Skip to main content

The Charles Gore Lecture 2020

A Theology of Hope for the 21st Century

Speaker: Professor Jürgen Moltmann, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology, University of Tübingen;
Chair: The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Canon of Westminster

Tuesday, 3rd March 2020 at 6.30 PM

This lecture has been transcribed as follows.


The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle:

Good Evening. Welcome to Westminster Abbey. My name is David Hoyle, I’m the Dean, and welcome to a really important occasion for us. The Abbey, I probably don’t need to tell you this, is a place of national memorial, so behind you is the grave of The Unknown Warrior, the Abbey is a theatre of nation and monarchy, also, to the west of you, is the Coronation Chair. This is a place of pilgrimage, behind me is the shrine of Edward the Confessor, and this is also a major tourist attraction. But above all, the Abbey is a church where we proclaim the Gospel, and right at the heart of the Gospel is our hope.

We meet, tonight, one of the great theological voices of a generation. Another voice from that generation, Henry Chadwick, once began a sermon, that I heard, by saying, “If you ask me, as a historian, and as a theologian, what gift the Church has made to the world, that gift would be hope.”

Tonight, we gather for the Gore Lecture. Charles Gore, a rather colourful character, and Canon of Westminster, took that hope seriously. So, tonight, in wonderful company, yours, and Professor Moltmann’s, we gather to celebrate our fundamental identity as a community of hope. And now, to introduce our speaker, another colourful Canon of Westminster, my colleague, Canon Hawkey.

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey:

Ladies and gentlemen, as the Dean said, Charles Gore was a Canon, here, between 1894 and 1902. As a memorial to Gore, an endowment fund for a series of annual lectures was established, and since 1935, a lecture has been given here, in his honour, almost every year. It is an enormous honour to welcome Professor Jürgen Moltmann to give tonight’s lecture. Professor Moltmann’s Theology of Hope, of 1964, the first of a trilogy, shaped a generation of theological thinkers, and continues to stand as a highly influential text today. Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen, he is one of the most distinguished theologians of the second half of the 20th century, and his work has been as much for the Church as for the Academy. In his edited collection of essays, Lux Mundi, first published in 1889, Charles Gore’s contribution on the Holy Spirit and inspiration, in which he offers a positive assessment of contemporary scientific discovery, and a critical theological method, concludes with a quotation from the letter to the Romans: “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” Professor Moltmann, Charles Gore would, I think, be delighted that you are here to give this evening’s lecture, exploring a theology of hope for the 21st century, taking inspiration from a line of Friedrich Hölderlin, ”But where there is danger, salvation also grows” as you offer us your thoughts on a culture of life in the dangers of this time. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Professor Jürgen Moltmann.


Professor Jürgen Moltmann:

Thank you for the generous invitation to speak [in] this famous Westminster Abbey. It is a great honour to give the Charles Gore Lecture. My first encounter with Britain happened exactly seventy-five years ago. In February of 1945, a British Canadian operation through the Reichswald, near Klever, began. My unit was scattered, I lost my way at night and found myself alone in the woods until I met a group of British soldiers. I called, “I surrender” and they didn’t shoot me, but rather talked with me. The next morning, a compassionate lieutenant gave a plate of baked beans to the hungry prisoner. I have loved baked beans ever since. For me, they taste of life. With this adventure, my long journey through theology began in the United Kingdom. I am always grateful to have met God in Christ in the prisoner of war camps in Scotland and England.

In this lecture, I would like to speak about an issue that has been stirring people the most for quite some time: a culture of life stronger than the barbarianism of killings. A love for life that defies the imminent destruction of the world we live in, and a confidence in the future that overcomes our apathy.

I would like to start with a verse by the German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin, and follow his gaze into the universal future of the world:

Wo aber Gefahr ist, wächst
Das Rettende auch.
But where there is danger
Salvation also grows.

We will have to see whether this hope means comfort or illusion to us as we enquire into the possibilities of a culture of life in the face of the tangible destructions menacing us and our world.

I will set out with a look at the dangers and offer, in response, dimensions of a world capable of supporting life and in a quite literal sense worthy of our love, and in the end, I would like to return to the first verse of Friedrich Hölderlin’s celebrated poem, Patmos:

Nah ist
Und schwer zu fassen der Gott.
Near and
Hard to grasp is the God.

I. The Terror of Death

1. I start with a poison of hatred.

Human life, itself, is in danger today. The humanity of life is threatened. Life is not in danger because it is menaced by death, for it always has been. It is in danger because it is no longer respected and affirmed. It is no longer loved. After the Second World War, Albert Camus stated, “The secret of Europe is that it no longer loves life.” Anyone who took part in World War II knows what he meant.

After seventy years of peace in Europe, we are facing a new ideology of enmity today. In the 20th century, we experienced a state-operating “terror from above” in forms of fascism and Stalinism. Today, we are experiencing private “terror from below”.

“Your young people love life”, Mullah Omar, of the Taliban, told Western journalists, “our young people love death.” Suicide assassins love death of their enemies and their own deaths. That is the terror of the Islamic State in Iraq, and of Boko Haram in Africa towards the “godless” Western world that they feel threatened by. The victim mentality always leads to anger and to hate.

These days, this terror has been joined ranks by “white terror", as Norway, New Zealand, and Texas, and Germany have witnessed the terror of “white supremacy”, of white racism. In many Western nations, a climate of hate has been fostered, promoting such hate against those perceived as outsiders, against migrants, Jews, and disliked politicians. Our public atmosphere has been poisoned ever since we have had anonymous Twitter on the internet: Hate via the world wide web.

Question is, how can human civilization prevail against these odds?

2. Neo-nationalism

The political problem we are facing is neo-nationalism. The big nations of the world are at war in the middle of peace. It is a hybrid war of economic sanctions and cyber wars with fake news. In the struggle for power, the neo-nationalists seem to believe in the survival of the fittest, because they deem their own nation to be the fittest.

Neo-nationalism began at the end of the East-West conflict in 1990. Up until then, the world had been divided into two blocks: the socialist world in the East, and the “free world” in the West. Then the Soviet Union dissolved itself, Gorbachev lost, and Yeltsin won in 1993. The Soviet Union disintegrated into larger and smaller nations. The socialist dream of equality of all people died.

The “free world” dissolved more slowly. The alliance of democratic states didn’t disintegrate until President Trump asserted the US neo-nationalism: “America First”. The USA felt overburdened to be the “protecting power of the free world”. The USA is rescinding multilateral treaties of the United Nations: the Paris Climate Protection Agreement of 2015, the INF Treaty of 1987 banning nuclear short-range missiles in Europe, the agreement with Iran, and so forth. Neo-nationalism is also stirring in the nations of the European Union, coming from the right-wing.

In so-called “ethnically-pure” nations, the members of one’s own clan or tribe are considered fellow human-beings, everyone else is a foreigner or outsider. A line is drawn between ‘us’ and ‘the others’. The friend-foe category is the existential category of neo-nationalism, just as Hitler’s professor for constitutional law, Carl Schmitt, has taught.

Question: Does this mean the democratic dream for humanity dies as well?

3. The Nuclear Suicide Programme

This new focus on one’s own nation poses a threat to the survival of humankind, considering that atomic bombs are still in the hands of individual nations. When the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, not only did the Second World War end, but the entire human race entered its end times as well. I do not mean that in an apocalyptic sense at all: “End times” is the age when the end of the human race is possible any moment. No one could survive the nuclear winter after a large-scale nuclear war. It is true that since the end of the Cold War, in 1990, the great atomic war has not been very likely, but in the USA, Russia, China, England, in France, in India and Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea, there are still vast arsenals of atomic and hydrogen bombs awaiting the self-destruction of humankind, following the rationale: “Whoever fires first, dies second”.

This is the mutually assured destruction that paradoxically has been ensuring world peace since 1945. It is a latent but ever-present suicide programme of the nations, as the Russian nuclear scientist, Sakharov, put it, which many have forgotten, because it has been repressed from public awareness. Years ago, in Prague, President Obama reminded us of the ideal of a “world without nuclear weapons”, but President Putin applauded Russia’s new weapons in 2018, and President Trump rescinded the INF Treaty banning nuclear short-range missiles in Europe, which Reagan and Gorbachev had negotiated. This means a new phase of nuclear armament has begun, a new feature of which are the missile boosters that reduce warning times to a minimum. The great atomic war looms over humankind like a sinister fate, and we feel its effect on public awareness in what American psychologists call “nuclear numbing”. We repress our anxiety, try to forget this threat, and yet it is gnawing at our subconscious and impairing our love for life.

Question: Will the nations reach an agreement on a “world without nuclear weapons”, or will the nations continue to menace each other with the nuclear murder of humankind?

4. The last danger I am speaking about is the ecological catastrophe of our world

In contrast to the nuclear threat to humanity, the ecological catastrophe that is discussed under the harmless words, “climate change”, is no longer merely a threat, but already an incipient catastrophe in several parts of the earth: Fire in Australia, and droughts in South Africa. It is not only a latent problem, but a very prominent one in public awareness. Greta Thunberg’s wake up call, “Fridays for Future”, has been heard worldwide. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, in 2015, the nations paid attention, for the first time, to the “cry of the suffering earth”. People can see the climate change, feel its heat, and smell its polluted air.

The ecological catastrophe has come to pass exactly as the Club of Rome predicted in its report, The Limits to Growth, in 1972. We know all of this, and yet we are paralysed because we continue to believe in growth - producing more, consuming more, in a type of superstitious worship, as if growth would bring more joy to our life.

It has been said that “It’s too late for pessimism”. Climate change and the extinction of species are signals for a major change facing our scientific-technological civilisation, should we wish to survive. It concerns our common world view and our personal way of life.

Question: Will we find time and energy enough to change our lifestyle and our economy so that our children can live?

We don’t know whether humankind will survive its self-induced destiny and be able to liberate itself from these suicide traps, and that is a good thing: If we knew that we had no chance of surviving, we would do nothing about our predicament. If we knew that we were definitely going to survive, we wouldn’t do anything either. Only if the future is open to both possibilities are we compelled to do, today, what is necessary to avert the pending calamity. Because we do not know whether humanity will survive, we must act today as if the future of humankind depended on us, and yet trust that we and our children will survive.

Question: But need the human race survive at all? One might ask, cynically: Didn’t the dinosaurs also come and go?

That is the existential question: is humankind to be or not to be, as [...] of humankind.

There are more than seven billion human beings living on earth today. The earth could just as well be uninhabited: It existed without humans for the longest period of time and will very likely continue to exist for millions of years, should the human race succumb to its demise. Are we here merely by chance, or is it inherent to the blueprint of evolution that we humans were to appear? If nature had a strong anthropic principle, then we could feel at home in the universe, as the book title by Stuart Kauffman promises, but such strong anthropic principle is, however, perhaps not verifiable. If we search the cosmos for an answer of our existential question, we will arrive at Steve Weinberg’s observation: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” The silence of space and the coldness of the universe already terrified Blaise Pascal. Neither the stars in the sky, nor the genes in our bodies tell us whether humankind should exist on earth or not.
But how can we love life and affirm our existence if, in the end, it is an accident of nature, basically superfluous, and without relevance for the course of the world? Is there a “duty to exist”, or a “duty to ensure a future”?, as Hans Jonas enquired. If we should find no answer, then every culture of life will remain uncertain and subject to barbarians.

II. A culture of life is a culture of common life of humankind and the earth.

Are the threats greater than the powers of salvation?

1. Human Rights and Humanity

The nationalism of the past led us to the madness of two world wars in the 20th century. Yet, at the beginning of the American and European modern era, humanism was born: Human rights and the ethos of humanity. Christian brotherhood was extended to general human brotherhood, fraternité, and philadelphia. Everyone who knows the Ode to Joy, by Friedrich Schiller, put to music in Beethoven’s 9th symphony:

Joy, thou beauteous godly lightning,
Thy enchantments bind together,
What did custom stern divide,
Every man becomes a brother,
Where thy gentle wings abide.

The first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also praises the “spirit of brotherhood”. The American Declaration of Independence codified human rights, affirming the belief that all men are created equal and free. The French Revolution spread these rights in Europe: “liberty - equality - fraternity”. Immanuel Kant considered the “commonwealth of humankind”, based on human rights, to be not only the ultimate objective of human history, but also the “final end of creation”, thus, spanning the human and the natural world. Kant anticipated such a commonwealth of humankind will bring about “eternal peace”.

After the gruelling Second World War, with its fifty-five million dead people, the United Nations were founded, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in 1948. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights followed in 1966, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989.

Modern democracies are based on human rights and are anticipations of a politically organised world community, the Commonwealth of Humankind.

Democracy is based on the sovereignty of the people: “All power emanates from the people”, which means from the citizens, not from the people of one race, or one tribe, or one class, or one gender.

Democracies are based on human rights: “Human dignity is inviolable”. “People’s democracies” were not human rights democracies. Domestically, democracies are concerned with human rights, not with ethnic or class rights.

Gottfried Ephraim Lessing illustrated the meaning of humanity in his famous drama, Nathan the Wise:

Are Jews and Christians rather such than men?
Ah, if I knew I could have found another yet for whom it was enough to be a human being.

One might feel tempted to apply this to today’s national conflicts:

Are Germans and migrants rather such than human beings?
Are Americans and Hispanics?
Are Croats and Serbs?
Are Europeans and Africans?
Ah, and have I found in thee one more, to whom
It is enough to be a human being?

Humanity means brotherhood and sisterhood and means solidarity: taking part in other lives and sharing part in one’s own life. Terrorism emerges in the hearts and heads of the people. It must be overcome in the hearts and heads of the people. Only the language of life is successful, but we are told the terrorists understand only the language of violence, but our language of violence raised the number of terrorists in the world from a few hundred, in the time of Bin Laden, to ten thousands today, in our time. We want them not being killed, but we want them to convert from death to life.

2. Living with the bomb.

The dream of a “world without nuclear weapons” is only a dream. Nobody is expecting humans to someday cease being able to do what they can do today. And yet the nuclear age is also the first common age of all nations. Since Hiroshima, the separate histories of the nations have become intertwined in a common world history of humankind, because all may fall victim. In this situation, survival is only conceivable if nations unite as a collective agent for peace. Only the international community of nations can organise partnership for security, and thus pave the way for a transnational federation of humanity.

This life-saving union of humankind, in an age of nuclear threat, requires that the individual interests of the nations be restricted to humankind’s common interest in survival. We must finally get started with nuclear disarmament. Nuclear bombs are not military, but purely political weapons, and the political security of nations can just as well be guaranteed by means of peace treaties.

The United Nations can ostracise nuclear weapons, just as chemical warfare and land mines were ostracised.

3. Planetary solidarity.

If nature’s dying leads to a crisis within a life-system that connects human society with surrounding nature, this logically implies a crisis of the entire system. The current ecological crisis is such a total crisis. It can therefore not be solved by technology alone but demands a change of our outlook on life as well, of our way of life and way of eating, of our society’s basic values.

Which basic values rule our modern, scientific-technological civilisation? It is predominantly the will to power over the nature of the earth: “Knowledge is power”, said Francis Bacon. Modern industrial societies are no longer oriented towards harmony with the cycles and rhythms of the earth as agrarian societies were, but rather toward growth, and progress, and globalisation, according to humanity's own project. The new anthropocentrism supplanted the old cosmos-orientation.

There is a well-known, old ecological joke: Two planets meet in space. One asks, “How are you doing?” The other answers, “I’m not well at all. I’m quite ill, I’ve got homo sapiens.” The first replies, “I’m sorry for you. That is rough. I had them too once, but don’t worry, it will pass.”

That is the new planetary perspective on humankind. Will the human planetary disease pass as the human race does away with itself, or will it pass because the human race grows wise and heals the wounds it has been inflicting on the planet earth up until this very day?

We cannot return to premodern cosmos-orientation, but we can commence the ecological transformation of our industry. It is a question of sustainably integrating the human society in the living conditions of the earth. The linear concept of growth in progress, in production, consumption, and more and more based in garbage, can be replaced by cycles. Only cyclical approaches won’t decay: The cycles of renewable energies and recycling economy. Nobody asks, “what became of your last [cell phone]?” The future of human economy is perhaps to be found in human garbage, not in the earth.

The Earth Charter of 2000 points to this future:

Humanity is part of a vast evolving universe. Earth, our home, is alive with a unique community of life. [...] The protection of Earth’s vitality, diversity, and beauty is a sacred trust.

I come to the end. Human life implies not only the gift of life but also the responsibility of being humane. Embracing and accomplishing this in times of terror requires a great courage to live. Life must be lived, privately and publicly. Life must be lived today in defiance of terror and dangers.

The German philosopher, Friedrich Hegel, a friend of Hölderlin’s since their time studying together in Tübingen, expressed it in the following words:

Not a life that shrinks from death
and remains untouched by devastation,
but a life that endures death and maintains itself in it
is the life of the Spirit.
Near and hard to grasp is the God

Question: Should humankind exist, or are we superfluous? Do we have a duty to exist?

These existential questions of human existence are not answered by means of rational arguments, but foremost by pre rational orientations, by people’s basic trust or mistrust in life. It is not the distant God that is “hard to grasp”, but rather God is being near to us. God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. That is why we cannot grasp God. He is too near.

When we however in turn are “grasped” and inspired by God, we know the answer to the existential question of humanity:

  • In God’s eternal yes to creation, we affirm our existence in spite of death.
  • In God’s eternal love, we love this life and resist its destructions.
  • With God near, we trust in salvation, even if danger grows.
Near and
Hard to grasp is the God
But where there is danger
Salvation also grows.

Thank you for your attention.


The Reverend Dr James Hawkey:

In God’s eternal yes, you have given us a call to a new vision of what it is to be a human actor on this planet. We have moved through terrorism, and ecology, through a vast array of illustrations of dangers, and signs of hope, and I think landed at the fundamental question; to be or not to be, for humankind. Professor Moltmann, you have never dodged the big questions, and you’ve not dodged them this evening.

We have a few minutes just for one or two questions. Professor Quash.

Audience Member (Professor Quash):

Thank you so much, Professor Moltmann. I wanted to ask about what word you would wish to replace ‘power’ with, in the phrase, ‘the will to power’? You pointed to the way in which modern industrial societies have been governed by the will to power.

Professor Jürgen Moltmann:

Yeah. Solidarity. Taking part in other life. Giving, but in one’s own life.

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey:

Solidarity has been right at the heart of everything you’ve said this evening about the human family, and our relationship with the wider earth.

Possibly time for one more question.

In which case I will briefly abuse the responsibility of the chair, and ask whether you think there is ever a good kind of nationalism? Can there be a good kind of nationalism in the modern world?

Professor Jürgen Moltmann:

Yeah. I’m reminded [of] the nationalism of Britain. Britain seems, to me, to be a national innocence. Why? Germany lost the national innocence in the Nazi dictatorship, and therefore nationalism in your country is different than in my country. The spirits of the past coming up again in Germany.

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey:

Yes, that’s a very great warning to us all. Thank you.

The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle:

Professor Moltmann, thank you for a clear-sighted, and penetrating account of the dangers and challenges we face. Thank you for a summons to courage, and thank you, too, for a reminder that we are called, also, to live fully as human beings. Tonight has been an extraordinary and memorable evening. Amidst all of that, I will also take away with me that gripping sense of the nearness of God, for which I am deeply grateful. I can’t remember the entire poem, R.S. Thomas has an extraordinary poem about a violinist on a stage. Thomas arrives, I think rather late, and finds himself sitting on the stage near this violinist, and watches in a kind of horror as the violinist plays, because there’s a kind of agony going on as the violinist plays. The poem ends with Thomas saying, ‘And closer than them all the God listened.’ Tonight, we listened with huge appreciation, and you have reminded us of the closeness of God. Thank you.

Twitter logo Tweet this