God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology

By Juergen Moltmann
Fortress. 1999. 292pp. Pb. $20. ISBN 0800631846

Reviewed by C. Benton Kline, Atlanta, Ga.


In this collection of 12 essays and lectures, Juergen Moltmann writes about some of the significant issues with which people must wrestle who seek to live in the modern world and address it from the perspective of a biblical and Christian faith.

As the subtitle and Moltmann’s brief introduction indicate, this is a book about the public relevance of theology. The reader will be stimulated to think not so much about the Christian life or about the life of the church as about the witness — in word and act — of the Christian and the Christian community.

The essays are divided into three groups. The first three essays are headed “Theology and Politics” and are each a look at the historical roots and manifestations of the Christian political theology. There is a review of the character of modernity, an intriguing examination of political theories of Puritan covenant politics and Hobbes’ authoritarian view of the state, and then a thoughtful reflection on the relation of European political theology to Latin American liberation theology.

In the last of these essays Moltmann reminds us that the stress on liberation and its goal of liberty should not lead us to forget the theme of equality, which as a social concept means justice, as a humanitarian concept means solidarity and as a Christian concept means love.

The second group is entitled “Theology in the Changing Values of the Modern World.” These four essays are stimulating in their exploration of the themes of the individual, the communal and the ecological.

One essay is perhaps most direct. Its title is “Human Rights — Rights of Humanity — Rights of the Earth.” We have individual human rights and we covenant for human rights in society, in what Moltmann calls in an earlier essay the social contract. But we must also recognize that there are the rights that belong to the human race in what Moltmann calls the generational contract. And we must recognize “the rights of the Earth and the dignity of its community of the living.”

Throughout the book there are stimulating reminders that we live on an Earth which is also God’s creation. Also there is a continuing theme of our responsibility for the whole of humanity.

The themes are addressed and some suggestive categories introduced in “The Knowing of the Other and the Community of the Different.” Moltmann contrasts two ancient principles of knowledge and of community: “like is only known by like; like draws to like,” and “other is only known by other, . . . the acceptance of others creates community in diversity.”

He applies these principles both to the polarity of community building and to the polarities of relating to other people, to the natural world and to God. How he works this out is suggestive and practical.

The final group of five essays is offered under the title “Theology and Religion.” Here Moltmann explores the relations of Christians and Jews, the Protestant concept of freedom, the movements of liberalism and fundamentalism, the relation to other religions and the role of theology in the university.

Perhaps the most moving piece in the book is the first in this section, “The Pit — Where was God? Jewish and Christian Theology after Auschwitz.” The occasion of the study is a response to a 1995 German film, Die Grube (The Pit). In the face of the horror described in the film, one hears three questions: “How can God permit this?” asked by the observers. “Where is God?” asked by the sufferers. And God’s question, “What have you done?”

A careful and thoughtful listening to theologians, Jewish and Christian, follows in which the answers to the first two questions are located in the suffering companionship of God and the hope and promise for the future of God. The third question is answered by turning to the ancient penitential discipline: acceptance of guilt (contritio), the work of grief (attritio) and the first steps toward justice (satisfactio).

Also suggestive is the essay “Dialogue or Mission? Christianity and the Religions in an Endangered World,” in which Moltmann talks about direct dialogue (most fruitful in his judgment between Christians and Jews), indirect dialogue (where the religions talk about some common problem or issue) and mission seen as invitation in a world wracked by death “to life, to the affirmation of life, the protection of life, to shared life and to eternal life” in God’s future.

This is a useful book for theological reflection by pastors and for theological discussion in the life of the church.