A Crucified God, A Weak Theology,

Posted: April 1, 2020 in Uncategorized

A Crucified God, A Weak Theology,

1 Corinthians

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short;

from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none,

and those who mourn as though they were not mourning,

and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing,

and those who buy as though they had no possessions,

and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.

For the present form of this world is passing away.

 If these were “ordinary” times, we’d be continuing to spend hours together in our respective churches each Sunday.  Today, we’d wave palm branches, shout “Hosanna,” and read in unison the story of Jesus’s death and burial.  Those of us who follow tradition may have planned to gather on Maundy Thursday, to share a Passover meal, wash each other’s feet, and strip the altars bare.  On Good Friday, we might have gathered and planned to keep vigil in our pews, walk the Stations of the Cross, and listen to homilies on the Last Seven Words of Christ.  On Holy Saturday, we might wait, drained and tired, perhaps, with a full anticipation that Easter would bring its many joys. But these aren’t ordinary times.  Most of us are confined to our homes, and our church families are not gathering in person.  Some of us have lost our jobs, our paychecks, our savings are expected to go a long way, our futures are more in limbo than they were.  Some of us are numb and disassociated, unable to process the scope of what’s happening around the world.  Some of us are depressed.  Anxious.  Lonely. Some even terrified by the unknown.  Some of us are sick.  Some of us are grieving our dead.  Some of us — before this pandemic is over — may and probably will die.

Now that I have your attention, I will try to suggest a way of looking at the situation from a faith-based approach. This will I hope not answer the questions but rather provide others that might address what lies in their asking. What is there to say in perilous times like these?  What does our faith offer us?  On this Palm and Passion Sunday, I think it offers us a core truth, a healing truth, a paradoxical and shocking truth: And that is that only a suffering God can help.  And a suffering God —shown to us in the traditional Easter stories – a crucified, broken, desolate God — is the suggestion we have. I know and accept that there’s so much to be, pondered, and debated about the theological meanings of the cross.  What did his crucifixion accomplish?  What can we know for sure about sin, sacrifice, death, atonement, and eternity in light of Christ’s death? These are all essential questions, and wise, probing minds have considered them for centuries.  But right now, what strikes me most is not the theology.  What strikes me is the story itself, bare and unadorned.  The story of betrayal, denial, and abandonment.  The story of cruel, unjust trials, false accusations, and Jesus’s mysterious silence.  The story of floggings.  The story of thorns.  The story of bloody wounds and oxygen-deprived lungs.

Here we have in summary a story of what happens when the God we want to intervene and a God we think we know doesn’t show up, and another God — an inefficient, non-aggressive God, — shows up instead.  So often, we think we know exactly what kind of God we need.  This God will make swift repairs of wrongs, the intervention will be supernatural, in other words not of nature nor of the natural expectations, somehow this God will be a tangible presence without the limitations of being tangible, there will be a butter soft landing for our belief system.  But here’s the thing: that God is not Jesus, not is that God our God..

For those of us who’ve grown up in the church, it might very well be the case that the actual horror of Jesus’s death has faded into over-familiarity. We’re used to worshiping in front of ornate, flower-strewn or purple-cloth draped crosses.  We’ve seen so many icons of Christ Crucified that we barely notice them. Maybe that’s why a crucifix with the body of Jesus on it is better than one without.  But what would happen if we could shake ourselves out of this familiarity for a few minutes, and see the story with fresh eyes?  What if we could look at the cross and see what Jesus’s first followers saw?  Scandal?  Humiliation?  Godlessness?  Shame?  The cross as Covid19 virus. Careful here I am not saying that the Virus is God nor am I saying that Jesus died to save us from the virus either.

In the context of our current pandemic, the story of the cross calls us to have trust in the very midst of the loss and terror. This trust means accepting that we will die — if not now then later — and trusting that our living will be ok.   It means speaking back to our own trembling hearts, which so often prioritize self-protection over everything else that matters in this life.  It means stepping away from the vicious cycles of denial and fear that seek to cheat death, but in fact rob us of the abundant life the Jesus story offers us.

I’ll be honest: like many of you, I come to this Holy Week a bit tired, uncertain, and afraid.   Who knows how many deaths lie waiting around the corner?  How many sorrows, disappointments, farewells, and jagged endings we will face before resurrection comes home to stay?  I can’t imagine most of it, and sometimes I can’t bear any of it.  I find myself crying and asking that if anything in the Christian story is true, then this must be true as well. A suffering God makes sense and this suffering God will not leave me alone.  There is no death we will die, small or big, literal or figurative, that cannot be overcome by the reality of it, the stark truth of what it means to be human. Not is the sense of some sort of supernatural escape from it but rather in that the story of the cross is my story, it is the human story.

Others are telling us that God has taken this terrible occasion to remind us that we are all sinners and that what is happening is that our God is dishing out some much-needed and justifiable punishment upon the human race. Tell that to the family who watched from 2 meters away as their loved one died a slow death asphyxiated by a virus that on one can see coming, and then they could not say goodbye as her body was burned. Tell that to the mother whose daughter returned from her overseas exploration to die in isolation in a local hospital. Those are blasphemous images of God for me, clear examples of the bankruptcy of thinking of God as a strong force with the power to intervene upon natural processes like shifting the crustal plates around the Pacific rim like some toys. What about the fact that as our planet slowly cools so the crust has to move? And why should the decision of who gets the virus and who doesn’t depend upon what suits some sort of divine plan. What about the horrific, horrible story of the crucifixion demanding of us that we think of God otherwise?

If evil exists then it has to be such a thing as the virus, not only in its existence but in its impact on humanity Using John D Caputo’s idea of event one could say that our current world is an event of evil and as such an excess and while events are both good and bad the excess of an event is not necessarily good news. It is an excess in that it has taken over the ability of evolution to control itself. Evil, which we can describe as irreparably ruined time, without the possibility of compensation, also exhibits this excess. There are no guarantees about the course that events follow. An event is not an inner essence, or an essential being of a thing that is unfolding more or less inevitably in time, but it is the endless possibilities of linking of which the name is capable. Events such as Covid19 set off a chain or series of substitutions, not a process of essentialization or essential unfolding.

The evil or the excess did not have to happen. It was a perhaps and not a certainty. An event can result in a disintegrating destabilization and a diminished recontextualization just as well as it can create an opening to the future. Nothing guarantees the success of the event either way. Do you see here the ‘almost’? This virus can be beaten as its links are not assured of asymptotic progress toward some goal. The promise is also a threat to the virus, and the event to come can be either for better or for worse. Some have said that the virus is a threat to democracy and that is true but what is also true is that the promise of the democracy to come is menaced by the threat of the National Socialism to come. The event of the future that is not yet here is not an essence unfolding but a promise to be kept, it is not an inevitable certainty but rather a call or a solicitation to be responded to, a prayer to be answered, a hope to be fulfilled. Man-made or not the virus is an event that is subject to all the contingencies of time and tide, of chance and circumstance, of history and power, of decision and indecision—in short, to all the forces of the world that conspire to prevent the event, to contain its disruption, to hold in check its bottomless disseminative disturbance, to betray its promise an event refers neither to an actual being or entity nor to being itself, but to an impulse or aspiration simmering within both the names of entities and the name of being, something that groans to be born, something that cannot be constricted to either the ontic or ontological order at all. It is the ‘almost’ released by the perhaps.

In less philosophical and more traditional terms here we have the crucified God, the weak theology, the turn the other cheek demand so as to offer the other to the risk. The strength of a weak theology so to speak rightly understood, demands that the possibility event overflows any entity; it does not rest easily within the confines of the name of an entity, but stirs restlessly, endlessly, like an invitation or a call, an invocation (“come”) or a provocation, a solicitation or a promise, a praise or benediction. The insistence of God as opposed to the certainty of God’s power and presence.

When we take the insistence of God and apply it to human life we are challenged to move away from God as a Highest Being. Or God as a steady hand at the wheel of the universe, ordering all things to good purpose, or God who has the spanning providential eye overseeing all. Those ideas have had their time So.  Welcome to Holy Week.  Here we are, and here is our suffering, sorrowing, saving God.  Here are our hosannas, broken and unbroken, hopeful and hungry.  Here is the cross upon which we stand.  Blessed is the One who comes to die so that we will live.

me and place in human history but in our postmodern condition we acknowledge the instability of traditional foundations, the ambiguities of the old absolutes, and the complexity of endlessly linking systems without closure. The “internet” is very postmodern. The world is neither a neat, divinely run cosmos nor pure chaos but what James Joyce called so prophetically “chaosmos,” a dance of probabilities sometimes producing improbable results. That fits with biblical creation: in the Beginning, at the time God was creating the world, the elements were already there, as old as God.

Faith then is not a noun but a verb, faith is not a commodity but a way of life, faith is not a safe harbour but rather risky business. God is not a warranty for a well-run world, but the name of a promise, an un-kept promise, where every promise is also a risk, a flicker of hope on a suffering planet in a remote corner of the universe. We are asked to not believe in the existence of God but rather in God’s insistence. We like Caputo then do not say God “exists,” but that God calls—God calls upon us, like an unwelcome interruption, a quiet but insistent solicitation. The truth of God may or may not come true. The work of theology is not to spell out the bells and whistles adorning a heavenly monarch but to meditate upon everything we are here called to, everything we are trying to recall, in and under the name (of) “God.” In a postmodern world, this monotheistic name does not have a monopoly. God emerges here and there, often under other names, not in the bound volumes of theology but in loose papers that describe a more underlying and insecure faith, a more restless hope, a more deep-set but unfulfilled promise or desire, a desire beyond desire that is never satisfied. We can say ‘I do not know what I desire when I desire God’, where that non-knowing is not a lack but the open-ended venture in the human adventure, the promise/risk, the very structure of hope and expectation, not this Messiah or that, but a messianic expectation not immune from secretly hoping the Messiah never shows up. God does not bring closure but a gap. A God of the gaps is not the gap God fills, but the gap God opens. The name of God makes the present a space troubled by an immemorial past and an unforeseeable future. Good, good, indeed very good. ‘Almost’. That is not a declaration of fact but a promise on which we are expected to make good, an insistence whose existence we are expected to deliver. And nobody is guaranteeing anything. That is The Way, The truth and The Life.

So.  Welcome to Holy Week.  Here we are, and here is our suffering, sorrowing, crucified and saving redeeming God.  It is in our hosannas, broken and unbroken, hopeful and hungry that is our response to the insistence. They or our ‘almost’ our yes, thank God. Here is the cross upon which we stand so that we may live Blessed is the One who comes in the Name of God. Amen.

Caputo, John D. The Insistence of God (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion). Indiana University Press. Kindle Edition.

Caputo, John D. The Weakness of God (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion) (p. 6). Indiana University Press. Kindle Edition.

Below is the link to a video that I think might help explain the use of ‘Almost’ as a way to understand how God insists as opposed to exits.



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