Through a glass darkly – 12

Wishing and Hoping

It is easy to think that wishing and hoping are synonyms. The two words often go together.  Wishin’ and Hopin’ is a Hal David and Burt Bacharach song from the 1960s.  It was released by Dionne Warwick in 1963, and was subsequently a hit for Dusty Springfield in the summer of 1964. Is it OK to say that I always liked Dusty Springfield ? Though I am aware that she was a gay icon.

Dusty Springfield

But wishing and hoping are fundamentally different things. Wishing is an uncontextualised [often wishy-washy] desire for things to be other than they are. Thus, I wish that I could sing in tune. I wish that we had gone to Normandy last month. I wish that BREXIT had never happened. I wish that blustering Boris  was not Prime Minister. Christian hope by contrast is firmly rooted in God’s promises to his people that things will one day be other than they are in a fallen world. Hope is a Christian virtue. “As it is”, writes Paul to the church in Corinth, “these {gifts] remain, faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of them is love”. And faith, as the writer to the Hebrews tells us, is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen”. So I thought it would be a good idea in this time of lock-down to have a go at reading Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope.

Jürgen Moltmann

Moltmann was born in Hamburg in 1926 [the same year as the Queen]. As a young boy he planned to study mathematics. But other things intervened. He was called up in the army in 1943, survived the horrific Hamburg fire-storm, and afterwards wondered why he had been spared. Late on in the war he was taken prisoner, and ended up in a POW camp in Scotland, from where he and his comrades were sent to work building roads near Kilmarnock. While in the UK he grew to love baked beans, and he began his theological studies. After 1948 he resumed his theological studies at Göttingen, where he completed his ministerial training and a doctorate. For most of his academic life Moltmann was professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen.  His colleagues included his wife, Elisabeth Wendel, a pioneer feminist theologian, and also Hans Kung.

Jörgen Moltmann

Theology of Hope

Theology of Hope is Moltmann’s first book, published in the UK by SCM in 1967. I found it a difficult book to read. Partly because I have never aspired to be a theologian. To me it reads a bit like a doctoral thesis [which it isn’t]. Obviously the book has been translated from German. And the author writes in dialogue with the German intellectual and cultural tradition. Which means that it is liberally referenced with books and writers with whom I am unfamiliar.

The book begins with a meditation on hope. Moltmann insists that theology must be constructed in the light of its final goal. We must start with eschatology, and Christian  eschatology is about Jesus and his future. As Christians it is our privilege to proclaim the future of the risen Lord. But at the same time in this world we live with the conflict between hope and experience. Calvin tells us that hope is the expectation of those things which faith believes to have been promised by God; “faith is the foundation on which hope rests, hope nourishes and sustains faith”. Those who hope in Christ suffer under reality as it is. “Peace with God”, Moltmann tells us, “means conflict with the world”. It is the function of the church to continually press for the advancement of righteousness, freedom, and humanity in the light of our promised future. We must not let our faith be eroded by the sin of despair. [Those who despair of blustering Boris and President Trump, please note !]

Eschatology

The two recurrent threads in the book are eschatology and history, and the relationship between the two. Protestant theology rediscovered eschatology through Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer at the end of the 19th century. But did this mean history moving silently and interminably onwards ? Or did it mean the eschaton breaking transcendentally into history ? 

Moltmann is sceptical about the [old] idea of ‘progressive revelation’, which  construes revelation in terms of unfolding history. The Bible becomes a history book, the divine commentary on divine acts in history. But he insists that the events which reveal God must be understood in their historic context. [I wonder how this argument might apply to the current obsession with public statues ?]

The Easter ‘revelation’ encourages Christians to identify the risen one with the crucified one. The Easter appearance of the risen Lord is understood as a manifestation and promise of his still future glory and lordship. With the resurrection, the Lord’s work is not yet completed. “Christian hope is meaningful only when the world can be changed by the one in whom the hope rests.” 

Promise and History

Moltmann sees the Old Testament religion as a religion of promise, looking forward to a reality that does not yet exist. These promises are not liquidated; neither by disappointment nor by fulfilment. “The stories of Israelite history are treated as themes pregnant with future.” Their view of the past is a promise for the future.

Moses and the burning bush

Knowledge of God draws us onwards into situations that are still outstanding.”Knowledge of God will then anticipate the promised future of God in constant remembrance of the past …  of God’s election, his covenant, his promises, his faithfulness.” For Israel promise and command belong together. Promise is one side of the covenant in which Israel’s relationship with God is grounded. To keep the covenant with God means both to trust his promises and to keep his commandments.

The Old Testament prophets saw Israel’s exile in Babylon [and the disappearance of the country] as Yahweh’s judgement on his apostate people. But the prophets pointed forwards to the coming glory of Yahweh and his sovereignty over the whole earth, Salvation has become universal, but will be received through Israel. The only remaining boundary is death.

The Resurrection and the future of Jesus Christ

Turning to Jesus, Moltmann insists that the God who reveals himself in Jesus must be the God of the Old Testament. “In Jesus Christ, however, the God of Israel has revealed himself as the God of all mankind.” It is significant that in the New Testament God is described as the ‘God of promise’. Paul links new life in Christ to the Abrahamic promises. “the true heirs of the promise and children of Abraham are those who are partakers of the promise of faith in Christ “ [Galatians 3:18]. “For by the gospel the Gentiles become partakers of the promise in Christ” [Ephesians 3:6].

Christian faith must start with the resurrection of Jesus. “A Christian faith that is not resurrection faith can be called neither Christian nor faith.” The reality of the resurrection is such that it compels proclamation to all peoples. In terms of promise. “The Christian hope for the future comes from a specific, unique event – that of the resurrection and the Easter appearances of Jesus Christ.” The appearances of the risen Lord were experienced “not as blissful experiences of union with the divine” [!], but as “a commission to service and mission in the world.

The Road to Emmaus

Eschatology and History

Moltmann reflects at length on the nature of history. Which he suggests was fundamentally foreign to the Greek way of thinking. The Greeks could not cope with the instability and the transience of history. For the Greeks history was exclusively about the past. But the prophet is a seer. For both Jews and Christians, history must look forward to the promised future of God. History is shaped by future expectations. History is understood in terms of human hope.

Israel’s religious traditions comprised recounting God’s faithfulness in the past and pointing to a future that has not yet come about. Christian proclamation starts with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and his exaltation as Lord. Both Old Testament tradition and Christian proclamation point forward to the future. But for Christians that Lordship is universal.

Exodus Church

In his quite short, final section Moltmann asks, ‘How is the church of today to realise our calling to be the pilgrim people of God ?. He acknowledges that in an increasingly secular world the Christian Church has largely lost its public role. And is in danger of becoming a private cult; a basis for personal ethical decisions. So Christian groups and communities can easily become “a kind of Noah’s ark for men in their social estrangement.

But the New Testament calling is for the church to be the ‘community of eschatological salvation’. Its task is to gather people in and then send them out with a horizon of eschatological expectation. 

Mission in rural Africa

This shapes our experience of Communion, the Lord’s Supper. Around the Communion table we are not in possession of the presence of the Absolute. But we are “a waiting, expectant congregation seeking Communion with the coming Lord.”

The mission of the church is to enable the world to be transformed into what it is promised to be. Moltmann quotes JC Hoekendijk: “missions perform their service today only when they infect men with hope”.  This hope is akin to the Old Testament prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah. The goal is not just reconciliation with God, and the forgiveness of sins and the abolition of godlessness, and individual rescue from an evil world. But salvation is also about shalom; “about the hope of justice, the humanising of man, the socialising of all humanity, and peace for all creation”.

The Christian life must not about fleeing the world and resignation from it, but about engagement with an unsatisfactory world. Our discipleship has its goal in the eschatological hope to which God calls us.  “The hope of Resurrection must bring about a new understanding of the world.” 

Envoi

I’m glad I’ve read the book. I got lost in some of the detail, but Moltmann offers us an inspiring bigger picture. And the book also acts as a corrective to our frequently too small concepts of church life and Christian teaching. My friend Jared who has read everything [I think] tells me that Moltmann’s Jesus Christ in today’s world is a more accessible book. And possibly more rewarding. So I think I’ll have a look at that when I can find a copy. But don’t hold your breath.

June 2020

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

4 thoughts on “Through a glass darkly – 12

  1. Inspiring book review. The concepts are on the dry side, but they give an explanation and a purpose.
    Good job. Thank you, Chris.

    Like

  2. Lovely having your thoughts on this book. I probably would never have either read it or understood it! Always great to read you. Love you both. Virginia

    Like

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