From The Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church by Andrew Root © 2010 Abingdon, pages xiii and xxvi-xxviii. Used by permission.
Editor's Note: Andrew Root, assistant professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota, has written a book to be published this month by Abingdon Press, which he says presents an ecclesiology for "emerging adults" (young adults) based on the theology of the cross. The title is part of the "Living Theology Series" published in cooperation with Emergent Village (www.emergentvillage.com). See David von Schlichten's book review of this title here. To visit the publisher's Web site, click here.
In the last handful of years there have been a number of interesting (and some helpful) calls for the recasting of the Christian faith and the ministry of the church in our world. In the light of cultural transitions we have seen a need to move into new ways of thinking and doing church, new ways to speak and act with an emerging generation. These (mostly) prophetic practitioners have pleaded for the church to pull itself out of 1962 and its stilted bureaucratic forms of ministry to enter a much different world. This has been more than needed. Yet I still wonder if any of them, in their recasting, have anything to say to our world that knows death and nothingness so well in broken relationships and broken dreams. I wonder if any of them have made the place of emptiness the place of God's in-breaking, seeking to discover what this would mean for how we do church.
Whenever someone critiques the prophetic practitioners on their desire to recast the Christian faith and ministry for what they usually call "a postmodern world," these critics often assert that they too easily embrace "a nihilistic postmodernism," a derogatory term they see as antithetical to classical Christianity. They add nihilism to postmodern to communicate its bankrupt-ness. In response, the prophetic practitioners (by which I mean people like Brian McLaren, Dan Kimball, and Rob Bell) have tried to defend their starting point, tried to make the case that postmodernism is not nihilistic or radically against absolute truth or whatever. This book will agree with the critics. I will assert that the critics are right that there is something nihilistic, something about nothingness and bankrupt-ness, in the transitions of our context, something maybe even against classic Christianity, by which of course the critics mean Christianity as the dominate cultural religion. But unlike the fearmongering of the critics and the defensive stance of the prophetic practitioners I seek to embrace this nihilism. I want to assert, "You're right, our context is filled with nihilism, as is my being, with the hopelessness of death, with the fear of separation, with the impossibility that no one can save fathers from brain aneurysms or four-year-olds from cancer. You're right, there is little in our context that is real enough to allow us somewhere to belong." But instead of starting with a critique and nostalgic wishes of a time before nihilism came into view, or trying to defend our revitalization from being seen as nihilistic, what if we simply started here? What if we sought God in the nothingness, in the kenosis, in the emptiness that the Philippians hymn tells us Jesus takes on? What if this is the most faithful way to be the people of God?
We have talked so much about the need to do church differently, about the need to think about our faith differently. But have we actually taken the time to construct our ministerial action around a God who meets us in the death of the cross, a God who gives Godself over to annihilation? Have we recognized that Christian people, people who follow Jesus, are weird people? We are people who worship a God become human who dies, who not only dies but is crucified.
I know we have been taught to be positive, that we have been told that our Christianity will keep us happy and hopeful (and there is something in Christian faith that moves into joy, thanksgiving, and rich hope). But too often we have been told that as Christians we need not fear death. These are words more for Hallmark cards than for reality; these are more the words of sentimentality than the words of Jesus crucified and dying. The Christian faith is a faith that has as its central event the cross, the reality of death. But this central reality is rarely the center of the church's being and action. We are a people who know and therefore confess of a time when God died. The power of Easter is that out of this utter God-forsakenness, God rises, God is fully God, overcoming the darkness by taking it into Godself. It is into suffering (the suffering of death, nothingness, separation), the suffering of the world, taken on in the suffering of God, that the church is called.
These thoughts are the very theological breakthrough that brought about the Reformation. It was Martin Luther who stumbled across these ideas in his reading of Paul, in light of a church literally selling safety to scared people living in a dangerous world, surrounded by the monster of death (think of, for instance, the plague). It was Luther who shouted for the people to realize that the God made known in Jesus Christ was God found first and foremost beaten on a cross. God was first seen not in gold, not in riches and strength, not in the lovely words of most of our praise songs, but in the weakness of a beaten peasant dying alone and abandoned outside the city. We worship a crucified God, Luther asserted.
The theological breakthrough of the Reformation is the theologia crucis, the theology of the cross. "It is certain that people must utterly despair of his or her own ability before he or she is prepared to receive the grace of Christ." For Luther this is true because God can be found first on a cross, bearing the terror of the death of four-year-olds, fathers, and lost lovers forever separated. This book, like others, seeks to recast the Christian faith in our time, but unlike them it does so by returning to the very theological perspective that bore the Reformation, the theologia crucis, the death of God. This book seeks a reimagining of Luther's theology of the cross for a church in late modernity.
This article appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Lutheran Partners Online.