For Lent this year, I decided to take on the practice of spending time each day reading a work of Christian theology. My first book of the season The Myth of Certainty was a fairly simple read, but Jürgen Moltmann‘s The Crucified God was dense and complex, the kind of thing I read somewhat routinely when I was taking theology classes, but that I’ve not read so much in the last year. It’s not so much a book to be read as it is a book to be studied, so I read it in tiny chunks of no more than 10 pages at a time. Even so, I found some of those minuscule chunks difficult to take in.
Moltmann examines the various ways theologians, philosophers, and other thinkers have understood the cross of Christ through the centuries, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each interpretation. He assumes readers will have at least a passing knowledge of these different strands of thought. I’ve read a little about Luther, Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Bultmann, and the like—and in some cases I’ve read smatterings of their actual work—but I can’t easily call to mind their views on the crucifixion, the Trinity, and Jesus’s humanity and divinity. So this book was at times a struggle. I imagine it would be incomprehensible to someone who hadn’t already studied theology. At least my studies gave me a better than basic understanding of the big questions in these areas, even if my grasp of the details is fuzzy.
Although I don’t miss having to write papers or complete reading assignments of no interest to me, one of the things I do miss about my classes is the opportunity to dig into difficult works like this alongside others and with the guidance of someone more knowledgeable than I am. A good professor can fill in the gaps in students’ knowledge or rephrase a writer’s arguments in a way students can understand. A professor can also confirm when a students’ thinking is on track and point the student in a different direction when her thinking is muddy. There were several times reading this book when my brain started clicking and I started seeing connections and wished I had some classmates or a knowledgeable guide to help me clarify my ideas. Such in-class dialogue would not only help me to better articulate my ideas but would also help me to remember what I was learning along the way. As it is, the ideas tended to wash over me, and I’m not sure how much will really stick in the long term.
I don’t want to give the idea that reading this on my own was a waste. I did get a lot out of it, but only time will tell whether the things I learned and thought about will stay with me. I really appreciated, for example, the way Moltmann explains how the crucifixion of Christ is inextricably linked with the idea of God as Trinity. The nature of Jesus’s death—on a cross, disgraced—is also significant, as is the resurrection. All of these events and beliefs inform each other. We interpret the crucifixion in light of the resurrection and vice versa.
I also really loved how Moltmann emphasized God’s all-embracing love and the vision of a future in which all would be free from oppression. He writes that “God allows himself to be humiliated and crucified in the Son, in order to free the oppressors and the oppressed from oppression and to open up to them the situation of free, sympathetic humanity.” I thought I caught glimpses of liberation theology in Moltmann’s thinking, but for him, liberation is not just for the oppressed and the poor. It’s for everyone.
In the end, though, I feel woefully ill-equipped to fully engage with this book. It’s one I may return to in the future because I found what I could grasp to be really interesting, and I’d like to understand it better.