Moltmann Monday: Does A Theologian’s Personal Life Matter?

I’m going to do something a little different this morning. Instead of posting an excerpt, I’d like to talk about my German friend in relation to a post I read on Patheos last week from Roger Olson. He asked whether a theologian’s life should matter when we are studying his/her theology. Between his post and the comments, well, let’s say I have a few thoughts.

On one hand, none of this information is new for me. I’ve heard the dirt on most theologians, and it’s definitely not always pretty. Highly intelligent people are not any different than other kinds of people: they are flawed, and inconsistent, and paradoxical. And I’d be some kind of terrible Christian if I didn’t extend grace upon grace to them, even if I do think Barth was maybe the worst husband ever (and a coward besides), and Luther was an anti-Semite. And that doesn’t mean I don’t read what they have to say, and acknowledge when they say something helpful and insightful and good. God works through talking donkey’s asses, so a few imperfect theologians isn’t that tall an order. Obviously, God works in and through brokenness and quite possibly prefers it, so that’s not my issue.

The problem I had with the article is how SEPARATE the theologian’s personal life was treated, like it can be cordoned off with no big effort and not affect anything else. That’s just patently untrue. It does affect everything- it shouldn’t discount everything, but it does affect it. I have a real issue with the way we treat theology as a Bento box- this goes here, totally separate from this other section here, and never the compartments shall meet. The truth is, there are no compartments. We are all one big skillet meal, mixed together. So sure, it would be easy for me to just dismiss what Barth has to say about family life, but I also have to wonder how the power dynamics he lived out in his marriage colored his view of the trinity, and of God’s power, because you better believe they do. There’s no judgment on that, necessarily, but the idea that a theologian can talk about God in some abstract kind of way is naive and irresponsible.

The second issue I have is the underlying assumption in the article that a theologian’s actions in life are somehow something other than his beliefs. This, too, is a kind of separation that is entirely untrue, and absolutely unhelpful. Let me tell you something obvious: you do what you believe. If you want to know what your beliefs are, look at your life’s actions. How you treat people, what you spend your money on, where your time is invested: that is as true a measure of your belief as what you envision in your mind to be your “values.” Sure, our life’s goal is to make the beliefs in our mind actually match our actions, and of course, none of us aligns our words with our actions perfectly, or even consistently. Grace upon grace. But the idea that there is no correlation at all? Well, let’s not deceive ourselves. Every prophet writing in holy Scripture begs to differ. Does a theologian’s personal life matter? OF COURSE IT DOES.

Which is how we get back to the Moltmann Monday part of this post. I love Jurgen Moltmann for a whole lot of reasons, but the primary reason, the overarching reason that holds up all the others, is that I LIKE HIM AS A PERSON. I actually love him as a person. If I could move next door to him and ask him endless questions every day, I totally would. I think he is one of the most wise, loving, beautiful people I’ve ever met. I felt this way when I read his books, and I have never been more terrified in my entire life to meet someone in person, because I wouldn’t know what to do if he ended up being a jerk, or an elitist snob, or a buffoon.

I had no reason to worry, because he blew away my expectations. He’s just a genuine, beautiful soul, and who he is matches in tone and tenor what he says about God and how he feels about God. I’m under no assumptions that he’s perfect. He was in Hitler’s army, you guys. He of all people knows what it means to have been on the wrong side of something- in a big way. And he’s open about how he married a brilliant theologian and how, when his own career took off, she had to carry more of the parenting load and that hindered her work and her success, and that was a major, major sacrifice. Maybe the difference with Moltmann is that he’s so honest about his shortcomings, that he doesn’t hide them away or dismiss them as unimportant. He integrates his life and his theology. No Bento boxes. No velvet ropes.

What he has to say about who Jesus is and what the Spirit does and what the Church is for, all of that is vital. But it’s equally relevant that his grandchildren love him to pieces, and that he lives simply and travels light and smiles often. It’s equally important that even theologians he disagrees with vehemently can call him a friend.

When I got to meet him, I knew I’d have the opportunity to have him sign a book. And since I have his whole collection, I had to think long and hard about which one I wanted him to sign. Crucified God, because that book literally kept me Christian? The Church in the Power of the Spirit, because that was like my vocational calling card and compass? When it came down to it, though, I knew which one I wanted him to sign: his autobiography. I remember Tony Jones remarking that he was surprised at my choice, theologian nerd that I am, but to me it made perfect sense. Jurgen Moltmann is my favorite theologian of all time, not only because of the beautiful things he says about God, but because of the beautiful things he LIVES about God. 

If I’m going to look up to someone, I want someone who is integrated, and aligned, and centered. I think that’s what the world needs most, and that’s what I long to be. So does a theologian’s personal life matter? Yes, absolutely. All of our personal lives matter. It’s where our beliefs either ring true or ring hollow, and we should always be mindful of how we can align them more beautifully.

1 Comment

  1. True, true, true.

    (And now I’m wishing I would have had him sign the autobiography, instead of Crucified God…)

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