Book Review: A Broad Place by Jurgen Moltmann

Quite some time ago, I bought this at a bargain price from an SCM Press sale. Having read The Crucified God a couple of years ago and with Theology of Hope still on my reading list, I had gotten to know a little about Moltmann through hearing and reading little snippets. Although I also read some negative reviews of this, his autobiography, I nonetheless purchased it, along with another theological autobiography, Stanley Haeurwas’ Hannah’s Child which I read a few months ago.

He works pretty much chronologically, starting with a cursory glance of his childhood, but he quickly moves on to his life as a young adult, where he served in the German army during the second world war. Here, he was witness to the firebombing of Hamburg and experienced survivor’s guilt after he lived, while a friend who was standing next to him was killed. At the end of the book, he states that almost his entire career was an attempt to answer the question, “Why me and not him?”

He gives a vivid account of his eventual capture and his time spent as a prisoner of war, which extended until long after VE day. From here, he takes us on a tour of his theologically formative years, first as a student and then as a young pastor. In this, though, we get a hint of why the book got some negative reviews. Moltmann clearly must have kept some kind of detailed diary, from which much of the book is derived. The level of detail there is unnecessary for most purposes. So we get a list of names of people he met, places he went to and even what meals he had at what restaurants. At these junctures, you get the idea that Moltmann was very much writing for himself rather than for others.

There are passages like this which run through the book and which make it longer than it ought to have been. However, if one is willing to forgive Moltmann for these more tedious passages, there is much reward to be had elsewhere. For example, though I have not yet read Theology of Hope, it was fascinating to read how he wrote it and in particular how he reacted to the responses that it got. Later on, he does something similar for The Crucified God.

Possibly the most interesting section is that between the two alluded to immediately above, that of his political theology. I confess that I am not overly knowledgeable about liberation theology, but it was (is?) a passion of Moltmann’s. One of the striking things about it, though, was that while it was embraced in South America and, given its temporal proximity to the civil rights movement, it was embraced by the disempowered and downtrodden, yet the most prominent theologians in the movement were white Europeans. Does this in any devalue or invalidate their work? I would argue not and Moltmann does the same. His pursuit of it is derived primarily from an understanding of the gospel which burgeoned his love of humanity. Though he doesn’t describe himself as much, he comes across as a true humanist, in the proper, classical sense of the word. Having his wife as a feminist theologian also made for an interesting working relationship.

Towards the end, he states his desire to finish some strands of thinking and others that he will leave for others. What made this a delight was that one of the things he expressed a desire to do he later did. While was scanning some his works I noticed a recent release in the spring of this year which bore the title of a topic he wanted to explore.

The book will not be for everyone. I would hope that someone considering it will have read at least one of his other books or at least looked into his thinking. The details are extraneous and even the most keen reader will find themselves glossing over at times. But there is an underlying richness here that will be of value to many.

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