Jürgen Moltmann’s The Church in the Power of the Spirit continues to be one of the most impressive books I’ve yet encountered from him. In fact, I’ve found Moltmann’s work here quite helpful in light of the recent discussions about the viability of Hauerwas’s ecclesiology that have emerged from Nate Kerr’s book, Christ, History and Apocalyptic.
Hauerwas certainly has a strong tendency to see the task of the church in light of the challenges of modernity. In light of the modern situation — of individualism, Western ideology, etc. — the church must be intentional in the work of ecclesial culture-making in order to form different, truly virtuous persons who can inhabit the world differently, thereby bearing witness to the gospel. The social challenges of modernity require an ecclesial response of resistance and counter-construction.
Whether this critique ultimately sticks with full force to Hauerwas doesn’t matter too much for the purposes of my point here. Clearly it is undeniable that this sort of theological anxiety about modernity is widespread. It can be easily found all over conservative evangelicalism with its deep-seated terror that “we” are losing control of America. However it is no less present in the political sentiments of John Milbank and his own critiques of modernity and arguments for some sort of global Christian socialism.
Moltmann, however cuts past this. The unrest that the modern situation poses to the church is decidedly secondary — at best — to the unrest that lies at the heart of the church itself. The church is unsettled, unstable precisely because it bears witness to the triune God present through Christ in the Spirit. The crucified Christ is not a stable center, but a transcendent voice that cannot be domesticated by the church into their own possessed message. The presence of Christ in the Spirit pertains to nothing less than the total transformation of the world into the messianic kingdom of God. This is not a reality the church possesses within itself, but rather one that it obediently receives, never quite knowing what it will ultimately mean. “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). Thus, as Moltmann argues:
[I]t can by no means be merely the unrest of our time which causes the unrest of the church. Nor can it merely be the present revolutionary situation which makes it essential for the church and its teaching to find new bearings. . . [I]ts ‘unrest’ is implicit in itself, in the crucified Christ to whom it appeals and in the Spirit which is its driving power. The unrest of the times points it to this inner unrest of its own. The social and cultural upheavals of the present draw its attention to that great upheaval which it itself describes as ‘new creation’, as the ‘new people of god’, when it testifies to the world concerning the future of ‘the new heaven and the new earth’. What is required today is not adroit adaption to changed social conditions, but the inner renewal of the church by the Spirit of Christ, the power of the coming kingdom.
Note, in this schema the sentiment that animates the church is one of eschatological joy. Our own “unrest” lies in our hope for the coming renewal of all things in Christ, a renewal that we cannot grasp, control, possess, or ever fully anticipate. The church, oriented by this sort of doxological, eschatological hope is not overly worried about the supposed threats of “modernity” to “traditional Christianity” or other such melodramatic notions of where Western civilization is going wrong. In the place of furtive anxiety about losing control of the cultural formations of the West we are invited into a missional messianic life of trust and hope in the the coming kingdom of God.
All of this turns of course on a sort of reckless confidence that the triune God of the Bible is, in fact, living and active. That this kingdom actually is being brought about in Christ and the Spirit. This orientation requires an utterly foolish trust that God truly acts and is acting. That the kingdom of God is indeed coming as a gift that we could not secure for ourselves.