Cross Purposes


(Spectrumbot) #1

Salvation is a child and when it grows up it is crucified. Only he who can see power under weakness, the whole under the fragment, victory under defeat, glory under suffering, innocence under guilt, sanctity under sin, life under death can say: Mine eyes have seen thy salvation. —Paul Tillich, The New Being

When I was a child, I discovered that when I crossed my eyes I could see the world in very different ways. Instantly, my left eye invaded the territory of the right eye and the result was a disorienting Escher-like amalgam of images, as if Spock and Kirk had gotten their body parts reversed going through the transporter device. It was an ersatz Picasso-lens for budding cubists. Ignoring the taunts of older children that one day my eyes would stay crossed, I enjoyed these brief forays into alternate reality.

Standing on my head was another way to re-imagine the world. Although I couldn’t sustain the full, upright position for long, I could live for a few moments in a world with a limitless blue airiness underfoot beneath a ceiling of trees, streets, and buildings.

It’s good for us to see the world from odd angles from time to time. It reminds us that ours is just one of many viewpoints. And it gives us insight into primitive Christianity, which abounds with paradoxes and upside-down values.

Christianity often seems to be at cross purposes with standard operating procedures. In the Genesis story, creation is the high point, but after sin, everything is downhill from there, whereas with evolution everything begins with the humble one-celled organism and climbs to the top of the food chain, which is us. In the darkest, coldest month of the year, Christianity says the light came into the world. In the spring, when everything in nature is waking up and blooming, Christians celebrate a death.

“I am come that they might have life, and that more abundantly,” claims Jesus, but then he also proclaims the poor to be blessed. The Beatitudes are all about opposites. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are those of a gentle spirit; the world shall be theirs. Everywhere you look in the Gospels there are these cross-eyed, head-stand ways.

Don’t kill each other, says Jesus, but in the next breath he pushes it way back behind actions to intentions. Don’t nurse anger toward others, because anger nursed can then be weaned to murder. Without denying the front-facing commandment, Jesus goes back to the root of the outward action.

It’s easy for us to love those who love us — or at least to avoid conflict with most people. But what about those who get in our face? Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to pray for those who hate us. This is how God sees us as children of his family. After all, Jesus reminds us, God makes the sun to shine upon the good and the bad alike and sends rain for both the liars and the honest. You’re all in the family, he says. Do you think I’ll treat you unequally?

It takes a while to get used to this radical way of thinking. Actually, we don’t get used to it. It doesn’t become habitual and it certainly isn’t instinctual; it is something that must be re-learned and practiced daily. It’s as if our brains were developed to float in our skulls just so, vertically aligned in such a way that stimuli reaching us from the external world hit their receptors precisely, with no tolerance for wavering or misalignment. The world shot in portrait mode only, the landscape view constrained to fit only through distortion and elongation. Only when we stand on our heads does any of it begin to make sense.

Why does so much of what Jesus says sound so alien? Lest we think that 2,000 years and a clash of cultures has created this great divide, we can take some rueful comfort in that his mother and his brothers thought him a stark lunatic and his own disciples could not grasp his simplest commands. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven,” they ask. He calls over a child, sets him down in the midst of them and responds, “Unless you turn round and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3). The meaning is unequivocal: what part of “never” don’t we understand?

Yet, when one door slams, another opens. “Let a man humble himself till he is like this child, and he will be the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.” In this new economy of virtues only the humble survive. In one stroke, Jesus flattens the social hierarchy based on status and power and spreads it horizontally. If we want to see this kingdom as it is, we shall have to look in landscape mode, turning and turning in the widening gyre 360 degrees, until we return to this little child.

Paradoxes and reversals abound. Paul is shipwrecked, beaten, imprisoned, and starved. He has to light out of town more than once under cover of darkness, and who could calculate the miles he put in walking, sailing, riding for the gospel of the kingdom. Yet all these things he counts as nothing, save for the cross of Christ and the glory to come. “Our eyes are fixed,” says Paul, “not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen.” We can imagine him, stripped for thirty-nine lashes, with a gaze that penetrates to heaven.

What do we see? What are we looking at? Even after the hundreds of miles he walks and the beatings he endures, there is a certain bounce in Paul’s stride. “Therefore, we never cease to be confident,” he writes. “Faith is our guide, we do not see him.” He looks at the world with eyes wide open, seeing himself as he is, but more importantly, how God sees him. Living as an exile in this world, Paul knows that those who play by the rules of the world may succeed in the ways of the world — although they will lose their lives — but those who take up their cross and follow Jesus will gain their lives. In the midst of death there is life.

“Sin is our refusal to become who we truly are,” writes Michael Mayne in Pray, Love, Remember. When we confess our sins we may think of all the moments we tripped up in our daily walk, all the unthinking ways we brushed others aside, the petty grievances we took into foster care, the blindness to our effect on others that caused them pain. But Mayne is looking deeper than just sins. “Chiefly I am aware of a much more subtle temptation,” he writes, “to settle for less than I might be. To choose the lesser good. To lack curiosity and wonder. To miss the mark because my sights are fixed too low. Not to perceive that I am ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ in God’s image.”

At all times, but especially at Lent, if we ask it of God, we are blessed to see ourselves as we are and what we may become. Seeing thus is to see the world turned upside down, and yet to walk confidently.

It may all seem to be at cross purposes with how the world works. Yet, in the end, all our purposes begin with the cross, the cross that brings life, the death of Death, and most wonderfully, resurrection.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at darmokjilad@gmail.com.

Image: Josh Applegate / Unsplash.com

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9539

#2

Thank you Barry; one of your very best articles.
Yes, paradoxes and reversals are m i n d s t r e t c h i n g, (as in Philippians 2: 6-8) and
the resulting cognitive dissonance can be life-changing!


(Tom Kohls) #3

Thank you for a very encouraging reminder that paradox, mystery, doubt and confusion are all a part of the Christian walk. It keeps us seeking God, truth, enlightenment, and finite understanding of the infinite. I love your inspirational quotations from other authors and thinkers whom I have not read, and it broadens my perspective on the width, and breadth and depth of the love of God. All truth is not found only in theology, nor is all theology truth. Sometimes, to quote the Little Prince, " It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”


(Barry Casey) #4

Thank you, Tom, for your encouraging words! Yes, there are so many authors who offer profound insights into our life with God. And . . . the Little Prince is biblically sound!


(Barry Casey) #5

Thanks so much for your encouragement!


(David) #6

You seem to agree with Constantine’s redefinition of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. You are really no different than Roman Catholicism which follows the same constantinian formula.


#7

Thanks, Barry for such profound discussion on the essentials of the Cross. For me, Kneeling at the foot of the cross, helped me see God as He was in splender, Light and love. In the light streaming from His cross, I saw my helpless, weak, sinful self needing the perfect robe offered to every believer until this mortality puts on immortality. Kneeling at the cross revealed that I must never get up from that position, so I have stayed there for nearly 55 years, recieving boundless blessings. Resting in what He has done is sooo liberating!! “God forbid I should boast save in the cross of my” Lord


(Barry Casey) #8

David, help me out here. How am I following Catholicism? I thought this was basic Christianity.


(David) #9

Continuing the discussion from Cross Purposes:

Barry,

Lent is a Catholic invention as is also the Constantinian Easter formula that Lent is tied to. This year, the sun and the moon shine a light on the scheme that Constantine devised at Nicea when he sold his Easter formula to 318 Christian bishops in 325. Constantine’s Easter formula specifies that Easter must be observed on the first “Sunday” after the first full moon on or after the March 21st vernal equinox. This year (and for the rest of the century) the equinox occurred on March 20 and so did the full moon. What this shows is that the world’s Easter celebration is more concerned with the March 21 date than the equinox date. Why do you suppose that is? Could it be that there is a truth hidden behind the date of March 21st that might lead to an important understanding of the crucifixion and resurrection? I know there is.


(Joyce Rapp) #10

Lent goes back farther than that: Ezekiel records the 40 days of weeping for Tammuz.