Holy Spirit Graphic

July 19, 2010

The contemporary German Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann has developed an understanding of the Holy Spirit as "the power of creation and the wellspring of life."

Moltmann's theology is worth examining because it brings the Holy Spirit into contact with today's social and ecological concerns.

Like many Germans of his generation, Moltmann was deeply affected by the Second World War. Born in 1926, he was raised in a secular home and drafted into the Nazi army in 1944. He was taken prisoner by the British the following year and spent the next three years in a POW camp in Belgium.

There he learned about Nazi atrocities during the war. An American chaplain gave him a copy of the New Testament and he gradually moved towards Christianity. He began to read theology and, after his release, he studied it in earnest.

Moltmann's theology is marked by a critique of contemporary society and Church as well as a strong yearning for the full revelation of God's kingdom.


The churches, Moltmann maintains, have domesticated the wild and free Holy Spirit by claiming that the action of the Spirit is restricted to the Church's ministerial acts and its proclamation of the Gospel. "The only Spirit that was declared holy was the Spirit that is bound to the ecclesiastical institution for mediating grace" (The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation).


People not only experience the Spirit in their churches, he says, but also in an inward self-encounter. "Every lived moment can be lived in the inconceivable closeness of God in the Spirit."

Indeed, for Moltmann, the experience of God and the experience of freedom "are so deeply infused that they belong indissolubly together and become almost synonomous." The contemporary mindset that links the Church and God with repression has turned Spirit-uality inside out.

He sees merit and potential liberation in traditional Christian practices of mortification. But modern society requires "constant disciplining and repression of the body" which makes "human beings numb and the earth infertile."

For Moltmann, large cities are a theological affront because, in such places, people encounter only their own creations and not Spirit-filled nature. "Nature has come to experience human beings as unparalleled destroyers. This fact . . . enjoins us to see the modern world in light of its victim, nature."

To be a person of the Spirit means to take up the struggle against violence and injustice. In a society of death, it means to resist, to refuse to conform. "The essential thing is to affirm life - the life of other creatures - the life of other people - our own lives."

Moltmann's theology contains much that is of value. He emphasizes the link between the Spirit and nature, a link that has sometimes been overlooked in Christian thinking. Moreover, he connects the Spirit with bodiliness, rather than treating the Spirit as an ephemeral holy ghost.

Moltmann also raises the issue of how the Spirit is active outside what are often seen as the boundaries of the Church. Our Catholic tendency has been to welcome the Spirit's activity in the sacraments and the proclamation of the Word, but to be somewhat leery of outbreaks of the Spirit in lay-led movements or in individuals. Moltmann would have us trust our experiences of the divine almost without reservation.

Despite these strengths, Moltmann's overall theology falls short. By identifying the Spirit so strongly with energy and personal experience, he makes it difficult to conceive of the Holy Spirit as a person and as transcendent. Moltmann does try to portray the Spirit as a person; readers may well question the success of his effort.

Further, he tends to see the possibility of the Spirit's presence in "every lived moment" so strongly that one wonders if the Holy Spirit is ever absent from experience. Of course, Moltmann is acutely aware of the Spirit's absence in the Nazis and in the destruction of the environment. But he has no clear criteria for discerning when the Spirit is present and when he is absent.


Still, at a time when tens of thousands of gallons of oil gush daily into the Gulf of Mexico, Moltmann's lament that we are on a path of "collective suicide" rings like a prophetic gong. Although one may not agree with the entire thrust of Moltmann's theology, he offers considerable spur for reflection - about the state of Church and society, about our own experiences of God, and about the Spirit calling us to political and ecological liberation.