Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Moltmann Meditations (part 1 of ?): Theology and Biography

Now that I've had more than a week to digest the plethora of amazing discussions, conversations, and ideas I encountered at the Emergent Theological Conversation with Jurgen Moltmann (one of my heroes and something of a grandfather in faith, but more on that later), I feel like I'm ready to reflect on what I experienced.

Theology as Biography, or Biography as Theology?

At the beginning of the conference, Danielle Shroyer led us through a "Moltmann 101" seminar that talked about Moltmann's major works in chronological order and put them in context of his biography. I had some idea of the order in which these works were written, but I had never given much thought to them, because like most students of theology since Aquinas, I've been taught to read theology as an objective, closed system free of contextual bias.

(I wholeheartedly reject this idea, by the way, but many systematic theologians write with this assumption, and I like to try to give people a charitable reading on their own terms)

Moltmann, however, makes no such assumptions about himself. His can be deceptive in this way sometimes (or, at the very least, the English translations of his writing) because he has a very structured writing style, and he deeply engages his theological predecessors and contemporaries with very little first person commentary. So it is easy to read him in the way someone would read Karl Barth.

Moltmann is very open about how his theology is deeply rooted in his experiences as a young man serving in the German army during World War II, particularly the deep anguish he felt when he learned about the Holocaust as a prisoner in a British POW camp. His work as a theologian is rooted in the reality of the suffering he saw and experienced early in life, and these questions are still crucial to him in his eighties.

In an effort to understand Moltmann's theology better, I am now reading his autobiography, A Broad Place. I am hoping that understanding his life story better will open up new insights when I reread some of his theological works that I read before.

Moltmann's insight that theology is deeply contextual is in need of greater recognition in the American church today. We are killing each other over a host of issues that are preventing us from working together on the larger problems of the world: problems on which we largely agree like AIDS, poverty, access to clean water, and ending child sex slavery.

But we refuse to work together on these issues because we fight one another over who has the "correct" interpretation of the Bible, as if there is one correct interpretation that rises above any contextual bias. We assume that God can't possibly be speaking to those who disagree with us, because they understand the Bible incorrectly.

Moltmann reminds us that we all come from somewhere, and what we bring to the table greatly affects the way we read the Bible and do theology. So maybe we should put aside the issues where we disagree for a moment and tell each other our stories. If we began to understand where we each come from, we might be less likely to demonize the other and understand why we come to the conclusions we do.

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