Moltmann, Marxism, and Political Theology
The impetus of Moltmann’s theology is found the crisis that the German church found itself facing in a post-Auschwitz Germany. After the war, Moltmann returned to Hamburg, but among the food shortages, an infrastructure consisting primarily of rubble and craters, and the public awareness of the “final solution,” there loomed the daunting question of what role the church should now play in society. Moltmann found that the only glimmer of hope of the Protestant church during the Third Reich, the “Confessing Church” and its Barmen Declaration, had simply succumbed to rebuilding itself in its pre-war image, supporting the immediate re-institutionalization of the church. Yet considering that the churches had supported the Nazi regime (whether directly or indirectly through their silence), Moltmann found this lackluster response to be quite disconcerting and, appropriating a biblical metaphor, describes it as the church pouring “their new wine into old bottles” (Experiences of God, 10). Moltmann determined that the reason there was little resistance against the Nazi leviathan was due to religion being considered a private matter in Germany. Thus, Moltmann set it upon himself to de-privatize religion by offering up to Christians a “political” or “public” theology in his writings.
Meeks describes Moltmann’s political theology as follows: “For Moltmann, political theology is essentially the theology of the practice and realization of Christian mission in the world” (Origins of the Theology of Hope, 129). Or to quote Moltmann himself, his political theology “does not want to dissolve Christian faith into politics; nor does it want to replace Christianity with humanism” (“Political Theology,” Theology Today 28 : 6–23, quote from 22). Note that he also says that he “does not want to make political questions the central theme of theology or to give political systems and movements religious support” (ibid., 8).
Also, Moltmann originally labeled his theology as a “political” theology but over the years he has seemingly shifted towards calling it a “public” theology. The two labels have no obviously discernible difference, with both simply meaning “social” in the sense that they’re an attempt to determine the public responsibility of Christians.
Moltmann’s political theology is often said to go together with Marxism, though this a caricature. Moltmann primarily draws upon Marxist theory through the neo-Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, who in the 1950s published Das Prinzip Hoffnung (The Principle of Hope), a work that combines Jewish eschatology together with Marxist social analysis. There are also scattered references to Marxist and socialist theory throughout Moltmann’s writings, as well as the occasional dialogue with the Frankfurt School (which is dedicated to neo-Marxist values). This has all been used as support for leveling accusations against Moltmann of advocating a theology based in Marxist theory or that he is merely presenting a Christianized form of Marxism. See, for instance, the completely misguided charge from Paul Enns: “Moltmann is more indebted to Karl Marx for his theology than to the teachings of Scripture” (The Moody Handbook of Theology: Revised and Expanded, 630). Robert Walton also provides an inaccurate portrayal of Moltmann’s relationship to Marxism by stating that his use of Marxist philosophy is “the basis of his new conception of election: his doctrine of God and his belief that only the poor and oppressed can be God’s people” (“Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope,” in Liberation Theology, 143–86, quote from 153).
What is often left unmentioned, perhaps just going unnoticed by Moltmann’s less scrupulous readers, is how he actually uses the work of Marxists like Bloch as a foil, taking over Marxist critiques as a means to revealing the faults in the capitalist market-system, which Moltmann sees as a pervasive ideology found in all areas of life, especially religion: “The global marketing of everything and every service is much more than pure economics. It has become the all-embracing law of life. We have become customers and consumers, whatever else we may be. The market has become the philosophy of life, the world religion” (God for a Secular Society, 153). Moltmann does not utilize Marxism to such an extent that it diminishes the Christian hope for the kingdom of God to something that can be accomplished through mere revolutionary political action. Moltmann only really employs Marxist theory in order to free bourgeois Christianity from its capitalist fixation with consumerism and its fetishism of money, rather than a means to promote a Christianized form of Marxism.
To summarize: Moltmann’s use of Marxist theory is a good example of his doing theology à la mode—utilizing currents that are in vogue in order to respond to a problem that society is facing without actually intending to fully appropriate the idea being adopted. So while arguing that capitalism is both alienating and objectifying, leading to the exploitation of relationships and prohibiting people from realizing their true humanity, Moltmann flatly rejects the idea that the abolition of capitalism would led to the realization of the kingdom of God: “the kingdom of God can be socialism, but that does not mean that socialism is now the kingdom of God” (The Crucified God, 320). He also states more unequivocally that “humanist Marxism is fundamentally discredited by its Stalinist and post-Stalinist practice” (ibid., 9). For Moltmann, Christianity is not synonymous with political action, but political action is an expression of Christian faith. Furthermore, as one progresses through Moltmann’s writings, one can see that his use of Marxian categories has steadily decreased over time, perhaps being attributable to his increasing emphasis on ecumenicism. Irrespective as to why his use of Marxist theory declined, it should nevertheless be able to legitimately serve as a foil for theological thinking about economic and political issues.