….and it isn’t the Doctrine of Justification by Grace through Faith.
It’s the Theology of the Cross.
I’m participating in a year-long Continuing Education program on mental health and chaplaincy. We are learning about Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is a recent shift towards “third wave psychotherapies” that are aimed at becoming more open to other possibilities by reflecting on their experience. ACT seeks to address the reality of pain and suffering, and how it creates what psychologists call “psychological rigidity and inflexibility.” This phenomena arises when our internal thoughts and feelings create a narrative that’s disconnected from our external experience. When our thoughts and feelings create a reality that doesn’t match what we’re actually experiencing, it creates anxiety, stress, but even more so, a false reality that we simply can’t budge from.
A simpler term for this is what psychologists call “comparative suffering.” It’s pretty straightforward: we compare our suffering – or the suffering we care about – to other suffering. We categorize, prioritize, and quantify suffering. Interestingly enough, studies have shown that when it comes to comparative suffering, people will always tend to place their own suffering, or the suffering that matters to them, above the suffering of strangers and adversaries. What I’ve found in this life, comparative suffering is a false reality…suffering simply just is.
A theology of Glory calls good evil and evil good. A theologian of the Cross calls a thing that it actually is.
In our present day, I wonder if the problem itself is our process of classifying every thing as either wholly good or wholly evil. We become theologians of Glory, but not as Luther meant it so long ago, perhaps. In our time, it’s not so much identifying the outright contradictions to God’s notions of justice, love, and humility, but rather, the paranoid process of pointing out which injustice, unkindness, and arrogance the collective should care about. In the end, we’re just theologians of Glory, caught up in the process of comparative suffering, the pursuit of validating our thoughts and feelings divorced from the reality of our collective experience: we all suffer. As theologians of Glory, we become theologically rigid and inflexible, twisting notions of God and God’s Grace to fit our thoughts and feelings. Comparative suffering becomes the altar we place things like Grace on, cut it into pieces, and hand it out conditionally. As theologians of Glory, our rigidity and inflexibility creates a god that exists in our thoughts and feelings. That god does not exist. It is a false god.
That’s known as idolatry.
Idolatry is the elevation and glorification of ourselves, hence, a theology of Glory.
That’s why I think the theology of the Cross is the single most important theological concept for our world today. A theologian of the Cross first and foremost accepts reality as it is – even the most troubling, disturbing, and sobering parts of it. A theologian of the Cross makes no upfront judgments on that reality, but merely points to it and bids you not to look away in avoidance. A theology of the Cross forces you to face reality on its own terms, not yours. For a theologian of the Cross, there is no room for false realities like comparative suffering. All suffering is suffering, not greater, not lesser; but one cannot avoid suffering – ours or others – at any level.
We live in a day and age where I think most of us see what is going on. We feel the division, the disconnection, the victim-blaming, and the playing the victim that exists in our world. The great question, at least for those of us that just simply don’t know what to do anymore and yet wish not avoid the collective pain that affects us all, is “how can we collectively look at all this and not say, “what the hell?” (My version of Kyrie Eleison)
By becoming theologians of the Cross, I wonder if God might loosen the rigidity and inflexibility of our hearts and minds and liberate us to a place of acceptance, accepting that things are not as they should be and that we need each other and need God. I think most of us will accept that things are “not good” in our society right now. Maybe you’re like me and really trying to not place one culture’s or one person’s suffering over another’s. The true enemy is when we get caught up in the trap of comparative suffering. When we do that, a lack of empathy, a lack of compassion, and indifference to suffering and pain usually is the result. A good colleague and friend posted this quote the other day:
“As people we generally don’t change when we see the light; we change when we feel the heat.” – Hank Brooks
If there is a common theme among our collective society, it is the desire for change. That change doesn’t come by making others “see the light” and the error of their ways. That change doesn’t come by calling others evil while calling ourselves and our tribes good. Change doesn’t come through the process of comparative suffering.
Change comes only when we choose to accept suffering as a collective and shared experience. Change comes when we feel the pain of our collective poverty and helplessness. Change comes when we realize that the poor slob or arrogant S.O.B. we can’t stand is actually in the same boat as we are.
For a theologian of the Cross, the change comes when we realize we don’t have to kick that person out of the boat. We call suffering what it is – a reality we all share in, and all are affected by. Funny thing is, when that happens for theologians of the Cross, we experience change: God’s change. By calling a thing what it is, we – even for a brief moment – see beauty break in. We see justice, love, and humility break through the rigidity and inflexibility of our hearts and minds. The God of Grace breaks in and saves us all.
For a theologian of Glory, that’s a dangerous thing, because then they stand to lose all. Their idols come crashing down.
For a theologian of the Cross, this is good news, because while they also stand to lose all, the collective liberation God brings is so much greater.
So let’s start being honest. Let’s call it like it is. Let’s be theologians of the Cross.