Jürgen Moltmann at 90: A Recap of the Unfinished Worlds Conference at Emory

molmtann90"Jürgen Moltmann is the greatest living theologian in the world." I said it, everyone said it, we said it together at this week's Unfinished Worlds: Jurgen Moltmann at 90 conference hosted by Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Famous Moltmann experts, authors, and bloggers came from around the world to attend this day-and-a-half conference, and many feared it would be their last chance to see their aging hero.

Moltmann arrived Wednesday morning with the other panelists. He had aged since the last time I had seen him spoke, but appeared to be in good health, and said he was well despite the 10 hour flight from Tübingen. As soon as he arrived, people began whispering and pointing, and within minutes, he was asked to sign a book and take a photograph. I heard many people express that they were too shy to approach him. One young man had brought his grandfather's first edition copy of the Theology of Hope, but was too nervous to ask Moltmann to sign it (he did eventually). Moltmann sat down each time he signed a book, and one of the hosts said they were worried that Moltmann would use up all his energy. Moltmann remained seated during his morning lecture. I watched as expert after expert greeted Moltmann, as well as his old friends. One man had translated Moltmann's books, and asked if Moltmann remembered him.

Welcome Professor Moltmann

The conference was to commemorate Moltmann's 90th birthday, but no one sang Happy Birthday. Moltmann was welcomed with tears, because his wife Elizabeth Wendell-Moltmann had died in June. Moltmann was a visiting professor at Emory for ten years, and Elizabeth was known and loved as much as Moltmann. The welcoming speaker and many in attendance were openly crying and glassy eyed at even the mention of her name.

Moltmann's five decade career was celebrated beginning with the legacy of his book The Theology of Hope, which is now in its 14th publication since it was written in 1964. Steffen Lösel said after Moltmann's professional career, he made the world his university, but without faculty meetings! Moltmann has been in critical dialogue with other world famous theologians, including Karl Barth, John Baptist-Metz, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, James Cones and others. Steffen Lösel remarked that Moltmann was such a prolific writers, that he recalled Moltmann saying "I cannot remember everything I've written." The room burst with laughter. Lastly, the story of the Jesuit martyrs was told, and how a copy of Moltmann's Crucified God had soaked up their blood, as they lay dying.

So this is how the conference began.

Moltmann and the Unfinished Reformation

The Unfinished Worlds was a reference to Moltmann's 2011 Boyle lecture with the same name, describing how the world of science and the world of theology are unfinished and unreconciled. It has been five years, and Moltmann now spoke much slower and less clear, and remained seated, however, Moltmann was as sharp as he ever was.

Moltmann began his lecture by reviewing his political theological career and ecumenical work, and then announced that a theology of Dispute must be reintroduced into the Church, State and communities of the world. "Why dispute? Because of the truth!" Moltmann remarked. Molmann wanted to break out of Church-based theology and enter into political theology and dispute with the ideologies of the world. Moltmann recalled a dangerous dialogue between Christians and Marxist, and said about it, "If we do not agree with one another today, we may shoot each other tomorrow." He said that today "we have an inflation of dialogue and we are in dialogue with everyone" but "the problem is ecumenical dialogue benefits the Faith but not the community".

Part 1: Dispute Theology

Moltmann said this is why Dispute Theology is essential and through a quote, he said, "Dispute Theology: yes or no, hot or cold, but us never be lukewarm." He was displeased with ecumenical dialogue today, and compared it to a talk show where "in modern talk shows, everyone talks and no one listens." And he described this like two men who meet at a train station, "the first man asks 'where is the train station?' and the second man said 'no, but it is nice that we came into dialogue'" The room burst in laughter again. "Today theologians are nice and pleasant and theology is a harmless business", Moltmann remarked with disgusted, and then said, "What we need is dispute! Why do we need disputes? Because of the truth! It is worth a heated conflict, especially amongst friends. Tolerance is good, but being tolerated is bad. I want to be accepted or rejected by my friends, but not tolerated!" 

Despite the laughter, the room was not pleased with Moltmann's call for a return to Dispute Theology. There was a Q&A session that followed Moltmann's lecture, and the questions were critical of Dispute Theology in particular. There was a frustration with Moltmann's lack of examples for dispute today. Moltmann initially justified his Dispute Theology by appealing to the Magisterial Reformers, who dedicated their theologies to the Kings and rulers of the world, and worked out their theology in very dangerous and life-threatening public events. The conference was located in Atlanta, and Moltmann said that he was not an American, but he then identified Capital Punishment as a specific example of where his Dispute Theology should be done. Moltmann's friend Kelly Gissendaner was executed by the State of Georgia in 2015, and many people in the room had met and known Kelly. Another questioner asked how the Death Penalty may be opposed, to which Moltmann answered, "The resurrection of the Crucified Christ is God's no to the Death Penalty" Moltmann scolded the audience and said, "Progressive theologians should not peacefully coexist with fundamentalism. The spirit of the Reformers is public dispute!" 

Moltmann answering a seminary students question

Part 2: Unfinished Reformation and the Anabaptists

The next major theme of Moltmann's lecture was a defense of the Anabaptists, whom Moltmann said were the only ones to follow the Reformation call "by faith alone" because "Only the Anabaptists crossed over the Corpus Christi and were persecuted for it. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli never did." For this reason, Moltmann titled his lecture the "Unfinished Reformation". According to Moltmann, "the Reformation only happened within the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformation only happened in the Western Churches and not in the Eastern Churches." Moltmann said "The Protestant Reformation is not finished until no one is excluded from the Lord's Supper" and he believed that the Anabaptists were the only ones that extended the Reformation outside the confines of the Western Church and were persecuted for it. The Lord's Supper was invoked, and Moltmann said that he had taken the Eucharist in many churches and has never been denied it. It is not acceptable that anyone may be excluded from the Lord's Supper, whether it is by Protestants, Catholics or Orthodox alike. Moltmann spoke about how the Protestant Reformers were unified in their excommunication of the Anabaptists, and that we had no right to excommunicate anyone.

"The only thing that's important in the Lord's Supper is Jesus Christ's blood and body that was given for you. Anything else is a work of man. How may we excommunicate anyone when Christ has died for all and the whole world. We should remain seated after the Eucharist and discuss what happened to us. The Eucharist happens to us and what we experience follows from it. I always respond to the word of Christ in the invitation to the Lord's Supper in every church and have never been refused."

Moltmann said that it was not enough for the Lutherans to apologize to the Anabaptists in 2010 for their persecution of them in the 16th century, because the condemnations of the Anabaptist has not been removed from the Augsburg Confession and Symbolic Literature, and that a Mennonite minister could never accept the Augsburg Confession because of it.

Reactions to Moltmann's Lecture

After Moltmann's lecture, it was quiet. The first question came, then another, then another. There were standing microphones, and each question was more emotionally charged. Initial questions expressed frustration with Moltmann's Dispute Theology, but later questions focused on Moltmann's criticism of the Death Penalty. Kelly Gissendaner was not mentioned by name until the end of the Q&A. I was surprised because it was the elephant in the room. At last, I stood up to ask a question about Kelly's execution and afterlife, but the denied the opportunity by the moderator.

The remainder of the day were presentations by other speakers, some were great and some were not so great. One speaker said that computers and devices were not allowed in their classroom, and expressed frustration with technology. I sighed, as I continued to live-tweet the conference. Several lectures were excellent, but for the sake of brevity, I won't discuss them here and now. Hopefully that class wasn't on engaging modern culture!

Your favorite Moltmann fans: Travis, Wyatt, Danielle, Mark, and Pat left to right)

I was disappointed with the lack of panel discussions and interactions throughout the conference. It was sad to see Moltmann sitting silently in the front row, without engagement. I imagine that a 90 year old man only has so much energy for engagement, but he was there and listening attentively. It was an odd experience, to listen to the speakers quote Moltmann, as Moltmann sat in front of them listening. Moltmann has always been a very gracious and warm personality, and very pastoral too. He always listens and responds charitably. It was the first time I met Moltmann face-to-face, and he was as I imagined him.

Moltmann is older now, but as sharp as ever. I was impressed by the stinging lecture, and by Moltmann's witty responses in the Q&A. One questioner (heckler?) unwittingly said, "If that is true, then what is truth?" and Moltmann responded, "That is the question of Pontius Pilate!" And everyone laughed.

I met up with many Moltmann fans at the conference, that I had only known through online discussion in the past. It was a great experience to meet the Candler students, and several of them helped me find coffee and food throughout my time. It was a very beautiful part of Atlanta, and a welcoming experience. After the first day, I had a Moltmann Meetup over dinner, and heard about all the fascinating encounters others had had with Moltmann over the years. Meeting other Moltmann fans was as great as meeting Moltmann himself. Several of them had published books on Moltmann, such as Danielle Shroyer's Original Blessing and Mark Buchanan's Embraced: Many Stories, One Destiny: You, Me, and Moltmann. Personal letters from Moltmann were shared, and stories told of times we've been pastored by Moltmann in our lives. We were distant friends with a common bond before, but now we were friends for life.

Day Two: Moltmann's Closing Remarks

Day two was a half day, and the final day of the conference. Moltmann stood for his closing remarks behind a lectern. The final presidential debate was the night before, and Moltmann said it had made him tired. In his closing remarks, Moltmann stood for his lecture, and spoke more boldly against the execution of Kelly Gissendaner. Moltmann began by returning to the eucharist, "The risen Christ makes life a feast without end. My theology is an unfinished work and on the way. Out unfinished words are like Karl Barth, Martin Luther and Augustine." Then, Moltmann addressed Kelly's experience on Death Row:

"I followed the execution of Kelly Gissendaner very carefully. What theology do these prisoners develop? I myself was a prisoner in Scotland. What happens there in prison with human beings? Kelly was confined to silence, solidarity, isolation, and celibacy. She couldn't even shake hands longer than thirty seconds. She spent years not knowing if this day was her last, and this is cruel and unusual punishment. People after five years in solitary confinement go crazy and are stripped of humanity. John of the Cross described this as the dark night of the soul. Kelly sang songs and prayed prayers to survive death row. Jesus, the Spirit of Life, will visit you in your prison cell. Kelly said do not allow prison to rob you of your dreams and dignity. A miracle occurs and our life is redeemed and not wasted. Kelly Gissendaner sang amazing grace as she was executed and was the only free person in prison. The sin of the middle class is indifference. Get out and live and the spirt will bless you."


It was an amazing conference, and I feel sad for any Moltmann fan who was not able to be there. A little bird told me that Moltmann's lectures will be available online soon. I had a great time in Atlanta, and I was impressed by all the Emory Candler students who showed me true southern hospitality (you know who you are!). And lastly, here is a special thank you to Candler School of Theology at Emory University for hosting a once in a life time event!

Moltmann and Me

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  1. Thank you so much for covering and reporting on this event, Wyatt. I am sorry you were not able to ask Moltmann your question. I hope that you are able to find or piece together an answer based on his broad corpus. Who knows? Perhaps we might find it together;) Thanks once again.

  2. Thank you so much for the account. I am sure it was powerful for you to be there one of the great post barthians. I am in full agreement with dispute theology. But then, if you give up on the reality and importance of truth, “its all good.” We have nothing worth disputing. At least, that is what I understood your comments to say. Yes, it seems like a lost opportunity not to have Moltmann engage the papers. It would be interesting to know if his age was the reason. He looked remarkably healthy. We have some 90 and over people in the congregation. Who knows, maybe there will be another conference at 95.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful overview of the conference, for the great pictures and valuable quotes. Well done!

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