Friday, January 11, 2013

Pathetic Theology Part II

A few days ago I posted a piece that caused a veritable storm around the blogosphere. You literally could not count the amount of comments it got on one hand. (Granted, I was responsible for two of them, while one of them was simply a spelling correction.) It had to do with Pete Rollins' tragic theology. The feedback sparked a whole train of thought that I've been trying to get on track ever since.

One of the questions (and it is an extremely important one) was this: "Did Jesus really come to embrace brokenness in order to heal it?" (emphasis mine)

There were legitimate cries for this discussion to become more theological (by becoming more christological), and I think that it's precisely at this point that we can begin to make that happen. My short answer is Yes, Jesus really did come to heal brokenness. Luke places Jesus's manifesto at the beginning of his gospel:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.

The joyous affirmation of brokenness (a term I would really like to clarify, if not replace with other more concrete terms) can be seen in this light to be a kind of bourgeoisie theology/politics that leaves social situations as they are. If we want to put flesh and blood on the presence of God, however, then we must take Jesus seriously. And to take Jesus seriously means that those who hunger and thirst for justice are not told that life's crap but to enjoy its crapness; they are told that their hunger and thirst will be satisfied.

The problem I have with Rollins's version of tragic theology is that it has a deficient christology and therefore a deficient ecclesiology. "Humanness" in the abstract is not beautiful. What is beautiful is the Human One that is Jesus of Nazareth. "Brokenness" as an abstract concept is not to be affirmed. What is to be affirmed is the One whose body was broken for us. Where our brokenness imitates that brokenness (which is really the only kind of suffering rejoiced over in the New Testament) then at the point we may discern the presence of God at work in the world.

What, then, of the mother and father who watch helplessly while their child suffers inscrutable pain? Where is the presence of God in this situation? Can beauty shine forth from such suffering? I think it can, but it will be a beauty whose movement is from mourning to hope, rather than a beauty that simply accepts the suffering as "mystery" (the book of Job would be instructive here). The church is called to weep with those who weep, to mourn with those who mourn, but to do so while hoping against hope in the God who doesn't affirm or accept death but who transforms it into life; the God who will shine his face on us even (perhaps precisely) at our weakest, most vulnerable moment. This is what it means for the church to be prophetic - we, together, are made capable of imagining a world that is radically different to the one we have been given. This isn't pie-in-the-sky theology. It is deeply political. Once again, yes, Jesus really did come to heal brokenness. "At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see Jesus..." and he promises us that he really is making all things new. The church, as body of Christ, is a foretaste and partner in that renewal.

Karl Barth wrote that "Every word in the New Testament presupposes the resurrection of Jesus" (or something like that). Every word and act of the church ought to do the same. We have tried demythologising the Jesus of the Gospels; we have tried depoliticising him; we have tried spiritualising him, we have tried not taking him too seriously; we have tried blatant unbelief. What if the church actually believed?

Is any of this linked to the impassibility of God? If I have taken Kevin's correction with due seriousness then hopefully it is, because, strange as it may sound, the impassibility of God is witnessed to by the obedience unto suffering of Christ and his church.

There is far more to write (and I think Yoder would be a good voice to bring into the discussion more explicitly), but that's all I've got for now. I guess I have come down on one side after least for the moment, anyway.


  1. I love this post even more. It reminds me of this:

    When someone attempts to play down the reality of death, Billy bursts out: "Our Lord spilling His every drop of blood on the cross to show us death is terrible . . . and all the while we're telling ourselves that it's not so bad, after all." "Life goes on" after a loved one dies, he is told. His response: "I won't let it."

  2. "What, then, of the mother and father who watch helplessly while their child suffers inscrutable pain? Where is the presence of God in this situation?"

    Agreeing wholeheartedly with your christological response. Moltmann's take on suffering and faith is interesting here. He suggests that at the cross Jesus is effectively abandoned by the Father - God's presence is withdrawn. And this should help Christians experiencing deep suffering and feeling the absence of God. A kind of solidarity with Jesus' experience. Feels similiar to Rollins?

    But, coming back to impassibility, it is the Son who suffers but the Father does not abandon the Son. And so Christians have the hope that they too are not abandoned. And the hope, as you say, is that Jesus overcomes death and suffering in the power of the Spirit. Passibility becomes impassibility, liberated from death and pain and suffering. These are things not be rejoiced in or even passively accepted, but overcome. Impassibility points to the eschatological victory of God. I think this gets much closer the joyful hope of the NT than (even if humbly) embracing the reality of sin, transience and suffering.

  3. Thanks for that link, Kevin. I may just have to get my hands on "Charming Billy".

    Patrick, I think you've got Rollins right. For him, it is in the very absence of God that we know the divine, because the Incarnation for Rollins seems to name the absolute collapse of God into humanity, so that the two are indistinguishable. This is incarnation not as kenosis, but as metamorphosis.