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Reflections on a theological dialogue

Last week I had the incredible privilege to listen to and speak with the great German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann. For the past couple of days I’ve been thinking about how to describe this event. Professor Moltmann did not lecture. Instead, various groups of us posed questions to him and he responded. We spent a day and half with him like this.

Because of this format, my greatest moments in the conference were the one-liners. And there were many. I’ll share a few of my favorites toward the end of this post.

Overall I would say I was impressed with Professor Moltmann’s method. First of all, his theology is largely biographical. He said to us what he has shared in many other places: his whole theological project began one night during World War II, when his home town of Hamburg was firebombed by the British. His friend who was right beside him, and hundreds of others, were killed immediately, and he was left alive. He asked at that time, “Why am I alive and not dead like the others.” This question has fueled his theological pursuits until today. The question of theodicy, he said, is a question asked by people who are not experiencing the suffering. People who are suffering don’t ask the metaphysical question, “How could a good God allow this?” They ask, “Where is God?”

From this harrowing experience he spent time in a prisoner-of-war camp in Belgium and then in England, where a British chaplain gave him a copy of the New Testament. He became a Christian by reading this New Testament.

So his theology is profoundly shaped by horrors of World War II and the Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz. Many have described his work as “theology after Auschwitz.”

This notion of theology as biography really rang true for me and inspired me to think about the way my own biography has shaped my theological life. It occurred to me that we would all benefit by being more attentive to our own biographies when doing theology. Theology must necessarily be rooted to life in this way for it to be any good to anyone.

I highly recommend his recent autobiography, A Broad Place (which Professor Moltmann is signing for me, below), as a very readable introduction to Moltmann’s life and work and an insightful look at the way theology is biography for Moltmann.

One of the fun things we do at these theological dialogues is what Tony Jones calls the “lightening round.” Tony would give Dr. Moltmann a name of a theologian and he had to give a 1-2 sentence response. There were so many good ones I wish I could have typed them all. My favorite, however, was when Tony asked him about Stanley Hauerwas. Molmann replied, “The Bible speaks not of a peaceable community but a peaceMAKING community.”


Here are some of the great one-liners from the conference:

When asked about hermeneutics, the topic of women came up. Making reference to Paul’s admonition for women to remain silent, he said, “If women were silent all the time, we would have no knowledge of the resurrection of Christ.”

In reference to God’s being he made some great statements such as:

“God is not in control of everything; God is carrying and bearing everything.”

“An impassible God is not a god but a monster.”

In response to a question about universalism he remarked, “I am not a universalist because there are some people I would not like to see again, but God might be. He created them and would like to see them again.”

With reference to the church some of my favorite statments:

“A congregation without disabled people accepted into the life of the church is a disabled church” (This statement really warrants its own post).

“A cyber-church is a church without Eucharist.”

Also regarding communion he said, “Practicing a closed communion is heresy. It’s un-Christian.”

“At the Lord’s Table we do not celebrate our theories about his presence, but his presence.”

When Tony asked what Moltmann felt we should be reading, he first answer was, “The Bible,” adding, “it is a very ancient book but it continues to yield wonderful new insights.”

Just typing these quotes brings to mind so many more things, but I’ll leave it here for now. If you have specific questions about the event I will try my best to answer them.

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