DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Jurgen Moltmann (1926-)
One of the most influential theologians of his time, Moltmann was Professor of Systematic Theology at Tubingen University (in what was then Western Germany) for more than 25 years. During that time he was strongly influenced by both Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and, in the 1960s and 70s, was involved in the general Christian dialogue of the day with Marxists.

His distinct orientation of theology towards politics moved him later to focus on the European "Peace" and "Green" movements. He also became increasingly open to dialogue with exponents of Roman Catholic, Orthodox and liberation theology.

His theology can be generally classed as dialectical, in that he was concerned with tensions between aspects of Christian doctrine - the Cross and the Resurrection, death and life, an absent God and a present God and so on. All these he related to negative aspects of the world like sin, suffering and death as well as to positive aspects such as what he perceived as God's ongoing act of creation which was to issue in a new order.

Moltmann's extensive theology is, however, blighted by a methodological failing. In his earlier works such as Theology of Hope (1964) he derives his conclusions from the Bible. If in doing so he doesn't give enough credence to what were then well-substantiated  doubts about what biblical material is historical and what kerygmatic, his work is nevertheless relatively sound.

His later works display an increasing lack of awareness of the distinction between what Jesus may have thought, taught and lived out and the early Church's interpretation of what they knew about Jesus. Recent work has shown conclusively that the Jesus of history is a relatively shadowy figure. It also indicates strongly that early interpretations of Jesus were strongly influenced by reference to Old Testament theology (Isaiah for instance). He also appears to have little or no understanding of the analogical nature of theology - that is, the degree to which God-talk (theology) consists of image and metaphor.

As a result, Moltmann's theological castles appear today as elaborations built upon suspect foundations. Critics perceive them as somewhat ill-disciplined speculation tied too loosely to sound historical and critical biblical work. In a sense, Moltmann became unconsciously mythological.

Moltmann thought of God as centrally a "community of divine persons" (the Trinity) who interact in and with the world. Because this interaction is ongoing, theology (and therefore teaching) can never be completed. It is essentially "relational" - any standpoint is relative to others in a developing, organic relationship. But he appears to have had little difficulty with the central idea of revelation in relation to the whole body of human knowledge and understanding.

If God interacts with the world then change is natural. Moltmann's orientation was therefore strongly practical. Theology as a discourse aims to change the world (the opposite of stagnation) in order the better to orientate creation towards the coming kingdom of God.

This eschatological strand is common to all Moltmann's work. It's not an "end of all things in clouds of glory" sort of eschatology. Rather, he thought of it as changing the present in the direction of the "future" towards God's kingdom. The Resurrection of Jesus (however one understands it) is the first step. It sets in motion the new order and spells out the eventual end of evil, suffering and death.

Moltmann's practical streak emerges in his approach to the problem of pain and suffering. Why, if God "loves" us does he allow us to suffer so terribly? Moltmann doesn't offer a theoretical solution. Instead, he points to the way in which Jesus identifies with all sufferers through his death on the cross.

If the world of suffering doesn't correspond to our image of God now, we can recognise that there's a promise of a social reality which does. One can't help wondering how much Moltmann was influenced by post-war optimism in his conclusions. Instead of a personal development theory (people as individuals will develop towards perfection) he offers social improvement ending in a "kingdom of God".

Moltmann thinks that the bridge between the present and this wonderful social future is the Church. Because God loves the world, God affects it and is affected by it. (Moltmann rejects the teaching that God can't suffer or change.)

Therefore the Church can't claim to be absolute. It doesn't have access to final truth, nor can it teach that "salvation" is mediated only by Jesus. He goes further: the Church must be open to radical reform and renewal.

In the same way a practical eschatology reinforces and brings about radical changes in society. Humans don't rule nature, but relate to it as part of a whole community of living beings. Moltmann asserts that monotheism tends to legitimate monarchical domination and subjection. In contrast, the loving inter-relationship of the members of the Trinity demand human relationships of freedom and equality, and a recognition of human rights.

The source of the life-giving process in which we are all so deeply involved is, thinks Moltmann, what is usually called the "Spirit": "� the eternal Spirit is the divine wellspring of life - the source of life created, life preserved and life daily renewed, and finally the source of eternal life of all created being" (The Spirit of Life). This emphasis marked Moltmann's break with Barth, who thought of the Spirit as primarily the source of the revelation of God's truth.

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