What remains . . .


When in 1996 the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann (b. 1926) celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday, he invited a few dozen other theologians to come to Tübingen—the city where he lives and taught for many years. In a full-day public meeting they discussed  how their theology had changed in the past thirty years. Some of them said they had hardly needed to adjust their views on the most important theological matters, but for most the opposite had been true. And that was certainly also true for Moltmann himself.[1]

Last week I also celebrated my birthday. It will be another two years before I (hopefully) reach the same blessed milestone as Moltmann did in 1996. But who knows what I will organize at that time? It would be exciting to hear from my Dutch colleagues how they have developed in some of their ideas and beliefs over time.

But apart from such a vague plan, I believe it is good, from time to time, to make an inventory of where you are theologically. This is even more advisable when you have entered the last phase of your life. What continues to be important for you, after having been involved with faith, theology and church for about a half century? What is the focus of your faith, as you live it at present?

I am not the only person to think about this on a somewhat regular basis. Many more illustrious persons also do this. Some of them share the results of the thinking with a larger public in the form of a book. I am thinking, in particular, of two theologians of whom I recently read a book about this topic. The name Harry Kuitert (b. 1920) is still quite well-known in a significant part of Dutch Protestantism. In 2011 a new book of his appeared, in which he pleads for less reliance on the role of knowledge.[2] When one compares this book with his many earlier publications it becomes obvious how through the years he has adapted many of his ideas. (It is, of course, marvelous that he could write another book when he was 85. I hope I may still be able to do likewise!)

I do not think I have changed as much as Kuitert has in my theology, but when he emphasizes that knowledge must be ranked lower than the reality that we are ‘in the stranglehold of grace’ (p. 238), I cannot but fully agree!

Another fascinating theologian who recently made an inventory of his theological pilgrimage, is the Roman-Catholic scholar Hans Küng (b. 1928). For many he remains controversial, but he is almost venerated (this seems a fitting Catholic term!) by many others. The (Dutch) title of one of his last books (so far) is telling: What Remains! [3] Küng has forcefully resisted many of the ideas of his church, most notably papal infallibility and celibacy. It cost him his job as a theology professor in Tübingen, when the church took away his teaching credentials in 1980. But Küng did not lose his faith and neither did he leave the church that had hurt him so terribly. And he continued to believe that people of different faiths can coexist peacefully. In the recently published third volume of his autobiography Küng devotes an extensive section to the abiding value of his faith, as he is now realizes his life may soon come to and end.

Such books inspire me to also contemplate what remains for me. I have left quite a bit behind me and my spiritual backpack has, over the years, become considerably lighter. But, fortunately,  I have not lost my faith. And in spite of some of the less pleasant things I encounter in the faith community that I call my spiritual home, I hope I will yet be able to make a constructive contribution.

[1] See  Jürgen Moltmann, How I changed: Reflections on Thirty Years of Theology (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997)

[2]  Alles behalve Kennis: afkicken van de Godgeleerdheid en Opnieuw Beginnen (Ten Have, 2011)

[3]  Dutch edition: Uitgeverij Ten Have, 2013.