Deconstructing Faith and the Theology of the Cross? (part 1)

Deconstructing Faith and the Theology of the Cross? (part 1) August 4, 2022

Many Christians today–especially evangelicals–say that they are in the process of “deconstructing” their faith.  Disillusioned with the way their fellow evangelicals support Donald Trump, are complicit in social injustice, are caught in sex scandals, or commit other faults that they become aware of, these Christians are scrutinizing their personal faith–questioning what they have been taught and examining how they came to believe it.  After such “deconstruction,” some people abandon Christianity altogether, while others “re-construct” it in a different way.

James Walden at Mere Orthodoxy discusses this phenomenon and relates it to Luther’s Theology of the Cross.  While Luther is indeed a valuable resource who can help contemporary Christians sort out their problems and confusions, I’m not sure that either “deconstruction” or “Theology of the Cross” accurately describes what disillusioned evangelicals are doing.

In his essay Deconstruction and a Theology of the Cross, Walden first explains what “deconstruction,” a term first used in postmodernist literary criticism, entails.  As used by the French thinker Jacques Derrida, it has to do with the contradictions he says are built into literary texts and into language itself.  More broadly, it refers to the “constructedness” of all ideas and institutions, reflecting the tenet of postmodernism that truth is not a discovery but a “construction”–either of the mind, the culture, or the will to power, by which one group oppresses other groups.

Luther contrasts the Theology of the Cross with the Theology of Glory.  God saved us not by manifesting His Glory, but by emptying Himself in His incarnation and dying on a cross.  Similarly, we prefer a theology of glory that will give us all the answers, solve all our problems, and exalt our good works.  But we must know Christ in our weakness, failures, and suffering; that is to say, in our crosses that He subsumes in His cross, where we find justification by faith.

(For a fuller treatment of Luther’s Theology of the Cross, go to our series of posts on the subject:  Theology of the Cross, Definition (#1)Theology of the Cross:  Power and Language (#2)Theology of the Cross and the Gospel (#3); Theology of the Cross:  Good Works and Vocation (#4); Theology of the Cross and Suffering (#5); and Theology of the Cross and the Problem of Evil (#6).)

Here is how Walden relates Deconstruction and the Theology of the Cross:

Immensely helpful at this point is Martin Luther’s foundational distinction between the two kinds of theologians – one of glory and one of the cross – from his Heidelberg Disputation (1518). And it’s appropriate to raise this elemental category of Luther here since the etymology of Derrida’s “deconstruction” traces back through Heidegger to the reformer’s use of destructio in reference to the gospel’s “destruction” of worldly wisdom and reason (1 Corinthians 1:19).

This is to say, the destructio of what we might call “theologies of glory.”

In God’s judgment against the pride and arrogance of men, the divine power and wisdom paradoxically appear to them as weakness and foolishness … as something to be despised and rejected. In this way, the theology of the cross confounds – and deconstructs – “theologians of glory.” Such theologians “build their theology in the light of what they expect God to be like—and, surprise, surprise, they make God to look something like themselves,” Carl Trueman writes.

The “theologians of the cross,” however, are those who build their theology in the light of God’s own revelation of himself in Christ hanging on the cross.

This is revolutionary. Here’s the problem though. We are all habitually theologians of glory – even the most doctrinally orthodox among us. We are naturally curved in on ourselves, making and re-making our theology, as applied in word and deed, to our own advantage. We are constantly reverting to theologies of glory in our forms of worship, in our use of power, in inhabiting our socio-economic strata, in our performing righteousness, whether personal piety or public virtue, in our sexuality and familial relationships, in our practice of hospitality, etc., etc. These are all susceptible to being cast in our own image, as Trueman observes, “and all must be recast in the light of the cross.”

Through the weak and foolish word of the cross, quietly powerful through the indwelling Spirit among the community of God’s people, Christ himself deconstructs our deep-seated theologies of glory. By the sign of the cross (Galatians 6:17) — that is, not through our own triumph or heroic performance, but through inward agony and outward mistreatment – our enculturated faith is exposed, reproved, refined and renewed. As we are continually plunged into Christ’s death and raised in his resurrection, we are becoming, slowly but surely, theologians of the cross.

This is the deconstructive work of the cross. It is far more radical than any “deconstruction” we could undertake ourselves, whether by our own individual efforts, by some ecclesial tradition, or by any alleged internal mechanism of history or language. It is the secret work of God, in which the church reformed is ever being reformed. Deconstructed all the way down.

The Theology of the Cross is indeed strong tonic against much that plagues contemporary Christianity:  the prosperity gospel (essentially the opposite of the Theology of the Cross); the power of positive thinking; political triumphalism; celebrity preachers; church growth ideology; worship as pop entertainment; legalistic Puritanism; the social gospel of the left or right; and you can probably think of more.

Christians who are reconsidering their embrace of that sort of thing can well find Luther’s Theology of the Cross a way to return to an authentic Christianity and an authentic spirituality grounded in the Gospel of Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23).

But I don’t think that is what many of those trying to “deconstruct their faith” are doing!

I’ll explain in tomorrow’s post.


Image by Felix Merler from Pixabay 

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