“The way ahead is found in the tension itself. This is not the same thing as having it both ways by seeking a bland, safe position in the center between the poles. Christian theology and the Christian life are best found on the frontiers, where our thinking and doing are engaged by the dynamic tension between two seemingly contradictory truths.”
In both the introduction and in the first chapter of her book “The Crucifixion: Understanding The Death of Jesus Christ”, Rutledge recognizes the existence of contradictory feelings, ideas and truths as necessary constructs for understanding what it is that faith desires to do within the context of Christian theology and the Christian life. Both faith and science hold equal interest in exploring the tension that our questions, the source of these contradictions, are able to bring forth, but where faith differs from science is in its greater interest in exploring the intersection of theology and a life lived in relationship to this God we are wondering about.
The Christian faith, then, shapes the way we live particularly according to the ministry and witness of Christ, and it is Rutledge’s conviction that the Cross, and the idea of the Cross, remains its greatest and most important source of tension. This is true for a variety of reasons, but Rutledge does an amazing job in her first chapter of outlining the relevance both of our common resistance to the (idea of the) Cross and the primacy of the Cross in the Gospel of Jesus.
If faith is about hope, the Cross is often the thing that feels the least hopeful, while at the same time being declared as the most vital part of hope’s emergence in the story of the Christian faith. As she writes, “The Gospels are designed, each according to its own perspective, to show, after the fact, how Jesus’ sacrificial life led to his sacrificial death.” And yet, as she goes on to point out, history has marked itself by a familiar resistance to the Cross and its imposition. The Cross has long been considered and described as an “offense”, a contradictory roadblock in our attempts to understand a loving God.
What underscores this resistance is the ability of the Cross to “reorient” our lives in ways that make us uncomfortable. That is what makes the cross an offence, is its imposition. And yet that is also the power the cross holds as a “contradictory” statement. What makes contradiction necessary and vital is its ability to protect an idea or truth from becoming a product of our own making. It helps us to know that what informs our lives, our questions, comes from something outside of ourselves, which is what we are able to trust. This is true for scientific method and theory. This is even more true for the process of faith.
The Offense of the Cross and A Cross of Offense: Facing a Contradiction
I wrote in my earlier blog that part of the tension that I carry with me into my reading of this book is the way I had been taught to view the Cross. To see the Cross was to hear the singular message that God despises me because of my sin, and that the only way for God to see me was to see Christ in my place. This was, as they said, an act of love. And despite coming to this view by way of a desire to find a more intellectually aware and robust faith, this way of thinking led to an incredible struggle with depression, a devaluing of not only myself but others, and a constant state of fear and anxiety.
One of the things that I had to do was confront and recognize this apparent tension or contradiction within the confines of my faith. I questioned this view of the Cross, but at the same time I also recognized that without the Cross my Christian faith had lost its relevance. This became apparent when I abandoned my faith for a while, and even more apparent when I came back to the idea of faith in God later on. Only now I knew that I needed to rediscover the Cross with this tension in tow, a journey I still find myself on.
So much of what Rutledge writes keeps poking at the source of this tension for me. As she points out, it is human nature to want to spin out and away from the offense of the cross when confronted by it. Despite the challenges I had and have in reconciling the way I was taught to see the Cross with the Cross I was rediscovering, the even greater problem was rediscovering a Cross that was perhaps even more offensive than the one I left behind. Only it is a different kind of offense. To open myself up to what the Cross wants to do in my life can be a frightening prospect precisely because of the ways it wants to reorient my life in unexpected directions. It turned me from being offended by the Cross to understanding the offence of the Cross.
Rediscovering The Cross: A New Found Freedom
What I have found in this space though and on this journey is a greater degree of freedom and hope. And what I have found particularly helpful in reading this book is the way Rutledge seems to have given definition to this freedom and hope as, to use her term, the “Word of the Cross”. The Cross is a revelatory, life shaping, spirit forming reality that wants to shape the way I live according to the Way of Jesus. This is the offense, and this is also the freedom and hope that we find in it.
Further, perhaps one of the most informing things about this is the way Rutledge has helped me (re)frame the Cross the Resurrection together as the singular work of God in my life and in this world. Tension often arises when we see the Cross as the less than hopeful part of the Christian story and the Resurrection as the source of our hope, and thus compartmentalize them, separate them, and isolate them as separate parts of the same story. And yet,
“The Resurrection, being a transhistorical event planted within history, does not cancel out the contradiction and shame of the cross in this present life; rather, the resurrection ratifies the cross as the way “until he comes.”
What she goes on to define in chapter 1 is that the ways in which the Resurrection vindicates the Cross. In other words, we approach the Cross in light of the resurrection. That is what gives the Cross its shape. This is the idea of “redemptive suffering”, that we are called as Christians to travel in the Way of Jesus not away from it, and the reason this distinctive is so important is because of the relationship between faith, hope and love.
The reason redemptive suffering is a necessary idea in light of this relationship is because it is still the reality that we find in this not yet but already reality that frames the Cross and the Resurrection as a whole. This points us back to what God is doing and what God desires to do in the midst of this suffering as participants not observers, a people of God attentive to the suffering of others.
Rutledge does such an amazing job at helping to unpack how this was and is the great tragedy of Gnosticism, is that it pulls us out of suffering for the sake of ourselves rather than pushing us into it for the sake of others. Not in the sense of looking for suffering, but rather in recognizing that the work of God is to attend to this suffering. This is why she can say something so bold as, “The Christian gospel- when proclaimed in its radical New Testament form- is more truly inclusive of every human being, spiritually proficient or not, than any of the world’s religious systems have ever been, precisely because of the godlessness of Jesus’ death.” And this becomes our witness because, borrowing from Bonhoeffer, she writes, “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross (Bonhoeffer).”
The Cross as Signposts For Our Lives
I love this image that Rutledge paints- resurrection life must always be marked by the signs of the cross. In reflecting on my own story and what the spirit is looking to teach and show me as I journey through this book, I am struck by how the Cross, despite my inability to understand it, my resistance to it, and even its problematic place at points in my life, has been shaping me and molding me according to its hopeful purpose even in my ignorance. There is a point in chapter 1 where she speaks about how people tend to look back on classical Christendom and classical Christian teaching with less than favourable eyes because they see “creed” as synonymous with outdated and dangerous. It’s interesting then to consider that in my own journey I found myself eventually drawn into a liturgical and confessional Church environment that gives classical Christianity a presence and a place. I think I was drawn here because I had come to understand that a faith without lived without tension was not much of a faith, and that to live in a way that ignored the Cross or with no faith at all was to live in a world of my own making. A world made in my own image.
I need a faith that is able to reorient me out of my places of self interest, a self interest that can be located firmly within the realm of Gnostic (and modern) teaching. If Gnosticism, as Rutledge helps us to understand, is the great rival to Christianity precisely because of the ways it sees “privileged spiritual knowledge” as the way to salvation or enlightenment (thus creating a natural hierarchy with people on the top and people on the bottom), it is in the way that the Cross is able to place us all on equal ground that love as an idea both lavished and imparted on us can emerge.
“In gnosticism”s portrayal of salvation, the power to redeem (God’s power) has been subsumed into our capacity for being redeemed. Therefore the crucifixion becomes unnecessary.”
These signposts, these Cross markers in my life become the story God is telling as I, and we, anticipate the New Heavens and the New earth being made new. It is this cruciform pattern of life that must mark our communities as self giving and sacrificial as we anticipate this reality. This is the love that we find at the Cross. To live in the resurrection without the cross is to neglect the “now” for the not yet, and “to believe that we can do this without the cross.” The Eucharist declares itself as food for the journey not because it frees us from suffering but because, when seen in the light of Resurrection hope it can reveal to us through the Cross that this world is being redeemed, that we are being made new, and that we are being made whole.