In the summer of 2008 I went to a day of lectures at the University of Cambridge to commemorate the ecumenical visit of a group of Germans to England in 1908 (reciprocated in 1909). The morning lecture was just brilliant: the retired German theologian Jurgen Moltmann giving an overview of German theology from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. Now this might not sound the most exciting way to spend a hot summer day, but this elderly academic, speaking in superb, faultless English, was interesting, funny, wise and perceptive. To anyone interested in theological development in the last century it was a unique opportunity to hear the great man do his stuff.
Over lunch I mentioned to him that I would like to read his autobiography, but wanted to read it in German and not English. I immediately forgot the title of the book and thereafter kept forgetting to order it.
A couple of months later I was with a group of bishops at Lambeth Palace for a theology day with the Archbishop of Canterbury – another brilliant, stimulating and challenging day. After lunch I approached the Archbishop with a query I had been too embarrassed to ask Moltmann in Cambridge. During his lecture Moltmann had suddenly quoted something that sounded deep and ‘old’. I wanted to ask where it came from, but thought I would look conspicuously ignorant among a load of keen Cambridge academics. So, I asked Rowan if he knew where this had come from – the Desert Fathers perhaps? It went like this:
God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.
Rowan thought about it for a moment and then said: ‘I think he was probably quoting himself.’
Was I embarrassed? Of course I was! But at least I learned something. Anyway, I finally got a copy of the book when I was at a theological conference near Dusseldorf last November. And the German title of the book? ‘Weite Raum’ – Wide Space. Rowan was right… and I am hopelessly ignorant.
But I love the description of God that Moltmann gives. We often try to narrow God down so that he reflects our own limited experience, expectations or prejudices. But God, as can be seen in the biblical narratives, occupies the wide spaces which offer uncertainty and threat as well as the fearful hints of his presence. It seems that God strides about in the wide spaces and won’t be pinned down by our own small-mindedness. But it also chimes in with the stuff I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ which refuses to hold back from God the contradictory realities of human/Christian life from God: we offer both the ‘broken and the holy hallelujah’ (missed out in the Alexandra Burke version).
Perhaps it is only people who are open to the wide spaces that truly enjoy God. Perhaps it is only such people who can find the wide spaces for seeking imaginative and bold potential resolutions of conflicts such as that in Israel and Gaza. Perhaps the frenzied protection of narrow self-interest is the natural and unavoidable fruit of abandoning the ‘wide space’ of God.