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.]