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The Future of Theology

"The social state is dismantled in favor of the globalization of industry.. The democratic idea of equality is incompatible with ever greater inequalities.. If globalization produces third world conditions, the theology of liberation logically becomes universal.."

By Jurgen Moltmann

[This essay published in: CuS (Christ und Sozialist) 1997 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  link to archiv.brsd.de... ]


The Globalization of the Third World makes Liberation Theology Universal
After the Collapse of the Christian World, a Missionary Christianity Open for Dialogue Begins
Personal Decision of Faith - Person Experience of the Spirit


The present globalization of the economy, the shift of production to so-called low-wage countries, brings our industry into the third world and the conditions of the third world to us. The countries of the first world become the third world. This term was originally a social and not a geographical term and meant the lower classes in relation to the middle class and the upper class. The UN report "On Human Development" (1996) shows the dangers of the growing impoverishment of many from the increasing enrichment of a few. As one example, the wealth of 358 billionaires in the world is greater than the total income of the poor countries where nearly 45% of humanity lives. If the present trend continues, the economic disparity between industrial and developing countries will reach dimensions that are unjust and inhuman," the General secretary of the UN Development Program declared. Injustice and inhumanity are also growing in the industrial countries. Over 100 million live below the official poverty line in North America, Europe, Japan and Australia; nearly 30 million of them are homeless. The numbers from Germany are also alarming: 7.5 million poor and 900,000 homeless.

The social state is dismantled in favor of the globalization of industry. Politics capitulates before the alleged "practical necessities" of the economy. The impoverished among us survive at the subsistence level. They die daily in the third world, 25,000 children die daily of hunger and curable diseases. Globalization leads to the de-solidarity of society. Health insurances try to force out the long-term sick and seniors from all their services. There is no dialysis any more in England for men over 60; they have to pay for the treatment themselves. If a person is only measured by a potential market value, then the disabled, sick and seniors are worth nothing any more. That means they fall into danger or a critical condition.

The countries of the first world develop an apartheid state. Criminality grows with poverty in the families and the hopelessness of youth. Consequently, the rich withdraw in "gated communities" and build security systems against the poor. The sturdy middle class breaks down in ou9r countries as well as democracy. The democratic idea of equality is incompatible with an economic system that produces ever-greater inequalities.

The more we discover the oppressed, impoverished and abandoned world among us, the more relevant becomes theology of liberation. There is no socialist alternative to capitalism now. But capitalism must in no way be "end of history" as Francis Fukuyama of the State Department in Washington cheered because its contradictions against human dignity, against the rights of nature and against the future of humanity are deadly.

If globalization of the economy produces third-world conditions among us, then the theology of liberation logically becomes universal because it is the first social-political alternative theology to "capitalism" that is also called "the global commercialization of all things." If it becomes universal, liberation theology becomes the beginning of a universal social-critical theology and not only a contextual Latin American theology. On this way, it will leap its Roman Catholic borders and become ecumenical. It will even surpass its Christian borders and strengthen all the impulses starting from the people for humanity's liberation from oppression and division. To this end, expanding its theological horizon is imperative.

"Liberation" means overcoming negatives: poverty, oppression, sickness, ignorance and apathy. The positive that should lead to liberation is ultimately "God's reign." Therefore Gustavo Gutierrez (the Peruvian author of "Theology of Liberation" in the 1970s) rightly said: "Every sound, fruitful liberation theologian is embedded in the theology of God's reign." Following Jon Sobrino, we could connect this ultimate perspective in the eschatological reign with the immediate present: "God's reign is life, life in abundance and fulfillment of life" (Mysterium Liberationis, I, 499). The theology of God's reign in liberation theology emphasizes "life."

The acts of structural and personal violence against life increase alarmingly in the modern world, violence against people, violence against nature and violence against the common future of life. The new "political consciousness of Christian theology" is not directed at power like the kingdom theology of past Christian emperors or church potentates but at the "culture of life" against the barbarism of death. We will replace the cynicism of violence in the first world with a new reverence for life. We will overcome the indifference toward foreign suffering through the rebirth of the political Yes to life. A theology of life would be a "future of theology" for which it is worthwhile to work and study!

Liberation from poverty and violence is one theme of this theology. The other theme is equality. Since the collapse of the socialist world, no one speaks any more of equality because socialist collectivism failed. But no free world is possible without equality. Confessing politically that "all persons are created free and equal" as the democratic constitutions say, comes out of the biblical spirit. Equal living conditions and life possibilities for different people are meant. As a social concept, equality means justice. As a humane concept, equality means solidarity and as a Christian concept equality means love. Acknowledging diversity and difference and equal treatment are not opposites. Ulpian's justice formula unites both Suum cuique... In the extreme individualism of the western and modern world, the virtues of public spirit must be relearned to gain liberation and preserve freedom. Either we create a world of social justice or we face social and ecological catastrophes. Either we invest in the long-term for a common future of life or we allow short-term profits in the present and the calculated bankruptcy of humanity in the future.

In Europe we could develop a new social-critical theology of life by joining the left side of catholic social teaching with the evangelical religious-social movement (Ragaz, Kitter, Barth, Tillich, Hermann and others) and combining the initiatives of political theology, ecological theology and feminist theology. John Paul II would support this theology of life.


We have that Christian world behind us, that world built out of great syntheses of church and culture, throne and altar and faith and respectability. We no longer live in "Christian" countries. Sweden is not a Lutheran land any more, Holland is not a Calvinist land and Ireland is not a catholic land. With the standardized Christian world, the uniform confessional faith states - "one king - one law - one faith" - are also past. State authority was "secularized." This means state authority has no competence in religious affairs. Religious communities answer their internal questions themselves. Individual religious freedom is a human- and civil right. Religion is a "private matter" and no longer an affair of the state." However the state has to guarantee the freedom of worship of its citizens. The religions are subordinated to religious liberty; religious liberty is not subordinated to a religion. What follows for the public role of the Christian church?

The last two centuries of the secularization of European states were centuries of a worldwide Christian mission of the churches. If the Christian church is no longer bound to a state as the state religion, it can spread worldwide and become "secular" in this sense. The rise to world mission was the response of the Holy Spirit to the dissolution of the Christian world in Europe. In the last two centuries, we have exported our European confessions and schisms in a missionary way. However this could change in the countries of Asia, Africa and America.

In the last decades, our old Christian countries in Europe mixed confessionally and become multi-religious societies. Even if they are in the majority, the Christian churches have become one religious community among others. For historical reasons, they still enjoy certain privileges in relation to other religious communities. This will not continue for long. When we become conscious of this new situation, we must also adjust to its new chances and new problems. Our traditions from the good old time of the Christian world only embarrass us and do not help. This is also true for the theological traditions of scholasticism, the reformation, Protestantism and modern theology. The churches must adjust to life together and conviviality with other religious communities in a secular society.

Christian theology cannot withdraw to "religious doctrine" or "church dogmatics" but must become willing and capable of dialogue. I see here the discovery of oneself in the other and the other in oneself, not any relativism as the religious pluralists John Kick and Paul Knitter recommend.

No one becomes understanding without the inter-religious dialogue in our multi-religious societies, neither the Christian nor the Moslem, neither the Jew nor the Buddhist. Whoever only remains in his own circles and "stews in his own juice" as we say is foolish and remains foolish because he only hears the same things. Sooner or later he becomes totally indifferent. Only in the other does one become conscious of oneself. This struck me first in the Christian-Marxist dialogues of the sixties and then in the Christian-Jewish and Christian-Buddhist dialogues of the seventies.

On the other hand, the inter-religious dialogue should not be overrated. This dialogue cannot replace Christian mission because no one becomes a Christian through the inter-religious dialogue. Dialogue does not change the situation but reflects the status quo and is very conservative. Everyone remains unchanged. However they now come "into conversation," learn to respect each other and leave one another religiously in peace. "Without peace between the world religions, there is no peace in the world," my friend Hans Kung says. Still given their deadly dangers, the world could demand a little more from its religions than truce and leaving one another in peace.

The idea of leading religious communities to peace with one another and to common work for world peace through internal dialogue is a western idea since book religions are naturally better prepared than meditative and ritual religions for oral dialogues and logical arguments. Africa's so-called "nature religions" do not even occur in most dialogue programs.

The dialogues that I know suffer in two biases. A well-known protagonist of the Christian-Jewish dialogue in Germany told me after 20 years dialogue: "The Jews never asked me anything." Christians ask and Buddhists gladly answer without posing any questions to Christians or two Christians argue about the understanding of Hinduism while a swami listens.

As the other bias, minorities are always interested in public dialogue, not majorities. Representatives of Islam finance Moslem-Christian dialogues in Turin and Nepal but are not interested in dialogues with Christians in their own countries. After such a dialogue, the Moslems gave a dismissive gesture when I proposed arranging the next dialogue in Riad or Mecca. Religious liberty is good when it allows Christians to become Moslems but bad when it allows Moslems to become Christians. In Rome a great mosque was built with Saudi Arabian money. But when the archbishop of Canterbury wanted to visit the British embassy in Riad, he had to take off his spiritual robe in the airplane. Minimum hospitality is a minimum necessity for dialogue. We should insist on this.

Beside the direct dialogue about religious themes, there is the indirect dialogue about shared social, ecological and ethical questions, for example at the environmental conferences of the UN and UNESCO. Common ways out of the deadly dangers are central here, not a "conflict over truth." What have the world religions done to check the devastations of the world? Are there resigned apocalyptic movements or movements hostile to life in the religions? How can the religions become life-affirming powers preserving the world? This dialogue is indirect because we speak bout a third theme affecting us, not about one another or ourselves. Listening to the so-called "nature religions" in the indirect dialogue and learning their wisdom in dealing with the rhythms and cycles of the earth is necessitated by the ecological crises. Unlike the direct inter-religious dialogues, the military, ecological and economic threats to humanity allow no pluralism or alternatives to life and survival. In these world dangers, the seriousness of the situation forbids post-modern arbitrariness. A new understanding of Christian mission begins in these indirect dialogues.

What is mission? In the theological sense, mission is God's sending, missio Dei. What does God send? According to biblical understanding, god through Christ sends his spirit in this world. This is "the spirit that makes alive, the source of life." What God brings into the world according to the Gospel of John is life, fulfilled life, undamaged life, common life, and the abundance of life, eternal life. The "flesh" on which the "spirit of life" is poured out means all living things, not only human life. We should remember again and again that Jesus brought new life, not a new religion. He is himself "the resurrection and the life" in person. In his community, we find the divine affirmation of life, healing of the sick, rescue of the lost, acceptance of the abandoned and resurrection of dead life. That was Jesus' sending and is also the sending of women and men who live and act in his spirit.

This sending of life is an invitation to all people regardless of religion or secularity to life, to the unconditional affirmation of life, shared life with all living beings and eternal life that exists here and now in the "eternal vitality" of love. Everything that serves life in our religions and cultures teaching "reverence for life" (Albert Schweitzer) and protecting weaker life must be accepted in a new "culture of life" as John Paul II rightly urges. Everything that hinders, destroys and sacrifices life in us and others must be overcome as the barbarism of death.

According to the ancient interpretation, the large number of religions originated from original sin. Thus a person who became a Christian had to separate himself from the superstitions of his fathers. According to the new pluralist theory of religion, he does not even need to be a Christian if he has found God's truth in his religion. From my perspective, a person who becomes a Christian should bring everything that serves life in his religion and culture into his service in God's reign as his charisma. If Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were previously distinguished, why cannot the religions of the peoples be found among gentile Christians? There are many different ways of life and powers of life but only one life.


The Christian world from which we come was a traditional society. Membership in families, nations and religions determined the course of individual families. Only few possibilities existed for personal decisions and experiences. The family name was important for everything; the personal proper name was secondary. In traditional societies, stability was uppermost and individuality incidental. In modern western society, in contrast, the values of personal freedom are set over the values of membership. Nothing may be accepted any more as predetermined. Everything must be freely decided: free choice of school, free choice of calling, choice of housing, choice of religion and so forth. Even the male and female genders are not "fates" any more.

The Christian faith is defined by personal decision and personal experience and less and less by family, residence or country. People no longer want to "belong" to a church and merely attend a church service. They want a parish that takes seriously their personality and offers them community with other persons. The integrative power of pre-determined dioceses fades; the living voluntary community arises. The church is no longer only "the hierarchy" but as the catholic popular church in Austria and Germany says "we are church." The new catholic ecclesiology of the "God's people" idea replacing the "body of Christ" idea of the Pius popes worked out those changes described today as the "congregationalization" of the church. The Latin American base community movement is another sign for this change. In the evangelical "national churches" in the once protestant countries, we are also witnessing a shift of competences and resources from the superstructures to the communities at the base.

Together with this congregationalization of the church, a Pentecostalization of Christian life and church service comes to us. The Pentecostal churches spread in Latin America, Africa and Asia with great dynamism. Even if catholic bishops still regard them as "protestant sects" and evangelical synods describe them as "heretical fanatics," a Christianity beyond confessional and denominational differences appears. Many Pentecostal Christians feel near to the Catholic Church and far from the evangelical churches. The Pentecostal movement takes seriously the search of modern persons for individual faith experience. It makes faith and community experiencable.

The dissolution of traditional societies led to the emancipation of women from patriarchy. The self-liberation of women from patriarchal gender roles began with the democratic equality postulate of the American and French revolutions and has in no way ended. In the evangelical churches, the "universal priesthood of all believers" was introduced as a consequence of the Reformation claim and the ordination of women in the "community of the free and equal." New feminist spiritualities and new feminist theologies arose. In the course of the social changes and on the basis of religious experience, this process is irreversible and will also seize the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. A feminization of Christian spirituality awaits us. The future of theology will be more feminine than we imagine today.

Modern Christian theology unconsciously anticipated this development in what has been called for 50 years "the anthropological turn in theology." I think of Bultmann's existential theology, Rahner's transcendental theology and the different personalist theologies. The skillfulness and power of decision of the human subject, the existential questions about life and death and the experiencability of God's spirit in the world were taken seriously. Certainly, much of this modern movement of theology was caught in the individualism of the modern world and its anthropocentrism and only intensified the increasing problems of persons and nature in the modern world. Still this approach leads the way when joined with the "political consciousness of the Christian faith." Finally, a person is not an individual but a subject in the resonance field of his or her personal, social, political and natural environment. This approach is future-friendly when allied with the "ecological consciousness of the Christian faith" as expressed in the new cosmos-mysticism of Ernesto Cardenal and Leonardo Boff and in the ecological engagement of many Christians and communities. However the personal approach will first triumph in the future when communicated with the horizons of hope of eschatological theology, when personal faith is experienced as "rebirth to a living hope" and hope is embedded in the theology of God's reign and abundant life.

With the last sentence, I do not recommend my own theology as the "future of theology." Rather I see the "theology of the future" in a comprehensive theology of life.

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