Moltmann in Brief

Stephen D. Morrison and “Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English”

Stephen D. Morrison has stumbled upon an excellent idea: distilling and synthesizing the corpus of intellectual material of notable and influential Christian theologians. As a teacher of theology and religion, I long for ways to get good and accessible theology into the hands of my students. Handing a student a volume from Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics or one of Luther’s commentaries isn’t always feasible or advisable. Being a bit of a broody hen when it comes to my students and their theological education, I’m wary to send them off on their own to slog through one of these theologians. However, Morrison is a capable and humble guide and thorough.

 

Morrison does not twist the theologian to get them to say what he wants them to say. Rather, he carefully and thoughtfully organizes his book around their works, devoting a chapter to their major works while incorporating the other writing; this creates a smooth, fluid, and coherent representation of the theologian. He has a knack for creating before the reader’s eyes the living and breathing person that is the theologian under examination and consideration. She will feel as if she’s entered a casual conversation with Morrison and with the theologian she’s reading about. The project “Plain English Series” will prove to be fruitful for academics and lay-scholars alike. You are right, Morrison, it truly is a unique[1] project; I’m excited for more installments of the series to grace my bookshelves.

 

In this particular volume, Morrison looks at the work of one of my favorite theologians: Jürgen Moltmann. (I read Moltmann’s work when I need to take a break from my dissertation research.) Moltmann’s theology is paradoxically confrontational and pastoral; but I’d argue that’s the paradox of Jesus the Christ and the gospel proclamation of Him crucified. Moltmann is deeply cruciform and Christocentric in his approach to systematic theology, from his doctrine of creation, the eschatological hope, doctrine of the trinity, to ethics, etc. Morrison, in my opinion, captures these aspects splendidly; at times the reader will be left wondering if Morrison isn’t in conversation with Moltmann directly while writing. Moltmann’s goal is to bring life to his reader through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ; Morrison stays true to this.

 

Morrison begins with a biographical sketch of Moltmann and continues to structure the book by creating 10 sections each primarily focused on one of Moltmann’s works. Each section heavily draws from the work corresponding to it, as mentioned above. But Morrison is a good researcher and brings in other components of Moltmann’s material to bolster the deductions Morrison is making. Thus, Morrison’s explanations and conclusions are well grounded in Moltmann’s conceptions as they are articulated not only in one book but throughout the corpus of his work.

 

Interspersed between the chapters are these short excurses, or “Sidebars.” These sidebars range from further explanatory and instructional words about some of the conceptions of the corresponding chapters (“Peace with God” with “Theology of Hope,” “The Sacraments” with “The Church in the Power of the Spirit,” “Tritheism” with “The Trinity and the Kingdom” to mention a few) to challenges for the reader—challenges Morrison himself received while engaging with Moltmann’s work. These sidebars specifically are exactly what Moltmann would have his reader do: he would want her to turn her eye to the world to see where she and her church are failing to be proactive in the world on behalf of the oppressed and disenfranchised. He would want his reader to use his voice to proclaim the word of God crucified to bring true and radical freedom and liberation to those dying for lack of. In this way, Morrison exposes that he’s a good student of Moltmann; one from whom I can learn a lot.

 

There was one sidebar, though, that didn’t measure up to the others in content, and it is with that sidebar I’ll contend with here. Near the end of chapter 5, “The Trinity and the Kingdom,” Morrison splendidly sums up Moltmann’s Christocentric and social approach to the doctrine of the trinity, “The Triuntiy of God is in their mutual indwelling and interpenetration; it is a unity not found in a hierarchal monarchy or a philosophical one subject, but unity in Tri-unity.”[2] And further explains a bit later, “Understanding the doctrine of God’s Triunity as the fellowship of person leads to rejecting hierarchy in the Church, the state, and in society. We should strive toward a community free from hierarchy and patriarchy, an open fellowship of equals.”[3] Morrison goes on to mention that Motlmann’s conception of the doctrine of the trinity works well and inherently advocates for feminism (as well as for Liberation Theology and Black Theology).[4]

 

Morrison took the right conclusive trajectory from Moltmann’s conception of the doctrine of the Trinity defined as perichoretic triunity. However, in the sidebar associated with this chapter, “Sidebar: God, His & Hers,” Morrison seems to miss an opportunity to put to work exactly what he sees occurring in Moltmann’s conception of the trinity as social force in the world dismantling hierarchies. In defense of feminism in church and theology, rather than quoting from Elisabeth Moltmann extensively (a known feminist theologian), Morrison leans heavily upon Jürgen to validate Elisabeth and the role of feminism in theology and church. Also, there is a lot of recourse to other male theologians to validate the maternal nature along with the paternal nature of God. Thus, the female voice is subordinated to the male one, and upholds rather than challenges the status quo of the hierarchy of patriarchy in church and theology. Feminism is valid because it’s valid in its own right and not because a host of men have seen the value of it.[5]

 

That Jürgen was influenced by Elisabeth (as the story initiating the sidebar indicates) is a beautiful thing, but should not be the basis by which we validate her theology or her feminism. Yet, starting the chapter with such a story[6] situates the reader to validate Elisabeth based on what Jürgen says. Elisabeth is a worthy theologian (Full stop). Considering the title of the sidebar is one of the titles of Elisabeth’s works, she herself can substantiate the validity of both her theology and feminism. A presentation of her work alone would have done well as the totality of the sidebar and placed the reader in a confrontation of having to decide for themselves.

 

Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English by Stephen D. Morrison is not only commendable but recommendable. I enjoyed the accessible tour and my able tour guide and fell in love with Moltmann all over again. We should not take for granted talented authors who can revive such love. I look forward to more installments of Morrison’s series, “In Plain English.”

Stephen D. Morrison’s Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English Columbus, OH: Beloved Publishing, 2018.

[1] Stephen D. Morrison Jürgen Motlamnn in Plain English “Introduction” p. vii.

[2] Ibid, 119.

[3] Ibid, 120.

[4] Ibid, 120.

[5] Especially with the dynamic of what Morrison refers to as “bitter feminists.” We must always remember that women have suffered deadly violence at the hands of men. When we categorically dismiss those who are angry, we will forget just how bad the violence is.

[6] Morrison, 126.

6 thoughts on “Moltmann in Brief

  1. I love the idea of Theologians in Plain English but I’m sceptical that he has done that based on the use of terms like perichoretic triunity and mutual interpenetration. One thing that frustrates me is the way in which the theologies of the likes of Barth gets stuck in an academic theology eco-cycle that only feeds itself and the clergy but isn’t accessible to the average lay person.

    1. Being clergy, all what Morrison explained made perfect sense to me. So I’m not sure your criticism is 100% valid though it could be in some cases. He explains terms well, very well. The issue you might have is that I wasn’t in “plain english”. But I don’t always try to be. I had to sum up an entire section and using that specific terminology in that order allowed me to do so.

  2. Lauren,

    Thank you so very much for this kind and thoughtful review! I am grateful that you took the time to write out your thoughts. It is an honor, and very encouraging, to know you enjoyed my book.

    I am also very thankful for your critique of the feminism sidebar. I think you are right, and I can see now how I failed. I sincerely appreciate that realization. I had never considered that was what I might have been doing, but thank you for helping me discover my own blind spots.

    Thank you again for this!

    Stephen 🙂

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