Theology is a word that liberal Quakers aren’t universally comfortable with. I’ve heard Friends say ‘we don’t need theology’ and ‘it doesn’t matter what we believe, it’s how we live that counts.’ Once, after introducing myself as a Quaker theologian, a Friend responded ‘isn’t that an oxymoron?’ In Quaker spaces, it’s not unusual to hear theology characterised as un-spiritual, stale, closed, divisive, and impractical. This Quaker anti-theology attitude has a long history. Early Quakers saw theological debate as a distraction from real spiritual experience, and the product of power-hungry church councils. They experienced theological argument as a tool of oppression that could ultimately lead people into unbelief. They saw theology as ‘soaring, airy head-knowledge’ that played no role in salvation.
Yet despite this suspicion of theology, from the beginning Quakers have always needed to theologize, to describe and explain their faith to themselves and others. Early Friends produced an abundance of writings that are undeniably theological. The phrase ‘airy head-knowledge’ comes from Robert Barclay’s ‘Apology’, one of the first substantial theological arguments for the Quaker faith. ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’, the contemporary ‘book of discipline’ used by Quakers in Britain, is brimming with theology. Where theology is concerned, Quakers find themselves pulled in two directions. We shy away from the idea of theology, yet we can’t stop ourselves from doing it.
To Quakers who are wary of theology, or see it as stumbling block or necessary evil, I have two things to offer. First, theology isn’t confined to academia. It’s a very ordinary activity, and we do it all the time. We can’t escape it. As long as we’re attempting to make sense of the Divine and our relationship to it we’ll be doing theology. ‘It doesn’t matter what we believe’ is itself a theological statement! We’ve fallen into a trap of thinking we must choose between theology and no theology. But ‘no theology’ is not an option for a religious community. The real choice is between good and bad theology. Does our God-talk help us to flourish, or does it diminish us? There is a lot of harmful, even deadly theology out there, and I can understand why some might want to be rid of it altogether. But bad theology needs to be met by better theology. As long as we’re Quakers we can’t opt out.
Second, theology is my ministry. Since theology is something we all do, it’s useful to have people who help us do it better. I feel called to be one of those people. Doing theology is how I serve my Quaker community. There’s a passage in ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’ that describes my ministry perfectly:
…There is also the ministry of teaching which combines ‘the potency of prayer and thought’. It recalls the meeting to the discoveries of truth, the perception of the acts of God in the lives of individuals. It includes the effort to understand and to interpret the central fact of Jesus Christ and his place in history, and the searchings and findings of men and women down the ages and in our own day as they have sought to relate new discoveries and insights to their understandings of eternal truth. (2.67)
My journey with Jürgen Moltmann
For me, combining ‘the potency of prayer and thought’ means joining a community of prayerful thinkers of the past and present, and doing a lot of reading. A member of this community I’ve found particularly inspiring is the German Reformed theology Jürgen Moltmann.
Born in 1926, Moltmann was a soldier in the German army during WWII, and in 1945 surrendered to the British Army, spending 1945–48 as a prisoner of war. Whilst in a POW camp he became a Christian. His work as a theologian is shaped by trying to make sense of his faith post-Auschwitz and post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki. In 2020 he celebrated his 94th birthday. He has written a huge amount, his most influential books being ‘Theology of Hope’ (1967), ‘The Crucified God’ (1974), ‘The Trinity and the Kingdom’ (1981) and ‘God in Creation’ (1985). (See this blog post by The PostBarthian for an overview of his main writings.) Through his work, Moltmann aims ‘to stimulate other people to discover theology for themselves – to have their own theological ideas, and to set out along their own paths.’ Since I began reading his work in 2018, he has helped me to do just that. Moltmann’s work shows me how theology can be spiritual and creative, open, a tool for peace, and practical.
Theology can be spiritual and creative
Quakers sometimes pit the intellect against spirituality, as if thinking about things is a hurdle to spiritual experience. In my experience this isn’t the case. For me, theology is a response to experience of God. In my late teens, I began to have what I can only describe as ecstatic spiritual experiences, where I was left in awe of the Divine. I then needed to make sense of these experiences. I needed to do theology. A classic definition of theology is ‘faith seeking understanding’. You could say that theology (God-talk) begins with doxology (glorifying God).
I also find that in seeking to understand, I’m led back to faith. In doing God-talk I’m led back to praising God. I find this helpfully described by C. S. Lewis: ‘I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.’ For me, theology is both a response to the God who is the Spirit of Life, and a way to that same Spirit.
Moltmann’s writing is suffused with his faith. His theology begins with his encounter with Jesus in a POW camp (particularly Jesus’ cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, Mk 15:34). His book ‘The Crucified God’ wrestles with this experience of God-forsakenness. In this wrestling, Motlmann finds that God is in solidarity with us in our God-forsakenness, and finds a deep sense of hope orientated towards the promise of God’s glory, where God dwells in and enjoys creation, and the creation dwells in and enjoys God.
Theology can also be thought of as dry and dusty, pitting the intellect against the imagination. In my experience, good theology can imaginative, playful and creative. Theology can be beautiful. The role of the imagination is crucial to doing theology that enhances life. Moltmann describes theology as ‘imagination for the kingdom of God in the world, and for the world in God’s kingdom.’ He connects theology with the delight of God’s Wisdom in Proverbs 8. Theology is an intellectual love of God: ‘it is to participate in the play of the divine Wisdom, and thereby to fulfil the destiny of human beings “to glorify God and enjoy [God] forever”.’
Theology can be open and a tool for peace
Quakers sometimes characterise theology as being about certainty, which is in opposition to the Quaker preference for uncertainty and being ‘open to new light’. But in my experience, being open is a feature of good theology. For me, theology is about exploring a constantly expanding landscape. The journey is full of new discoveries, and the vistas get larger and larger, but I never get any closer to the horizon. Since I believe that God is infinite, this is just the sort of journey I should expect. I can never get to the end of God.
I’m not uncertain about everything. There are things I’m sure about, that I have a firm confidence in, such as the love of God, but that doesn’t close me off to new insights. I don’t have to choose between uncertainty and certainty. I can have a mix of both. Theology is about learning to ask better questions, and getting a better knowledge of what I’m certain and uncertain about.
A key theme of Moltmann’s theology is openness to the future, and God doing new things. For Moltmann, God’s creation is not yet fully what it will be. Because of this, Moltmann is prepared to be surprised! He sees Christian theology as a ‘theology of the way’, and so there’s always more to be said. He calls his major theological writings ‘systematic contributions’. This is because he is not trying to construct an unshakeable system, as theologians of the past might have tried to do. He is offering a contribution from a particular viewpoint, to an ongoing conversation. He wants to offer helpful theology for today, recognising that new theological ideas will be needed in the future. Moltmann writes that ‘some people think that I say too much theologically, and more about God than we can know. I feel profoundly humble in the face of the mystery that we cannot know, so I say everything I think I know.’
The early Quaker suspicion of theology was fuelled by religious conflict, specifically between Christians. Violent disagreements over theological issues like baptism worked against the peace and unity that Christians are meant to enjoy. But this doesn’t mean that theology can be set aside. Rather, I think it means that we need to make a theological commitment to respectful dialogue that seeks the wellbeing of all people. Moltmann’s theological reflections are often the fruit of this sort of dialogue, whether it be with other Christians, with Marxists or with Jews. For Moltmann, ‘the dialogue of world religions is a process into which we can only enter if we make ourselves vulnerable in openness, and if we come away from the dialogue changed.’ Respectful dialogue is not a means to an end, but is meaningful in itself as an expression of loving relationship. Everything that works for peace and the liberation of all things, including respectful dialogue and mutual understanding, is work for God’s kingdom.
Theology can be practical
Quaker sometimes pit theology against practice, orthodoxy (right belief) against orthopraxy (right action), as if theology is inherently abstract and unrelated to ‘real life’. But why do we need to make those distinctions? Our behaviour is surely influenced by our beliefs. We demonstrate our beliefs through our behaviour. Right belief and right action go together. Moltmann’s theology is fundamentally public, political and practical. He sees theology as inextricable from human relationships and power struggles. Liberation is a constant theme in his work, which grapples with what it means to be faithful in a world that contains gross inequality, the possibility of nuclear apocalypse and impending climate chaos. Christian theology can never be purely about the inner mental or spiritual life of the individual: ‘Christ is perceived and known not only with the mind and heart, but through the experience and practice of the whole life.’ A key theme of Moltmann’s theology is a practical, active hope that ‘makes us ready to expend ourselves unrestrainedly and unreservedly in love and in the work of the reconciliation of the world with God and [God’s] future.’
Theology as ministry
Theology is my ministry. I find it a life-enhancing activity, through which I respond to, and experience the Spirit of Love. I give thanks for Quakers who value and encourage their theologians – it can sometimes feel like a lonely occupation! I hope that this support and encouragement can become an increasingly mainstream Quaker value, with Friends asking themselves: ‘How can you encourage both ordinary theology in your Quaker community, and those people who have a calling to a deeper engagement with theological thought?’
If you’d like to get to know Moltmann, and don’t know where to start, I’d recommend his ‘Jesus Christ for Today’s World’ (SCM, London, 1994). For an overview of Moltmann, there’s Stephen D Morrison’s ‘Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English’ (Beloved Publishing LLC, 28 April 2018) which I’ve not read myself, but heard good things about.
 Margaret Benefiel, quoted by Chuck Fager, “Introduction,” in New Voices, New Light : Papers from the Quaker Theology Roundtable, ed. Chuck Fager (Wallingford, Pennsylvania: The Issues Program of Pendle Hill, 1995), 4–5.
 Robert Barclay, Apology for the True Christian Divinity (Farmington, ME: Quaker Heritage Press, 2002) Prop II §I.
 Jeff Astley, Ordinary Theology: Looking, Listening and Learning in Theology, Explorations in Practical, Pastoral and Empirical Theology (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002).
 Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology (London: SCM Press, 2000), xv.
 C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, by C. S. Lewis, ed. Lesley Walmsley (London: HarperCollins, 2000), 442.
 Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: An Ecological Doctrine of Creation, trans. Margaret Kohl (London: SCM Press, 1985), 5.
 Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, trans. Margaret Kohl (London: SCM Press, 1996), xiv.
 Moltmann, Experiences in Theology, 25–26.
 Moltmann, 50.
 Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), xii.
 Moltmann, The Coming of God, xiv.
 Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, trans. Margaret Kohl (London: SCM Press, 1977), 152.
 Moltmann, 160.
 Moltmann, 163.
 Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions, trans. Margaret Kohl (London: SCM Press, 1990), 119.
 Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 337.