The Limits of Theology

Sunday 13th March 2016
Year C, The Forth Sunday of Lent (Mothering Sunday)
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist

It is commonly said that, at the end of a conflict, The victors write the history but it is not just true of war, it also applies to culture: almost everything we think about the history of Christianity is encapsulated in Renaissance painting. We might look at the more confrontational images of our own time but we judge these as somehow tactless in the light of painting in Italy and the Netherlands between, say, 1300 and 1700; the images are technically realistic compared with the iconography which came before but they are also profoundly allegorical; the faces and figures are clearly European; and even the pain is allegorical.

I remember being particularly struck when I read Hyam Maccoby's Revolution in Judea which challenged the images of Jesus by European painters, by saying that Jesus was a swarthy, squat, short, Middle Eastern person; and, when you think about it for a moment, that is right but the problem that Maccoby and some of his fellow authors interested in the historical Jesus came up against was not only the art but also the work of such authors as Bernard Youngman b- with which I was brought up in the 1950s - who totally spiritualised Jesus: yes, he took flesh and lived among us, but everything he said was to be understood in a spiritualised way so, to take a single example, most of us were brought up with the idea that the second half of the Lord's Prayer is to do with spiritual bread, or even the Eucharist, followed by a plea for the forgiveness of sins, when the passage might equally be about the problems of surviving and the crippling effect of debt in a peasant economy with the double taxation: of the Romans extorted by agents; and the Temple tax exacted through moral blackmail.

And it is that same emphasis on spirituality which has meant we have spent so much energy theologising about mechanics, that is, discussing in what way we have been saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus, rather than concentrating on the brutal physicality of Good Friday. If we think for a moment about an account on the television of the beheading of a Western aid worker by Islamic State we undergo a visceral sensation; we are not only intellectually appalled, we feel sick in the stomach. Or even if we see a piece of old newsreel about an old atrocity it can move us to tears; but if we think about the torture and death of Jesus long ago, our eyes may simply go misty with a kind of acculturated piety, what we've been taught to feel. Well, we aren't taught to be appalled by arbitrary violence; it's in our psychological DNA to be appalled; so why everybody else but Jesus?

As a person who has a very low pain threshold, I am terrified by the prospect of pain; I flinch at the arrival of a wasp; and so I tend to focus on the pain. As for the theology of the Crucifixion I have come to recognise that my earlier insistence on one way of explaining it is pretty futile. Put simply, all ways of explaining it in human words are necessary but necessarily futile. Added to that, the idea that your metaphor about the means of salvation is better or worse than my metaphor is surely precarious. When we use a metaphor to sharpen our perception or add richness to an idea, we know immediately what that idea is, so if I say that something was a nightmare, or a shambles, or use some other hackneyed phrase of the kind, you know that I am attempting to describe something that functioned badly or was simply disorganised. But if I say that: "God is love", or "God is merciful'" or, in the context of Passion Sunday: "Jesus offered himself as a ransom for our sins", how effective are these words as metaphors? We are trying to describe the purpose of the death of Jesus and we frame it in quasi-legal language? How helpful is that in the context of a God who is said to be merciful, that is, in human terms he exercises lenience beyond the requirements of procedural justice. And then we say, again in the context of Passion Sunday, that we have been saved by the Resurrection of Jesus. To say that we have been saved from death helps just a little but saved for what, rather than from what, is always more difficult. And then we extrapolate the developmental theology of Paul on salvation into a general theory that applies for all people for all time. We must recognise that theology has its limits; but, sadly, our pride does not.

I must admit that my Passiontide ambition is much narrower than trying to understand the wide variety of claims made particularly in hymn books, about what the Crucifixion was for; I would much rather concentrate largely on two things: first, as I noted earlier, the actual physical pain that was involved in the torture and deliberately cruel and elongated murder of Jesus, not just the physical pain, although that is truly shocking, but also the psychological pain of being a public spectacle, not least if one concludes that Jesus did not know that He was God, which in turn would explain his quotation of a scrap of Psalm 22 just before he died: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Secondly, the solidarity of Jesus in taking our flesh was repaid by that very flesh killing the Incarnate God. Some people have blamed this terrible retribution on the Jews, others on the Romans; but I more broadly blame it on the malfunction of free will; in a rather cosmic sense, we have all killed Jesus and that is why, it seems to me, we ought to think more at this time of the suffering and less of the salvation; there is ample time for that between Easter and Pentecost.

Which brings us, finally, back almost to where we began. If we separate Jesus from his prophetic justice, separate him from the toil at the lakeside in Galilee and the claustrophobia of Jerusalem, if we separate him from the pain of the cross then we lose Jesus and are left with a spectral figure in illuminated prayer books and Renaissance art. This man took flesh and lost his blood; he preached justice and was judicially murdered; he humbled himself to be with us and we exercised our pride over him. When all is said and done, the crucified Jesus who hurts our heart in the next two weeks is far, far more important than the Jesus who inhabits theological libraries and art galleries.


  1. Maccoby, Hyam: Revolution in Judea: Jesus and the Jewish Resistance: Taplinger Publishing Co (Nov.1981)
  2. Youngman, Bernard: The Palestine of Jesus: Publisher: Hulton Educational (January 1, 1978)