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An Open Letter to Jürgen Moltmann

Dear Dr. Moltmann,
It has now been almost ten years since I first began reading your work. Over these years, your books have been my constant companions – they were the first serious theological works that I read and, as I have continued my studies, your writings have continued to be my “first love.”
However, as I have read, and reread, your initial trilogy, your Systematic Contributions to Theology, and various other pieces that you have published, I never once considered writing to you. But then I read your recently published autobiography, and I suddenly felt as though you were somebody I could approach – both to question, and to express my gratitude.
Let me begin with what are bound to be stuttering and inadequate expressions of gratitude. No other author so profoundly influenced both my thinking and living during some of the very formative years of my life. For this, I am forever in your debt, and am deeply grateful.
I fell head-over-heels into your work when, in the first year of my Bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies, a professor suggested that I read The Trinity and the Kingdom. Discovering your perichoretic understanding of the Trinity, and your application of that way of being-in-relationship to politics, ecclesiology, and other inter-personal relationships profoundly impacted me. “Yes!” I exclaimed to myself, “It is this mutual indwelling, this freely giving and receiving, of the Lover and the Beloved, which should define how we relate to one another!” Yes, you say it all so well; the Other ceases to be the limitation of my freedom, and is revealed as the expansion of my freedom. Let us love and be loved!
I hope you do not mind if I insert a few autobiographical remarks at this point. Like you, I have also never been tormented by the question: “Who am I really?” For, as you say in the postscript to your autobiography, “[t]hat question has left me since I experienced the love of a beloved person.” I well remember when I first encountered the love of God, and came to know myself as one who was, and is, Beloved. That experience was, quite literally, life-changing. It occurred when I was 17, a few months after my parents had kicked my out of the family home, and onto the street. At the time I was either homeless or (more usually) sleeping on couches at various friends’ houses, and I thought I was anything but Beloved. Yet the love of God broke through and changed my life, precisely when I thought I could go no lower.
Thus, the driving question of my life is similar to yours. After surviving the firestorm in Hamburg, you found yourself asking, “Why am I alive, and not dead like the others?” It seems like what answers you could find to this question came from the significance of your life and work. Perhaps, you seem to suggest (but never say!), you survived because God intended to use you in the many ways God has.
My question is this: “Why have I had my life transformed by the in-breaking of God’s Spirit of love, and others have not?” You see, after escaping homelessness, I have gone on to work with, live amongst, and journey alongside of the “crucified people of today”, as those people are found in the inner-city neighbourhoods of Canada’s urban centres (first in Toronto, and now in Vancouver where I currently reside). As I work, live, and journey with those who are being sexually, physically, and emotionally, exploited, abused, and abandoned, I regularly see people who are overpowered, and destroyed, by the powers of violence, addiction, and loneliness. Over and over I find myself wondering, “Why did God come and meet me but not all these others?” Regardless of the significance my own life has (or does not have), I cannot be satisfied with the suggestion that God broke into my life, and not into the lives of others, because he had some sort of special plan just for me. God could just as easily use anybody else to do what I do. Essentially, the question does not focus on me but on those others – the ones God has not yet come to meet. Why does God wait so long to come to meet us? Having spent close to a lifetime struggling with your own (similar) questions, I wonder if you can help shed some light on mine.
After I read The Trinity and the Kingdom, I quickly dove into The Crucified God. Reading this book was the first time I had heard of the notion of a suffering God, of a God who is with us, weeping and suffering alongside of us, even in places of godforsakenness – and it is to this belief that I have returned over and over again in my own life, and as I have sought to journey alongside of others. Indeed, in the years that I have spent journeying alongside of those who have truly experienced some of the hells of this world, and who are frequently understood (by themselves and by others) as godforsaken, I have shared this belief many times over and it has often given birth to perseverance, hope, and new life. Thus, I feel privileged to have been able to share your thoughts with many who would never read theology – child prostitutes, rape survivors, gang-members, drug dealers, and so on – and seen the fruit that your thoughts have borne in their lives.
Of course, your thinking has impacted me in many other ways – your thoughts on universalism presented in The Coming of God (and elsewhere), your reflections on the Eucharist presented in The Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit, and of course your many reflections on hope, promise, longing and anticipation in Theology of Hope – but, if I continued in detail, I would not know where to stop. Yet, as I try to express my gratitude, words fail me. “Thank you” sounds so superficial. What can I say? Je vous embrasse.
That said, there is one question that I would very much like to ask you. Throughout your writings, you constantly raise socio-political and economic issues, and are frequently in (a mostly approving dialogue) with the broader themes of liberation theology (despite the ways in which you were personally wounded by some liberation theologians). Indeed, I believe that you have consistently offered a liberating political theology that carries significant implications relating to issues of justice, solidarity, resistance, community, and, of course, love.
However, I would be very interested to hear how you then understand the ways in which your life as an Academic has related to these things. You see, after reading your autobiography and hearing of endless sherry parties, multiple trips to exotic destinations, several stays in flashy hotels, I started to think, “This all sounds so… bourgeois.” Where is the longing that hope brings? Where is the solidarity that love requires? Where is the resistance that arises from our memory of God’s actions and God’s promises? Consequently, although you speak of progressing from “the restless God of hope to the ‘indwelling and ‘inhabitable’ God” I can’t help but wonder if you simply became satisfied with the comforts offered to those who are situated in places of privilege and power.
Now, please, I hope you will forgive me for asking these questions. It is not my desire to be counted amongst those liberation theologians who “crucified” you in ’77. This question is one that is a part of my own process of “faith seeking understanding”. Indeed, it is part of my own process of trying to understand how one can be both an academic and be rooted in communities located within “the groaning places of the world” (N. T. Wright’s phrase). As I now consider moving to Europe to pursue PhD studies in theology, I cannot help but wonder if such studies will lead me into greater intimacy with the crucified people of today – with whom I am already intimately journeying – or if it will lead me away from intimacy with these people. Thus, I would find it very helpful if you could explain to me how your life as an Academic has fit with the themes of justice, solidarity, resistance, community, hope, and love, which you yourself have developed.
Let me try to say this another way. Although you explore the importance of recognising one’s locus theologicus, in your book Experiences in Theology, you do not comment on the idea that some loci may be better than others. After reading your autobiography, it seems to me that you are operating with the assumption that one can engage in a liberating political theology, even while living comfortably in places of power and privilege, so long as one is aware that this is where one is located. What you do not seem to suggest is that this liberating political theology should, in fact, lead us away from such places of power and privilege as we move into increasing solidarity, and intimacy, with those who are godforsaken, oppressed, and crucified within our societies.
In this regard I have trouble simply accepting the idea that the Academic contributes thoughts – analysis, theories, suggestions, and so on – while others, say the activists, actually engage in the practical work of living these things out. I think that such a divide is devastating to both Christian thought and action, and I wonder how much Christian academics who think this way are only fooling themselves. In this regard, I cannot help but think of the words of Slavoj Žižek:
Even in today’s progressive politics, the danger is not passivity but pseudo-activity… [radical academics] count on the fact that their demand will not be met—in this way, they can hypocritically retain their clear radical conscience while continuing to enjoy their privileged position… Let’s be realistic: we, the academic Left, want to appear critical, while fully enjoying the privileges the system offers us. So let’s bombard the system with impossible demands: we all know that such demands won’t be met, so we can be sure that nothing will actually change, and we’ll maintain our privilege! (I’m mixing a passage from Lacan with a passage from The Puppet and the Dwarf in this quotation.)
Now, let me be clear: I do not believe that you are the sort of radical Leftist academic that Žižek is criticising in this passage. I have no intention of questioning either your motives or your character. However, I do wonder how you understand the relationship between your rather radical theology and your (seemingly) rather privileged life(style). Indeed, given my own interest in academics, how you answer this question could significantly impact the direction of my own life.
And so, Dr. Moltmann, I must bring this letter to an end. Once again, let me reiterate the debt of gratitude that I owe you. Thank you, a million times over. I pray that your own gratitude and delight in life would only continue to increase, and I pray that, like you, after having so many intimate encounters with death, that I too will be increasingly joyful and delighted in every new morning.
Grace and peace,

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