Friday, March 29, 2013

The Crucified God by Jürgen Moltmann

Since today is Good Friday, it seemed appropriate to reflect on a book that examines the theology of  the cross. The title of this book told me it would fit the bill: The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology.  Most Christians understand the importance of the crucifixion and the resurrection as the foundation for their faith, but Moltmann talks about their significance on a whole new level. For him, the Cross is the framework by which all of Jesus' teachings must be understood, and theology of the Cross must be at the foundation of everything the Church does and considers itself to be. Our relevance as Christians lies in our identification with the crucified and resurrected Christ. The book took some time to get through, but I feel like I got a lot out of it and I look forward to reading more of Moltmann's work in the future. In college, I had a project where I edited the Wikipedia page for Jürgen Moltmann, and although I've always appreciated him as a liberation theologian, this is the first time I've critically examined one of his books. In my reflection, I focus on the first 5 chapters of his book which deal with Christology. His last three chapters systematically develop his understandings of the consequences of his theology for the concept of God, for anthropology, and for a critical theory of church and society. I will instead offer my own reflections on my understanding of his Christology.
About the Author
Jürgen Moltmann (born 1926) is a German reformed theologian, known best for his book: Theology of Hope. He is influenced by Karl Barth's dialectical theology, and by Hegel's absolute idealism (among others).  He was introduced to Christian Theology as a POW in WWII. He served as a Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Tubingen (in Germany) from 1967 until he retired in 1994.

Book Summary
The Cross as a Foundation for the Identity and Relevance of Christian Faith
Moltmann begins his book with a discussion on the identity and relevance of faith. The crisis of relevance in Christian life is the church's inability to have a profound impact on the world that is distinctly Christian. Should Christians get involved in social justice movements? Yes, but what about our involvement is Christian? People of other faiths and atheists all get involved in social justice movements as well, because it is the reasonable and humane thing to do. How does our relevance as Christians in society relate to our identity as Christians?
Christian identity can be understood only as an act of identification with the crucified Christ, to the extent to which one has accepted the proclamation that in him God has identified himself with the godless and those abandoned by God, to whom one belongs oneself. (Kindle Locations 337-338)
Our identity is forever linked to our identification with Christ. If we understand our relevance through this framework, then we stay true to ourselves as Christians. Too many churches try to maintain their identity by proclaiming that they alone have the truth. They point to themselves and their theology as ultimate truth, instead of relying wholly upon their identity in Christ. They have adopted the understanding that they are bearing their own cross when others point out their faults. As Moltmann states:
When the 'religion of fear' finds its way into the Christian church, those who regard themselves as the most vigilant guardians of the faith do violence to faith and smother it. (Kindle Locations 346-347).
Similarly, there have been many attempts to distort the message of the cross to keep people in oppression. A group might say that an oppressed people must simply be willing to 'bear their cross.' This does not correlate to what Jesus said when he told his disciples they must be willing to take up their cross and follow him. When Jesus said that, it was a call to action; a call to rebellion against the status quo. Jesus was the ultimate liberator, offering hope and redemption to all people. He was not afraid to take action, not afraid to step on anyone's toes. When an oppressed people take up their cross, they take action towards liberation.
We must work to properly understand the symbol of the cross, for it is of the utmost importance.
The symbol of the cross in the church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It does not invite thought but a change of mind. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing into the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God. (Kindle Locations 626-630).
Our identity in the cross must be tied to our relationship with other people, especially the poor and oppressed. That is how we can become relevant as a Church. When we take up our own cross, we must be willing to suffer rejection. When we tie our identity to Christ, we tie ourselves to his love for humanity. Love leaves us open to wounding and disappointment, for nothing is so humanizing as love.
Theology of the Cross
Moltmann transitions from a discussion of relevance and identity into a discussion of theology.
Moltmann explains that to speak of God, one must understand that God cannot merely be the object of human discourse. God must be thought of as subject alongside object. This means that theology is only possible when understanding God through what God has said or done. The cross of Christ shows us in one instance God as subject and object. Jesus is God, and Jesus is abandoned by God on the cross. ("My God My God, why have you forsaken me?) God is emptied of God's self, in order that God might be made known to humans more intimately. For this reason, our faith "stands and falls with the knowledge of the crucified Christ, that is, with the knowledge of God in the crucified Christ (kindle locations 994-995)."
The act of Jesus' crucifixion was utterly scandalous, completely incomprehensible, and wholly offensive. It was the moment in which God totally and completely emptied God's self, and in that period of time when God was dead, all hope was gone. Then on that first Easter morning, God was made fully known in the resurrected Christ, and the hope that Jesus brought with him back from the grave is a hope for all who tie their identity to him.
Who is Jesus
Moltmann explains that we cannot be satisfied with either a quest to understand the historical Jesus or with a Christology which ignores Jesus the man in favor of examining Jesus as God. There is an intimate link between who Jesus was/is, and what Jesus preached; and both must be understood through the lens of the crucified and risen Christ.
Moltmann explains how Jesus preached eschatologically of the kingdom of God, unlike Paul who preached eschatologically about the righteousness of God. Those who would preach about Jesus understood the dominion of God to have been inaugurated in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The teaching of Jesus was tied to his person. It included concrete promises about who he was and what his role in the kingdom of God was. It also included promises for the people around him. It was the way Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God that lead to his persecution and eventually crucifixion. As Moltmann explains, here was some poor man from Nazareth (and what good can come from Nazareth?) proclaiming the kingdom and justification of God to the poor and the sinners around him. In his death, Jesus fulfilled his proclamation. (I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it).
The proclaimer has become the proclaimed. This is the essential problem of Jesus himself, and can only be understood in Christological terms. The historical Jesus IS the crucified and dead Jesus. The true critique of the preaching of Jesus is his crucifixion. That is the framework through which the words, teachings, and actions of Jesus must be understood. The resurrection is a necessary part of this framework, because while Jesus’ death on the cross might be understood as a refutation to his preaching (he was killed because the religious and political leaders of the time refuted his teaching); the resurrection is a repudiation of this refutation (Jesus really was who he said he was). Jesus preaching about the kingdom of God is fulfilled and transformed by his death and resurrection. The eschaton has begun. No one who is speaking of Jesus can do so without bearing this in mind. Faith in God is faith in the resurrection. The God who abandons Jesus in the crucifixion is the same God who is present in the resurrection. This God is the same God who is incarnate in the person of Jesus, and the same God that Jesus is fully conscious of, who fully existed in his person, throughout his earthly ministry.
The Significance of the Resurrection
As Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:14, "If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is vain and your faith is vain." If Christ is not risen, we are left at the cross, abandoned by God, and without hope. The crucifixion must be understood in light of the resurrection. The resurrection is about so much more than just the miracle of Jesus coming back to life. As Moltmann explains:
Jesus resurrection from the dead by God was never regarded as a private and isolated miracle for his authentication, but as the beginning of the general resurrection of the dead, I.e. as the beginning of the end of history in the midst of history. His resurrection was nor regarded as a fortuitous miracle in an unchangeable world, but as the beginning of the eschatological transformation of the world by its creator. Thus the resurrection of Jesus stood in the framework of a universal hope of eschatological belief, which was kindled in it. (Kindle Location 2397)
The hope of Easter after abandonment by God shines forward into the hope for a new creation in the midst of the world's current suffering.
Any interpretation of the meaning of his death which does not have as a presupposition his resurrection from the dead is a hopeless matter, because it cannot communicate the new element of life and salvation which came to light in his resurrection. ... His resurrection is the content of the significance of his death on the cross 'for us' because the risen Christ is himself the crucified Christ. His resurrection from the dead can be known in his death 'for many'. It is not that his 'resurrection' is a dimension of his death on the cross; on the contrary, his sacrifice on the cross for the reconciliation of the world is the immanent dimension of his eschatological resurrection in the glory of the coming kingdom... In the one who became poor for our sake, God's riches are opened up for us. In the one who became a servant for our sake, we are grasped by God's freedom. In the one who became sin for us, sinners become the righteousness of God in the world. (Kindle Locations 2726-2749)
This hope is apocalyptic because it promises righteousness in an unrighteous world, and it is eschatological because it promises new life. A new life for the sinner. A new life for the poor. A new life for the oppressor and for the oppressed. It is the resurrection that qualifies the saving significance of Christ's death on the cross for us.
Having read this book during Holy Week, I am struck with a new appreciation for the significance of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In the past, I had been so focused on the celebration of Easter Sunday that I nearly forgot the lament and despair that come with Good Friday and Holy Saturday. What does it mean to "celebrate" the death of Christ and the abandonment of God? I'm not sure I can answer that question, even for myself. I am left feeling disquieted and uncomfortable just thinking about it. I know Easter is coming, but what about the disciples on the day after Christ was crucified who didn't know that Easter was coming? What must they have been experiencing?

Perhaps it is necessary to remember this feeling of abandonment and despair, because without it- what significance would the elation of celebration on Easter morning mean? Perhaps I'm not meant to understand it, but simply to acknowledge it and to feel it. How can I understand the light if I've never been in darkness? Liberation theologians talk about God's 'preferential option for the poor and oppressed', meaning that God favors the poor and oppressed. I now understand that idea in a new way. The more fully a person has experienced 'abandonment' by God, the more fully a person can appreciate God's presence.

Jesus was the only person to ever live who knew God's presence fully and intimately, and so his despair of having been abandoned by God on the cross would have been absolute. How does God abandon God's self? How does God become empty of God? I'm not sure, but perhaps it is something akin to how we are asked to die to ourselves or deny ourselves, and follow Christ. For a moment, God was emptied of Gods self so that God might be in perfect relationship to humanity.

Perhaps that is why Moltmann says our faith must begin in that moment of abandonment on the cross. Then, when Jesus was open and completely vulnerable, God and yet abandoned by God, fully human and completely linked to all of humanity; he died, taking 'us' with him. Then in the resurrection, 'we' are all brought back into a new life, a new way of being.

Romans 6:3 says: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" When we link ourselves to Christ, we are linking ourselves to his death so that we might also experience the new life that is promised to all who believe. When we say that Christ died for us, it's about more than him dying for our sins. It's about him dying for us as a full being {and now I'm getting how Moltmann was influenced by Hegel}, so that we might forever unite our 'self' to God's 'self', so that we can participate in relationship with God in a meaningful way. Perhaps this is what is meant by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. It is our link to God's essential being that we receive when we die to ourselves and participate in the death of Christ. 

This Christology brings a whole new level of understanding to the celebration of Easter, for me at least. I have, until now, understood Holy Week as a time to remember that Christ died for our sins, and that Christ rose again so that we who are imperfect might have a relationship with a perfect God that includes eternal life. I'm not saying I was wrong, but I believe I now have a more full and complete understanding. From what I now understand, Holy Week remembers that Christ died and was resurrected for us, so that we who put our faith in Christ will have a new life and the opportunity to participate in eternal life. I have a much better understanding of my part in the story, and a much greater appreciation for the despair of Holy Saturday.

I also appreciated the discussion of Jesus's morality as being linked to his God-consciousness. How many times have I heard the words: What Would Jesus Do? They were always linked to a specific situation, many times the situation was one that Jesus would not have concerned himself with. Jesus was inherently good because Jesus was always and in everything aware of God's presence. Jesus was/is God, and so his awareness of God was perfect. I am not God, but I can certainly try to make myself aware of God in all situations. This is not to say "be careful, for God is watching" but rather to understand that as a Christian, the way I treat other people and the way I conduct myself are both known to and representative of God. It's all part of the new life that is promised to (and expected of) those who choose to follow the crucified and resurrected Christ.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Hallelujah!
Notable Quotes:
  • "In Christ, God and our neighbor are a unity, and what God has joined together, man shall not put apart, least of all the theologian." (Kindle Locations 408-409).
  • "Even the disciples of Jesus all fled from their master's cross. Christians who do not have the feeling that they must flee the crucified Christ have probably not yet understood him in a sufficiently radical way." (Kindle Locations 597-598). 

Book Citation
Jürgen Moltmann. The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. Kindle Edition.

No comments:

Post a Comment