For the past few weeks I’ve been reading a lot of Jurgen Moltmann and I’ve been struck by his relevance for the theology and missiology of the emerging church. The theological relevance comes from his view of the social Trinity and its implications for our human interrelationships. The missiological relevance comes from his deconstruction of concepts of God which were imported into Christianity from Greek philosophy.
(1) In my experience, a fair number of people in emergent circles often claim to follow in the theology of Karl Barth. For example, John Franke is a Barthian theologian who wrote Beyond Foundationalism and spoke at our Presbymergent event in Pittsburgh. Or there’s Chris Erdman who wrote a chapter on the importance of Barth’s theology in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope. At the same time, postmodern theology and the emerging church place a heavy emphasis on community as opposed to individualism, and the theological basis for saying that we as humans are intended to exist in relationship comes from the idea of God existing in relationship, as the Trinity. As I’ve read through parts of Crucified God and the beginning of The Trinity and the Kingdom, I’m wondering why more people in the emerging church haven’t reaped the harvest of Moltmann’s Trinitarian thinking and it’s relevance for the idea of community. Barth’s view of revelation may be helpful for the emerging church, but thinking of the Trinity as “modes of being” doesn’t convey the communal relationship within God that influences our ideas of community. Couldn’t Moltmann’s picture of the social Trinity be more valuable, not just because of its emphasis on relationship, but also because of its implications for God’s love and Christ’s fellowship in the struggle for liberation from injustice?
(2) At the same time, Moltmann’s theology gives a valuable caveat to the missiology of the emerging church, and it has to do with theology’s relationship to non-Christian philosophy. The Crucified Godcritiques the Greek philosophical notion of a God who is impassible, incapable of suffering and change. The unsuffering God, drawn from Plato and Aristotle, has held considerable influence over Christian theology for centuries. Moltmann shows that in both God’s relationship to the covenant people of Israel in the Old Testament and the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, God is revealed as One who suffers in loving relationship with his creation. But Greek philosophy couldn’t understand such a God, and as Christianity grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire, Plato and Aristotle’s understanding of God was renamed as the Christian God. This led to a slough of other theological problems, from the question of whether Jesus had one or two “natures” to (as Moltmann notes) the modern atheistic objection to theism on the grounds that the idea of an omnipotent God is irreconcilable with the suffering we experience in the world. Translated into missiological terms, the Christian understanding of God revealed in Jesus Christ was compromised in its contextualization to Greek philosophy. Did Paul make a mistake on Mars Hill (Acts 17) by beginning his proclamation of the Gospel with the Greek understandings of the gods? As the Gospel spread among the Gentiles were the first Christians too lax in their tolerance of Greek philosophy? Or did this importation come after Constantineand the construction of Christendom (which in itself was another perversion of the Gospel, a compromise in contextualization to the world’s structures of empire)? In today’s context, what does this mean about the dangers of contextualization? While I genuinely believe the postmodern turn in theology is for the good, do we risk the same compromises as early Christians made with Greek philosophy? The fact that the pattern was repeated during the Enlightenment with foundationalist epistemology bears witness to the fact that theology will never be “pure” or free of cultural influence. One of the stronger insights of the emerging church is that we cannot help but interact with and be influenced by culture, but that we always need to be critical of the ways in which our theology is culturally-conditioned. It seems there always needs to be a constant movement from contextualization toward conversion, transforming the culture’s preconceptions of God, and this has always been an incomplete conversion in the case of Western Christianity (as in other parts of the visible church). In the meantime, all we can do is pray that the Holy Spirit will clear up the mistakes we make now, both in the witness we bear at the present time and in the future when another brilliant theologian critiques our theology for its cultural imports.