I stumbled across Jurgen Moltmann’s The Open Church in a charity shop recently. I knew he was a theological big hitter in the academy but didn’t know much about him, and haven’t read much of his work, so, for a couple of quid, I thought we’d get acquainted.
Moltmann was called up to fight in WWII in 1944 aged just 17. He didn’t see much action as a few months later he was sent to a POW camp in Scotland where he underwent forced labor for three years. This early experience is formative for his theology. For him hope, unity, and progress come through suffering. Given his early experience the cross, for Moltmann, is about God identifying with us in our suffering and showing us how to have life to the full through suffering. Unfortunately, it’s at these points where his theology becomes, well, how can I put this charitably, dodgy. God suffers at the cross (denial of impassibility) and the cross is primarily about identification with suffering humanity (at least marginalization, if not denial, of penal substitution).
Nevertheless, there are some things in The Open Church which I loved, and some others which really made me think. I can see why his work has been so influential. He has some great comments on the extremes of pietism and politicization in the church. He also has some great stuff on the power of community life and ritual. He also has some provocative thoughts on reaching the poor – drawing alongside instead of ministering to. Finally he has some interesting thoughts on the ‘congregation from below.’ All stimulating stuff. I guess I’d say, if you’re a pastor, and you stumble across a cheap copy, it’s worth picking up and perusing. However I’d also say don’t spend much time or money on it, and don’t distribute it round the congregation – there’s enough in there to cause a good deal of confusion.
Finally here’s a snippet on ritual to give you a flavour:
“the ritual act becomes the symbol which points beyond itself, expresses something greater, and invites us to memory, to hope, to a new aspect of life, or to community. Through the celebrative representation, the thing represented becomes emphatically present.”