A Cruciform Portrait of Reality

In A Cruciform Portrait of Humanity I explored how the cross is the point of convergence of all human history and experience. If the Messiah died for all, then the sum of the human experience and condition is found in his sacrifice so it is in the cross that we find the true definition of what it means to be human. Our atonement theologies however, do not address the larger question of the purpose of the human race. They are generally individualized to private piety that is, how the crucifixion puts me in right standing with God so I can have a personal relationship with him. Of course that is not wrong because his death certainly does do that but that shrunken approach misses the bigger picture. The cross not only does something for every individual it also redefines what it means to be human. It gathers together all that we have been and takes it in a new direction. In my view we do not only need a theology of the cross but a practical anthropology of it as well where we privately and publicly experience the crucified Christ. It isn’t a theory but an event.

This line of reasoning led me to consider the cosmic implications of the cross. I had noticed the weakness of atonement theologies in holding things apart but did this observation apply beyond the theoretical? If it brings all people together what about everything else?

Today we tend to see the world in very reductionistic terms. That is to say we like to break things down and overanalyse them till we lose sight of the whole in the attempt to master the part. We want to get everything down to an exact science including our theology. It may be great for scientific endeavour but when it comes to the things that really matter in life like love, relationships, beauty, endurance, justice and courage, it gloriously fails. The pre-modern world from which the gospel of the crucified Messiah came held a more holitisic view of reality which I shall explore later. [1]So instead of an atomistic approach I suggest an integrated one held together at the cross.

What happened on the Calvary was a sacrifice and I argued in my former post that people have an instinctive understanding of how sacrifice works. It is a uniquely human act which has been practiced from the very beginning of human society. It was better appreciated in antiquity and in many non-Western cultures today. One thing it is very good at is bringing things together which is quite useful in organising a society. Devotee, victim, mediator and object of devotion all converge at the point of sacrifice on sacred space. This is an essential cultic ritual. [2]You need ritual to maintain the sacred which is the bedrock of human society. From that perspective sacrifice was a cohesive act that held the entire society together. Not only did sacrifice have the power to unite but to affect as well. They instinctively knew that when something happened to the offering, in a particular way, overseen by the right sort of person, something happened to the worshipper and it also changed the disposition of the deity in question. When all the different elements of a sacrifice are brought together ritually they affect one another. This is not mere symbolism at work but something that actually happened in the world, a real event in spacetime.

For such a thing to happen it requires an elemental view of the world. I do not mean the Aristotlean type of elements where everything is a mix of basic substances or any foundational species of matter which is the building block of everything else. By an element I mean a discernible aspect of the world, which plays a contributory role in it but cannot independently exist apart from the world. This is just like the Pauline analogy of the living body and its members. Each component has its own distinct identity and purpose but without other parts it cannot be what it is. Like the members of the body each elemental part contributes to a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. This is exactly what happens in a sacrifice. These elements are organized into categories which means they are reduced to a basic substance of some kind. They can be complex yet elemental. For instance in the elemental category of victim you can have different types of animals occupying it. They are all victims yet they are unique in their own right. Now when these animals are chosen for sacrifice they gain a new categorical identity and when brought together with other elements they have a new function. Similarly in the body each part is distinct but together they can accomplish something that they could not do on their own. Sacrifice involves men and deity, heaven and earth, seen and unseen. It takes certain parts of the world and combines them in particular ways to accomplish some cosmic event. We should therefore take a look at the ancient understanding of the cosmos.

Ancient cosmology included things we would not dare have in our modern naturalistic worldview. Now we tend to separate the sacred from the social and then the social from the natural. [3]In the ancient world where the crucifixion happened, all these things boisterously coexisted as a continuum. Social order was an extension of the divine order it was built on which was itself a part of the natural order. (The Jewish people were the only exception with one transcendent God, separate from his creation.) Since reality for them was continuous and not made up of discrete units, sacrifice brought together all these dimensions. Sacred space for instance acted as the centre of the world through which all the threads of existence crossed. In sacred space where an offering is made, divinity and humanity meet which means the physical and the non-physical, the two big elemental categories of reality, are both present at the moment of sacrifice. When the different elements of sacrifice are brought together in cultic ritual, it is a microcosm that represents the larger reality works. It is a nexus point for the seen and the unseen, for heaven and earth to coincide. As such it requires an integrated vision of reality made up of multiple varied elements that are organized in the grand cosmic scheme.

As the ultimate sacrifice, the cross takes elemental integration to another level. In my first post I said we needed to look at the anthropology of the cross. In this post it is the metaphysics of the cross under consideration. Since the cross is essentially a sacrifice, I argue that it behaves as other sacrifices do. So in knowing the metaphysics of sacrifice there is an indication of how the cross affects how we view reality. (Metaphysics is the philosophical study of the nature of reality.) In a sacrifice ordinary things come together to be something else. It has the power to integrate and potentially effect the entire cosmos if only temporarily. The scriptures claim the cross was a temporal event of eternal consequence. In the gospel the death of Jesus on the cross is presented as the point where all human history and cosmic reality, past, present and future, converges. What distinguishes it is the contents of that particular sacrificial event were chosen and designed to achieve a very specific outcome. It was an offering like no other so it has significance like no other.

Now the unifying, transformative power of the Messiah’s sacrifice is can be detected in the language the New Testament uses to describe and explain the event. Paul often talks about the reconciliation of the great cosmic binaries of the Jewish worldview God and man, Jew and Gentile, heaven and earth on the cross.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. – Ephesians 2:13-16 ESV

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. – Colossians 1:19-20 ESV

It was simply natural to think of and communicate the cross in those terms of bringing things together because of the ancient worldview they inhabited. That innate understanding of sacrifices as a unifier of different but compatible elements of reality was easily carried through in their understanding the cross. We must pay particular attention to the language of reconciliation. This is where the sacrificial event is most potent in its ability to not only bring together but also to repair deep fundamental breaches. Sacrifice was used to mend the relationship between divinity and humanity, two basic elemental categories. In the passages I just referenced the cross is overcoming cosmic division and enmity, bringing its full powers to bear on creation as the ultimate sacrificial act.

So far in exploring a cross-shaped vision of reality, I have viewed sacrifice in the context of the ancient Jewish worldview and the larger cognitive environment. The various elemental categories are represented in a sacrifice which suggests an integrated reality where these different parts can be combined. It means the things that exist were made for each other as compatible elements of one world. I extrapolated this general theory of sacrifice as a cosmic worldview symbol and applied it to the cross. According to the gospel the crucifixion of the Jesus of Nazareth is the consummate sacrificial act, a unique, non-repeatable event within spacetime. It’s a truly historic event in the fullest sense since it inexorably altered the course of human affairs.

To appreciate its special status you need to look at the Jewish worldview narrative and Jesus’ novel re-interpretation of it centred on himself. From the gospels we see he believed the great story of YHWH the creator of the world and his people Israel had come to its dramatic climax in himself. The expectation of the people of God and the entire creation rested on him. Even though there were some things about his execution he could not control, with that narrative burning in his heart he acted intentionally in a way only he could, to set those ominous events in motion. So even though I have spoken in generalities about sacrifice, the specifics matter. It is the details of this quintessentially Jewish narrative of the cross that sets it apart from a pagan context and have world-changing impact.

This great story is communicated in a certain way because of how they conceived reality. The narrative language of Paul for example reflects his worldview. I used his body metaphor to illustrate what I meant by an elemental integrated reality, a world comprised of different parts working in harmony. I do not think he used that analogy just because it simply helped him to instruct a local church. I think his narrative language naturally emerged from his gospel informed worldview. Therefore, I think in Paul’s mind his analogy of the body is actually mirrors pretty well how he conceived reality.

For one, the body metaphor appears in multiple letters of Paul so it is not an in the spur of the moment illustration. It was a part and parcel of his ecclesiology i.e. theology of church. The physical embodiment of God in the Messiah is crucial to his missiology i.e. theology of missionary work. The good news of God coming physically into the world as a man gave him the impetus to send the gospel to the nations. For him the glorified Messiah’s bodily presence continues in the world through those who have put their faith in him. They participate in his body through a spiritual baptism. He energises those who believe in him from within through his life giving spirit, the same spirit which raised bodily from dead. This new status of being in the Messiah incorporates people from all human categories, Jew, Gentile, rich, poor, free, slave etc., once they submit to his kingship. Jesus however, has already been installed Lord of creation through his resurrection. The church as the first people to submit to his kingship becomes the primary exhibit of his cosmic rule. So what God has accomplished in church through Jesus and by the Spirit is an example of what he will do for all of creation. This means the structure and function of the church is a microcosm of the emerging new creation. Simply put the church is the example in the present of what God will do for all reality future. So he says in Ephesians,

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth … he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. – Ephesians 1:7-10, 20-23 ESV

So for Paul the cross is the starting point of a new cosmology. A new cosmology requires a new metaphysic, that is, a new vision of what it is to be. The change in the fundamental categories of the biblical worldview of Jew and Gentile to one new man in the Messiah is itself an indication of a new metaphysical reality. There is also a new epistemology (theory of knowledge) called revelation by the Spirit of God made accessible to the whole church. A new kind of knowing is a sign that something has changed in the world which requires a different way of knowing. Mind you when the New Testament uses “new” it does not mean the old is discarded. It is restored and renewed so it is like familiar but totally different; something that is transformed. So the metaphysic of an integrated elemental reality is not completely foreign. Paul continues with such basic binary categories such as heaven and earth, Jew and Gentile, which are fundamental Jewish, stretching all the way back to Genesis. What he does is he reimagines their relationship with one another through the historical event of the cross. There is restoration and a fresh reintegration of these cosmic elements. The cross is there to bridge the divide which means somehow reality was fractured through human sin and the dark powers behind our disobedience. (The cross also redefine politics i.e. power.)

Paul’s encounter with the crucified Messiah did not simply change his personal life so he became more pious or spiritual. He was very much that already. It rocked his world to the core including how he conceived and perceived reality itself. As preacher he had been called by God to proclaim this new reality of the kingship of Jesus and so through him the Messiah would graciously invite all people Jew and Gentile, to participate in his kingdom. The church as the eschatological community of those living in the new world under divine rule in the present was for him a working model of this new cross-shaped vision of reality. His calling as a preacher and teacher of the gospel was to let the world know of this new reality which included helping empower the church to be what it was called to be.

As I have explored in another post he saw the church not as a religious institution but as a new ethnos, a new way of being human in the Messiah. The church therefore demonstrates to the powers that be there is a new way of running society. He says in Ephesians,

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 3:8-10 ESV

I believe these powers today include the scientists and the philosophers who influence modern culture in such profound ways that it is reasonable to consider them as political actors in their own right but that is a discussion for another day. (If you think science is totally objective without any agenda then you are naïve and painfully unaware of current research in the philosophy, history and sociology of science.) Science with its philosophical underpinnings presents a reductionistic, materialistic view of reality. As I earlier said, this is alright along as you using it to do science but it is hardly useful for anything else. It breaks things down into chunks so we can better understand. Unfortunately, we forget when you pull things apart to see how it works, you are meant to put them back together again. Science unchecked has a destructive power especially when it is the supreme category of knowledge and presents the ultimate vision of reality. The church is called to offer a counter narrative, another way of viewing the world through the ignoble, scandalous, repugnant yet supremely wise, redemptive and life-giving message of the cross of Calvary.

[1] Wright does a very similar thing which influenced my own thinking even though I have gone about it very differently from him. He applies something he calls integrated eschatology to the question of individual anthropology, that is, what we are made of and God’s intent to bring all these parts together as a whole. In my first post I do a universal anthropology. I look at how the cross changes the way we define the ontic category of being human by integrating all people. In this post I end up with something very similar to his integrated eschatology by following through on the metaphysical consequences of my earlier insights in New Testament narrative language. Click here for the Wright’s paper.

[2] Ashford B., The Jewish Intellectual Who Predicted America’s Social Collapse, The Gospel Coalition, April 2016.

[3] Oswalt J., The Bible Among the Myths, chapter 3.

Header image source: colindye.com


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