Book Review: Theology of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann

It’s been a few years since my introduction to Moltmann, which came in the form the The Crucified God. Since then, I’ve read his autobiography, but have been putting off reading this work, his first, which launched his reputation in the theological world in the 1960s. The edition I read was the SCM Classics version with an introduction from Richard Bauckham. This introduction is warm, gracious and readily accessible. The latter quality is one that I cannot say applies to the start of the main text itself.

You see, part of the reason I keep reading works ahead of Moltmann is that he doesn’t make for easy reading. While some of this may be down to the translation from German to English, I suspect it is far more about the intricacies of the workings of Moltmann’s own mind, as communicated via the written word.

The theme of the book is eschatology. Is that an unfamiliar word to you? If so, this is perhaps not the best place to start; for that I would direct you to Tom Wright. Yet Wright treads partly in the footsteps of Moltmann. For eschatology is a longer way of saying ‘hope’. It is often written about by more conservative theologians as ‘end times’ but Moltmann is here keen to point out that that’s not quite right. It’s not wholly wrong, but the emphasis is misplaced, just as one theologian I know cannot pronounce the word ‘eschatology’ (which ought to be “esker-tology” rather than his unfortunate mispronunciation as “ess-scatology”).

Moltmann opens by trying to assess hope in the context of some of the greatest thinkers known to the Western world. With apparent ease, he moves from Parmenides to Kant, from Anselm to Bultmann. There is a dazzling array of references here which would only be readily understandable to someone who is far better read in philosophy and theology than I am. So I confess that much of section one was glossed over a bit. Yet this does give rise to a criticism of Moltmann. For though I am not a specialist reader, an intellectual if you will, it’s not unreasonable to expect that a well-written work should be reasonably understandable. Part of this is that Moltmann is rather fond of his Latin, with an obscure phrase used on just about every page, which the editors decided should go untranslated. I am no linguist and wasn’t taught Latin in school. So while I could work out something simple like fides quaerens intellectum, most were lost on me and I didn’t fancy doing a search on Google translate every 3 minutes.

It’s a humbling experience to read something and admit that you don’t understand it. I was definitely in this territory in the opening section, including a chapter entitled ‘The Theology of the Transcendental Subjectivity of God’. If that seems like small potatoes to you, then by all means, read on. If I were to be critical here, it might be said that Moltmann is showing off that he is a well-educated person, as much this section is peripheral to the central argument of the book, which comes in parts 2 and 3.

Part 2, entitled Promise and History, begins to really get to the title of the book. In it, Moltmann is keen to rescue eschatology from the hands of what we might call fundamentalists. He doesn’t engage them as such, but points out that thinking of eschatology as purely an understanding of “end times” misses the point. Instead, eschatology is an understanding of hope. Where his masterstroke is, is that when he comes to the subject of history, we can only understand the past if we can readily identify what the past has in common with the now. That common feature: the future. It is then that Moltmann details that how we think of the past, must be in terms of what the hopes and shapes of the future are. I couldn’t help but think in terms of understanding the civil rights movement and in particular Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech’ as a particular example. Here, we can only understand the movement if we understand what their hopes were.

One of the questions posed regards why it was that the nomadic Israel kept their God once they had settled and changed into an agrarian culture; one might have expected that once the promise of the land was fulfilled they would no longer need a God of promise, of hope. Yet they kept him. It’s not a question that I had thought about much before, but it’s an interesting one to consider.

The real meat of the book gets on to look at the resurrection and the hope that is for, and embodied in, Jesus. Here, my main bugbear is that, as with much of the rest of the book, in fact, it appears to be written as a stream of consciousness instead of in a methodical manner. So there is not so much of an argument to progress through as there is a splurge of thoughts that seem to come all at once and which Moltmann is struggling to write down.

In dealing with the resurrection, Moltmann flips the notion of history on its head and inside out. He posits that to ask the question “was Jesus physically raised from the dead” is to ask the wrong question. In Moltmann’s world, the question of hope takes central place and what we think of as history (which he argues is an example of positivism) is a wrong-headed construct. At times he seems to contradict himself. He agrees with Paul that the resurrection is the single event upon which the christian faith hangs or falls but goes on to say, “That the resurrection actually took place is not denied, but does not lie within the field of interest.” If you’re reading this review thinking Moltmann might be offering a line of reasoning within which to understand the evidence for the resurrection, then this is the point to give up and refer to N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God instead.

In section 4, he reverts back to the philosophy and heuristics of history. This section begins with a puzzle: if history is constantly in motion, changing from moment to moment, yet philosophy is inherently atemporal (that is, it is true regardless of the time frame), then how can there be such a thing a philosophy of history? For my mind, I then wondered if he might extend this to questioning whether there can be such a thing a history of philosophy, though this isn’t a point Moltmann actually raises.

The whole of the 4th section is entitled “Eschatology and History” but for much of it, the eschatological aspect is conspicuous by its absence. Ironically, it does drift in towards the end of the section with an intriguing discussion on the nature of tradition. Moltmann argues that what christianity understands by tradition is vastly different from what most others do. For most, tradition means harking back to the past (and my opinion is that many expressions of christianity do this, though not helpfully) but Moltmann argues that christian tradition, though rooted in the past, is inherently a forward-looking thing.

The book concludes by returning from the world from of high philosophy and back into the real world that most people inhabit day by day. Entitled ‘Exodus Church’, I had expected to see here the roots of liberation theology, a feature of the 1960s and 1970s theology in which he played a significant part, but any resemblance to it here is only as much as the resemblance between an acorn and an oak.

Probably the fairest summary of the book is given by Moltmann himself, with this quote from near the end of the book:

“If, however, the Christian Church is thus orientated towards the future of the Lord, and receives itself and its own nature always only in expectation and hope from the coming Lord who is ahead of it, then its life and suffering, its work and action in the world and upon the world, must also be determined by the open foreland of its hopes for the world.”