Friday, December 22, 2006

The Theology of the Cross and the Church's Crisis

Ever-changing circumstances force us to revisit theological convictions, for it is within the fluidities of our lives that we find ourselves find it necessary to confront blind spots or inadequates in our believing.

Following General Convention 2003, for example, I spent much timereconsidering human sexuality. I wondering if perhaps I had missed something or was so stuck in a personal and theological rut that maybe the convention had actually been correct and in my obtuseness I had not picked up on it. Could it be, I thought, that they are being faithful to God's revelation but my preconceptions are preventing me from seeing it?

After several months spent praying, immersed in Scripture and reading all that I could lay my hands on, on both sides of the argument,and weighing the evidence, the conclusion seemed inescapable. While there were areas upon which I needed to tighten up my thinking, what is taught in Scripture and how Scripture has historically been interpreted are closer to God's standards than the direction the Episcopal Church had decided to take. Not only did alternative epistomologies not stand up under critical examination, but neither was the use of evidence outside Scripture being used particularly appropriately by those who would have us think and act differently.

We have now moved on and are watching the wholesale de-construction of the Episcopal Church, as I had expected would happen. The biggest agony of times like these is the parting of friends. Seldom does a week go by without congregations peeling away from the Episcopal Church, often amidst angry accusations, counter-accusations, and often, vituperation. I have dear friends in many of those parishes. The question with which I now struggle is how such behavior by Christians can in any way be considered acceptable, especially in light of the teaching in God's revelation about the restorative power of the Cross and the healing efficacy of the Holy Spirit.

Having spent my entire adult life in the ordained ministry of either the Episcopal Church or the Church of England, and having seen more of the dark underside of church life than I would have wished, I have few illusions about people who call themselves Christians. As well as being steeped in the generosity of our Anglican heritage, my own personality gives me a profound distaste for division and schism, while at the same time as an evangelical believer I am convinced we must take with utmost seriously what God has revealed to us and is recorded in Holy Scripture.

So I set off on this exploratory journey several months ago, and now with Christmas upon us I find myself attempting tentatively to draw a first batch of conclusions. The path I have taken has been anything but direct, but the place where I now find myself is digging afresh into the implications and meaning of the Cross of Christ. I rather expected this was where I would end up, for it is in the hardest of work that Christ wrought on Calvary that we discover the hard work and hard things that he would have us do.

If my studies several years ago regarding human sexuality gave me a much richer understanding of what it means to be humans made in the image of the triune God, my more recent pondering has resulted in a more robust understanding of Christ's nature as the second person of the Godhead, and the significance of Good Friday. It is all very well to effusively assert the glories of the nature of Christ's finished work for year after year of one's life, but new vistas seem to be opened up when one asks certain questions of that work and the manner in which it relates to our immediate struggles.

The conclusion I have found myself reaching has been that while neither "side" in our present unhappiness actually denies the work of Christ upon the Cross, all of us seem to be functioning with a less than adequate theology of what the Lord Jesus Christ has actually done, and how his work applies within our context of contemporary discipleship.

If the Cross is the source of our redemption and was the ultimate purpose for the Lord's coming, then Christ did not fail in what he did when he died, but it is we who are failing now in our ability to apply its tincture to our lives and the life of the Church.

Now I realize that there is much more going on in our crisis than merely imperfect theologies of the Cross, and that we are now seeing the outworking of generations of error, hostility, exclusion, inclusion, etc., etc., but if the Cross is the heart of God's action on human behalf, then we are not even starting to interpret adequately all that is going on unless we bring the Cross into play, seeking to see how its power addresses our circumstances.

A major part of our problem is that all of us, I believe, are working out of a distorted or curtailed understanding of Christ's work in redemption. Indeed, our inadequate grasp of this most significant action of God in the affair of humankind puts us in danger of becoming what Paul called "the enemies of the Cross." We may not hate the Cross and the love which eminates from it, but for most of us ours is hardly an adequate response to such a supreme act of grace for we have cut it down to what we consider to be a manageable size.

A clue to understanding our dilemma is to recognize the divergent courses that have been taken by differing groups within the same faith community for a considerable time. The outcome of this is alienation, the pursuit of mutually exclusive paths, endless finger-pointing which asserts the other side is wrong, the failure to listen to one another or God, and now separation complete with self-righteousness from all quarters, lawyers, courts, winners, losers, pain, agony, and for some, glee. Did we so learn Christ, and where in the midst of all this is the Lord of the Church and the pitilessness he received on a spring day in Jerusalem two thousand years ago?

It is easy to set ourselves up as being right and the other side as being wrong if we can demonstrate that those who stand against us have missed the point altogether. However, what if as we apply the rich doctrine of the Cross to what is going on now, both sides are amiss (or partial) in their grasp of this most cardinal of truths?

While I don't wish to go into the differing perceptions of the Cross in depth, let it be suggested that those on the left have tended to see God's atoning work more in terms of Jesus our great example whose selflessness we must seek to emulate, while those on the right tend to think more of Jesus as the one who shed his blood to cleanse me from my sins. I know this is a parody, but it is close enough to the facts for us to be able to recognize that a more accurate theology of the Cross is so much more than these.

P. T. Forsyth writing just before World War One said that when we speak of the atonement "we are speaking of that which is the centre, not of thought, but of actual life, conscience, history, and destiny. We speak of what is the life power of the moral world and its historic crisis, the ground of the Church's existence, and the sole meaning of Christ himself. Christ is to us just what his Cross is... You do not understand Christ till you understand his Cross." (From his book The Cruciality of the Cross).

Martin Luther, after many years spent in mature reflection upon the Cross, tells us that it speaks of God's solidarity with the downtrodden and suffering, and with all those who the world rejects as weak, foolish, and irrelevant. By its very nature Christ's crucifixion challenges each of our standards of judgment. Jurgen Moltmann, borrowing a phrase from Luther, described Jesus in his magnum opus as the work of "The Crucified God."

The truth is that when we truly allow ourselves to be confronted by the Cross we discover there is absolutely no room for a self-indulgent, self-actualizing mindset. "Many modern spiritualities are very human-centered, stressing their advanges for human mental health and wholeness," (Alister McGrath) or the notion that in our time we know better than our forebears did. Being the people of the Cross turns upon its head many of the attitudes that seem to prevail in much of our thinking these days -- especially when we look at church battles. We have heard too much of the I'm-going-to-get-my-own-way mindset, regardless of the costs and consequences.

But neither does a fair theology of the Cross allow us necessarily to pursue our own agendas, our own ambitions, or to lift high our own desires and expectations. Just as the "health and wealth" Gospel trivializes precisely what Christ taught and did on our behalf on the conservative side of the spectrum, the same can be said to be true of the more subjective attitude toward moral, ethical, and other questions on the progressive side. As Alister McGrath puts it, "To be, or to become, a Christian is to do yourself no favors... To be an authentic Christian is to pass under the shadow of the Cross, not to avoid that shadow" (Roots that Refresh, page 86).

There is an excellent interview by Tim Stafford, brother of the Dean of the School of Theology, Sewanee, with Tom Wright in the January 2007 issue of "Christianity Today." In it Bishop Wright critiques the contemporary appeal of Gnosticism, whose tentacles have reached deeply into the life of the churches, compromising our message (Right and Left) with this particular flavor of neo-paganism.

Wright tells Stafford, "Because the great emphasis in the New Testament is that the gospel is not how to escape the world; the gospel is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the world. And that his death and Resurrection transform the world, and that transformation can happen to you. You, in turn can be part of that transforming work. That draws together what we traditionally called evangelism, bringing people to the point where they come to know God in Christ for themselves, with withing for God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven... Our Western culture since the 18th Century has made a virtue of separating out religion from real life, or faith from politics."

What does this have to do with our present ecclesiastical unhappiness? An enormous amount, for it is clear that the Cross in all its stark and bloody glory calls into question the very basis from which all of us have approached these circumstances. Selfishness, power plays, intemperate language, exclusion of those we believe to be in error or don't like, judgmentalism, and so forth, have all been part of the mix. The awe-inspiring attractiveness of Christ's self-sacrifice has been lost beneath the barrage, the Gospel is made to appear ugly, and the mission of the church is being damaged for generations to come.

The other evening I did a little meditation to a small group of people on the woman taken in adultery in John 8. I was impressed again by Jesus's words to the accusers: "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:7). So it is with us in the situation in which we are, we all most slope away because none of us is without sin.

I don't know the way forward or out of the crisis. I do not see anyone backing down, and it may now be that we are so polarized that whether we like it or not are destination may be the bottom of the abyss for both sides of this state of affairs. But the truth is that it is the Cross that puts each one of us, each group among us, to the test. If we are to rediscover, reclaim and regain our mission, then this sign of strength made perfect in weakenss is the one that we should embrace with all our heart, pursuing as if our life depended upon it every implication of it -- for the fact is our life does depend on it.

Perhaps the starting point should be for those of us at odds with one another to gather together at the foot of the Cross, leaving at the door our reservations and dislike of "the other side" or their agenda. God's glory is revealed at the Cross in Christ's powerlessness and weakness, and the Cross gives new meaning to the sufferings we experience. It is out of this that a healthy theology and lifestyle of hope might come.

Miroslav Volf began his extraordinary journey into the theology of reconciliation when, during the midst of the worst troubles in the Balkans in the 1990s, he was asked at a conference if he could embrace a cetnik. The Serbians fighters who were then ravaging his native Croatia, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, killing men, and worse, were known as cetniks.

Volf had been arguing that we ought to embrace our enemies as God has embraced us in Christ, but now as a Croat he was being asked to give his theology real legs. He shook his head after a long pause and said, "No, I cannot -- but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to." Volf was brought face to face with himself, his faith was challenged, and at its heart was the Cross and how he responded to it. Theologizing was not empty moralizing, it was a spiritual journey, and so it should be for us.

He tells us in his preface to Exclusion and Embrace that the book is about whether we "assign the demands of the Crucified to the murky regions of unreason," or whether we allow ourselves also to be nailed to the Cross in seeking the reconciliatory dimension of redemption. I believe that is the challenge before all of us who call ourselves Episcopalians or Anglicans.

We are not physically killing each other, it is true, but in some ways we are doing the next best thing because we are involved in the process of tearing a church beloved to tens of thousands limb from limb. Our pain may not match that of Christ upon the Cross, but it was on our behalf that the Savior shed his blood, and it is in that blood that we must bathe if we are find any way of being whole again. In fear and trembling, sackcloth and ashes, this ought to be the agenda of us all.

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