Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Book Review: The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World

This book, by Douglas John Hall (Fortress Press 2003) styles itself as an extended meditation on the “theology of the cross,” articulated most notably by Luther in his Heidelberg Disputations.

While I don’t think that Luther’s conception of the “theology of the cross” necessarily bears a privileged position just because Luther coined the phrase, not only does this book fail to do justice to Luther’s conception of the idea, Hall fails even on his own terms. Hall again and again turns the theology of the cross into a self-congratulatory conceit.

Hall begins by drawing particularly on Luther’s 19th thesis in the Heidelberg Disputation: “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened (Ro 1.20).”

Hall contrasts this with “triumphalism,” which he says “refers to the tendency in all strongly held world-views, whether religious or secular, to present themselves as full and complete accounts of reality, leaving little if any room for debate or different of opinion and expecting of their adherents unflinching belief and loyalty.”

I’m not persuaded that Hall’s “triumphalism” is what Luther really aimed at in his 19th thesis, particularly given the citation to Ro 1.20. But that’s neither here nor there – the irony is that Hall sees the triumphalistic mote only in the eyes of others, and seem to be blind to the triumphalistic log in his own eye.

I’m fully willing to grant the contingency of human knowledge (even if that’s not what Luther meant in his 19th thesis). But that doesn’t mean that I reckon only that the knowledge of the poor slobs who happen to disagree with me as limited and contingent. It also must mean that I recognize that my own knowledge is contingent and limited.

Yet where is the humility of contingent knowledge in Hall? He thunders absolutes against those with whom his disagrees. He expresses no self-doubt or skepticism about the conclusions he draws, or of the historical judgments or scientific conclusions he states with religious certainty.

It reminds me of an on and off discussion I have with an academic who is a self-proclaimed “anti-foundationalist.” He lectures anyone and everyone about the contingency of human knowledge. Yet these and related lectures are full of definitive judgments about what history and science do and do not teach. It’s hard to resist the idea that his ostensible anti-foundationalism is little more than a rhetorical trick, deployed not because he actually believes it, but as a smokescreen aimed to disarm those with whom he disagrees by suckering them into first agreeing that they’re arrogant if they think they know what they claim they know. All the while he deploys definite certitudes about what history teaches us about the evils of foundationalism.

So Hall asserts “incontrovertible economic, environmental, geopolitical, and other statistics” that condemn what Hall deems to be the sins of the U.S. lifestyle, and he dismisses contrary voices as “exaggeration and scare-mongering.” Without my being closed to what these statistics tell us, and how they might indict U.S. lifestyles, how can Hall be deaf to the triumphalistic spin that he places on his conclusions? Where is his circumspection. Or is circumspection only for others?

And then there’s cheap sentimentality like this: “In some ways, as a Christian in this so-called First World, I envy my fellow Christians in contexts less affluent, less developed (so-called), less technologically and economically smug; for I know that it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven . . .” There’s an easy enough way to become what he envies, and biblical precedent as well: “Sell all you possess, and give it to the poor.” I doubt that someone’s holding a gun to Hall’s head telling him to stay in Canada and enjoy the affluent Western lifestyle.

Or there’s throw away lines like this: “What such observations tell us . . . is that any deep and honest [emphasis in original] analysis of our own context today must lead to a probing, a self-assessment, a judgment for which few church folk, not to mention citizens at large, are the least prepared.”

Aside from being oblivious to the non-contingent reporting of what “observations tells us,” in this an numerous other passages in the book, Hall congratulates himself on not being like us sinners. First the commending criteria – “deep and honest analysis” – then the bland assertion that “few” are so deep and honest as to do the analysis; an analysis that Hall will then go on to detail for us. The implication is clear. The author himself is one of the few so deep and honest as to face what these observations tell us.

What answer is there, except to roll one’s eyes at the conceit?

The biggest fault of the book, however, is that Hall gets the “theology of the cross” exactly wrong. Even the casual reader of Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation recognizes that, in it, Luther seeks to draw out the implications of human sinfulness for understanding the things of God on its own terms. Rejecting this, Hall instead insists:

“Liberalism was right, surely, in cutting itself loose from the fatalistic and grim anthropology of Protestant orthodoxy, which had become not only moribund but also incredible to the mind of modern Western humanity.”

Where to start with this? After all, Thesis 19, which Hall ostensibly sets at the heart of his theology of the cross, flows precisely out of Luther’s desire to reassert an Augustinian anthropology as against the more “triumphalistic” views of his time.

Further, after almost 100 pages of pitting the “theology of the cross” against “Western” triumphalism without batting an eye, Hall now appeals for his authority to the ostensible fact that “the mind of modern Western humanity” finds something “incredible.” Ironically, up to this point in the book, Hall would have taken Western incredulity as a sign of something’s truth, not a sign of error.

Finally, at the crescendo of the book, Hall can’t but help but deflect from what the theology of the cross means for oppressed Christians. Hall rejects what Peter says is true: “If you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed” (1 Peter 3.14), or “to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing” (4.13).

Instead, Hall writes:

“Feminism has been especially critical of this [perspective], because such a theology has been used to persuade women of their duty to accept their lot as long-suffering wives and mothers, in much the same way as this theology has been used to keep enslaved races or economic groupings from complaint or revolt.”

To be sure, I have no truck with “using” the theology of the cross to keep women in their places, or to prevent enslaved people from complaining or from revolting. But there comes a point when every Christian needs to ask whether they in fact believe the promise. The apostle Paul writes that if we have hoped in Christ for this world only, we are of all men most to be pitied. If we trust Christ, then this life is a piffle, no matter our lot.

In response, the world can’t help but write us off as foolish for dreaming of “pie in the sky, bye and bye.” But there it is, the irreduceable nub of disagreement between the world and the cross. Hall ultimately can’t square the circle.

So, for Hall, the theology of the cross does not speak directly to those who are suffering. It instead speaks only of the duty of non-suffering Christian to serve those who suffer. I agree entirely that Christians should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner. But that’s not what the theology of the cross is about. The theology of the cross speaks directly to the hungry, the naked, and to the unvisited prisoner, and tells them that they are blessed, because they have joined Jesus on the cross. This is foolishness to the world, and Hall runs away from it as well.


Blogger Wayne said...

I feel good and I feel bad about this. I feel good that you've said enough to confirm my suspicion about the book and asuage any regrets for not finishing it. I feel bad that I had it on my blog long enough for you to take the time to read it yourself.

I often say that life is too short for bad books. But I guess sometimes we do need a real stinker to keep us alert.

February 22, 2007 7:38 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

Yeah, see if I read any book that's on your list again!

This book is supposed to be a condensed edition of a three-volume systematic theology on the same topic. I just shudder to think about trying to slog one's way through that.

It's been a long time since I've read a theologian who believes that Jesus was just a pretty-ok guy, and not God incarnate. It's just sort of pathetic to see the gymnastics they have to go through to try to justify why anyone would be interested in their thoughts about such a "Jesus," or about the "faith tradition" (blah!) that developed around him.

February 22, 2007 8:41 AM  
Blogger CPA said...

I often say that life is too short for bad books. But I guess sometimes we do need a real stinker to keep us alert.

Better you than me, Jim. That's what I call "sacrificial reading" -- you read it so I don't have to!

February 25, 2007 11:16 AM  
Blogger Erudite Redneck said...

Did we read the same book? Wow. .. I saw no thundering. I have the three-volume set, which, after seminary, maybe I'll read to compare to the wee book. But Lordy, y'all: "The Cross in Our Context" is more theological reflection, clearly tending toward the personal (Hall's person) -- not a grand thesis. And where is Jesus not depicted as God incarnate??

November 22, 2013 2:49 PM  

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