Before he even begins his book The Crucified God (which is meant as a companion and balance to his Theology of Hope), Moltmann throws down the gauntlet. He states with little equivocation that Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the center of Christianity. Indeed, he says that all of philosophy and history is an attempt to answer this question.
Though the book was originally published in German in 1972, we once again find ourselves listening to what feels like a very insightful commentary on the current scene. These days, my neo-monastic friends criticize my emergence friends as being ‘too relevant’, saying that Christianity must be counter-cultural if it is to have any worth. And my emergence friends feel a sense of exasperation, since we’re not trying to be ‘relevant’ per se, but to image a Christianity that makes sense to us and to our friends. Sure, we could be more radical, but what we hear and repeat from Jesus is already more than anyone can live into… are we trying to be too hipster, too cool, too trendy? Should we all cash in (what’s left of) our 401Ks and live in a van down by the river?
The prescient Moltmann speaks directly to this dilemma in his introduction. We need, he says, both relevance and identity. We need both relevance and irrelevance. For if the church is like everyone else, then it is a meaningless hanger-on. But the church also needs to be radically open to others– ‘self-emptying’ for the sake of others, and offering radical hospitality to those who would inquire. We often debate about the possibility of Christianity becoming either mainstream or ghettoized, but Moltmann suggests that if Christians see themselves as a ‘remnant’, then they will tend to withdraw into a ghetto (and to reinforce their rightness through and by their continued alienation).
Moltmann points to the cross as a solution and litmus test for this conundrum. Focus on the cross, he says, and individuals and groups will be forced to live in the tension of relevance/irrelevance. Focus on the cross, and individuals and groups will find their identity in the cross. Even more importantly, the cross keeps us from having a theology of theology (per Aquinas). In Moltmann’s view, theology must never be pure theory. And a robust theology of the cross (whether Luther’s or subsequent iterations, like this one of Moltmann) ensures that theology and Christianity avoid the irrelevance of indulging in purity.
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