The Scandalous God

This is the fourth installment of my occasional (mostly weekly) series of postings on systematic theology. (There was none last week because I read from Tillich’s Systematic Theology, and did not even know where to start…) These start out as reflection papers for a course I am taking at seminary. This week, I am dealing with Vitor Westhelle’sThe Scandalous God: The Use and Abuse of the Cross, and this paper in unchanged from the one I will hand in. (FULL DISCLOSURE: Westhelle teaches at my seminary, and I took the first part of systematic theology from him last semester.)

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There is no theology of the cross, but there are theologians of the cross, according to Vitor Westhelle. In the first three chapters of his book, Westhelle describes the intellectual conundrum of a religious faith founded in the encounter with a crucified Messiah, “on the experience of utter shame, of a god that dies the death of a condemned criminal” (p. 2). This cross became the symbol of victory rather than defeat, has become so common that its original meaning – the method the Roman’s employed to publicly execute rebels – was lost in its “Constantinian” meaning of power and authority. Westhelle wants to recover the original meaning of the cross, and in so doing find the authentic meaning of the Christian faith as a faith that can only be found in the resurrection.

In this, Westhelle examines the incarnation, trinity and the concept of justice. For Westhelle, the reality of the incarnation demonstrates that “only the lowest can encompass the highest; only the last can be the first; only the lost can be found” (p. 25). (Indeed, only the lost are in need of finding.) Thus, God’s incarnation in Christ – the very essence of the infinite bounded and contained by the finite — “encompasses the world” (p. 29). In speaking of justice, Westhelle begins by considering the medieval understanding of justice, to each what to each is due, and how medieval thinkers such as Anselm and Abelard struggled with how God works with that concept of justice given that human beings are utterly incapable of giving to God what they owe God. Luther’s understanding, according to Westhelle, is that humanity cannot judge God on the basis of our understanding of justice as God’s surrendering of God’s-self to humanity, as a gift. The measure of justice is God’s action rather than human analogy. Westhelle points out, inadvertently I think, that the problem is with human beings who constantly try to hold God accountable to our understanding of “the rules,” whatever those may be.

God is just because God is God, and thus what God “does” is just by the fact that God does it, and not because it follows some predictable set of rules that God is supposedly accountable to.

(And whether medieval Catholicism’s understanding of God’s economy of justice was as grounded in early mercantile capitalism of Europe or not is an interesting question. I suspect not, given the suspicion that Rome had toward the evolving industrial and trade economy evolving from the industrial revolution of the 13th century. And while it may be fair to call Luther “the first German political economist,” as Westhelle quotes Marx, this is not entirely in Luther’s favor, as his views of trade and finance capital betray a Luther who is much more a “revolutionary conservative” akin to Pat Buchanan or Lou Dobbs [or maybe George Wallace?], to borrow an assertion from Robert Nelson’s Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics.)

Finally, Westhelle deals with the meaning and purpose of suffering – both that of Jesus and our own. “Jesus suffered because he named the cause of suffering, the law that kills. And in this naming lies the power to overcome it” (p. 90). In the midst of this pain and suffering – God’s and ours – comes the reassurance from God (and, I’m guessing, our response to God): “I know who you are, for I have seen you there in the midst of brokenness” (p. 117).

I’m not sure this is anywhere near as timely, provocative or as creative as reviewers suggest. Swaths of it (such as Chapter Eight) border on nonsensical, though my favorite bit of pointlessness in the book comes toward the end of Chapter Five:

Reading the cross in an epistemological key offers the invitation to move constantly to the margins of the text, to the frame of the picture that is normally all too familiar and seek what Foucault called “subjugated knowledges,” the knowledges that stand at the edge of the canonic epistemies, the conventionally accepted regimes of truth.

And when the “knowledges” in Westhelle’s book become “conventionally accepted regimes of truth,” as they are among Christians in liberal/progressive confessions (consider the adoring blurbs on the back of the book, for example), what then? Where lie the margins of Westhelle’s “all too familiar?”

In this book, Westhelle unfortunately offers an intellectual history that is completely ungrounded in the real world, where real ideas are incarnate and made flesh, so to speak. His chapter on uses and abuses of the cross is a particularly egregious example of this. By focusing on “great thinkers” and their ideas (Hegel, Nietzsche), he gives me utterly no understanding of how the cross was actually used and misused by preachers, essayists and lesser thinkers – and how it may have then been understood by believers. And what the very real, as opposed to merely intellectual, consequences of that were.

There are brilliant places in this book. Again, his discussion of justice is marvelous (especially given how insipid talk of justice is among liberal Christians these days), and he especially critical of temporal power. I found myself wishing I had written this statement on page 42 (though I would have said it somewhat differently):

In our pursuit to be righteous – to have our due share and pay for our dues, which does not succeed – the justice of Christ breaks in and fragments the systems of the world, its philosophy, ecclesial structures, legal rules – in short, the earthly economies and regimes. Instead of righting them with their own rules and weapons, the justice of Christ transgresses their wisdom and legislations. The possibilities of divine justice in the midst of this world manifest themselves precisely where these economies break down or are transgressed. How is that done? By showing that behind every one of the ruling systems or the earthly regimes there is an implicit promise that they will deliver salvation, safety, property, freedom and emancipation, and thus a disguised failure. They hide their failures by demanding more compliance. And we comply in the belief of the reasonableness of their request. [Italics mine.]

But there are times, I think, when Westhelle is trying to make Luther into a progressive Brazilian archbishop. And Luther simply wasn’t. He was a late medieval German, a passionate and intemperate man who did not understand economics (any of his writings on the subject show this, though Luther has some very good ideas on risk that I hope to write about at some point in the future) and believed in a very medieval social order. Luther was often wrong about things, and that needs to be remembered as we deal with Luther’s many and veried writings.

In the end, despite bits of brilliance, The Scandalous God is a generally unsatisfying book which itself makes promises that it does not deliver. It is a bottle of very rarified air that glows ever so slightly when exposed to a spark of static electricity. This is probably not Westhelle’s fault. Perhaps we are simply too inured to the cross to truly appreciate it as scandal.

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