2016-06-30
It was a battle of heavyweights. The setting was the Theological School at Boston University. The expectant audience overflowed the auditorium, standing in the aisles, against the walls and in the doorways. The attraction was twofold: The speakers were well-known and highly respected, and the topic was one about which no one is disinterested.

The primary lecturer was Professor Jurgen Moltmann, a man reared in Germany but now on the faculty of the University of Tubingen in Switzerland. The author of many books, the best known of which is "A Theology of Hope," Moltmann has been a long-time power among European Protestants.

The second principal was the responder, Gordon Kaufman, recently retired Professor of Theology at Harvard Divinity School. In Kaufman's distinguished career, he has also been a prolific author and an articulate speaker. Like Moltmann, he was identified as a liberal Protestant. One would have assumed that the two had much in common.

The subject was "Is There Life After Death?"--a topic conspicuously absent in serious Christian discourse in the last century. Time magazine ran a feature on this topic in 1997, reporting that in neither conservative nor liberal circles of the church is this subject capturing anyone's attention. It is barely discussed in seminaries. The operative assumption is that all would-be Christian pastors believe in life after death, but few want to be tested on it. It makes an appearance in pious phrases and sentimental clichés when one faces death and dying. It is as if everyone wants to assure everyone else that there is no need even to raise the question.

But on this particular evening, the subject of life after death was coming out of the closet, and in a Methodist-related school of theology no less. Here permission would be given to look at this issue deeply, and two recognized Christian leaders were advertised to speak about it with great intensity. But this audience was destined to receive something quite dramatic and unexpected.

Moltmann first presented his paper. He ranged over the history of the concept of life after death. He shared some emotional stories out of his own life, reliving vividly a time when he, barely a teenager, was required to take his place as a soldier firing an anti-aircraft gun near Hamburg during World War II. He survived that experience, but many did not. He recounted the story of the death of his first child, the pain and grief through which he walked, and his existential wrestling with whether life had any meaning at all.

His conclusion was that, apart from a vision of life after death, it did not. In his mind, either there was a reality to the promise of eternal life or there was no ultimate meaning to which he could cling. He stated these convictions based on his faith and life experience openly, honestly, emotionally, thoughtfully, and powerfully. The audience applauded responsively.

Then Gordon Kaufman rose to respond. He, too, had recently endured a rending experience in the death of his wife. Those close to him attested to the depth of their relationship and to the grief he endured. Yet he spoke from a very different perspective. He attacked Moltmann vigorously for his sentimentality, expressing keen disappointment in Moltmann's paper. He challenged Moltmann's suggestion that there was no meaning in this life if the promise of life after death was taken away. He illustrated his remarks with references to countless numbers of people who did not believe in or count on survival beyond the grave and yet whose lives clearly possessed great meaning. He reacted sharply to what he felt was Moltmann's dismissal of their value and worth, implying that Moltmann was insulting these people. In a very aggressive statement, Kaufman called on Moltmann publicly to withdraw that conclusion or to explain just where Kaufman had misunderstood his message.

This attack was so pointed and so stark that when Kaufman completed his remarks the audience did not quite know what to do. Applause was tepid. Uncomfortable anxiety filled the room. Moltmann looked devastated. The host who had introduced both speakers said some words that indicated his own sense of unease, acknowledging sheepishly that this had been "a vigorous debate." Then he opened the evening to the audience's participation.

As is typical of such gatherings, the questioners gave what amounted to speeches far more than they asked questions. Almost all of them directed their comments to Moltmann. It seemed that Kaufman had given them permission to continue the attack. The nature of their questions was not to place themselves in opposition to Moltmann but to show how their understanding of life after death was a bit more sophisticated than his and, as such, not as susceptible to Kaufman's dismissal.

No one either took on Gordon Kaufman or his implicit assertion that death was the absolute end of our existence and that whatever meaning there is in life must be formed inside human existence.

One student's question suggested that perhaps idealism in Moltmann's paper might have distorted his objectivity. Kaufman, still in attack mode, leaped on that question, interpreting the student as asking, "Was not Moltmann engaging in wishful thinking?" The student's assertion that this was not the meaning of her inquiry was simply brushed aside.

The meeting was finally and mercifully brought to an end. The crowd dispersed. Spirited conversation groups formed all over the campus.

The principals, the host, and a small group of guests went off to the Harvard Club in Boston for dinner. The conversation at dinner was guarded, never touching the subject of the debate. No one knew how to broach the topic of the evening without subjecting Moltmann, who was the university's invited guest, to further attack by Kaufman, the university's invited responder.

I found this evening fascinating. Its fascination lay first in Moltmann's almost pleading assertion that without life after death life has no meaning. It lay second in Kaufman's open and aggressive defense of the position, which he says he holds as a Christian, that there is no life after death, and that meaning must be found here or it does not exist. It lay third in the inability of the audience, made up largely of theology students preparing for an ordained career, to engage the issue at all.

Moltmann spoke for religious hope. Kaufman spoke for religious realism. The audience was pulling for Moltmann but was obviously better represented by Kaufman than they were able to admit.

I believe that the time has come for Christian theologians to face publicly the fact that heaven and hell, as symbols for the afterlife, have indeed lost their power and their meaning in our generation. As a force designed originally to control human behavior in this life, both are now impotent. Heaven is no longer a place beyond the sky. It has become rather a sentimental adjective used to describe an experience of intense pleasure. It is "heavenly" to be with one's beloved. Some commercials even assert that "It doesn't get any better than this."

Hell, on the other hand, no longer elicits the motivating fear that once accompanied the mention of this place of torment. It has become instead a mild oath with so little of its original content left that someone can actually describe a winter day as being "as cold as hell." The passion of people living in the modern world is for life, justice, freedom, and success now. The future is thought to be too vague, too uncertain, and, dare I say, too unbelievable.

Yet so deeply have these themes lived at the heart of the Christian tradition that I think it fair to ask whether this faith system can survive if these concepts are removed. Is not the Christian story grounded in what Christians call the Resurrection? If that goes, as it appears to be doing, is there enough other substance left to keep Christianity alive? The debate at Boston University forced some people in an ostensibly Christian audience to admit to levels of doubt that they would have preferred to keep hidden.

We Christians are forced to admit to the reality of some facts. The location of heaven as a place beyond the sky has gone, the victim of an expanded knowledge of the universe. The idea of the record-keeping God, who like Santa Claus is "making a list and checking it twice" in order to discern "who's naughty or nice," is also gone. The suggestion that goodness must be motivated by a promised reward reveals a radical and primitive self-centeredness that is no longer compelling. The traditional images of fiery pits and milk and honey have lost their appeal. If life after death is identified with these concepts, then it is fragile indeed.

So I listened to this debate with strangely mixed emotions. On one side, I wanted to agree with Moltmann that the ultimate meaning of life cannot be separated from those dimensions of reality that clearly are not bound by mortality. But I also wanted to assert with Kaufman that the only place to look for that meaning is inside the confines of the here and now.

I seek a both/and instead of an either/or approach to this question. It is my contention, both as a believer and as a child of the 21st century, that Moltmann's hope needs to be explored without attack and that Kaufman's realism needs to be heard without fear.

In a subsequent column, I will seek to do just that.