Thursday, August 16, 2012

Moltmann's "Political Hermeneutics"

My upcoming fall classes will be my final ones. With my official coursework finished in January I will completely turn towards the final major pieces of my program; language and comp work, with the dissertation looming. One of my final two classes is a seminar in theological hermeneutics. Since I work at the campus bookstore I have been able to sneak a peek at the booklist, and when compared with my other doctoral seminars, I have to admit that the course looks particularly "ambitious." I’m actually looking forward to the challenge though, in part because it is already evident that some readings will fit nicely within potential areas of dissertation interest. For example, I will be reading a “healthy” amount of Anthony Thiselton, and in his 2007 book The Hermeneutics of Doctrine he acknowledges at the outset how important Moltmann and Pannenberg are for his work (see xxi). Furthermore, in more than one of his works he engages frequently with Bultmann, another thinker who has recently begun to grab my attention.

All that to say, I am hopeful that this class will be important for me on more than one level. So, in addition to this personal note, I thought I would introduce what might be several posts on hermeneutics over the next few months by outlining some broad contours of Moltmann’s “political hermeneutics,” with reference to Pannenberg.

In chapter 3 of his 2006 book The Politics of Discipleship and Discipleship in Politics Moltmann outlines his political hermeneutics after discussing political theology and his "eschatological Christology." Describing hermeneutics as “the art of translation from the past into the present,” Moltmann wonders “why should we re-present the past by interpreting the witness to earlier events” (42)? Moltmann’s answer is that there are seeds in the past that bear witness to the future Kingdom of God. As he states it, “Only when something sticks in the past that points beyond itself into the future is there any point in remembering the past … Hermeneutics returns to the past because it seeks the future in this past” (42).

Thus for Moltmann hermeneutics has a “prophetic side” (43). This outlook is grounded in understanding “God … as the ‘power of the future,’” a phrase Pannenberg utilizes in his Theology and the Kingdom of God (43). In this chapter, as in much of their writings, Moltmann and Pannenberg’s thinking appear intertwined. In fact, Moltmann’s reflections on God as the power of the future sound similar to Pannenberg’s “eschatological ontology" (Philip Clayton's phrase), a topic I have briefly touched on here, and is undoubtedly a topic I will discuss further in the future with reference to thinkers like Ted Peters and Christiaan Mostert.

This emphasis on mining the past for the sake of the future comports with Moltmann’s conviction that “hermeneutics does not remain on the level of intellectual history nor on the theoretical level, but wants to lead, by way of the experience of understanding hope, to a new praxis of hope” (44). Moltmann argues for “a differentiated theory-praxis relationship” wherein neither can come to predominate (45). The refusal to sublimate one side of this relationship appears connected to the fact that for Moltmann “the completion of God’s history in the world” is only possible “by God himself” (48). Some of Moltmann's section headings sum this up nicely; it is “by participation in God’s history” that “we learn to understand God’s history” (44).

Again, these emphases are strikingly similar to Pannenberg’s notion of “provisionality” (for a brief and clear explanation of this important concept in Pannenberg, see Timothy Bradshaw's introductory text). As an aside, with all these conceptual similarities it is interesting how differently Moltmann and Pannenberg’s thought fleshed out politically (for a brief discussion of their complicated relationship on this topic and in general, see Moltmann’s A Broad Place, 105-7). In fact, my previous knowledge of both thinkers helped me to articulate what Moltmann is doing here; again, a strange phenomenon given that they often landed on opposite sides of the fence politically.

The goal of political hermeneutics according to Moltmann is “experiences of Christian passion and action,” so he concludes his exploration by articulating an “ethics of hope” centered on “resistance and anticipation” (46-7). Since only God can complete God's history “these anticipations are not yet the kingdom of God itself, but they are real mediations” that are "sacramental" in that in them “we experience the real history, for the ethic is the element of the kingdom of God coming into the material of our history" (46). These “sacramental anticipations” are “holistic,” acts of resistance and fighting against injustice and oppression in their interrelated and various forms.

Although this is the briefest of outlines, leaving detail and substance aside, I want sum up and provide some reflection. For Moltmann, hermeneutics serves the goal of personal and social transformation. To do so with care he proposes a dialectic relationship between theoretical reflection and ethical action, wherein “theory and practice do not belong in two different kingdoms; however, they are never totally equivalent” (45). There is one point related to this on which I remain unsure.  Does Moltmann understand the dialectic to be "resolved" with God completing history, or is it merely discarded. On a different note, it has been awhile since I’ve read any liberation thinkers, but it appears that Moltmann’s model resonates with theirs (for one example, see the Boff’s Introducing Liberation Theology, 32-9). In fact, Moltmann himself notes his affinity with them (A Broad Place, 107).

While some might want to applaud the breadth of Moltmann’s political hermeneutics, one can wonder if, drawing on Thiselton, Moltmann falls prey to the criticism that when “one moves the center of gravity entirely from the past to the present in the task of interpretation … everything becomes dominated … by the interpreter’s own pre-understanding and the ancient text becomes merely a projection of his own ideas or preconceptions” (The Two Horizons, 17). As I hope to show in another post in the future, Pannenberg will level this very accusation at both Moltmann and Barth. While this concern is a classic one, and much of this post is an examination of common knowledge more than anything else, hopefully it lays the foundation for a productive semester of examining (and blogging about!) hermeneutical theory in general and the hermeneutics of Moltmann and Pannenberg.

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1 comment:

W. Travis McMaken said...

Thanks for this, Derek! I wish I knew enough about Moltmann (and Pannenberg) to have something constructive to say, or even to construct a decent question, but alas. I appreciate the notion of "political hermeneutics," however.