Is Anybody Home?

Robert Kolb
Monday, August 6th 2007
Jul/Aug 1997

At the end of Shisaku Endo's novel Silence (the silence of God is meant), the Japanese convert Kichjiro comes to a fallen Portuguese missionary priest, seeking absolution for trampling on the image of Christ. The priest, Sebastian Rodrigues, has earned the epithet "the Apostate Paul" by succumbing to torture and trampling on the image of the Christ child and his mother. Rodrigues is about to be forced to take a Japanese name and to marry, thus losing the last traces of his identity as a Portuguese and a priest. He has already lost his claim to be Christian, he is sure. He confesses, "I, too, stood on the sacred image … on the face of the man who has been ever in my thoughts, … on the best and most beautiful face that any man can ever know, on the face of him whom I have always longed to love."

But in that moment of confrontation with his own shame and guilt, the apostate hears the voice of his Lord, the Lord who remains Lord, in spite of, and in the midst of, the shame-filled weakness and utter stupidity of his apostasy. "'I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.' 'Lord, I resented your silence.' 'I was not silent. I suffered beside you.'"

Instantly the fallen priest realizes what it means that the Lord's strength is perfected in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). "His five toes had pressed upon the face of one he loved. Yet he could not understand the tremendous onrush of joy that came over him at that moment." For the Lord returned. Christ had again renewed his claim on this priest who no longer deserved to be called "Father." Rodrigues decided then that, defrocked or not, he would absolve Kichjiro. If such an act betrayed his fellow priests and the system in which he had served Christ before his apostasy, it would not be a betrayal of the Lord himself, (1) whose own strength and wisdom are revealed in what seems weak and foolish to this world (1 Cor. 1:18-2:16).

The Lord had been speaking through and in the midst of the fog of silence which the fallen priest was enduring. Suddenly, the truth of that often empty-sounding cliché, "God is never nearer than when he seems furthest away" came home to him. This God had claimed his own triumph over the worst of evils, even the apostasy of his own children, through the weakness and foolishness of his own cross. For his threat to deny us when we deny him turns into his promise, "if we are faithless, he remains faithful-for he cannot deny himself" (2 Tim. 2:12-13). Father Rodrigues had ventured into a foreign land confident that his own exploits for the faith would make God's glory manifest. But in the wilderness of his sojourn, this pilgrim found the God who reveals himself on his own cross and in the crosses of our own fragility and flaws, fears and failures.

Endo's novel about the failure of the Jesuit mission in seventeenth century Japan has often been interpreted out of the mouth of his enemy, the lord of Chikugo, who had wrung the apostasy from the priest's soul: "'This country of Japan is not suited to the teaching of Christianity. Christianity simply cannot put down roots here …. Father, you were not defeated by me …. You were defeated by this swamp of Japan.'" (2) Such an interpretation misses the point of the story's conclusion. The novel presents a theology of the cross. Even in the weakness and failure of such a life as that of Father Rodrigues, the cross of Christ generates its word of forgiveness and life.

For Such a Time as This

This is not religion as we like religion to be. We rather enjoy the glories of a Christianity which rewards our loyalty and punishes the unfaithfulness of such utter failures as Father Sebastian. We prefer a religion which delivers the kinds of success with which we are comfortable. We embrace with pleasure a Christianity which quickly roots out the evils in life we do not like (and occasionally even those we do). We covet a God of glory, supported by power, rational proofs, good common sense, and success. But such a view of religion reflects neither the biblical description of the Christian faith and the activities of our God, nor the ever harsher realities of American life at the end of the twentieth century. The theology of the cross, with its word of forgiveness and life in the midst of crushing evils, addicting sins, and personal failures of the worst sort, is just what we need.

A quarter of a century ago, the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall wrote an attempt at "an indigenous theology of the cross" for North America. The Vietnam era-with Watergate and the oil crisis thrown into the mix of the war for good measure-seemed to have brought to an end the naive optimism which had blinded the American imagination since the Enlightenment had given it birth. Hall believed that "intimations of man's apparent ignominy and the meaninglessness of the historical process" were changing the mentality of a people who had never been able to come to terms with evil and tragedy. (3) In the 1970s Hall saw the first honest American confrontation with the tragic taking place on a national scale (apart from the crisis over slavery and states rights 140 years earlier). It was taking place, Hall observed, in a thought-world still dominated by Marxism and existentialism, two ends of a spectrum which is circular, meeting in the atomization of individuals, isolated either into the darkness of the void of absurdity or into the blind devotion to a leader and a system which would ensure them a proletarian paradise. (4) Today Americans are in the smothering grip of a practical materialism (which has replaced the theoretical version), and of a pragmatic individualism, which works through a creed of democratic (rather than dictatorial) imposition of alienation and estrangement from natural human support systems. This practical materialism and narcissistic individualism of our own fin de siècle are creating a whirlwind of havoc in human hearts. Our national heritage offers no genuine means of coping with the real tragedies which are breaking over Americans in all stations and stages of life. As families and firms fail, as homes and health are lost, recreation and even religion no longer restore our spirits.

Hall spoke of a "national philosophy of optimism," "that heritage [which] has encouraged us to indulge our sense of expectancy along lines so unqualifiedly positive that no negative, not death itself, can be seriously admitted at the conscious level." (5) Such a worldview is a fragile phenomenon, which politicians have been able to keep alive only for those protected from the harsh realities of American life by a little more money, a little more luck, or a little more self-deception. For the real men and women of the year 2000, an honest appraisal of life from the foot of the cross makes more sense than ever before in this continent's short memory.

In the past two generations much evangelistic outreach has been successful at luring burned-out Christians back into congregations by offering nice groups of people where we could find companionship and conversation with others much like ourselves. That strategy served to bring many into a true enjoyment of life in Christ Jesus. Indeed, the Christian faith does bring genuine joy and pleasure to human beings who are experiencing sunny days!

More important, however, the faith also helps us to be honest about the storms which beset life. Such storms are now descending upon an increasing number of Americans. The Christian congregation of the future in this society will therefore have to function increasingly as a spiritual hospital. As we care for others this week, we know that next week they will be our physicians and we their patients. The church of the twenty-first century in our God-forsaking society will be haven for the homeless, a home for the helpless, a hospice for the hopeless. It will be a community of believers gathered at the foot of the cross, with a life-embracing view of the cross on which our Lord hangs.

We look to the cross because we need to focus on the defeat of the evils which afflict us. Jesus accomplished this triumph by taking our sinfulness into the body of his death and burying it in his own tomb. We look then to-and through-the empty tomb when we want to look at the life which he won for us by burying our evil. We look through that tomb into eternity, where God is, identifying us as his children through his re-creating word of forgiveness. Then we look from his perspective back through the tomb into the daily life, and we perceive our experiences of his earthly presence among us. We see how he has used us as his instruments of love and salvation.

The Theology of the Cross

The theology of the cross gives us a paradigm for witness, friendship, and support in the normal routines and in the emergencies of those around us. The Lord calls us into their lives to embody the Living Presence of his love. As Paul sketched his theology of the cross, above all in the first two chapters of his first epistle to the Corinthians, we see that this paradigm for Christian realism first of all defines who God is for us. He is not some hidden form, whose plans and counsels we can only dimly sense. The God hidden behind his own majesty and glory is a god shaped in our own image, as Feuerbach observed. The only God we know is the one whose righteousness-whose right way of being God-is revealed in the sacrificial love of the blood-drenched cross. The only God there is appears to us as the kid in the crib, the criminal on the cross, the corpse in the crypt. The fullness of God was pleased to dwell in the one who reconciles all things to himself by making peace through the blood of his very own cross (Col. 1:19-20).

Second, the paradigm of the cross defines who we are. We are those people who know ourselves only when we come to see that we are sinners, justifiably forsaken by God and utterly vulnerable to death. We see our reflection in the image of a dying incarnate God (Mark 15:34).

Third, the cross shows us the way back to life: through faith-alone! Neither empirical proof nor rational proof will place us in the hands of God; these epistemologies serve well on earth, but they place the object of our search for knowledge under the dominion of our own minds. God maintains his Lordship over our minds. He speaks his promise of life from the cross. This promise elicits and creates faith. God destroys the wisdom of the wise and thwarts the discernment of the discerning; he saves those who believe, through the proclamation of Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:18-25).

Fourth, the cruciform paradigm reveals how God restores life: by letting the law pay us the full wages our sinfulness has earned us (Rom. 6:23a), by burying us as sinners in Christ's tomb and thereby giving us life again as an absolutely free gift-genuine human life (Rom. 6:4, 23b).

Finally, the theology of the cross presents us with the way in which we live our lives in him. Our resurrected life as God's new instruments of righteousness is a life which bears crosses for others-for the sake of Christ (Matt. 16:24). We evaluate our success neither in terms of how many blessings we experience nor in terms of how much suffering we have endured. Rather, we find satisfaction in serving up the love of Christ to those who are thirsting for love, as God places them in our paths.

The theology of the cross directs us away from all attempts to speculate about God as he is hidden behind nature or the clouds of our imagination. The theology of the cross directs us to God in human flesh, God on the cross, God raised from the dead. To all the modern questions about what truth might be and what kind of claim truth might have on us, the God who is revealed in crib, cross, and crypt seizes us anew as we present him to those who have lost their way. We introduce our God on his cross. We witness to God revealed as Jesus, on the cross.

For people who are dissatisfied with their old identity, the cross helps explain why they do not "feel good" about themselves. The theology of the cross helps us understand the fullness of what it means to be human, and thus how broken humanity is. The theology of the cross points us to the center of our humanity, our trust in Jesus Christ. From the foot of the cross we see how wrong we were-no matter how well we behaved-because we did not love and trust in Yahweh above all things. We witness to the God who calls us to trust him and who bestows our new identity in this trust.

For those who are seeking the right way of living and thrashing about for a new identity, the theology of the cross confirms what the disciples of psychologist Erik Eriksen all know. Successful human life begins by learning to trust, and trust accompanies those who can live at peace throughout the progression of their lives. The theology of the cross leads us to place our lives in God's hands, through the power of his Holy Spirit, rather than try to master life on our own terms. It helps us understand fully what the biblical writers mean when they say that those who are truly human-the just-do live, in fact, by faith. The theology of the cross also shows us how God restores the true identity of those whom he has called to be his children. He does that by taking us through the death of Christ into our own death as people who have fouled our own nests and have to live with the consequences of our sin. The theology of the cross leads us from our old life being crucified with Christ into a new life which is raised with him. We witness to new life for old, dying sinners by carrying people on the Lord's words to his cross.

The shape of that new life becomes clear through the theology of the cross. For those who have learned no boundaries and delight in finding sure boundaries through some kind of regulations of the law, the theology of the cross comes as a freeing word. It puts the whole world at our feet because the whole world is at our Lord's feet. And following the example of our Lord, we learn that we stoop to lift the world at our feet and hold it, with all its misery, in our arms. In modern America many people are searching for a formula for a satisfying and successful life. When the Lord says to us that we find that kind of life by taking up our cross, our initial reaction is surprise. Christians help one another to practice the kind of life that does not depend either on temporal success or temporal suffering but depends only on faithful following of the Lord into the lives of those who need us in the course of daily life.

Therefore, we come to hurting people with the word from the cross. For the prodigals whose broken lives seem beyond repair and who find no way out of their apostasy, despair can be broken by the theology of the cross. The light from the other side of Christ's tomb may again shine into their hearts through an evangelistic approach which grows out of this theology.

For those who hate themselves so much that they wish they were dead because they have been betrayed and exploited by others, or because they have failed to live up to their own understanding, Christian witness can give the gift of death to an old identity and a horrible past. The theology of the cross then gives witness to the gift of new life which replaces the wages paid by Christ's death.

For those who long for a new identity, or a new sense of security and safety in life, or a new meaning and feeling of worth for life, this death to the old way of living expressed in the theology of the cross will come as the life-bestowing breath of fresh air direct from Eden.

The theology of the cross is not only a good way of approaching the content of Scripture for study and learning. It also offers an analysis of human experience, and of God's way of dealing with the human experience, which provides power and insight for evangelistic witness. For the theology of the cross presents God's message for North Americans at the turn of the twenty-first century in a dynamic and meaningful way which will reshape their lives and give them the gift of faith in Christ Jesus. His dying and rising are the truth and the only way to life.

1 [ Back ] Shisaku Endo, Silence (Tokyo: Sophia University, 1965), 297-8.
2 [ Back ] Ibid., 292. This is the interpretation of William Johnston, Sophia University, Tokyo; cf. his preface, ibid., 1-18, esp. 12-16.
3 [ Back ] Douglas John Hall, Lighten our Darkness, Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 24.
4 [ Back ] Ibid., 26-32.
5 [ Back ] Ibid., 39.
Monday, August 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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