Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Comp Three, Question Three

3. At dinner one night, you, Jürgen Moltmann, and an “organic intellectual” from the Emergent church network (pick one) fall into a discussion about an issue or a situation that is problematic for the Emergent church in 2005. Track the dinner conversation in dialogue form: How do each of you assess this situation, especially in terms of ecclesiology? What sort of assistance does Moltmann offer you, as practical theologians, in addressing the normative (theological) dimensions of this issue? What advice would you give to Moltmann about bringing his theology into conversation with new paradigm churches?

[DISCLAIMER 1: All representations or likenesses to actual, living persons is purely coincidental. I make no claims to represent Jürgen Moltmann, Doug Pagitt, or myself in the following.

DISCLAIMER 2: The term "organic intellectual" was coined by Antonio Gramsci.

DISCLAIMER 3: I mean no offense to anyone in claiming that Doug Pagitt is an "intellectual," be it organic, pesticide-laden, or rotten.]

Tony Jones: Doug, I’d like to introduce you to Herr Professor Moltmann, retired from Tübingen University.

Jürgen Moltmann: Güten Tag.

TJ: And, Professor Moltmann, this is Doug Pagitt, pastor of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Doug Pagitt: Yo.

TJ: I’d like to begin tonight by posing a problem for us to consider. Emergent, the organization which I serve as national coordinator, has come under a great deal of criticism this year. Primarily, Emergent serves as an organization that networks churches – both those that are new and those that are trying to reinvent themselves – but we are also working hard to carve out a space for honest, healthy theological dialogue in the church. Interestingly, we come under very little scrutiny from mainline folks – if anything, they write us off as disgruntled evangelicals, but more and more, they are joining us at the table for conversation.

Where we are getting criticized is from the rightward flank. Both Reformed and Arminian conservatives are deeply concerned that we are leading young Christians astray. They accuse us of letting culture rather than the Bible dictate our theological agenda, of trying to upset things that were settled 400 years ago, of planting churches that steal little bits and pieces of various liturgical traditions but maintain the integrity of none. Brian McLaren’s latest book, A Generous Orthodoxy, serves as a kind of manifesto of the movement, but it has been panned by conservatives as being too generous to be at all orthodox.

Dr. Moltmann, you seem almost completely unconcerned in your writings about criticisms you might receive from conservatives; you seem exclusively concerned with those to your left.

JM: Well, Tony, I think that those left-right dualisms are less helpful than they used to be. And, while it is true that I have little understanding of the American evangelicalism that is so powerful here in the States, I have been quite forthright in my criticism of the conservatives we face in Europe, namely the Roman Catholic Church. You may recall that I took on then-Cardinal Ratzinger over his dismissal of liberation theology. And I continue to be concerned about the conservatism in the Vatican. And some would say that Barth was to my right – that when I moved away from him, I moved to the left.

But you are correct, my writings have more often battled the likes of Bultmann and the general leftward trend in German Protestant theology that held sway from the late 19th century until the end of World War II. You know, a lot of us in Germany were really disheartened after that war, and we wondered what place theology and the church might ever have in our society in the future. The only glimmer of hope we saw was the Confessing Church and the Barmen Declaration.

DP: This is what really angers me about those people who attack Emergent. There are those – I call them the “Westminster Confessionalites” – who seem to think that all theological questions were wrapped up in 1615. Others think it was with Calvin’s Institutes or Aquinas’s Summa or Augustine’s City of God. Some Orthodox people we run into want us all to return to the 3rd century and the Apostle’s Creed. The Anabaptists seem to think we can all return to the second chapter of Acts. There’s a nostaligia pathology in the church to “get back to the good old days.”

But I say, okay, let’s go back. We’ll go back to the Apostle’s Creed – but along with that comes a world without electricity or chemotherapy or cars or central plumbing. You want that?!? While everything else is moving forward, let’s just take the church backwards! Yeah, that’s the answer!

TJ: But, Dr. Moltmann, while I imagine you agree with Doug, you also want him to avoid the Enlightenment danger idealizing progress.

JM: Yes, of course. This was the problem with the Enlightenment, that progress for progress’s sake was striven for. There is indeed a great danger in this, for we can learn from our past. The theologians and pastors of the last two millennia have indeed made many mistakes, but they also have much to teach us. Some of the heresies they fought are similar to those we face today. Gnosticism, for instance, I think is a very real danger for the church today.

But we needed a new creed in Germany in 1934, a new Declaration. The church will always need new creeds, but we dare not disregard the old ones.

TJ: Doug, on this same theme, you have publicly wondered if the concept of the Trinity has run its course – this, of course, is a significant part of Dr. Moltmann’s corpus.

DP: What I think is that the doctrine of the Trinity, as formulated by Augustine and his peers, solved a certain problem at a certain time. Back then, people were saddled with this Greek concept of God as a distant, removed Being who wanted nothing to do with this earth, this creation. So, when these people inherited the story of Jesus, they had a bog problem to solve: how could the distant, removed God have possibly come to Earth? The concept of that was preposterous to them!

So the doctrine of the Trinity was of great help to them in getting over that dilemma. By conceiving of God as three persons or three parts, they could say that God did come to Earth, and he also stayed in heaven…and he also still dwells here today and still dwells in heaven.

Not only is this concept of a three-part God foreign to a holistic Hebrew-Old Testament mind, it is also becoming more and more unnecessary today. We don’t have the same Hellenistic philosophy mind-set of the Early Church. The people in my community, at Solomon’s Porch, have no trouble believing that God is holistically related to the entirety of creation. That’s just not an issue for us. Quantum physics? Nano-technology? Now those are issues that beg for theological consideration. But God becoming a man? That one is no problem.

JM: But, Doug, what I want to challenge you on is the beauty of the concept of the Trinity. Yes, I agree that when it is used as a rationalistic proof for the deity of Jesus of Nazareth, the Trinity falls short of its full theological potential. But instead of thinking of it rationalistically, I’d like you to consider it aesthetically. The Trinity affords a great deal of theological creativity to you as a pastor and preacher, and to the people who write the music for worship in your community. Don’t disparage the concept just because it’s old. Now, I don’t want you to idolize it, as some do, just because it’s old, but I don’t want you to disparage it, either.

Think of the Trinity as the dynamic, eternal dance of God. Doesn’t that jibe with your church’s desire to be a place of laughter and joy, a place where the body is honored, where worship is more than just words? I read the book about your church, and I think that Solomon’s Porch would be very well served by a robust and vibrant doctrine of the Trinity. You can talk about “following God in the way of Jesus,” and I am fully supportive of that, but part of your role as a pastor is to help the people paint a picture of God that is so beautiful that they can’t help but to follow him – that they can’t imagine following anyone else. I think the idea of Trinity as perichoresis would be a great help to you in that task.

TJ: It’s true that, just last month when I talked a bit about the Trinity at Solomon’s Porch – when I introduced that concept of the perichoresis – there were many who resonated with that idea. One man, a truck driver named Frank, said that he had been introduced to that idea just the previous week in Eugene Peterson’s new spiritual theology, God Plays in a Thousand Places, and he loves the idea. He said the world is moving so fast, it’s changing so dynamically, that it seems like we should have an image of God that is dynamic and changing.

DP: Listen, I’m open to it. I just don’t want us blindly following along with this doctrine or that doctrine because that’s the way they believed “back in the day.”

JM: Then we are of one accord. But I want to encourage you to explore the richness of the Trinity, because I am quite sure that you and your church will greatly benefit from it.

TJ: There is one final issue I’d like each of you to briefly reflect on. You are both what I might call small “b” baptists, at least in your polity. You believe in small, communal, and denomination-less churches. You both think that a state church is antithetical to the gospel, and that the church should not act as a chaplain to the culture. Tell me then, what relationship should the church – and by that I mean the local church – have with the dominant, surrounding culture?

DP: Tony, I think your question sets up a false antithesis. Culture and the church cannot be separated. All of the people who walk into Solomon’s Porch on Sunday evening are dripping with culture – the clothes they’re wearing, the music they were just listening to on the radios in their cars, the stuff they’re talking about with each other as they sit down. The more we, the thought-leaders, talk about “church vs. culture,” the more we set up a false dichotomy in their minds. Then the people in the church start to think that the church is “something else,” something strange, and they start to separate out the “church” part of their lives from the other parts of their lives. Life just is. Following God in the way of Jesus surely isn’t confined to church, so we shouldn’t even talk about it in ways that portray a difference that isn’t there.

JM: While I really like what Doug has said, and I resonate with it, I want to take a bit of a different angle in my response to your question. The church does need to forge out a unique role in the overall culture, parallel to the role that Jesus himself carved out. The church needs to speak prophetically into the world on behalf of the voiceless, the oppressed, the “godless and godforsaken” as I like to say. The recent hurricane devastation is a case in point. It is as though the winds of the hurricane tore the scab off of a festering wound, and suddenly we all saw the emergence of thousands of the silent people. They’ve been there all along, but we couldn’t hear them because they had been silenced by years of oppression. In some ways, the hurricane liberated them by tearing away what little infrastructure was keeping them alive. They are the godless and godforsaken, and only a church in captivity to the world forgets about them. The church needs to speak on their behalf, because no one else will. The church needs to work for their liberation.

[UPDATE: Doug has posted about this here. Although my third answer didn't deal with Doug's concerns, my first answer did. Moltmann does not talk about the interrelationships in the Trinity without constantly indicating the implications thereof for all of creation. Here are a couple excertps:

Thirdly, and most significantly, out of his reflections on the crucifixion and resurrection comes Moltmann’s social understanding of the Trinity, a theme that overarches all six of his later “contributions” to systematic theology. Moltmann rejects traditional Western trinities as “modalism” or “monarchial monotheism” and instead adopts the Eastern conception of God as a perichoresis, or an enduring and mutually interpenetrating fellowship of divine love between three persons. For instance, the Holy Spirit is not merely the power between the Father and the Son, but is instead a unique subject (Moltmann strongly rejects the creedal addition of the “filioque clause”). One characteristic of Moltmann’s perichoretic Trinity is that of openness: the fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is “other than” creation, but it is open to embrace creation into itself. Thus, Moltmann argues that all of history is actually a part of the Trinitarian history of God, and he also defends his own panentheistic tendencies.

Moltmann thus proposes a Trinitarian hermeneutic for all of theology. Contra Barth, who saw all of history the work of a single subject (Jesus and the crucifixion/resurrection event), Moltmann sees the identification of Jesus Christ as the “Son” defining his identity relationally. The history of God is not of a monolithic and unchanging Lord but the history of the living relationship between the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and all of creation. Moltmann goes on to argue that “monarchial monotheisms” – those that prescribe a hierarchical relationship in the Godhead and throughout creation – result in political and ecclesial dictatorships, with human monarchs and popes ultimately reflecting a dictatorial Lord. Instead, the political ramifications of the social Trinity are national democracies and small, communal, egalitarian churches...

...The first step in overcoming this theological misfire is to conceive of the Trinity as an open, perichoretic fellowship. That is, the Trinity is fundamentally open to the entire created order. Moltmann follows the Kabbalistic tradition of zimsum: God was everything prior to creation, and he withdrew himself enough to allow space for a creation that was other than himself. This divine self-limitation, along with the aforementioned binding of himself to time, means that God is intimately connected with creation. Indeed, Moltmann’s robust pneumatology leads him to claim panentheism: God’s “Spirit of Life” infuses the entire creation, and the Trinity consequently embraces all of creation back into itself.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Great blog here, i actualy bookmarked it. Come on over to my baby gift basket
oriented blog. And have a nice day.. :-)

11:27 AM  
Blogger Chad said...


I really appreciate this post. The idea of re-looking at the doctrine of the Trinity as dance or as a beautiful aspect of God really challenged my personal rebellion against worn out doctrines of old.

This post reminds me of "Between Heaven and Hell" by Peter Kreeft. Thanks again.


12:09 PM  
Anonymous Jamie Arpin-Ricci said...


I found this post to be truly moving. My heart and mind resonates a great deal with what "Moltmann" says. The Dance of Trinity, being a peculiar people of God carving out a unique, though not divorced, place in the world.

"Moltmann's" reference to the aesthetic of the Trinity is important. What needs to be done to communicate this- to bring it into conversation with new paradigm churches, is to create aesthetic examples or expressions that go beyond theological articulation (something I mentioned in my "Recovering Iconoclasts" post).

Thanks for this excellent post.


12:34 PM  
Blogger Matthew Francis said...

Pretty nicely done 'channeling' both Moltmann and your friend. That must have been kind of fun to see a sort of autobiographical concept unfold in your dogmatic comprehensive! But, then again, to what extent has all theology really been autobiography?

Thanks for the writings you do on this blog, and for all that you do for Emergent as well. I'm one of those Orthodox Christians out there interested in the Emergent conversation, and hopefully not hopelessly nostalgic or archeologically utopian in trying to reflect the Trinitarian life in the world that way!

One thing I kept wondering while reading this conversation: what was for supper?

With the Feast!

1:42 PM  
Blogger Sivin Kit said...

I had lots of fun reading this ... need to read some Moltman when I'm free ... and I'm still waiting for a Pagitt book .. :-)

3:49 PM  
Blogger Sivin Kit said...

BTW, is doing your PhD is fun like this all the time? :-P

3:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you know about this speakingit Canada website that pretty much covers speakingit Canada related stuff.

You could by to check it out, when you get the time. They have good stuff!!

8:32 AM  
Blogger si said...

The Viking and myself threw some thoughts backwards and forwards over iChat at Soliton last week on the Trinity. We didn't get to talk about it at length, but we both had reservations on the apparently unmitigated liberty with which the doctrine is thrown around currently.
I'm not sure your (and Doug's) take on this is entirely accurate when speaking of the Hebrew 3-part God. Of course, the refined/developed understanding we've got today is not how they would have thought, but they had no need. For the happiru/hebrews, yahweh was other from creation (like in Hellenistic thought), distant and holy. And yet, they had to be able to identify him at work within creation and so developed a language that would permit his activity yet safeguard his otherness - eg., wisdom, torah, temple. So, Jesus in his actions took this language and stretched it in such a way that these categories began to fit him and his activity. Before now, trinitarian concepts were not needed and indeed, a Hebrew understanding could almost be described as a 6-part God!
So, trinitarian theology is as good as we can get at describing the ontological/relational aspects of God and any kind of story-telling/apologetic against a backdrop of comparative religions (such as mission in London) almost certainly needs even a cursory understanding of the Trinity.

2:13 PM  
Blogger liam said...

wow, that was really interesting. i assume it will be even more interesting when I learn who moltmann is!!

9:23 PM  
Blogger Cindy said...

liam, Whew- I though I was the only one.

6:57 AM  
Anonymous tim horman said...

Have you read Gunton's "The One, The Three and the Many"? This book caused me to dramatically asses the relevance I placed on the doctrine of the Trinity, and was able to view it as something beyond a theological concept formulted merely to solve certain intellectual problems. Instead, Gunton argues that the doctrine of the Trinity is important because the reality of God's Being as "three" and "one" is woven into the very fabric of creation and all reality, including all human thought. For example, why haven't we been able to reconcile the philosophical dichotomy between the "one" and the "many" that was started in Ancient Greece? Why is that this problem still remains the primary question in all philosophical enquiry? The concern as to whether “reality has an invariant structure, or is it in a flux?” (Margolis) is as alive today as it always has been. This has obviously been reflected in many other spheres, politics for example, between communism and free-market capitalism; between the "state" and the "people"; and philosophically between Postmodern sensibilities and Enlightenment Rationalism. The stunning point that Gunton makes, is that humans cannot and thus never will resolve this dichotomy because, (though he says it with much more nuance!) it is part of the very Being of God, and He has built this of Himself into His creation - into the tapestry of reality. God is both "one" and "many". God is both "invariant" and "in flux" at the same time. So, one could argue, that this view makes room for both the traditional formulations of the Trinity, and Moltmann's emphasis on perichoresis and the "openness of the creation to the potentialities that exist in God."
Thanks for this great post.

1:06 AM  
Blogger Jimmy said...

I thought Jurgen was a little too kind to DP, gracious man though I'm sure he is.

6:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the idea of trinity as cosmic dance was developed by thomas merton and, as one poster here points out, Peter Kreeft. Likewise, they both speak fo free will and providence as mutually informative that work in a divine interplay together, or as cosmic dance


7:17 AM  
Blogger Rod said...

When the North African theologian, Tertullian, coined the term trinity (or "trinitas") it was a way of giving vocabulary to what Scripture (Old and New Testament) seems to make clear in that God assumes three primary identities. Interestingly enough it seems that Doug Pagitt and T.D. Jakes seem to be on one accord on this issue of rethinking the Trinity and possibly moving beyond that concept all together. I think the concept of a triune God is essential to Christian theology and it would be a mistake to remove references to that concept from our vocabulary.

Which leads me to my second point, also related to Christian thought and identity. Like "Moltmann" I agree that we must engage the surrounding culture, yet create our own unique niche within it for the Bible does instruct us to "be in the world but not of it." There is an inherent tension that we must embrace lest we lose our ability to relate to society on the one hand or our unique identity in Christ on the other.

7:36 AM  
Blogger D.R. said...

I see that open theism is alive and well and being pushed hard by the Emerging Church leaders these days, as evidenced by your view of God in the panentheistic worldview. Glad to know God changes to match his world. I wonder what God will morph into next?

I find this not only sad, but deeply disturbing that you are throwing out historic Christianity for a view of God that is not of the faith once handed down by the saints. I guess our forefathers in the faith were all just misled by their culture. I guess we don't have that problem since we can see much clearer into that culture and discover that God is just not how they thought Him to be. Give me a break! You can have your post-foundational, post-evangelical, panentheistic garbage. I will take the Church Fathers any day.

9:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


are those the guys that threw Galileo out?

2:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could you elucidate panentheist theology for me? Correct me if I am wrong, but panentheism says that God is both immanent within the universe, but also transcendent. That is, God as creator of space and time exists within space and time, manipulates nature, performs miracles, etc., but also exists outside of space and time and knows the past, present, and future. There is a contradiction there.

I believe our current universe, space, and time, are finite, from the Big Bang. This contrasts Hinduistic/Buddhist concepts of a cyclic universe, so theological ramifications of panentheism would differ viewed through an infinite lens. However, others say God "does not micro manage, or interfere. The laws of the universe are His and He lets them work." I completely support this notion that God could have been the engineer of the universe, however, but does not interfere. Universal laws and constants speak to this, but within these divinely-engineered laws, life seems inherently chaotic. More of a deistic viewpoint rather than a panentheistic one, which begs the questions, if God is only transcendent, existing outside of space and time, would He be omnipotent as well? If God designed the universal laws and set them in motion, he would already know their results. Although the formation of stars in the universe, is chaotic and random from our perspective (albeit within the constraints of the divinely engineered natural laws), God would knowthe outcome of chaos, despite that chaotic appearance. So what would God have gained by creating a universe, knowing all the results, and not interfering in it? Seems silly to me. We are thus left with a myriad of questions (assuming there is a single finite universe, created 13.7 billion years ago by a supernatural entity, through the Big Bang):

1. Perhaps God is not totally all-knowing, but upon creation of our universe chose to limit his omnipotence somehow. This still begs the question of how a transcendent God can intervene in the universe. This is even a more clumsy God, a God who sets laws in motion, does not know their outcome, and can not interfere.

2. The Abrahamic God. God is both totally transcendent, knows past, present, and future, but also is personal and performs miracles, answers prayers, occasionally violates laws of nature, etc. I think this God is not only impossible, but sloppy. For this to work, God must have two essences, one which is transcendent and knows everything, and one which is limited in knowledge, and works inside the world we know. This begs the questions to what end is this God's plan headed, whose prayers he answers, evil, suffering, etc. Basically, I hope to discard this incomprehensible theological model.

3. More radical. God is the universe's creator, the universe is currently the entirety of God, God no longer exists in a separate form, and the universe will one day coalesce back into a single being, God. This is called pandeism, something that I think is a very fascinating theological alternative. Pandeists believe all consciousness, in all life, to be fragments of God's awareness. Basically, God was the big bang. God created the universe by becoming the universe, leaving nothing of what was God, until through some Big Crunch of sorts, He will emerge in His original, pre-Big Bang form again. Laugh all you want, pandeism actually makes sense to me, and although it may have some theological inconsistencies, is something I am going to continue to research. So, I think this solves my riddle of the idle transcendent God who authored the divine laws of the universe, knows all the outcomes, exists separate and unique of His creation, and cannot interfere. A pandeistic God and the universe are one. However, this God is also a creator God who created a self-sustaining universe based on divine laws of nature and does not/cannot actively intervene in its operations. Scott Adam's (Dilbert creator) book God Debris, available as a free PDF via his website, posits the same sort of pandeistic God. "A God who had one nagging question—what happens if I cease to exist?—might be motivated to find the answer in order to complete his knowledge. ... The fact that we exist is proof that God is motivated to act in some way. And since only the challenge of self-destruction could interest an omnipotent God, it stands to reason that we...are God's debris." However, is a finite universe started by God a contradiction in and of itself? Does God "plan" or "think" or "design" or do anything? These are all temporal actions that might not apply to God. Basically, direct knowledge and transmission of God's attributes is unknowable, and perhaps, the notion of this sort of a God is a misnomer. How can something physical come from a non-physical entity such as God? God as a first cause sounds attractive, but I think it is also either illogical, or completely beyond our comprehension to understand.

4. The universe is cyclic and infinite, bringing up a whole range of other theological postulations.

5. There is no God.

Whichever of these you can expound upon, please do.

3:20 PM  

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