When I thought about what I should start this blog with, it didn’t take long for me to decide. I wanted to start with the thing that lies at the heart of all true Christian thought. One of the deepest, widest and most profound things I’ve ever learned. I wanted to start with God’s backside.
Throughout his life, the great protestant reformer Martin Luther kept being challenged to defend his ideas (as you’d expect if your theology had split the church in two and caused extreme social and political unrest throughout Europe). On one of these occasions, he compiled a list of important theological points. Two of the most important are these:
19. The man who looks upon the invisible things of God as they are perceived in created things does not deserve to be called a theologian.
20. The man who perceives the visible rearward parts of God as seen in suffering and the cross does, however, deserve to be called a theologian.
The phrase translated as “rearward parts of God” is, in the Latin, “posteriora Dei” -also translated as “God’s backside”. (Translators normally aren’t very crude, but Luther certainly is. If you’re interested in theology, Luther is a great person to read. If you’re interested in toilets, he’s also worth a browse.) Despite the outraegous langauge – perhaps because of it – “God’s backside” is an effective way for Luther to communicate the principle from which all truly Christian wisdom comes.
For Luther, the cross is God’s backside. Luther advocates a “theology of the cross”, which is the opposite of a “theology of glory”. A “theology of glory” is any attempt of human beings to reason our way up to God from created things. Luther stands opposed to this.
That’s not that he thought thinking was wrong, only that we can’t work out what God is like just on our own, or by working it our from creation. Naturally, what we do is find something(s) in our universe that we like or approve of, and blow it up and make it bigger. But all we’ll create then is a god who reflects ourselves and our own desires, fears or flaws. He will be a god who appears glorious to us, but only because we’ve put our ideas of glory into him.
How exactly this will work out might depend on your culture or your personality. Some people generate massive tyrants – gods whose nature consists in being glorious and knowing it, and so setting up the universe to serve their own galactic ego. Others invent grandfather-like figures who are so loving and kind that they mollycoddle tyrants and take Hitler into heaven, no questions asked. Other people invent all sorts of gods – I’m sure you can come up with your own examples.
But instead of inventing a god like this, we should instead let God to reveal himself to us. And Christianity teaches that the way God chooses to reveal himself appears, to our natural preconceptions, to be about the most ridiculous way possible. God revealed himself to us by becoming human. A specific human, Jesus of Nazareth, of whom the central moment in life was crucifixion – one of the most humiliating and painful deaths that can be conceived.
Luther called this the “posteriora Dei” – God’s backside. This is where we meet God. We most truly see God when he is hidden in the cross – something which naturally appears to be truly ugly. The “theology of the cross” is when we turn to the cross to understand God.
God’s glory is to be found not in making God like something we perceieve as glorious in human creation – a powerful king, or a beautiful sunset, for example. Those things were created by God, and do reflect His glory, but when we try to work out for ourselves how, our mind is distorted by our sin and just leads us to create our own idol.
Instead, God reveals His glory in darkness and suffering and humiliation. That’s not because darkness is good, but because it subverts everything we naturally think about God. We think of him as a powerful king (with the things we associate with power and kingship) – the cross shows him choosing weakness in love.
The language of God’s backside might be shocking – but it reminds us of just how shocking the cross should be. The cross doesn’t show us God as we would guess he is. It shows us a God who surprises us – who may at first appear disgusting. It is only through the cross disturbing our preconceptions that we can see God’s true beauty.
The most important test of any spirituality or theology – for the smartest professor of theology, and for the simplest saint in a pew – is whether they allow their view of God to be shaped by the cross, or whether they allow their view of the cross to be shaped by their natural preconceptions about God.
As Luther said – “The Cross Alone is Our Theology”.