Toward a Mormon Theology of the Cross

Given that Mormon chapels (at least modern ones) tend not to have crosses, that Mormons tend not to wear them, and that the cross generally takes second place to Gethsemane in Mormon Atonement theology, speaking of a Mormon theology of the cross might seem a bit odd. [1] Nevertheless, I believe that the Mormon concept of restoration resonates deeply with Paul’s theology of the cross in 1 Corinthians.

Recall that in writing to the Corinthians Paul is addressing the problem of schism (see 1:10). Among the problems creating division among the Corinthian saints was class distinction: at their Eucharistic feasts, the poorer members would go hungry, while the wealthier had enough wine to get drunk (see 11:18-21).

Paul works to counter this problem right from the outset of his letter:

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel,  and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1:17-18, NRSV)

With “eloquent wisdom” Paul alludes to something that Greek culture privileged, only to dismiss it in favor of the cross, which, Paul insists, appears as foolishness.

Why foolishness? The Greek gods may not have been moral exemplars, but they were powerful. One messed with them at one’s peril. Instead of such gods, Paul preaches the scandal of a crucified God:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block [Greek skandalon] to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1:22-24, NRSV)

It’s important to remember that “Christ” here is not a name, but a title, “Messiah.” If the Messiah is one who saves, a Messiah hanging dead on a cross is indeed foolishness. Not only far from wielding the incendiary power of Zeus’s thunderbolt, but a country mile from offering even the slightest gesture of human political redemption, a crucified Messiah seems an utterly ludicrous object in which to invest any hope of salvation. The cross, then, subverts fundamental cultural values, privileging a criminal executed by imperial power over Caesar himself. So much for getting to think you’re important just because you’re rich or otherwise culturally privileged.

In Paul’s letter, the Messianic hope is realized through community, achieved in part through the Eucharist:

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (10:16-17, NRSV)

Just as the Messiah’s body was broken on the cross—and broken again symbolically in the sacramental bread—Paul calls the community to reunite the body in itself through a collective act of eating and drinking. The crucified Messiah should live again in the united members of the church.

He continues this idea of the body of Christ, famously, in the discourse on spiritual gifts in chapters 12-14. Here, too, the scandal of the cross returns, through the privileging of the weak over the strong:

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension in the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (12:21-26, NRSV)

Given the class-based schisms plaguing the Corinthian church, Paul’s language here is wildly idealistic. Under the best of circumstances, human societies tend to leave people out. On the level of basic sociology, groups often achieve cohesion through exclusion. Beyond which, elevating the marginalized can at times result in a case of “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” D&C 121:39 gets it right: a little power all too often leads in short order to unrighteous dominion.

The cross, then, inveighs against this tendency, calling Christians again and again to look for the marginalized and left out. Because of the way human societies marginalize people, it’s a job that’s never done. The minute the Christian message stops indicting you on this point is the minute you’ve stopped really paying attention. [2]

I think that the notion of restoration in Mormonism has the same potential as the cross to interrupt our comfortable assumptions. Continuing revelation means that beyond a few basic truths (e.g., Jesus is the Christ), Mormons can’t really know anything for certain. (See Bruce R. McConkie’s famous statement in the wake of the 1978 revelation.) Rather, we have to balance doing the best we can within the parameters of our current worldviews with returning again and again to the margins, hoping for some messianic disruption. I don’t mean the margins of our thought—though those matter, too—so much as the social margins. People matter more than propositions, and both Paul and Mormonism stand together in valuing collective over individual salvation.

That said, perhaps a better question than “who are we leaving out?” is “who am I leaving out?” Having been called into the body, we must each do our parts, exercising our spiritual gifts for the good of the whole, whose ultimate aim is to reveal the crucified Messiah in the world, restoring the hoped-for image of the ancient church.

Who can I include in Christ, given my gift?

Music: Tallis, “Salvator Mundi,” Hilliard Ensemble

Salvator mundi, salva nos,
qui per crucem et sanguinem redemisti nos:
auxiliare nobis, te deprecamur, Deus noster.

[Savior of the world, save us,
you who through the cross and blood redeemed us:
help us, we pray you, our God.]

Notes

[1] 19th century Mormonism was generally comfortable with the cross; Michael Reed argues that the shift away from using crosses has to do with Mormonism’s 20th-century attempt to join mainstream (i.e., Protestant) American culture, which entailed signing on to mainstream anti-Catholicism. See Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo (Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2012). The book also includes pictures of LDS chapels featuring crosses, typically in architectural ways. A recent article suggests, though, that LDS artists are beginning to depict the cross with increasing frequency.

[2] If you have a screen to read this blog on, you’re privileged.

Comments

  1. This is a really powerful handling of an extremely important topic, Jason. I agree completely with your line of reasoning. Thank you for taking this on.

  2. Great stuff, Jason. Thanks.

  3. Powerful stuff, Jason. I wrote something similar, years ago:

    “If the call to perfection, Jesus’s ethical call for us to serve and bless and love all of those around us, is bound up with the notion of being able to express that love not only despite but indeed through abasement, powerlessness, weakness, and acceptance, then–I think, at least–the image of a willfully chosen, struggled-with-and-triumphantly-accomplished Atonement can never truly capture what our Savior accomplished for us. We need, much more than Gethsemane, to focus on where Jesus was defeated; where God Himself was beaten, wounded, and murdered, for all humankind. No other could descend so low; consequently, no other could ever provide such grace, such service, to all the rest of us who still, as fallen mortals, pray selfishly and stand defiantly and insist on maintaining our (ridiculously pathetic) power and pride. So taking up the cross–symbolically and otherwise–becomes a way to make oneself beholden to one’s indebtedness, to acknowledge the weak and humiliating end which made and sill makes a new beginning for us all.”

  4. Christopher says:

    Excellent. Thanks for this, Jason.

  5. I devoutly wish for a theology of the cross, in the scandalon and inclusion of the marginalized sense. However, while Mormonism does value collective salvation, Mormonism appears to me a good example of “achieve[-ing] cohesion through exclusion.”
    So I applaud the effort and join in the desire, all the while seeing it as Sisyphean.

  6. Neal Kramer says:

    Jason, you are persuading me with this specific argument. I have also been persuaded by the art of the cross. Matthias Gruenewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece reveals a Savior who suffers from the same skin lesions as those in the hospital nearby. I don’t think we can understand Alma 7’s revelation of atonement as healing through death without the cross. So we move inch by inch closer to traditional Christianity with our own embrace of the cross, while remaining true to the Restoration.

  7. Good post Jason, and I wish we could bring back the cross too. LDS Atonement theology abstracts the suffering of Christ into something mystical: an “infinite atonement” not done at the cross, but in the Garden of Gethsemene. We are told the suffering was even worse than the suffering on the cross, that it needed to be worse than the cross, because it was paying the price for everyone’s sins, for which a simple crucifixion was apparently not enough.

    But I don’t know how essential this theological detail really is, nor do I know if it really a necessary interpretation given LDS scripture. Do we really believe that Christ needed to suffer for each and every sin ever committed collectively? Or could the suffering of the cross, as minuscule as it is in the ocean of humanity’s sin and suffering, be enough to placate the justice of God? As a token of God’s understanding of our situation, and His willingness to suffer along side of us?

    If we go back to a cross-centered atonement, it’s much easier to understand. We can imagine the suffering of the cross and feel its horror more palpably than the abstract Garden suffering. It’s also easier to love and believe in a God who would come down to die on the cross to participate WITH us in our suffering, rather than fulfil some kind of comprehensive quota of check-marked sins that stretches into infinite suffering. That kind of theology seems at once baffling and monstrous.

  8. Really great, Jason.

    I think it is significant that the Book of Mormon emphasizes the cross a lot more than Gethsemane. The idea of being lifted up, to draw all men unto him is an essential part of the atonement. An atonement that takes place only in secret, in the middle of the night, misses that.

    This also reminds me of Patrick Mason’s talk on the cross a few years ago, where one of the points he made was that Jesus apparently deliberately provoked death on the cross and that it was a direct assault on the political power of Rome (and, by extension, any government) because the resurrection showed that Rome’s coercive power was illusory.

  9. Who can I include in Christ, given my gift?

    Anyone who aspires to being part of the Church of the Lamb as opposed to the Great and Abominable Church (to borrow from 1 Nephi 14 which was discussed in Sunday School in many wards throughout the Church yesterday) must constantly be asking him or herself these kinds of questions.

    The moment our goals begin to focus on attaining wealth, wearing fine apparel, living in luxury, or imagining ourselves as more righteous, more deserving of mercy or grace, while fellow disciples suffer in poverty or mourn spiritually, emotionally, or intellectually (all one and the same actually), then we have denied the cross and have left the Church of the Lamb for the great and spacious building.

    Thank you for this Jason. Really wonderful.

  10. Great comment, Nate. FWIW, I think that the Atonement has a lot less to do with paying for our sins than with calling us to live together in a redemptive community for which his death on the cross provides the pattern. It matters a lot to me that Jesus gained empathy for me through his experience, but I think it’s almost more important that his seeking to gain empathy for me calls me to do the same for other people around me.

    christiankimball: yeah, it is Sisyphean, but one must imagine Sisyphus happy :)

    JKC: do you have a link to that talk?

  11. Clark Goble says:

    Jason K (OP) That verse you quote from 1 Cor 1:17-18 is one I often think about relative to our own missionary work. I tend to think that 18 is a tad young and immature to preach the gospel, yet Paul emphasizes that preaching isn’t of “wisdom of words” (I really like the KJV phrasing there).

    The reason I don’t mind the de-emphasis of the cross is that I think Paul emphasizes it precisely because of how it was viewed to Jews of that era. As you point out, how could the messiah be crucified? His emphasis is to think differently about the cross. For us though we tend to experience the cross more often via contacts with our protestant friends. For that I think the emphasis on the garden and Christ understanding us in some profound way is more important. It also tends to avoid the penal theory of the atonement that I think gets emphasized the way the cross is used by protestants. (Although for many of them admittedly the emphasis is on the empty cross while Catholics tend to have the more gory iconicity)

    That said the cross also plays into the Mormon conception since God himself suffers so it’s hard to say God can’t understand our horrible precarious positions given his own experiences. (Even ignoring the atoning prayer at Gethsemane)

    I’d probably not go as far as you do regarding certainty. However I think most discussions there tend to be more semantic issues.

  12. Clark Goble says:

    Russell (6:18) I know it wasn’t your intention, but I’m not sure I like the terminology of “Jesus was defeated.” I think the point is that this was all part of his plan and not a defeat at all. That said I completely agree that the story of Jesus’ death ought develop in us an indebtedness.

    Christian (8:21) I’m not sure I agree that Mormonism achieves cohesion through exclusion. I think most of those baptized are the marginalized. However in our unity, a lot is asked and not everyone can do it. That tension between bringing in the marginalized yet demanding a lot is a difficult one to deal with.

    Nate (2:21) I think the common interpretation is that it was in Gethsemane that Jesus literally experienced everyone each of us do. However I also fully admit that seems more just a common interpretation rather than revealed doctrine as such. The key scripture in all this is always D&C 19 but it’s never quite clear how to read it since it can easily be read in terms of a penal theory of atonement. Usually the way of harmonizing the two is that our punishment is experiencing the effects of our sins on others. But again, it’s far from clear that is how we should read it. The other common way of reading is the withdrawal of God’s spirit indicating even sinners here on earth experience a lot of God’s spirit. In this case Jesus on the cross and at Gethsemane has his key suffering not due to the Romans but due to God leaving him alone completely.

    JKC (5:00) That’s a good point that the BoM doesn’t really get into Gethsemane. The closest is Mosiah 3:7 which picks up the somewhat controversial treatment of the greek as bleeding from every pore. (Our theology seems tied to a KJV mistranslation)

  13. Clark (10:54) Cohesion and exclusion are certainly debatable and I’m not inclined to force my view. However, I would suggest that in looking at Mormonism as a society or social structure, baptism is an essential but relatively small part of defining the ins and outs. Certainly continued activity, or tithe paying, or even participating as a home teacher/visiting teacher, would be better. But I would actually go further to propose and test the idea that temple attending or temple recommend holding is the most appropriate or useful in/out criteria from a sociological point of view.

  14. Add to which the rhetorical work done by such phrases as “the world.”

  15. Olde Skool says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  16. Clark Goble says:

    Christian, I think it’s worth treating Mormonism as having two “levels” with temple recommend holding being one and everyone else active the other. Although even that division is problematic since people aren’t expected to be temple ready unless they’re going on a mission or getting married. Although that changes in perception as people get older and haven’t tried getting their endowments.

    Maybe I’m just biased here since I grew up in a ward in the mission field where the nearest temple was a long, long drive across the border to Washington D.C. That’s changed now and I’d assume expectations regarding temple recommends have shifted as well as temples have become more common.

    But while temple recommends definitely “excludes” based upon practice this seems different from what I think Paul is getting at. After all Paul told people to exclude based upon certain practices as well. (Especially as confusion with heretical groups became a problem) It’s also worth asking whether there was a Nauvoo styled inner circle during Paul’s time. I think there’s good reason to think there was, although this obviously is debatable since one can attribute some texts precisely to the gnostic heretics. (Although some of Clement’s comments suggest non-gnostic inner circles)

    My feeling is that outside of practices they see as a threat, the typical ward simply isn’t that exclusionary. The problem of course is that theory doesn’t matter, only practice. And members being humans often form subgroups with unwritten expectations. This is frequently condemned by the Church much as Paul did. But it sadly is a reality in various wards where people aren’t as welcoming as they should be. (Although in many cases I think this is as much due to shyness as it is high schoolish clicks forming)

  17. Clark Goble says:

    To add, while I don’t think the exclusionary issues are formal but rather just normal social inclusion/exclusion that doesn’t justify them. As I said this does seem like something the church regularly harps on and even has programs to deal with (home teaching and visiting teaching). Yet now that I’m older, married and have kids of my own my views have become a bit less condemning than they were in my 20’s. Now I realize that people aren’t as inclusionary not out of malice or even anything based upon practice. We’re just all too exhausted from work, callings, and dealing with little kids. Maybe this is just me being hypocritical and self-justifying. But the typical Sunday I’m just barely conscious. Being outgoing and inclusive to people I don’t know isn’t something I avoid. I just honestly am trying my best to make it through my meetings in one piece.

    Of course I should do better. I’m feeling guilty enough just about not having done my home teaching this month because I was working long hours.

  18. I am not LDS but I have appreciated that Gethsemane focus for the atonement, My tradition seems to emphasis God’s need for blood and punishment, but Gethsemane is what God has always wanted,our will to go where God would have us go for truth. When our will matches God’s will then there is always inclusion. My tradition also emphasizes that Christ died for all. I guess I appreciate a moral atonement more than a bloody sacrificial one. I’ve always thought the LDS somehow found the balance. The real issue in Corinth was self will, superiority, insisting on their own way with each other. But love doesn’t insist on its own way but yields itself to the Will of God and in so doing finds inclusion.

  19. I’m definitely with you on preferring a moral atonement to a bloody, sacrificial one.

  20. I know you do, I appreciate your post.