Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Theologia crucis -- a take on the theology of the cross

Ireland-High-CrossImage via Wikipedia
I confess.

I am not a professional student of theology. Nor of the history of religion.

So when I ran across a reference today to "the thin tradition" of theologia crucis, I had not the slightest idea of what it might be. I tried looking up theologia crucia on Wikipedia to give me a place to start, which summarized theology of the cross as "a term coined by the theologian Martin Luther to refer to theology that posits the cross as the only source of knowledge concerning who God is and how God saves. It is contrasted with the theology of glory (theologia gloriae), which places greater emphasis on human abilities and human reason."  Yet the theses associated with the position are mostly about how everything humans do apart from the spirit of God is wrong and almost assuredly sinful.  The idea that humans are good and can cooperate in good things with God is associated with the position identified as the theology of glory.  This sounds very much like the stirrings of what Calvinism would elaborate more fully in the notion of human depravity.

As someone who utterly rejects the human depravity position, those elements of Martin Luther's argument are not acceptable.  But is that all there is to theologia crucia?  Father Daniel Weir doesn't seem to believe so, and he cites others who have studied the topic, and the way he writes about it suggests that there is a greater message to be received.  Indeed, the implications seem far removed/much more developed than what one might be lead to believe based on a quick historical review...

For all sorts of reasons we don't want a God who suffers, preferring one who wields a powerful sword. That preference has led Christians in the US and elsewhere into embracing an unholy alliance between Christianity and patriotism, particularly the patriotism of empire. Another theologian, the Canadian Douglas John Hall, has pointed to the danger of that alliance and urged Christians to resist the temptations of the theology of glory:
    What Christians faithful to the biblical and best traditions of the faith are required to do today is not to join the ranks of those who are trying to resuscitate the Theology of power and glory, but to bear witness in thought, word, and deed to the God who enters into the depths of human distress, failure, and despair, particularly, in our case, the despair of those who do not know how to admit despair.
And if all this seems a bit depressing, I want to bear witness to the joy that we share as we embrace the theology of the cross. So many Christians who focus upon the cross seem to be missing the point as well. Again I quote Hall:
    The theology of the cross…is…first of all a statement about God, and what it says about God is not that God thinks humankind so wretched that it deserves death and hell, but that God thinks humankind and the whole creation so good, so beautiful, so precious in its intention and its potentiality, that its actualization, its fulfillment, its redemption is worth dying for.
I am not sure whether what I take away from this description is accurate or even if so faithful to the intent of the tradition, but it sounds to me like the difference between theologia crucis and theologia gloriae emphasizes humility versus hubris, inclusiveness versus triumphalism, and the cross as an act of solidarity versus the cross as an act of penal substitutionary atonement. Given my experience and understanding of  sin and christology (see example of it here, there, and yonder), I certainly favor the former elements in each pair.

Even if such a view is not strictly speaking the heart of the historical and proper theologia crucis, it is not any less important.  Indeed, the focus on Jesus as the suffering servant is what makes Christianity so compelling.  God is not aloof or unconcerned, but willingly shares the burdens of humanity.  Indeed these burdens appear in this take on a theology of the cross to be paramount to the nature of God.  Without this we are left with models which rely on threats of disappointing a fickle God, offending tyrannical God, etc.  God is no longer experience as pure love.  God becomes somewhat weak and petty.  The importance of Christ's divinity is diminished if it does not vanish altogether. It is required for any meaning in the concept of redemptive suffering.

Buddhism favors this concept as well, particularly in the Mahayana traditions. From the ideal of the Bodhisattva who will travel all paths of enlightenment to save all sentient beings to the practice of tonglen to the symbolism of the beautiful lotus rising from the murky muck. To the teaching that samsara is nirvana. That everything can be used as part of practice and hence transformed from in our mundane dualistic view into its true splendor. This may be one reason why both Mahayana Buddhism and the elements of Christianity which focuses on the core of the message of Jesus (in which the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a weed or said to be found in the heart of what appears to be decay and corruption) have been so appealing to me personally. If a sacred tradition cannot find the potential for compassion, beauty and new life in the broken and outcast, it is worse than useless. Its priests should be defrocked and its temples abandoned. But even then, we can search the rubble and stone by stone rebuild the true temple in each heart. Amitabha! Alleluia!

(Additional glimpses of my take on theology are available elsewhere in various forms.)

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