Jurgen Moltmann: The Crucified God

Jurgen Moltmann: The Crucified God
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From its English publication in 1973, Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God garnered much attention, and it has become one of the seminal texts of twentieth-century theology. Following up on his groundbreakingTheology of Hope, The Crucified God established the cross as the foundation for Christian hope. Moltmann’s dramatic innovation was to see the cross not as a problem of theodicy but instead as an act of ultimate solidarity between God and humanity. In this, he drew on liberation theology, and he was among the first to bring third-world theologies into a first-world context.

Moltmann proposes that suffering is not a problem to be solved but instead that suffering is an aspect of God’s very being: God is love, and love invariably involves suffering. In this view, the crucifixion of Jesus is an event that affects the entirety of the Trinity, showing that The Crucified God is more than an arresting title—it is a theological breakthrough.


Preface to the Paperback Edition
The theological foundation for Christian hope is the raising
of the crucified Christ. Anyone who develops a ‘theology of
hope’ from this centre will be inescapably reminded of the
other side of that foundation: the cross of the risen Christ. So
after publishing Theology of Hope, the logic of my theological
approach led me to work more deeply on the remembrance
of the crucified Christ. Hope without remembrance leads to
illusion, just as, conversely, remembrance without hope can
result in resignation.
Of course I had not planned this. I was led to the theology
of the cross through reactions to Theology of Hope and, even
more, through personal participation in the sufferings of
those years. Wherever Christian hope makes people active
and leads them into the ‘creative discipleship’ of Christ, the
contradictions and confutations of the world are painfully
experienced. ‘When freedom is near the chains begin to
chafe’. One begins to suffer with the victims of injustice
and violence. One puts oneself on the side of the persecuted
and becomes persecuted oneself. In the years between 1968
and 1972 I discovered something of this both personally and
politically. At that time the suffering of friends living under
Stalinism in Eastern Europe and under military dictatorships
in Latin America and South Korea moved me deeply. In 1970
I wrote,
As well as developing a political theology, I have resolved to
think more intensively than I have done up to now about the
meaning of the cross of Christ for theology, for the church and
for society. In a civilization that glorifies success and happiness
and is blind to the sufferings of others, people’s eyes can be
opened to the truth if they remember that at the centre of the
Christian faith stands an unsuccessful, tormented Christ, dying
in forsakenness. The recollection that God raised this crucified
Christ and made him the hope of the world must lead the
churches to break their alliances with the powerful and to enter
into the solidarity of the humiliated.1
The same thing now happened to me that had happened
when I was writing Theology of Hope. The whole of theology
was drawn as if by a magnifying glass into a single focus:
the cross. I began to see things with the eyes of the Christ
dying on the cross. I often used to sit for long periods of
time meditating before the crucifix in the Martinskirche in
Tübingen. For me the crucified Christ became more and
more ‘the foundation and criticism of Christian theology’.
And for me that meant, whatever can stand before the face of
the crucified Christ is true Christian theology. What cannot
stand there must disappear. This is especially true of what
we say about God. Christ died on the cross with a loud
1. Umkehr zur Zukunft, Munich 1970, 14.
cry, which Mark interprets with the words of the twentysecond
psalm: ‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ This
cry of abandonment is either the end of every theology and
every religion, or it is the beginning of a truly Christian
theology—and that means a liberating theology. The
criticism that emanates from Christ’s cross exposes us
theologians for what we are, like Job’s friends. We want to
produce an answer to the question about God with which
Christ dies. But he dies with this open question. So a truly
Christian theology has to make Jesus’ experience of God on
the cross the centre of all our ideas about God: that is its
I began with an interpretation of the theologia crucis of
the young Luther. I saw that when God reveals himself to
us godless men and women, who turn ourselves into proud
and unhappy gods, he does not do so through power and
glory. He reveals himself through suffering and cross, so he
repudiates in us the arrogant man or woman and accepts
the sinner in us. But then I turned the question around, and
instead of asking just what God means for us human beings
in the cross of Christ, I asked too what this human cross of
Christ means for God. I found the answer in the idea of God’s
passion, which reveals itself in the passion of Christ. What is
manifested in the cross is God’s suffering of a passionate love
for his lost creatures, a suffering prepared for sacrifice.
The idea of the passion of the passionate God contraverts the
fundamental axiom of Aristotelian, philosophical theology,
which was God’s essential apathy. The impassibility of God
was an idea cherished by the Greek Fathers (with the
exception of Origen) and by the mediaeval theologians.
When I began to get beyond this axiom, I discovered links
about which I had previously had no idea. My first discovery
was the Jewish concept of the pathos of God, which Abraham
Heschel found in the prophets; then my attention was drawn
to rabbinic and kabbalistic ideas about God’s Shekinah in
the people of Israel, through which God becomes the
companion-in-suffering of his persecuted people. I owe these
insights to Franz Rosenzweig and Gershom Scholem.
But it was not merely the experiences of the years between
1968 and 1972 that led me to this theology of the cross.
In addition, I experienced a very different ‘dark night’ in
my soul, for the pictures of the Bergen-Belsen concentration
camp and horror over the crimes in Auschwitz, had weighed
on me and many other people of my generation ever since
1945. Much time passed before we could emerge from the
silence that stops the mouths of people over whom the cloud
of the victims hangs heavy. It was Jewish survivors of the
Holocaust and Jewish theologians who opened our lips. The
Crucified God was said to be a Christian ‘theology after
Auschwitz’. That is true, inasmuch as I perceived Golgotha
in the shadow of Auschwitz, finding help here in ‘Jewish
theology after Auschwitz’ and especially in Elie Wiesel. Ever
since then, the question about God for me has been identical
with the cry of the victims for justice and the hunger of the
perpetrators for a way back from the path of death.
At the end of the war the theology of God’s suffering
had already been outlined by the Japanese theologian Kazoh
and by the theologian of the German resistance
movement, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. ‘Only the suffering God can
help’, wrote Bonhoeffer from his prison cell.3
It was only after
I had written The Crucified God that I discovered the intense
discussion about the passibility or impassibility of God that
had been carried on in Anglican theology of the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries but had been completely ignored by
German theology.
I found the positive influence of my theology of the cross
especially in the Christology of Jon Sobrino, who deepened
and sharpened it for the Latin American context.4
I have
learnt from his theology of the cross, which he not only
taught but suffered. A few days ago I received a letter from
Robert McAfee Brown, in which he told me the following
moving story from San Salvador. On 16 November 1989,
six well-known Jesuits, together with their housekeeper and
her daughter, were brutally murdered in the university there.
The rector of the university, Father Ignacio Ellacuria, was
one of them. Jon Sobrino escaped the massacre only because
he happened not to be in the country at the time. The letter
continues, ‘When the killers were dragging some of the
bodies back into the building, as they took one of the bodies
into Jon’s room, they hit a bookcase and knocked a book on
to the floor, which became drenched with the martyr’s blood.
In the morning, when they picked up the book, they found
that it was your The Crucified God’. This sign and symbol
2. Theology of the Pain of God, English translation, 1965.
3. Letters and Papers from Prison, English translation, 1977, 361.
4. See his Christology at the Crossroads. A Latin American Approach, Orbis 1978.
gives me a great deal to think about. What it says to me is
that these martyrs are the seed of the resurrection of a new
world. Like Archbishop Oscar Romero, they are the hope of
the people: unforgettable, inextinguishable, irresistible.
The translation of The Crucified God into many languages
brought me into the community of many struggling and
suffering brothers and sisters. The book was read in Korean
and South African prisons. People working in slums and
hospitals wrote to me, as well as people who were themselves
suffering under ‘the dark night of the soul’. I came into
contact with Catholic orders vowed to poverty and the
mysticism of the cross, and with Mennonite congregations
who are following the path of Jesus. I need not tell it all.
What I should like to say is this: even more than Theology of
Hope, this book brought me into a great company. I believe
it is the company of people under the cross. Beneath the
cross the boundaries of denominations and cultures collapse.
The community of the sufferers and the seekers is an open,
inviting community. It is about this community that I am
thinking, now that this book appears again, for it is there that
I am at home.
Jürgen Moltmann
Tübingen, Germany
April 1990



Miroslav Volf
Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology, Yale Divinity School
Founder and Director, Yale Center for Faith and Culture
I once visited Jürgen Moltmann at his home in Tübingen.
We were in his study, and I was sitting in the chair in which I
had sat many times as his doctoral student and while working
on a post-doctoral thesis under his supervision. I had just been
appointed as a professor at Yale, but I was still trying to puzzle
out his theology. By this time, I wasn’t so much trying to
figure out how its different pieces fit together or how as a
whole it fits into the trajectory of modern theology; I was
after something less tangible: the source of its energy and
power, of its ability to capture hearts as well as minds, and
to do so in Asia and South America no less than in North
America and his native Europe. I know of no theologian
from the second half of the twentieth century who has had as
powerful a global resonance as Moltmann has.
I started the part of our conversation about his theology
with a deceptively simple question: “Which of your books do
you like the best?” He paused for a brief moment, just long
enough for me to wonder whether I had transgressed against
some taboo, akin to the one I would have broken had I asked
which of his four daughters he liked the best. Books aren’t
children, of course, persons whom we can harm when we
prefer one to the other. Still, in some ways we are our books,
and revealing preferences for these public presentations of
ourselves might feel uncomfortable. Not for Moltmann, I was
relieved to learn. “I think my best book is The Crucified God,”
he said slowly but without hesitation.
As I had walked up the Biesingerstrasse to his house, I
had been thinking that he might opt for Theology of Hope.
After all, that was the book that spelled out the eschatological
orientation of his entire theology, an orientation that, with
some shifts, remained constant all the way through The
Coming of God, the last substantive volume—the one before
the methodological finale—in the series of his “theological
contributions.” Theology of Hope was also the book that
brought him international fame, and not just among
theologians, as a report about the English translation of the
book on the cover of the New York Times attested. “Why The
Crucified God?” I asked him.
The Crucified God, Moltmann replied, was seminal to the
next twenty years of his theological work. Theology of Hope
had provided some key formal categories that he continued
to employ in an altered form—the “promise” acquired
increasingly a dimension of “presence,” for instance. But The
Crucified God laid the Trinitarian and soteriological
foundation for subsequent books, starting with The Trinity
and the Kingdom. It introduced the notion of a God who
suffers in solidarity with afflicted creatures and redeems them
through that suffering. This simple and profound thought
lies at the heart of the book—difficult and unacceptable to
many, especially among trained theologians committed to
God’s impassibility, and hopeful and comforting to many
more, especially among the afflicted, whether they live in fear
for life in war torn cities, eke out a miserable existence in
shantytowns, wait for death in the belly of cruel prisons, or
struggle against an illness eating away their body or soul.
The Crucified God was published in German in 1972, when
Moltmann was a forty-six-year-old professor of theology at
the University of Tübingen. In a sense, though, he started
writing it immediately after World War II, as a barely
twenty-year-old prisoner of war. Raised as a secularist, in an
English prisoner of war camp he read the New Testament
and the psalms for the first time and was taken by words of
Jesus on the cross, a quotation from the twenty-second psalm:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Young
Moltmann, afflicted both by captivity and by crushing guilt,
thought, “Here is someone who understands me.” Moltmann
described this as an experience of being found by God rather
than of finding God. God spoke to him with bloodied and
parched lips in cries of pain and abandonment, bitter fruits of
seemingly misplaced trust.
The Crucified God is theology at its best. I know some
experts will complain about the inadequacies of the book’s
account of the mystery of the holy Trinity. Moltmann
addressed some of them in subsequent work. Many of his
colleagues remain unpersuaded, of course, but facing
contestations is in the job description of an academic
theologian. Whatever one decides about the merits and
demerits of Moltmann’s doctrine of the Trinity in this text,
the fact remains: The Crucified God is a truly great book. It
is existential and academic, pastoral and political, innovative
and traditional, readable and demanding, contextual and
universal, deeply Christian and equally deeply human—and
all of this in explicating the bearing of the central Christian
theme (the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth) on a fundamental
human experience (suffering).
Academic theology is in crisis today. Theological schools
are closing, theological books are not being read, and the
discipline itself has lost much of its reputation—among
academics working in other fields, among ministers and their
flock, and among the general population. There are many
reasons for the present crisis of theology, but one of them is
certainly that academic theologians have been trained out of
doing theology the way Moltmann has done it in many of
his writings, and especially in The Crucified God. As many
theologians struggle to find their bearings, this book is one
shining exemplar of a theology that is alive and powerful.



The Identity and Relevance of Faith
If it is true that the inner criterion of whether or not Christian
theology is Christian lies in the crucified Christ, we come
back to Luther’s lapidary statement: Crux probat omnia.
Christianity the cross is the test of everything which deserves
to be called Christian. One may add that the cross alone, and
nothing else, is its test, since the cross refutes everything, and
excludes the syncretistic elements in Christianity. This is a
hard saying. To many it sounds unattractive and unmodern,
and to others rigid and orthodox. I will try to disappoint both.
We may want to make Christian theology reveal that it
is Christian, but this cannot be done in abstract and timeless
terms, or from the mere desire for self-assertion. It has a
definable and circumscribed place amongst modern
1. Luther, WA 179, 31.
problems. The Christian life of theologians, churches and
human beings is faced more than ever today with a double
crisis: the crisis of relevance and the crisis of identity. These
two crises are complementary. The more theology and the
church attempt to become relevant to the problems of the
present day, the more deeply they are drawn into the crisis
of their own Christian identity. The more they attempt to
assert their identity in traditional dogmas, rights and moral
notions, the more irrelevant and unbelievable they become.
This double crisis can be more accurately described as the
identity-involvement dilemma. We shall see how far, in these
specific experiences of a double crisis, reflection upon the
cross leads to the clarification of what can be called Christian
identity and what can be called Christian relevance, in critical
solidarity with our contemporaries.
1. The Crisis of Relevance in Christian Life
The struggle for a renewal of theology and the churches
began with the realization, which has become widespread
and irrefutable, that Christianity faced a growing crisis of
relevance and credibility. After a certain period in the postwar
years in Western society, the churches and theology
fed undisturbed upon their own resources. It then dawned
upon many, and especially upon those on whom the church
depended for its continuance, the students of theology, that
a church which simply continued its previous form and
ideology was in process of losing contact with the scientific,
social and political reality of the world around it, and in many
respects had already lost it. Its credibility, which in Germany
it had to some extent gained by many acts of resistance
during the period of National Socialism and ‘German
Christians’, and of which it had given proof by surviving the
collapse of most public institutions at the end of the war, was
irresistibly disappearing. This lack of contact and blindness to
reality makes theologians and churches increasingly obsolete.
Many abandon the study of theology or their ministry as
priests and pastors, and their religious orders, and study
sociology, psychology or revolution, or work amongst the
wretched of our society, because they feel that in this way
they can contribute more to solving the conflicts of this
fragmented society.2 The old theology which they have
learnt seems to them like a fossil surviving from a previous
age. Fundamentalism fossilizes the Bible into an
unquestionable authority. Dogmatism freezes living
Christian tradition solid. The habitual conservatism of
religion makes the liturgy inflexible, and Christian
morality—often against its better knowledge and
conscience—becomes a deadening legalism. What began as
a theoretical discussion about the demythologization of the
Bible, the secularizing of tradition and the ‘opening of the
church towards the world’ (aggiornamento), consequently led,
in many places, to the practice of ecclesiastical disobedience,
withdrawal from the ministry, abandonment of the church,
rebellion and even weary indifference. Critical theology
produced ‘critical Catholicism’ and the ‘critical church’, and
2. Cf. the ‘Candid Foreword’ in H. Küng, Infallible? An Enquiry, Fontana Books 1972,
p. 22; R. P. McBrien, Do We Need the Church?, New York 1969.
all three rapidly went on to a criticism of theology and the
church as a whole. The attention of many was drawn by the
gospel and the frequently suppressed revolutionary traditions
in Christianity, to the sufferings of the oppressed and
abandoned in the world; and they began to have a passionate
social and political commitment. When they followed this
course, they quite often felt obliged to abandon the churches
as they now exist, because they found in their institutions
no possibility of realizing this commitment, and indeed often
had to commit themselves in opposition to the church as a
society. For them, their total questioning of the church and
theology arose from their apprehension of the ‘cross of the
present time’ in the situation of those who in this society
live in the shadow of the cross, and from the wish to take
this cross of reality upon themselves and to live in solidarity
with and for these others. This exodus from a blinded society,
which has psychologically and socially repressed its pain at
the suffering in the world, and pushes people who suffer
to the fringes of society, in order to withdraw undisturbed
into its own small groups, consequently led to an exodus
from a church which did not dissociate itself with sufficient
determination from these inner and outward defencemechanisms
of its social environment, but enjoyed the
religious tolerance of a frigid society, and which, in order to
maintain itself in being, has made a dishonourable peace with
society and become sterile.
All attempts to reform the church into a more credible
form of life came to a halt at the point where the intimate
links between this kind of church and this kind of society
could be perceived, and when it was realized that church
reform without social reform would hardly achieve its
purpose. Thus the critics of the church became social critics,
and saw the churches as no more than fragments, offering
no hope, of a society divided and in conflict. The question
of the sources of the renewal of the world in society and in
its churches then took a new form. Will the fatal problems
of mankind at the end of this century be apprehended and
solved in continuity with the critical and liberating tradition
of the gospel, or will this and the coming generations,
through the default of churches and theologians enclosed
within their own sects, nourish their hopes of life and justice
from other sources which seem to them less corrupt and more
Although humanist Marxism is fundamentally discredited
by its Stalinist and post-Stalinist practice, and has recently
attracted more obloquy by the destruction of ‘socialism with
a human face’ in Czechoslovakia in 1968, its uninterrupted
activity is astonishing. Its vitality in face of all the factual
evidence seems to lie in the analytical power of its criticism
and even more in the mobilizing power of its ‘dream of the
future’. The ‘homelessness’ of the Left in both West and East
is only the reverse side of its certainty for the future. Much
the same could probably be said of authentic Christian faith.
The best of its content seems to be refuted by the vagaries
and confusions of church history down to the present day.
3. C.-D. Schulze, ‘Reformation oder Performation der Kirche? Versuch einer
Typologie von Kirchenreform-Bestrebungen’, MPTh 58, 1969, 106–22. Here
Schulze gives an apt description of the ideas of the ‘traditionalists’, the ‘avant-garde’,
the ‘progressives’ and the ‘new left’ in the field of German Protestantism.
And yet it displays its vitality in permanent reformations, and
in spite of all proof to the contrary, lives by the experience
of inextinguishable hope. It is this inner homelessness which
enables it to perpetuate its institutions, even when they
become an established part of society.
Under the pressure to give a public demonstration of the
relevance of theology to the problems of society and of
individuals in it, and to manifest in a new form its relationship
to a changed world, a long series of theological structures of
great integrity were created. All of them provided Christian
theology with the characteristics of a relationship to the
surrounding world which was to make it relevant. There was
existentialist theology, hermeneutic, ontological, cultural,
social, indigenous, religious and political theology, and also
the theology of secularization, of revolution, of liberation,
etc. Because the relevance of Christian theology had become
uncertain, there was and is an attempt to supply Christian
theology with new categories of fundamental theology in
the spirit and the circumstances of the present day. It is clear
that theology can no longer find a permanent basis in the
general thinking, feeling and action of contemporary society.
The reason for this lies less in theology than in the fact
that in a pluralist society, what concerns everyone absolutely,
and what society must absolutely desire, is more difficult
to identify than in earlier and more homogeneous societies.
Since Hegel, it has been regarded as the task of the
metaphysics of history, which ‘apprehends its own time in
thought’, to present a ‘theory of the present age’, but such
a theory is in practice hard to draw up, because no outline
which seeks to comprehend all possible points of view can
claim to be more than provisional itself.4 The longing for
a society with a unified ideology, or for a unified Catholic
or Christian state, continues to grow, as it becomes more
difficult for men to endure the plurality of different patterns
of life and to use their differences for productive and fertile
developments. Thus every theology must include reflections
upon its own point of view in these conflicts and on its
own place in the social and political situation.5 An attempt
to adopt an absolute point of view would be equivalent to
having no point of view at all. To make one’s own point
of view absolute would be stupidity. This does not amount
to relativism. Anyone who understands the relativity of
relativity, will see himself as relative to others; but this does
not mean giving up one’s own position. To see one’s own
point of view as relative to that of others means to live in
concrete relationships and to think out one’s own ideas in
relationship to the thought of others. To have no relationship
would be death. This ‘relationality’ can transcend the
absolutism of a single ideology and the totalitarian aspect
of relativism. In this sense the recent ‘political theology’ has
attempted to transfer the old verification model of ‘natural
theology’, which in practice was always the prevailing
religion of society, from orthodoxy into a new verification
model of theology in social and political ‘orthopraxy’.6
4. Cf. D. Rössler, ‘Positionelle und kritische Theologie’, ZThK 67, 1970, 215–31.
5. J. Moltmann, ‘Theologische Kritik der politischen Religion’, in J. B. Metz, J.
Moltmann and W. Oelmüller, Kirche im Prozess der Aufklärung, 1970, 14ff. So too D.
Sölle, Politische Theologie. Auseinander-setzung mit Rudolf Bultmann, 1971, 85ff.
6. J. B. Metz, Theology of the World, Burns and Oates 1969, 107ff.
Verification may mean that a particular insight can be
demonstrated by what everyone can experience and check
by repeating the experience. In that case it is only a matter
of right doxa (orthodoxy). But verification can also mean to
translate into act and experience, through verum facere, what
everyone is not yet assumed to be able to experience. This is
the way of ‘orthopraxy’.
To translate something into action and experience,
however, is possible and meaningful only in living
relationships with others. Thus if Christian theology is
relational, it can find a meaningful way between absolutist
theocracy and unproductive tolerance, and replace the
previously assumed unity of a society. Theologies which are
drawn up in order to achieve a connection with the
surrounding world, to which they wish to make Christian
life relevant, must give serious attention to the necessity to be
relational. Otherwise the value of the ready-made attributes
applied to these theologies is rightly called into question.
What is Christian in these new theological perspectives,
which are meant to characterize some particular relationship
of theology to the surrounding world? Does not theology
lose its Christian identity if it is still determined to do nothing
more than to adapt itself to the constantly changing ‘spirit of
the time’? Does it not become a chameleon, always taking on
the colours of its environment, in order to adapt itself to it
and remain unnoticed?
Similar movements to those in theology have come into
being in the churches themselves. The more the perceptive
members of the church feel themselves threatened by the
increasing social isolation of their churches and a withdrawal
into the ghetto, the more they seek in practice the relevance
of Christian life ‘for the world’, ‘for others’, and solidarity
with man in his threatened and betrayed humanity. A church
which cannot change in order to exist for the humanity of
man in changed circumstances becomes ossified and dies.
It becomes an insignificant sect on the margin of a society
undergoing rapid social change. People ask themselves what
difference it makes to belong to this church or not. Only
old, tired and resigned people who no longer understand
the world find in such a church a repository of unchanging
ideas, the affectionately remembered past and religious folklore.
Thus the ancient religious commitment of the church,
that of arousing, strengthening and maintaining faith, has
been supplemented since as early as the nineteenth century
and even more at the present day by charitable work, social
commitment in racial and class struggles, involvement in
development aid and revolts against economic and racist
tyranny. ‘If anyone wants to become a Christian, don’t send
him into the churches, but into the slums. There he will find
Christ’. So people say. In the present century, the ecumenical
movement has brought to an end the denominational age of
divided Christianity. But this breakthrough has achieved its
most widespread effects less as a result of dogmatic agreement
on the traditional controversial doctrines, and much more in
ethical matters and in relationship to the world, in secular
ecumenical action or in the ‘indirect ecumenism’ which
results from co-operation on new social and ideological
problems, for which none of the different traditions has the
correct answer to hand.7 The idea of a critical political
theology has made a reality of the older ideas of the ‘church
for the world’ and the ‘church for others’. In the face of
world problems, there has come into being in the worldwide
ecumenical movement the idea of offering a unified
Christianity as the future religion for a mankind which is to
be united and for its universal society. On the local level, it
has been suggested that the churches should be subjected to
a thoroughgoing efficiency control from the point of view
of social therapy, in order to maximize the aid they can
give to the socially disadvantaged, and to give more effective
form to the assistance they can offer in the socializing of the
individual, the task of giving meaning to his life and the
humanization of society.
‘But if the church adopts this course—where is it leading
the church?’ asked R. Augstein in Der Spiegel in 1968.8 Does
not the departure made by the church from the traditional
and established forms into social and psychotherapeutic
commitment not mean bidding farewell to the church itself?
Will the so-called progressives found a new church, perhaps
‘the coming church’, or are they moving into no man’s land,
to be taken over in the course of time by other groups and
parties, who alone can give rational and institutional and
effective organizational form to that necessary commitment?
But the same question can be asked of the so-called
conservatives. If, with their anxious concern for their own
identity, they cling to the form of the church received from
7. J. B. Metz, Reform und Gegenreformation heute, 1969, 33.
8. R. Augstein, ‘Das grosse Schisma’, Der Spiegel 18, 1969, 166.
the past, opt for religion against politics and associate
themselves with the forces of social and political
conservatism, then they have chosen a particular form of
relevance, of which similarly no one can say whether it is
Christian or not. The church of the old religion is as much
subject to the prevailing social concern for self-justification
and self-assertion as is the new alliance of those who are
critical of the churches with the forces critical of society. By
the way in which they assert their relevance, both are led into
a crisis of identity.
If social and political commitment is necessary, what is
‘Christian’ about it? If religious commitment is necessary for
fulfilling the religious needs in a society, what is ‘Christian’
about that? In the critical theological thought in which a
theologian uses and applies the critical scholarship developed
since the Enlightenment, as a historical critic in exegesis,
as an ideological critic in dogmatics, as a social critic with
regard to the church, and in the political commitment which
brings a Christian into solidarity with a non-Christian—why
is one a Christian, why does one believe? Or is one no
longer Christian, so that belief or unbelief make no difference
here? It is not criticism that makes one a Christian, because
others practise it. It is not social commitment on behalf of
the poor and wretched, for this is fortunately found amongst
others. It is not rebellion against injustice that makes one
a Christian, for others rebel, and they often protest with
more determination against injustice and discrimination than
Christians. Is it necessary to give a Christian justification for
these actions at all, or is it sufficient to do what is reasonable
and humane? But what is reasonable and humane?
The Evangelische Studentengemeinde (the German Protestant
Student Association) and the World Student Christian
Federation are in a particular sense experimental areas in
Christian existential life, in one of the most disturbed points
in our society, the universities. What is true of the churches in
general, in a way that is not always visible, is here attempted
and suffered in a radical way. A Christian student community
or group forms an outstanding example of what we have
called the identity-involvement dilemma. The tension that is
inherent in all Christian life, between identity in faith and
public solidarity in living and struggling alongside others,
has led here to polarizations and divisions which have had
a paralysing effect upon many student communities. Since
the world-wide student protest movement reached
Germany—and this clearly dates from the day the student
Ohnesorg was shot in Berlin in 1967—many student
communities have identified themselves with this political
movement. They understood themselves as part of this protest
movement, and abandoned the traditional assertion of their
Christian identity. ‘On the basis of its democratic principles,
the Protestant Student Association believes that it may
legitimately use the power at its disposal to bring about the
changes which a critical analysis of the present situation
shows to be necessary’. This raises the problem of political
association with others: ‘The bid for power naturally assumes
that one associates with others for certain purposes, for it is
usually only such an association which gives the power to
bring about what one desires. Fundamental changes in the
university field can only be achieved in co-operation with
other groups’. This use of power, albeit limited, is necessarily
also applied against those from whom the Protestant Student
Association receives the means of exercising power: ‘A
change in political institutions remains a question of power,
because it can never be carried out except against the will and
the power of those to whose advantage they work’.9
Even more dramatic was the symbolic action of the
Christian student task force at the Meiji-Gakuin University
in Japan. The first barricade in the university was erected in
the university church, and sparked off a general conflict. The
students wrote:
So we have put our own faith at risk in protest against the
university authorities and have barricaded the church, although
we ourselves suffer as a result. By making our church a refuse
dump we want to proclaim to the university authorities and
our fellow students that Christianity and worship can become
symbols of the absence of humanity and contempt for it. We
want to create true Christianity in the midst of this stormy
struggle within the university by common action with all our
fellow-students . . . God does not exist in this church, but rather
in the living deeds of a man involved in human relationships.
We want our actions to be understood as a question, as a
9. ESG-Material, NF, vol. 3. I take these three quotations from the essay by W. Kratz,
‘Wege und Grenzen christlicher Solidarität. Beitrag zu einer aktuellen Diskussion
in den Evangelischen Studentengemeinden’, in Christliche Freiheit im Dienst am
Menschen. Festschrift für M. Niemöller zum 8o. Geburtstag, 1972, 199, 202. The worldwide
questionnaire conducted by the World Student Christian Federation
concerning this polarization is summarized only briefly by R. Lehtonen, ‘The Story
of a Storm. An Ecumenical Case Study’, Study Encounter 18, vol. VIII, I, 1972. For the
whole problem see also L. Gilkey, How the Church can Minister to the World without
Losing Itself, New York 1964; R. Ruether, The Church against Itself, New York 1967.
request, for which we have risked our whole life. For us
Christians studying at Meiji Gakuin, this is our cross.
Theoretical and practical solidarity with the general student
protest movement has in fact brought these Christian student
communities and groups to the point of effective action in
a situation of political conflict. They have carried out their
theological theory in practice and have taken their faith to the
point of an existential testimony which is ready for sacrifice.
But by doing so they have inevitably fallen into a crisis of
identity, and have consciously risked this, as is shown by the
symbolic action of the Japanese students in destroying the
Christian chapel and ‘taking the cross upon themselves’, in a
specific act of resistance.
This crisis of identity exists at several levels. The question
whether Christianity is abandoned by solidarity with others
in a particular political situation can be the question of those
who stand on what they suppose is the firm ground of the
Bible, tradition and the church, and bewail the abandonment
by revolutionary youth of everything that is sacred to
themselves. Here the question of ‘what is specifically
Christian’, to which an appeal is so often made, is posed in
Pharisaic terms, and would not in fact have been acceptable to
Jesus. It is much more the question of a man’s own personal
identity and integrity, for every self-emptying in historical
10. Cf. Toshikazu Takao, ‘An Alliance of Egoists’, Japan Christian Quarterly, Fall 1969,
225, and U. Luz, ‘Japanische Studenten und christlicher Glaube’, EvTh 32, 1972,
7off. The view of P. Beyerhaus, ‘Die gegenwärtige Krise von Kirche und Theologie
in Japan’, EMZ 29, 1972, vol. 11, 13: ‘This is in fact the disappearance of theology in
thorough-going humanism’, is not true. Rather, it is a prophetic symbolic action.
action is a venture, and a way into non-identity. A man
abandons himself as he was and as he knew himself to be, and,
by emptying himself, finds a new self. Jesus’s eschatological
saying tells us that ‘Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose
it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it’. Modern
anthropology has made this the basic principle by which man
becomes human, in accordance with the couplet in Schiller’s
‘Unless you place your life at stake,
your life you will never win’.
Gehlen has called this ‘the birth of freedom out of alienation’
and he regards idealism as an error, which holds that the
ideal possibilities which he admits to be present in man can
be the object of direct subjective experience.11 Only by selfemptying
in encounter with what is alien, unknown and
different does man achieve selfhood. If Christians empty
themselves in this way in a situation of political conflict,
then in fact they abandon the traditions, institutions and
opinions, accepted in faith, in which they previously found
their identity. But this includes what Christoph Blumhardt
once called ‘the ceaseless prayer for the spirit of persistence’.
That is, trust in the hidden and guaranteed identity with
Christ in God (Col. 3.3) makes possible the selfabandonment,
the road into non-identity and
unidentifiability, which neither clings to ancient forms of
identity, nor anxiously reaches out for the forms of identity
11. A. Gehlen, ‘Über die Geburt der Freiheit aus der Entfremdung’, Studien zur
Anthropologie und Soziologie, 1963, 232ff., esp. 244.
of those one is fighting in common. This, as the Japanese
students said—whether rightly or wrongly in their case does
not matter for the moment—is really ‘to take one’s cross upon
oneself ’ in imitation of the one who abandoned his divine
identity and found his true identity in the cross (Phil. 2).
That in following his Lord a Christian should place his own
identity at stake without reservation when it is a matter of
helping his fellow men in distress, is not disputed. But what
limits a Christian community must draw if it is to be associated
with other groups to work in common with them to help men
in distress, is another matter. Here it is not the identity of the
individual Christian which is at stake, but that of the Christian
community, its faith and its ethical values.12
This would be better expressed by saying that what is at stake
is their strangeness and difference with regard to their old
and new allies. Solidarity with others in meaningful actions
loses its creative character if one no longer wishes to be
anything different from the others. Bonhoeffer’s ‘existence for
others’, to which so much appeal has been made, becomes
meaningless if one is no longer any different from the others,
but merely a hanger on. Only someone who finds the
courage to be different from others can ultimately exist for
‘others’, for otherwise he exists only with those who are like
him. And this is not much help to them. Thus we must say
that, ‘as the result of the debate about [political] organization,
these communities are faced with the theological question of
their Christian identity as churches’.13 Because this question
12. W. Kratz, op. cit., 197.
13. R. Thoma, quoted in W. Kratz, op. cit., 200.
is posed not merely by the ancient traditions and institutions
from which they have separated themselves, but also by those
others with whom they have associated themselves in
solidarity, it must be taken seriously and answered. The
identity in question here is the identity of the object of faith,
for the sake of which individuals and whole groups have
accepted self-emptying and non-identity and a solidarity
which allows no distinction. When a Christian community
feels obliged to empty itself in certain social and political
actions, it must take care that its traditional religious and
political identity is not exchanged for a new religious and
political identity, but must sustain its non-identity.
Otherwise a church which, seeking for an identity and not
preserving its distinctiveness, plunges into a social and
political movement, once again becomes the ‘religion of
society’. It is of course no longer a conservative religion of
society, but the progressive religion of what may perhaps be
a better future society. It then follows those who criticize
the old religion from a political point of view, only to make
a religion of their new politics.14 But can a Christian
community or church ever become the ‘political religion’ of
its existing or future society, without forgetting the man from
Nazareth who was crucified, and losing the identity it has
in his cross? Moreover, true Christian existence can only be
present in the best of all possible societies, or, in symbolic
terms, can only ‘stand under the cross’, and its identity with
14. Thus L. Feuerbach, Die Notwendigkeit einer Reform der Philosophie, 1842, Werke II,
ed. Bolin and Jodl, 1969, 219: ‘For we must once again become religious—politics
must become our religion . . .’
the crucified Christian can be demonstrated only by a
witnessing non-identification with the demands and interests
of society. Thus even in the ‘classless society’ Christians will
be aliens and homeless. Where solidarity is achieved, this
distinction must still be observed. It is a criticism of the
traditional solidarity of the established churches with
authority, law and order in society. But it is also a criticism
of the more recent attempts to establish solidarity with
democratic and socialist forces. Not of course in the same
way, because the cross does not make the world equal by
bringing down the night in which everything looks alike, but
by enabling people to criticize and stand back from the partial
historical realities and movements which they have idolized
and made absolute.
It follows from these reflections upon the concrete political
problems of Christian life, that the question of identity comes
to a head only in the context of non-identity, self-emptying
for the sake of others and solidarity with others. It cannot
be established in isolation, but only revealed in contact with
others. In exile one seeks home. In alienation one seeks
identity. Love is revealed in hatred and peace in conflict.
Thus the place where the question of identity can
meaningfully be asked is the situation of the crisis of identity,
brought about by meaningful self-emptying and solidarity.
‘Temptation teaches us to pay heed to the Word’, said Luther.
These temptations can be suffered passively, where, as in
Luther’s hymn, sin, hell and death swallow man up and
human existence is called into question. But temptations are
much more often actively suffered. A man’s mettle is tried
only in the front line, not back at base, even supposing that
the sufferings of others do not leave him in peace there.
But in the front line, he is put to the test because he is
struggling to do his utmost; the more he tries, the more he is
tried. Anyone who does not put himself to the test is hardly
tried or tested at all. Only when, with all the understanding
and consistency he possesses, a man follows Christ along the
way of self-emptying into non-identity, does he encounter
contradiction, resistance and opposition. Only when he
leaves behind the circle of those who share and reinforce his
opinions in the church, to go out into the anonymity of slums
and peace movements, in a society ‘where the absence of
peace is organized’, is he tempted and tested, inwardly and
outwardly. Then the crisis inevitably comes, in which the
identity of that for which he involves and commits himself
comes into question, and a decision has to be made about it.
It is these active trials and temptations which at the present
day teach us to pay attention to the word of the cross.
2. The Crisis of Identity for Christian Faith
While the question of identity comes to a head only in the
context of non-identity, the question of relevance arises only
where identity is a matter of experience and belief. When
something can be identified, it is possible to ask whether it is
relevant to anything else and whether it has any connection
with anything else. Where the Christian identity of faith is
abandoned, this question no longer arises. One is simply a
fellow human or a contemporary or an adherent of other
institutions and groups, and they supply one’s identity. But
where the Christian identity of faith is asserted, the question
of its relevance arises.
Where does the identity of Christian faith lie? Its outward
mark is church membership. This, however, takes us no
further, but merely moves the problem on. For the Christian
identity of the church is itself questionable, when the form it
takes is affected by so many other interests. One can point to
the creed. But to repeat the formula of the Apostles’ Creed
is no guarantee of Christian identity, but simply of loyalty
to the fathers and to tradition. One can point to particular
experiences of vocation, conversion and grace in one’s own
life. But even they do not guarantee one’s identity as a
Christian; at best, they point to what one has begun to believe
in such experiences. Ultimately, one’s belief is not in one’s
own faith; within one’s experiences in faith and one’s
decisions, one believes in someone else who is more than
one’s own faith. Christian identity can be understood only as
an act of identification with the crucified Christ, to the extent
to which one has accepted the proclamation that in him God
has identified himself with the godless and those abandoned
by God, to whom one belongs oneself. If Christian identity
comes into being by this double process of identification,
then it is clear that it cannot be described in terms of that
faith alone, nor can it be protected against decay by correct
doctrinal formulae, repeatable rituals and set patterns of moral
The decay of faith and its identity, through a decline into
unbelief and a different identity, forms an exact parallel to
their decay through a decline into a fearful and defensive
faith. Faith is fearful and defensive when it begins to die
inwardly, struggling to maintain itself and reaching out for
security and guarantees. In so doing, it removes itself from
the hand of the one who has promised to maintain it, and
its own manipulations bring it to ruin. This pusillanimous
faith usually occurs in the form of an orthodoxy which feels
threatened and is therefore more rigid than ever. It occurs
wherever, in the face of the immorality of the present age,
the gospel of creative love for the abandoned is replaced by
the law of what is supposed to be Christian morality, and
by penal law. He who is of little faith looks for support and
protection for his faith, because it is preyed upon by fear.
Such a faith tries to protect its ‘most sacred things’, God,
Christ, doctrine and morality, because it clearly no longer
believes that these are sufficiently powerful to maintain
themselves. When the ‘religion of fear’ finds its way into
the Christian church, those who regard themselves as the
most vigilant guardians of the faith do violence to faith and
smother it. Instead of confidence and freedom, fearfulness
and apathy are found everywhere. This has considerable
consequences for the attitudes of the church, faith and
theology to the new problems posed by history. ‘Why did
the church cut itself off from cultural development?’ asks R.
Rothe, whose messianic passion in the face of the modern age
can speak for itself here:
I blush to write it down: because it is afraid for faith in Christ.
To me, it is not faith in Christ if it can be afraid for itself and
for its Christ! To me, this is not to have faith, but to be of little

1 Comment

  • Troy Day
    Reply March 18, 2019

    Troy Day

    Link Hudson what a GREAT theological topic – your take?

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