic humanity. He trades the qualitative transcendence of God for a quantitative transcendence of history. Humanity is reduced to biology in a way that becomes typical of Marxism and capitalism. Feuerbach turned Hegel on his head—seeing God as a projection of humanity rather than vice versa—and thereby sets up a key issues to which Moltmann responds. Moltmann argues that the living God and authentic and free human life go together; they are not antithetical as Feuerbach and others claim. A central argument of The Living God is that as we are apprehended by the God of exodus and resurrection, authentic human life of joy, freedom, and creativity bursts forth.

[7] God, for Moltmann, is the God of exodus and resurrection, the “self-moved Mover” (as opposed to the “unmoved Mover” of Aristotle and so much theology), the triune God of self-related eternal, mutual love, i.e., the living God. Seizing on this notion of God who lives, Moltmann revisits and recasts the traditional attributes ascribed to God.

[8] Drawing on Boethius, Moltmann sees eternity as unlimited, whole, simultaneous and perfect enjoyment of life. Eternity is not separate from the life of the world. God’s vitality renders eternity immanently related in joy to all of life—present, past, and future. God’s supreme vitality also means that God is not without pathos (that is, not apathetic), for God suffers with creation, above all in Christ. From Hegel, Moltmann draws on the notion that to be God, God must not remain untouched by devastation; instead, God experiences the profoundest separation and brings together what is separated. God endures death in Christ. Thereby, God’s omnipresence is fulfilled because in Christ God enters the godforsaken places and redeems them.

[9] God is almighty, not that God is all determining of reality, but as Kierkegaard says, God limits Godself in order to create real freedom in and for the world. Similarly, God’s immutability is recast in Biblical terms as the faithfulness of God. God is affected by the world; God experiences pain, for example, when God sees the affliction of God’s people. So God is not impassable, but God suffers in Christ, not least as God’s love in injured by human faithlessness and death-dealing. Beneath God’s anger is the broken heart of one wounded by those who returned betrayal for love. And yet, God is immutable in the sense that God’s love is steadfast. It abides and endures all things, bringing forth life out of death.

[10] Moltmann’s understanding of God’s promise for the future also maintains the world’s freedom. God’s promise is directed not toward future actualities that are fixed, but toward future possibilities—the future of reconciliation and joy to which God remains committed regardless of human failing. And all this bears on Moltmann’s Trinitarianism. Moltmann lauds recovery of the Trinity through Hegel and Barth. But, for Hegel, the doctrine of the Trinity is meant to secure God’s subjectivity. For Barth, the Trinity secures God’s sovereignty. Moltmann, following more recent Trinitarian thinking, asserts that the Trinity is meant to secure the history of Jesus Christ as the history of God. So Moltmann again brings focus to Christ and the suffering, redeeming God. In the history of Christ, eternal life absorbs finite life into itself making our mortal life eternal.

[12] Part two of this book engages the fullness of life that the living God brings forth in and through this world and the humans who find home in it. Not surprisingly, a Barthian moment undergirds this exposition of human life. Moltmann asserts that faith does not acquire eternal life; eternal life is present in every moment, in every place. Faith perceives eternal life that is always, already there. In making this claim, Moltmann underscores the gratuity of grace.

[13] What, then, is this eternal life, this life that is full? Above all, it is a life of joy. For Moltmann the meaning of life is joy. He recognizes that such a claim can be suspect to the Augustinian and Protestant traditions of the west, but he appeals to Athanasius’ claims that the resurrection makes life a festival without end. The risen Christ is the leader of a cosmic dance.

[14] “Joy is strength for living, the empowerment to love, the delight in a creative beginning.” (88) God is full of joy; God rejoices, for example, when the lost are found. Since happiness and pain, laughter and tears are not genuine opposites, but aspects of love, not only does God rejoice, God also suffers. The true opposition is between joy and love, on the one hand, and withdrawal from life, on the other. God does not withdraw from life; neither should humanity. So Moltmann is critical of a “spirituality of soul” that forsakes sensory experience and forgets bodily needs. Instead of the Augustinian withdrawal into the self, he proposes a “spirituality of the senses” open to the body and to social salvation and open to God.

[15] Moltmann explores the senses of feeling, hearing, seeing, tasting, and smelling and affirms their centrality. In a poignant autobiographical moment he recalls his experience as a POW during World War II. For self-protection and survival the prisoners quenched their senses. For example, “[t]he huts with their 2,000 prisoners stank so infernally that it was best to forget how to smell.” (166) The prisoners survived, but they were no longer alive. With the return of love and hope, the senses come alive. Moltmann recalls how the prisoners, made to move a boxcar outside the camp in May 1945, encountered a cherry tree in blossom and tears came to his eyes. Such is the this-worldly spirituality of the senses.

[16] Full life is of the senses and of the earth. Moltmann affirms that we humans live in fellowship with the earth, and he reclaims the mystical tradition that sees Christ coming from the earth. If hope from heaven means annihilation of the earth, then it is a vision hostile to life and a destructive spirituality. The theme of earthliness connects with Moltmann’s affirmation of our responsibility for the earth in this time of ecological crisis.

[17] Importantly, he also advances an understanding of freedom that runs counter to modernity’s notion of autonomous self-determination. God’s freedom is God’s creative action—in the exodus, in the resurrection, in creation itself. We become aware of our liberation through the resurrection and we enter into God’s “wide space” and participate in God’s creative power. Following Hannah Arendt, Moltmann sees freedom as the ability to take initiatives, to create something new. A prime example is a relation of lordship and slavery transformed into mutuality.

[18] Moltmann also celebrates open friendship, again proposing an understanding that runs counter to the more common view affirmed by Aristotle, in which genuine friendship is only possible between those who are alike in social status and power. But Jesus’ friendship was with sinners and tax collectors, and in the Old Testament we read that Abraham was a friend of God. Here we have friendship between unequal parties. Such friendship is to be affirmed; it provides a sterling example of freedom as creative activity.

[19] The Living God and the Fullness of Life recapitulates many themes familiar to readers of Moltmann’s earlier work. Its explicit attention to ethical issues is limited, only touching on ecological concerns and the commodification of human life. However, it provides a robust theological vision of a world infused with God’s being and activity, a world caught up in joy and celebration, a world set free to participate in God’s creative activity. Such a theology is rich with ethical purchase.

[20] Perhaps the signal contribution of this book, in an age drawn to spirituality and action but leery of doctrine, is the way it links deep theological reflection with a vibrant vision of life. Life that is given meaning by the joy of God’s presence in, with, and under the sensual goodness of the world, and community that overcomes barriers and creates new relationships in anticipation of God’s future. Moltmann demonstrates that how we think about God has great consequences for how we live. In The Living God there is inspiration aplenty for the thinking and the living.

James M. Brandt

Dr. James M. Brandt is Professor of Historical Theology and Director of Contextual Education at Saint Paul School of Theology, Overland Park, KS