The Spirit of Hope: Theology for a World in Peril

Jürgen Moltmann
Westminster John Knox Press, 232 pages
Reviewed by Earl S. Johnson Jr.

The title of Jürgen Moltmann’s recent book provides reason enough to read and study it. Having already confronted multiple crises in the 21st century, we are now faced with the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing violence and protests against racial injustice. Where can we find wisdom and hope today?

For over 50 years Moltmann has written about the biblical concept of hope not only as a theologian but also as a pastor and teacher. (For the development of his thinking see “Theology as Hope: On the Ground and Implications of Jürgen Moltmann’s Doctrine of Hope” by Ryan A. Neal.) Moltmann’s observations are based on his own experiences as a young man conscripted into the German army during World War II, as a prisoner of war in Scotland (he was treated “kindly”), as a rebuilder of the postwar church and as a preacher and lecturer. From this background he shares his thoughts about mercy and forgiveness, power and justice, the dangers of environmental destruction, the response to terrorism and hope for the future of the church.

Moltmann refuses to bow to cynicism, violence, anarchism, materialism or hopelessness, but looks forward to the process of moving into the future that God is preparing through Christ and the power of the Spirit. His thinking is no simplistic apocalyptic yearning for some catastrophic blowup, but the revealing of the hiddenness of God’s mysteries and truth.

In the early chapters he deals particularly with the dangers of terrorism, the possibilities of nuclear suicide and the risk we have of destroying our home on earth. He calls for heartfelt love of neighbor, refusing to react to enmity with enmity and seeing that all living things are part of the organism of the earth and the whole universe. Hope for the future resides not in merely learning from the past, but in the ongoing actions of the creating God, the presence of the suffering God in Christ’s crucifixion and the Spirit who never abandons us now or in the world to come.

Frequently I was deeply challenged by the thoroughness of his spiritual analysis and his ruthless insistence on faithfulness and determined action. His thoughts about how the church can serve and survive in the future force me to rethink the practice of mission, worship and observance of the Lord’s Supper (especially in a virtual context). The chapter about the changing nature of God will not let me rest on the outworn dogma of “immutability” or “impassibility.” The necessity of the three-step process of reconciliation practiced after WWII and at the end of apartheid in South Africa provide models that push us in today’s crises to go beyond merely asking publicly for forgiveness or personal apologetic expressions (“I am sorry”) to concrete actions where victims are heard, recompensed and are offered public rituals that will allow them healing and new life. His thinking pushes us to examine ourselves and our communities honestly in order to move vigorously into God’s future that is now unseen, unknown and undetermined.

earl-johnson-jrEarl S. Johnson Jr. is a retired pastor living in Johnstown, New York. He is a lecturer at Siena College, a former columnist for the Outlook and the author of several books.