What Does the Cross Say to Our Context?
Reading The Cross In Our Context 20 Years On
In July, Douglas John Hall’s The Cross In Our Context turns 20. Released against the backdrop of the War On Terror, when people were asking questions about the relationship between faith and violence, Hall’s book argued that the church should reclaim the Theology of the Cross as its key signature.
Throughout The Cross In Our Context, Hall argues that, during the time of Christendom (when the church was established as the law of the land after Constantine made Christianity the state religion of Rome) the church embraced a Theology of Glory, a triumphalist perspective that saw the church protect its own interests as an institution. The decline of Christendom, he argues, gives the church a chance to return to its roots as an underground force for good in society.
So, twenty years on, what is the book’s legacy?
Uniting Church theologian Clive Pearson told Insights that The Cross In Our Context remained a worthwhile “conversation partner” the church would still do well to consider.
Rev. Dr Pearson said the book was, “An accessible entry into an undervalued theological tradition which speaks into our current context.”
“It invites us to think about how we might conceive a theology of the cross in an Australian setting and be able to express our frustrations and disappointments with with the institutional church while holding out an authentic hope,” he said.
Throughout the book, Hall develops what is often known as a contextual theology, which seeks to ground the work of theologians in the geographical space in which they work, accounting for how this affects the conclusions the theologian reaches.
The book, explained Rev. Dr Pearson, “came in the wake of 9/11 and a tendency to see ‘religion’ as the cause for violence.”
“Hall wished to probe what was the impact and legacy of a Christian triumphalism – a theology of glory – and how that had humiliated Islam.”
“The emphasis on the theology of the cross (and in particular how this relatively minor tradition within current church practice) lay at the heart of Luther’s theology and the origins of Protestantism,” Rev. Dr Pearson said.
“The theology of the cross is not a theology about death but rather about how God ’sees; humanity and the creation, how they are subject to pain and suffering, and worth ‘dying for’. It is an invitation to humility;”
“Hall wished to engage with a properly constructed theology of context / culture. – his idea of hic et nunc, here and now. He emphasised the importance of doing the hard theological work – so much of our contextual theology relies on surface missional readings of culture .Hall dug much deeper than that.”
“The theology of the cross deserves further exploration in the current Uniting Church but it will need to find its voice over and against three rivals which claim excessive attention for its proper hearing: 1) the repeated turn to ‘mission’ without an adequate theological underpinning; 2) the concern for institutional structures (re-structures) without an adequate theological underpinning; and the one I find most disappointing – the use of the rhetoric of intercultural ( a sociological term that exists on a horizontal plane and is rather thin by way of comparison) whereas cross cultural (a theology of the cross) grounds our diversity in ’the word of the cross’ – our practice of cultural diversity is not as strong and deep as it might be / should be. This book would be a helpful conversation partner in these three areas.”
Douglas John Hall’s legacy
Douglas John Hall is himself an interesting subject, with a biography that sounds unlikely at first. Born in 1928 and raised in Innerkip, Ontario, Hall left school at 16 to attend business college to help his family. The oldest of six children, he pursued various opportunities until undertaking a probationary ministry course at the University of Western Ontario. From these humble beginnings, Hall undertook postgraduate study at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, obtaining his Doctorate in 1963.
Hall’s work (including The Cross In Our Context) often cites people who directly taught him, including Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. He also encountered a number of other theological giants throughout his early years, including Karl Barth, Phyllis Trible, Beverly Harrison, Malcolm Boyd, Walter Wink, Edward Farley, and Rhoda Palfrey, who he later married.
According to Rev. Dr Pearson, Hall is “underrated” as a theologian.
“His life is not as so high profile and ‘attractive’ as that of, say, Bonhoeffer, but he is a more complete theologian, given that he has written on the whole field of theological beliefs and subjects and striven to address a contemporary audience in North America which shares some similarities to ours,” he said.
“So many of the big named theologians of the 20th century came out of Germany and were addressing the loss of meaning through the killing fields of World War One and the rise of totalitarian states, Our immediate context is not this.”
His voice as a theologian developed over multiple decades. According to David Lott, “Hall…[became] increasingly unflinching in drawing political and economic implications from his theological inquiries, in ways that will give devotees of free-market capitalism pause.”
Nine years after The Cross In Our Context and at the age of 85, Douglas John Hall released his final book, What Christianity Is NOT: An Exercise in “Negative” Theology. He has since contributed shorter chapters to other books.
At Easter, The Cross In Our Context is worth returning to, as the church marks Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The Cross In Our Context is available to purchase and can be borrowed from Camden Theological Library.