Moltmann On October 19–20, Candler hosted world-renowned German theologian Jürgen Moltmann for “Unfinished Worlds: Jürgen Moltmann at 90,” a conference focusing on issues of contemporary theology, the contemporary church, and the contemporary world, as seen through the lens of Moltmann’s theology. Moltmann bookended the conference with a keynote address and a closing response, and ten distinguished scholars from around the world addressed subjects of their choice that they believe are “unfinished” in some way.

“Because God meets us from the future, we can and must work for renewal ourselves,” said associate professor of systematic theology and conference organizer Steffen Lösel in his introductory remarks. “Thus, it is fitting for a conference on unfinished worlds not to focus retrospectively on the past, but instead to look forward and ask, ‘Where is this world unfinished? Where do theologians need to raise their voices on behalf of God’s future? Where might they even need to anticipate this future through their own creative theological imagination?’”

As Candler Dean Jan Love put it, “These topics could not be more timely in this season of our life in this country and the world.”

The conference served as a Festschrift of sorts for Moltmann, who served as the Robert W. Woodruff Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology at Candler from 1983 to 1993, and has returned regularly since. In his opening remarks, the 90-year-old praised the school, saying it “has always been our academic home in America,” the “our” including his late wife, feminist theologian Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, who died in June.

In his keynote, “Unfinished Reformation”—with a nod to the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017—Moltmann discussed five major points: the move from a culture of dispute to a culture of dialogue; the unity of the Christian church under what he termed “the papacy of all believers”; the Anabaptists’ stance on the separation of church and state; the importance of celebrating the Lord’s Supper together; and the idea that a reformation of hope follows reformation of faith. Watch Moltmann’s keynote address.

Moltmann’s remarks on the second day of the conference were brief but profound. He spoke about the significance of the relationship between teacher and student, saying that the title he has aspired to throughout his career is not “Doctor” or “Professor,” but “friend.” Moltmann also said that he has appreciated being part of the debate between two Americas, North America and Latin America, as they struggle with the legacy of colonialism. “Only in America can such lively theological discussions happen. In Germany, we’ve grown indifferent.” He noted that he has visited conferences in other places, but that “the young and energetic conferences are happening at Candler.” He said he is still learning, and called his own theology an “unfinished world” in the sense that it is still growing and expanding, “moving forward in life.” Finally, Moltmann discussed the importance of the inward life, which he addressed from the perspective of the incarcerated. He was a prisoner for five years total, he said—two years in “the dying German army” and three as a prisoner of war in England and Scotland—and credits that experience with helping him develop a rich spiritual inner world. He touched particularly on the inward life of his friend, death-row inmate Kelly Gissendaner, who was a graduate of the theology certificate program at Lee Arrendale State Prison and was executed by the state of Georgia in 2015. “[As she died] she sang ‘Amazing Grace.’ She was the only free person in that prison. And if she can be free, we can be free,” he said.

Moltmann ended with this charge: “The sin of the powerful is arrogance. Get out of arrogance and learn humility. The sin of the powerless is apathy. Get out of apathy and live. The sin of the middle class is indifference. Get out of indifference and get involved in the struggle for life. And the Spirit of God will bless you.” Listen to Moltmann’s closing response.

Read summaries of the panelists’ talks below.

Contemporary Theology at the Crossroads

Nancy E. Bedford, Georgia Harkness Professor of Applied Theology, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary:Disputed Question: Liberating Augustine”

Bedford disputed Moltmann’s criticism of Augustine’s emphasis on interiority, arguing from the perspective of subaltern subjectivities and the construction of personhood in situations of vulnerability. “Depending on the social context of the one doing the introspection, Augustine’s psychological analogy [of the trinity] may be more liberating, serving as one more tool for the celebration of people’s individuality and worth in the midst of a system that denies them respect.”

Joshua Ralston 08T 15G, Lecturer in Muslim-Christian Relations, School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh: “Bearing Witness: Reframing Christian-Muslim Debates”

In the midst of the current migrant crisis affecting Europe and the west, Ralston borrowed from Moltmann’s innovative rethinking of Christian theology in conversation with Judaism, proposing that an analogous posture be developed today in order to address and engage the challenges of Islamic thought. “Christians are being confronted afresh with the questions and claims of another religious tradition, one that shares much with scripture and history, but one that has been ignored or misunderstood by Christian thinkers. Unfinished tasks of rethinking theology might serve as a guide to our own reconsiderations of Islam.”

Reggie Williams, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics, McCormick Theological Seminary: “The Problem of the Human in Theological Anthropology: Reading Jürgen Moltmann’s Christology with Intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance”

With help from Moltmann and Harlem Renaissance intellectuals, Williams argued that normative white humanity is mobilized by reasoning that is a theological appropriation of a hegemonic biopolitics, and singularly influential for the way we understand what it means to be human and moral in the western world. Only by re-imagining a new humanity, in light of the hope that is present in the revelation of Christ among the oppressed, can we see our way towards a healthier theological ethics. “We encounter Christ in every social encounter, not in the abstract world of creeds. Christ is being for others. The church community is the embodiment of Christ on earth.”

The Contemporary Church at the Crossroads

Raphael G. Warnock, Senior Pastor, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia: “To Redeem the Soul of the Black Church”

Warnock contended that the public voice of the black church today is detached from its liberation theology past, stifled by an individualistic theology. Thus, it “can scarcely be heard challenging the mass incarceration and stigmatization of young black men,” as well as a host of other urgent issues critical to the black community and the nation. The black church now values a “privatistic piety” that emphasizes the freedom of the individual soul but eschews the work of transforming communities, he said. He also noted that many black churchgoers stigmatize those blacks who end up incarcerated—but reminded us that the cross was about stigma. 

Reinerio Arce Valentín, Professor of Theology at Matanzas Theological Seminary; Director of the Ecumenical Institute of Religious Studies, Havana, Cuba: “New Religion in the New World: Toward a De-colonial approach in Latin American Theology”

Arce Valentín contrasted premises proposed by the postcolonial approach with what some Latin American scholars identify as “epistemological decolonization,” noting that colonialism is not something of the past, but has simply taken new forms. He showed how Moltmann’s critique of and dialogue with Latin American theology aids in the process of elaborating more clearly a “de-colonial epistemology.” He made a strong distinction between “postcolonial and de-colonial,” stating that an epistemological shift in the last half of the 20th century made people more aware of affirming a more de-colonial approach examining methods, validity and scope of knowledge about Latin America and Latin American theology from their own perspective. Latin Americans, he said, want a cultural, philosophical and theological expression grounded in their own identity.

Charles Mathewes, Carolyn M. Barbour Professor of Religious Studies, University of Virginia: “The Future Social Teachings of the Christian Churches”

Mathewes argued that Moltmann stands in a line of theologians who think explicitly and constructively about the relationship between Christian faith and social structures, and that we can learn something theologically crucial from the radically incarnational and historicized vision of Moltmann’s theology—namely that God is already transforming our world into the sanctified creation of the eschatological morning. He proposed that churches are failing in social teachings because “they have no living theological imagination,” and asked the question: How can the teachings of the church connect more to strategies of discipleship?

Gerald Liu 04T, Assistant Professor of Worship and Preaching, Princeton Theological Seminary: "We Still Need the Coming of God"

Liu explored Moltmann's challenge that eschatology entails Christian hope for soul and body, individual and community, human beings and the cosmos within the arc of all time. He focused on Moltmann’s claim that human life must be affirmed, that human life means participation, and that human life becomes intelligent by pursuing fulfillment—not a private act, but a community act. He used the example that the United States has never apologized for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II in 1945. This unfinished business, Liu said, means that our nation’s post-war culture and progress is built on violence. There has been no outrage against the U.S.’s use of atomic warfare on these cities, though it is tantamount to war crimes against civilians. Why can’t we as churches at least apologize? “If we can’t apologize for this,” he concluded, “then we still need the coming of God to convert us to the truth.”

Hilda P. Koster, Associate Professor, Religion, Concordia College: “God, Climate and the Challenge of Being Human: The Promise of Moltmann’s Kenotic Theology of Creation for an Age of Climate Change”

Koster’s talk argued in favor of a theocentric approach to climate change, centered on a kenotic account of God and the world, specifically Moltmann’s kenotic theology of creation, which starts with the incarnate self-emptying love of Jesus, epitomized on the cross. She discussed the enduring significance of Moltmann's ecological theology of creation in light of our climate crisis, insisting that “the eschatological orientation of Moltmann’s theology speaks to the apocalyptic nature of our climate predicament, which at its root is a crisis that threatens the very condition for planetary life and, hence, human civilization.”

Contemporary Practices at the Crossroads

Rachelle Renee Green 14T, PhD Student, Laney Graduate School, Division of Religion, Emory University: “The Rose It Grew From Concrete: A Practical and Political Theology of Creativity and Incarceration”

Green drew upon womanist and feminist scholarship to argue that the imagination and creativity of incarcerated women are subversive political and theological acts that signal the working of the Spirit in the lives of the criminalized. The lived experiences of incarcerated women attest to the inability of degrading prison practices to destroy the work of God in the world and in the lives of the incarcerated. “Our unfinished world is full of contexts that seem like concrete — hard, rigid, and unmovable. But roses do grow. Creativity that emerges from cracks in the concrete is a reminder of God’s presence in suffering, not as a sanction for it, but as its indictment. It beckons for us to break up concrete spaces that degrade, demean, and disenfranchise through the life-giving, creative power of God.”

Jennifer Ayres, Associate Professor of Religious Education; Director of Religious Education Program, Candler School of Theology: “Cultivating the ‘Unquiet Heart’: Ecology, Education, and Christian Faith”

Starting from the eschatological tension described by Jürgen Moltmann as the “unquiet heart,” Ayres outlined a practical theology for nurturing Christian faith in our vulnerable and changing ecological context by engaging generative questions from the fields of theological anthropology, educational theory, and practical theology. According to Ayres, religious education that contributes to this work is built on embodied and intentional practices of engagement with this ecological context, and with unhurried time to reflect upon and interpret God’s sometimes hidden presence in the everyday.