For a general introduction to the life and work of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, see my “The Relevance of Rosenstock-Huessy.”
“The Crucifixion is the fountainhead of all my values,” wrote the German-American philosopher and historian Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, “the great divide whence flow the processes most real in my inner life, and my primary response to our tradition is one of gratitude to the source of my own frame of reference in everyday life.”
He adds, “our chronology of B.C. and A.D. makes sense to me. Something new came into being then, not a man as part of the world but The Man who gives meaning to the world, to heaven and hell, bodies and spirits.” A bride who receives her husband’s name is set in a “new realm” and all her actions are “credited” to that realm. In the same way, “in His name we [as His bride] enter a realm of freedom unknown to mere heirs” (Christian Future, hereafter CF, p. 102).
This paragraph neatly captures the pace and sprawl of much of his writing. He begins with the historical event of the crucifixion, and immediately goes existential, describing how the cross is frame for his own experience. In the next sentence he has moved from inner life to the crux of history, endorsing the division of time between B.C. and A.D.
Characteristically, he employs a marital image to describe the historical change that comes with Christ, and, obsessed as he is by speech, he cannot stop himself from inserting something about new names.
This essay is organized around the several insights contained in the above quotation. First, I examine what Rosenstock-Huessy says about the uniqueness of the cross. Second, I explore the existential dimension of the cross, the way it serves as the source for all the real processes of “my inner life” and the “frame of reference in everyday life.”
Third, I look at how Rosenstock-Huessy describes the effect of Jesus’ cross and resurrection on the history of human civilization. Throughout, we will find that the cross has two intertwined meanings for Rosenstock-Huessy.
He sees the single historical event of the crucifixion of Jesus as central to all human history, but he also claims that human life in general is lived out on what he calls the “Cross of Reality,” which is both a key to personal experience and an anthropological and social paradigm. In the last section the essay, I turn my attention specifically to this aspect of Rosenstock-Huessy’s cruciform thought.
First, the cross as a once-for-all event. In The Christian Future, Rosenstock-Huessy talks about the divinity of Christ, but raises this creedal dogma in a discussion of once-for-all events in history: “Every value in human history is first set on high by one single event which lends its name and gives meaning to later events” (CF, p. 103).
Crusades are cheaply bought now; there are crusades for universal health care, against illegal drugs, on behalf of oppressed house pets. The first crusades were not so cheap, but bought in blood. First comes Francis, then a Franciscan way of life; first Luther, and shortly there are myriads of Lutherans. In each case, the once-for-all event creates a new reality. Crusading is what it is because of the first crusade: “The one unique event must precede the many” (CF, p. 103). The definite article precedes the indefinite, and makes the indefinite possible.
The united complex event of Jesus’ cross-and-resurrection is the once-for-all event of all once-for-all events, and the possibility of recurring deaths and resurrections in individual life and in civilization depends on Jesus’ work: “crucifixion (or last judgment) and resurrection would not be known as everyday occurrences in our lives if they had not happened once for all, with terrific majesty” (CF, pp. 103–104).
Jesus plants the seed of death-and-resurrection, and this bears fruit repeatedly in moments of transforming anguish. As the Crucified and Risen Man, Jesus creates a new form of humanity, a new way of human being, of being human. He is not a man among men, but “the norm, the way, the truth, and the life to be developed by us beyond the state in which we find ourselves.” He is “my maker” because He is the first man “who was neither Greek nor Jew nor Scythe, but complete and perfect humanity, and each of the rest of us, if we are not simply jealous like Nietzsche, must be content with being his men” (CF, p. 104).
We cannot, as modern theology has attempted, measure him without making him simply “a” man. On the contrary, “he is the measure by which we must judge ourselves; his life gives meaning to ours; and, to sustain the stage of human perfection which he achieved, the word ‘man’ would have been quite inadequate” (CF, p. 104).
Jesus, Rosenstock-Huessy insists, is insurmountable. We might attempt to leave what he calls the “Christian era” but rejecting the gospel, but Jesus made the kind of difference in history that no one, not even the most hostile enemy of Christ, not even Anti-Christ, can escape being Christ’s.