Moltmann Monday: On Political Theology

Happy Moltmann Monday, friends! First of all, if you haven’t heard, our favorite German theologian will be coming to the U.S. this fall. You can find out all about it here. I will be there, so if you’re coming, let me know!

Today’s reading comes from a little book called The Politics of Discipleship and Discipleship in Politics, which is a collection of lectures and responses between Moltmann and Mennonite scholars. If you’re new to Moltmann I wouldn’t start here (unless you’re Mennonite!), but if you’re a theology geek it’s worth grabbing. As it’s election season, I’ve been paying attention to the ways faith is being brought up in public discourse- something that, to be completely honest, always makes me very very nervous and uncomfortable, mostly because it’s most often done so badly. I found this section helpful, and wanted to pass it along. Because it’s an academic lecture, there are a few fancy theology terms in there, so I’ve starred them and given definitions below.

Political theology has taken up the Marxist criticism of religion in this process {of secularization}…It is no longer asked whether a theological doctrine is true or false; instead, it is tested practically to see whether its effects are oppressive or liberating, alienating or humanizing. With this, praxis becomes the criterion of truth…It is a movement from orthodoxy to orthopraxy*. With this criterion, reflective consciousness has no longer a self-forgetting contemplative relationship to reality but has won an immanent, operative and therefore self-critical relationship to reality instead…

Political theology is not a new dogmatic, but it wants to awaken the political consciousness of every Christian theology…There is theology which is conscious of its own political function; there is also naive and politically unconscious theology. But there is no apolitical theology; neither in earth nor in heaven (since we expect a heavenly politeuma*). There are churches who do not want to recognize their political “Sitz im Leben*” within their society. They conceal, cover and disguise it and then assert that they are politically “neutral”–something which they de facto never are. There are Christian groups who exist consciously as Christian groups. But there is never an apolitical church–neither in history nor in the kingdom of God. “Political theology” does not want to make political, rather than theological, questions the central concern of theology, but rather the reverse: it wants to be thoroughly Christian, especially in its public and political functions. It doesn’t want to “politicize” the church but it does want to “Christianize” the political involvement of Christians. It therefore takes up the modern functional criticism of religion and urges movement from the orthodoxy of faith to the orthopraxis of discipleship of Christ.

Okay, two sections to this. First don’t get thrown off by the Marxist term. He’s just setting up the idea that in the modern era, because of the influence of Marxism, theology began to ask practical questions of religion. What is it for? Who benefits? What good does it do? These are good questions, but it’s worth noting that in the secular conversation (one that doesn’t care about the belief of the thing, but the use of the thing), praxis is the only criteria. This will be important to keep in mind when we get to the second paragraph.

But first a reminder, which Moltmann makes bluntly a couple of times in this section, just to be sure we don’t miss it: there is no such thing as an apolitical church, or an apolitical person. That is a naive and also dangerous and irresponsible assumption. It is a political theology with blinders on, which is the most toxic of all.

Political theology is not supposed to be the same thing (and isn’t the same thing, in Moltmann’s assertion) as a secular orthopraxy that uses religious terms. The starting point and ending goals are different. Political theology is not only about utility. It is about, more broadly, teaching Christians to think politically through the lens of their faith. That first of all requires, as we just mentioned, being aware that we each have a political location, and then asking ourselves what we are doing with it and how it connects or disconnects with the life and teachings of Jesus. Which is how we arrive at an orthopraxy that isn’t based on Marx but on a faith in which action and belief go naturally and necessarily hand-in-hand.

One last thought: it’s really easy to get caught up in the action side of things. And please hear me, that’s because how things work and who is affected by how things work is absolutely essential. It’s irresponsible when we don’t look at our theology and see if it’s producing good fruit. But I do think Moltmann is wise to remind us that we find our orthopraxy by our pursuit of being “thoroughly Christian.” When we do that, I think we have a better chance of holding onto the things about faith that will never be practical, which is a lot more than we want to admit on most days. I mean, Jesus dying on a cross? Forgiving enemies? Releasing people from debt every seven years? Turning the other cheek? Much of our faith is impractical and seemingly illogical. If we get too focused on process, we lose the scandal and ambiguity of our faith.



orthopraxy- right action (as opposed to orthodoxy, right belief)

politeuma- Greek word meaning citizenship, in the context of a community or nation…so basically Moltmann is saying we will be citizens of the kingdom of God, which is a political reality.

Sitz im Leben- a fabulous German phrase meaning “setting in life.” The who-what-when-where of things. So Moltmann is saying churches all have a social and political location, and they need to be aware of it.

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