Identity and Relevance

Gruenwald's Isenheim AltarpieceThinking lately about God’s solidarity in Christ with the suffering, the poor, and the marginalized, I ran across these words from Jürgen Moltmann, which I had made margin notes alongside, until today long-forgotten, in my copy of his book The Crucified God. While considering his words again today I realized why I so infrequently walk this path.

The Christian life of theologians, churches and human beings is faced more than ever today with a double crisis: the crisis of relevance and the crisis of identity. These two crises are complementary. The more theology and the church attempt to become relevant to the problems of the present day, the more deeply they are drawn into the crisis of their own identity. The more they attempt to assert their identity in traditional dogmas, rights and moral notions, the more irrelevant and unbelievable they become…

[In] these specific experiences of a double crisis, reflection on the cross leads to the clarification of what can be called Christian identity and what can be called Christian relevance, in critical solidarity with our contemporaries…

As far as I am concerned, the Christian church and Christian theology become relevant to the problems of the modern world only when they reveal the “hard core” on their identity in the crucified Christ and through it are called into question, together with the society they live in.

Faith, the church and theology must demonstrate what they really believe and hope about the man from Nazareth who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and what practical consequence they wish to draw from this. But what kind of theology of the cross does him justice, and is necessary today?

To return to the theology of the cross means avoiding one-sided presentations of it in tradition, and comprehending the crucified Christ in the light and context of his resurrection, and therefore of freedom and hope.

To take up the theology of the cross today is to go beyond the limits of the doctrine of salvation to inquire into the revolution needed in the concept of God. Who is God in the cross of Christ who is abandoned by God?

To take up the theology of the cross further at the present day means to go beyond a concern for personal salvation, and to inquire about the liberation of man and his new relationship to the demonic crisis in his society. Who is the true man in sight of the Son of Man who was rejected and rose again in the freedom of God?…

[To] realize the cross at the present day is [to move] beyond a criticism of the church into a criticism of society. What does it mean to recall the God who was crucified in a society whose official creed is optimism, and which is knee-deep in blood?…

Jesus dies crying out to God, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ All Christian theology and all Christian life is basically an answer to the question Jesus asked as he died… The issue is not that of an abstract theology of the cross and suffering, but of a theology of the crucified Christ.

(Jürgen Moltmann, beginning his book to disillusioned visionaries, The Crucified God, his emphases.)

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Painting: Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece

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