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Photo of Jürgen Moltmann being interviewed
90 minutes with Moltmann

Posted on 14 March 2012, 6:21

Jürgen Moltmann has a very infectious way of laughing. He fixes you with his bright eyes, a smile spreads across his face as he’s talking, and then comes the almost soundless laughter that sweeps you with it. I really hadn’t expected that from one of the 20th century’s most brilliant German theologians, and even less so from someone who powerfully made the case, after Auschwitz, that God is a God who suffers.

I visited him at his home in Tübingen last week, after a 10 hour train journey. The magazine which sent me to interview him, Third Way, didn’t want me to fly by plane, for the greenest of reasons, but it was a long journey to make for a 90 minute meeting. It turned out to be beyond rewarding, though.

The French and then German countryside unfolding outside my train window was beautiful in the early spring sunshine, but I had my head stuck in a book most of the way. Like an undergraduate with a late essay to submit, I was deeply into Moltmann’s brick-sized autobiography, A Broad Place (408 pages), which turned out to be an inspiring read. By the time I sank into my hotel bed at 2am, I was ready with my list of questions.

Professor Moltmann retired in 1994, but since then, six new books of his have been published in English, with a seventh currently in the works. He’s now 85, but several years ago when he turned 60, he said that he unexpectedly ‘became young and lively again’. His youthfulness in old age seems to have stuck. The first sign I saw of it came after I climbed the road up and out of old Tübingen, along the valley above the River Neckar, and found that the car parked outside his house had personalised number plates. I spotted the ‘JM’ straight away.

Inside, after he’d made me a dish of very weak tea (I estimate Pantone 726), he took me into his study, which is a broad, beautiful, light-filled room looking down the steep slope of his long garden into the valley. I always enjoy seeing where people work, and this room, where so much influential thinking took shape, was everything you could wish for.

With no computer in sight, I asked him if he used an Apple Mac. ‘I am an old European,’ he replied, amused at himself. ‘I use telephone and fax.’ He writes his books by hand and corrects a typewritten copy. ‘I like the combination of mind and hand,’ he said, and then added, ‘At my age, I am writing more letters of grief and consolation, and I cannot type a letter of compassion.’

I’d asked to see his study because I wanted to know what pictures he had in there, as some of his thinking has been shaped by meditating on images such as Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity. He showed me a Greek icon of the resurrection on the wall, as well as a postcard image of Marc Chagall’s Yellow Crucifixion, which he had tucked inside a first edition of his book The Crucified God.

‘For a long time this picture was my companion,’ Moltmann wrote in his autobiography, ‘and was a symbol inviting me to theological thinking.’ I don’t know of many Western theologians who have done this.

At the end of our 90 minutes, I had to dash to catch my train home, but as I was packing up I couldn’t resist asking him what his favourite hymn was. It’s a bit of a cheesy Songs of Praise question, but I was interested in what a theologian would do with it. When he hesitated to answer, I expanded the question by asking what are his sources of inspiration and consolation.

‘Mostly watching nature – and especially the sea. From Hamburg, we always spent our holidays at the seaside. I was always fascinated and had mystical experiences! The music of the sea is like the tone of eternity. Because this was here before human beings came and this will be there when human beings have maybe vanished from the earth.’

I shot a video of the interview and will be putting some clips from it online soon. I’ll post here when they’re up.

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Moltmann’s comment about ‘the combination of mind and hand’ struck me.

Ivan Illich told David Cayley, in the 1980s, that he had begun to find some of the books he was reading very peculiar; he realised that they were the result of people writing on word processors. Quite independently, I’ve heard Alan Garner say that he can tell when reading a book whether it was written by hand or at a computer. ‘The elbow is the best editor,’ he says.

Like you, I’m not sure if I could write a W anymore, but I also have a certain disquiet at the naivety with which we have assumed that writing through these machines is essentially the same phenomenon as writing by hand. When people on whose wisdom I put trust seem to suggest that something important has been lost, I can’t dismiss that.

Incidentally, when Wendell Berry referred to the fact that he writes long-hand and his wife types up his manuscripts, this caused a scandal.

Dougald Hine, Mon 28 May, 22:50

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