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This week the greatest living theologian died.  Jürgen Moltmann was 98 years old.  He did not grow up religious, but found God and religion when he was in a prisoner of war camp in Britain, following the end of the Second World War.  He went on to write some of the most important works of Protestant theology in the twentieth century.  His overall approach is often called “a theology of hope.”

I first read Moltmann in the summer of 2004, when I was struggling with coming out as a gay man while serving as a youth minister at a Baptist church in Texas.  My first (non-public) relationship with a man had ended abruptly and painfully, and from heartbreak, I had spiraled into a deep depression, the deepest I had ever encountered up to that point in life.  Yet, because I was still living in the closet, I felt the extra burden of trying my best to hide my mental state and appear as my usual joyful self, especially in my church work.  It was a heavy burden.

That summer I attended our Cooperative Baptist Fellowship annual meeting, where it was always good to connect with old friends and colleagues, but I just didn’t have a lot of energy and enthusiasm for the gathering.  The first day, I was browsing the book sellers in the exhibit hall and carried away a haul of books (pretty typical for me).  One was Jürgen Moltmann’s latest In the End–the Beginning: The Life of Hope.  I picked it up because I hadn’t yet read any of Moltmann’s major works and realized that was a lack on my part.  This small book seemed like it could serve as a handy, quick introduction to his thinking.  I didn’t expect anything more from it.

Later in the day I was back in my hotel room and perused each of the books I bought.  On the first page of the introduction, Moltmann proclaims, “We shall not give ourselves up, but shall expect that in every end a new beginning lies hidden.  Yet we shall only become capable of new beginnings if we are prepared to let go of the things that torment us, and the things we lack.  If we search for the new beginning, it will find us.”  I didn’t put the book down.  Over the course of the next few days I read it all the way through, skipping meetings and events.

And rarely has a book spoken so powerfully to me about the experience I was currently living.  Moltmann teaches that we Christians are a resurrection people, and what that mean is that in every moment we experience a new beginning.  That regardless of what has occurred in our past, every moment presents an indefinite number of future possibilities.  Every moment we can start again, despite the catastrophes and traumas of life.

This is what it means to live with hope–“Christianity is wholly and entirely confident hope, a stretching out to what is ahead, and a readiness for a fresh start.  Future is not just something or other to do with Christianity.  It is the essential element of the faith which is specifically Christian: the keynote of all its hymns, the dawn colouring of the new day in which everything is bathed.  For faith is Christian faith when it is Easter faith.”

And when we live with such hope, we experience eternal life.  Not after life, but here and now in the everyday moments of our lives which take on an “eternal livingness.”  Eternity, he writes, is “the depth of experience in the moment . . . an awakening vitality, provided that we look to the future and welcome the possibilities of the new morning.”

Reading that book that summer didn’t overnight magically cure my depression, but it was the beginning of my journey to health and well-being, giving me the spiritual resources I needed.  And some of the courage I required to come fully out.  Plus, his ideas became central to my theology–in how I’ve lived my life, the Gospel that I’ve proclaimed in my preaching, and the courage I’ve drawn on as an activist.

I’ve gone on to read other books by Moltmann, and encountered his many other ideas that have deeply shaped Christian theology.  He was the greatest living Christian theologian.  And I’ll be forever grateful to the significant role he played in my life story.


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