CRUCIFORM MISSION? Liberating the Passion from limited theology

An abbreviated version of this review appears in Connections, vol. 8, issue no. 1, April 2004.

The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World, by Douglas John Hall (Fortress Press, Minneapolis MN, USA, 2003). ISBN: 0-8006-3581-7, 274pp. £12.99.

Though his impact in the US and Canada has been considerable, the name of Douglas John Hall is not well-known on this side of the Atlantic. That is a great pity, because the Emeritus Professor of Theology at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, is one of the most important religious thinkers of our time. Operating on the borderland of systematics and missiology (hardly an overpopulated region), his monumental three-volume work on ‘Christian Theology in a North American Context’ (1989-1986) has drawn plaudits from across the theological spectrum. It ought to be a standard reference for anyone trying to get to grips with mission in Western society right now.

The Cross in Our Context is a deep meditation on the crisis of American religion, a resounding assault on theological triumphalism in all its forms, and an imaginative evocation of contemporary discipleship. Based on his major trilogy (and with a helpful link to its related sections on pages 257-9), the book draws its central inspiration from a re-exploration of the theology of the Cross, from St Paul to Luther, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, Moltmann, Kitamori and beyond. Its aim is not to digest his previous writing, but to develop it in abbreviated form.

Hall, who has done much to restore and revitalize interest in the Lutheran tradition in North America, points out that theologia crucis has always extended far beyond the Passion narratives themselves. It is a whole mood and method for Christian thinking based on the ‘great refusal’ of domination. Wea¬ving together the dangers of ideological hubris, consumerist self-absorption and destructive religious essentialism post-9/11, The Cross in Our Context seeks to show how the God-who-suffers in Jesus is the antithesis of, and antidote to, the disguised pathology of suffering which inhabits so much of our public imagination.

If Mel Gibson’s controversial new film on the death of Christ is the nadir of that tendency in religious terms, as many would argue, Douglas John Hall’s writing is its refutation. It is not violence that redeems, he argues, but the capacity to face, absorb and transform it: a capacity which requires us to draw on resources that go far beyond ourselves. The Gospel narrative, appropriated through a costly, communal following of Jesus, takes us into the heart of God’s luminous darkness. It is here that the refusal becomes a reversal. Hall is tentative about what that might mean in eschatological terms, but he is clear that to glimpse divine promise in a world of suffering means enacting ‘critical judgement and active responsibility’ on a day-to-day basis, not succumbing to the delusions of ‘grand apocalyptic visionaries who cannot be satisfied with anything short of a total transformation.’

At the core of Douglas John Hall’s theology is an invitation to critical faithfulness. This combines three trajectories. First, re-appropriating the ‘key signatures’ of the Christian tradition — the dynamic possibilities of God, Christ, humanity and the world. Second, understanding the slow, inevitable and desirable death of Christendom, the church imperially shaped by its alliances with secular power. Third, reformulating mission and ethics (and through them the church) in ‘the contemporary moral wilderness’. All this is necessary, he argues, in response to God’s determined and costly proximity to us, which reaches its culmination in the Cross.

In pursuing these paths Hall maintains an admirable balance between critique and construction. His visionary realism is not blind to the benefits of ‘Christian civilization’. But he shows why it is not an appropriate rendering of a Gospel rooted in God’s homelessness within the world. In the ‘polite Protestantism’ of the ‘possessing peoples of this planet’ Hall recognizes his own reflection. Yet it is precisely the core assumptions of these forces that he sees being submerged in the deep krisis of American culture, and challenged by a hopeful biblical faith rescued from fearful fundamentalism by its (and the Gospel’s) own critical resources.

Douglas John Hall takes his North Atlantic setting seriously, but he understands it broadly. The New Testament narrative of a suffering church connects much more readily with the experience of the global South. There is a good deal to learn from this, he says. But Hall thoughtfully criticizes Philip Jenkins’ thesis of a re-emerging Christendom in Africa and Asia. He is also as unromantic about the triumphalism that arises in non-Western contexts as he is of their origins in his own. For European readers he highlights the overlooked theological resour¬ces in our backyard. He breaks the barriers between Germanic and transatlantic perspectives and shows how sustain¬able discipleship requires substantial theology and vice versa.

The Cross in Our Context is an essential text for anyone thinking about or teaching Christian mission today. While his writing style can sometimes be elliptical, Hall combines measured reason with faithful imagination. His catholicity abjures the apparent judgmentalism of post-liberals (like Hauerwas, perhaps) while embracing many of their themes. Paradoxically he handles the painful truth of ambiguity without ambivalence because he recognizes it as a crucial dimension of suffering — something he takes with the utmost seriousness.

The goal of Christian mission, Douglas John Hall’s book suggests, is not to efface culture with our regnant renditions of the Gospel but to point people towards the forgotten hope which lies in and beyond all renderings of the story of Jesus: ‘The only way of affirming life … in a world that is preoccupied with repressing its knowledge of death while in its actions pursuing death with a wondrous single-mindedness … is to discover, somehow, the courage that is needed to confront the culture’s repressed and therefore highly effective ‘no’. The theology of the cross is for Christians the most reliable expression of the Source of that courage.’

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