Moltmann’s Sitz im Leben

Jürgen Moltmann has undoubtedly been an influential voice in contemporary Christian theology, with his initial work, Theologie der Hoffnung (1964; English translation Theology of Hope, 1967), putting him on the theological map of the twentieth century. As is true with any theologian, Moltmann’s life setting has had a critical impact on his theology—a fact of which he himself is well aware:

For me, theology was, and still is, an adventure of ideas. It is an open, inviting path. … The road emerged only as I walked on it. And my attempts to walk it are of course determined by my personal biography, and by the political context and historical kairos in which I live. (Experiences in Theology, xv)

Throughout his theological career, Moltmann has attempted to establish a theological project having three key features: 1) a political responsibility, 2) a biblical foundation, and 3) an eschatological orientation (History and the Triune God, 182). It is helpful to understand the Sitz im Leben in which Moltmann’s theology was formed and received, for only then will it be possible to assess his thought, particularly in regards to the question of how his life has been responsible for his hermeneutical method and theological emphases.

Jürgen Moltmann was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1926 and was raised in a thoroughly secular and faithless household. He recalls that “at home Christianity was only a matter of form . . . as something rather remote” (Experiences of God, 6). During his teenage years, Moltmann developed a passion for science and had planned on studying mathematics at University, but the outbreak of war had him drafted to serve in the Werhmacht (the German armed forces), carrying with him to war the works of Nietzsche and a volume of Goethe as a testament to his rearing in the writings of the German Enlightenment, calling these works his “iron rations” which he took with him into the “miseries of war” (ibid., 7). This time is of paramount importance to Moltmann’s theology, as his theological trajectory begins not with Barth or Iwand, but with World War II and the crucial events occurring to him during this time.

In 1943, while stationed in Hamburg, Moltmann’s anti-aircraft unit was struck during the Allied bombing known as Operation Gomorrah. During this event Moltmann witnessed his friend killed by an incendiary device, yet he himself survived with only minor shrapnel wounds, despite their standing mere inches apart. Apart from causing Moltmann to give grave consideration as to why he had survived and his friend had not, it also led him to asking the question of where God is in the midst of suffering; a question which has remained central throughout his entire theological career.

Two years later Moltmann was sent to the front lines in Reichswald, Belgium. It was here that he surrendered himself to the Allied forces and subsequently was placed in POW camps for three years in Belgium, Scotland, and finally, at Norton Camp in England. It was during this time that Moltmann was confronted with photos of the atrocities perpetrated by the Third Reich on the Jews in places like Auschwitz and Buchenwald. During his internment in Belgium Moltmann was provided with a Bible by an Allied chaplain. He found solace in the Psalms of lament, particularly Psalm 39, and upon reaching Jesus’ death cry in the Gospel of Mark—“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” (Mk. 15:34)—Moltmann had found his answer: “this is someone who understands you completely, who is with you in your cry to God and has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now” (ibid., 30).

This development of faith was further supported by his internment in Norton Camp. This facility was run by the YMCA in conjunction with the British army, functioning as a type of captive seminary, with theological studies being provided by fellow prisoners and others brought in from the outside world, including Anders Nygren and Martin Niemöller. During this time as a prisoner-of-war, Moltmann experienced a slow but steady conversion to the Christian faith, which he describes as follows:

In the camps in Belgium and Scotland I experienced both the collapse of those things that had been certainties for me and a new hope to live by, provided by the Christian faith. I probably owe to this hope, not only my mental and moral but physical survival as well, for it was what saved me from despairing and giving up. I came back a Christian with a new “personal goal” of studying theology, so that I might understand the power of hope to which I owed my life. (A Broad Place, 59-60)

Upon his return to Germany, Moltmann continued to study theology, receiving his doctorate in theology from the University of Göttingen in 1952, having studied under Gerhard Von Rad and Ernst Käsemann. Meeks gives a thorough assessment of the influence that three of his other Göttingen teachers—Otto Weber, Ernst Wolf, and Hans Joachim Iwand—had on Moltmann during his time there (see M. Douglas Meeks, Origins of the Theology of Hope, 19-53).

Marrying the feminist theologian Elisabeth Wendel the same year that he received his doctorate, Moltmann then spent five years as a pastor of a reformed church, followed by a position on the theological faculty at Bonn University. In 1967, Moltmann was offered the prestigious chair of systematic theology at the University of Tübingen, becoming Professor Emeritus in 1994.

From my readings through Moltmann’s works, what is readily apparent is the role that his Sitz im Leben has played in his theology. Despite the twentieth century beginning with a tinge of humanistic optimism and a certain buoyancy of spirit, this attitude was called into question with the advent of the Great War. This was followed by another World War and the Shoah. It is this setting which is so critical to understanding where Moltmann and his theological project is coming from. While one can appreciate that Moltmann’s experience in World War II is his theology in nuce, thus leading him to approach theology from the viewpoint that the world is at peril of total self-annihilation, he has nevertheless allowed subsequent experiences, such as his interaction with liberation theologians and his ecumenical endeavors, to continually inform and direct the contours of his theology.

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