Life, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy says, is suffering, battle, pain, shock, failure, elation. Human beings are always torn, always riven. Much of human life, individually and collectively, is an effort to deal with suffering and death. By being the first Man, Jesus establishes the possibility of a different stance toward suffering and death. Life after the cross, and life in the cross, is a life in which death never has the final word, but where death is a path toward new, more expansive life.
Writing in 1946, Rosenstock-Huessy confesses, “twenty years ago I felt that I was undergoing a real crucifixion. I was deprived of all my powers, virtually paralyzed, yet I came back to life again, a changed man. What saved me was that I could look back to the supreme event of Jesus’ life and recognize my small eclipse in his great suffering. That enabled me to wait in complete faith for resurrection to follow crucifixion in my own experience. Ever since then it has seemed foolish to doubt the historical reality of the original Crucifixion and Resurrection” (Christian Future, 102). This is not “survival.” It is renewal through death, death transformed into a “positive feature” of life, the key to abundant life.
Rosenstock-Huessy uses the “Cross of Reality” to explain how suffering forms the center of human experience, and the unsystematic and unsystematizable complexity of life. While philosophers and scientists, metaphysicians and physicists, might describe the world as a system, actual reality and actual lived human life is a “perpetual suffering and wrestling with conflicting forces, paradoxes, contradictions within and without.”
Life stretches us in opposite directions, tears and rends us, yet through this tearing makes us new (166). Specifically, human beings are stretched out on two axes. The horizontal axis is a temporal one, stretching between past and the future. The vertical axis is spatial, as we are stretched out between “inner” and “outer.”
Time is not, as mathematics depicts it, a straight line, since a line does not distinguish qualitatively between past and future and cannot capture the multiform shape of human time. Time is an undifferentiated line for animals, which know “no future but only perfect and imperfect tenses, only processes that have ended or processes still going on at any given moment” (166). For humans, a timeline turns time into space, confusing what should be kept distinct, since our experience of time differs radically from our experience of space.
Space is experienced “as a whole.” We see a whole mountain range, a whole starry sky, a million man march on the Mall all at an instant. Time, by contrast, comes to us as moments, fragments, as “a phantom moment or as innumerable phantom moments.” Time becomes organized and packaged into hours, days, years, epochs only “because we say so.” Times exist because “they are history-made units built by our faith, out of innumerable moments” (167). Time experienced this way is never uniformly one time: “Nobody lives in one time” (167). The past and future always inhabit the present, and so human beings are always being pulled backward by the obligations imposed by the past and striving forward by the hopes seducing us from the future.
The spatial axis of the Cross of Reality is the axis that stretches us between “inner” and “outer.” Like time, space is socially formed and segmented. Individually, we all have an “inside” bounded by our skin, and a world outside us. (Rosenstock-Huessy would have us note, though, that the boundary of skin is permeable; we have pores and various orifices through which the world enters us and things from inside are poured out into the world.) Corporately too, each community constitutes itself by setting a boundary between “insiders” and “outsiders.” Anticipating the work of Mary Douglas, Rosenstock points out that the social body too has its skin, and must protect itself against infection from outside (168).
We hang at the center of this cross, nailed and pulled in all four directions at once: “man’s life, social as well as individual, is lived at a crossroads between four ‘fronts’: backward toward the past, forward into the future, inward among ourselves, our feelings wishes and dreams, and outward against what we must fight or exploit or come to terms with or ignore.” This is a painful position, often agonizing, and so we are tempted to relieve the tension by embracing only one of the four points of this compass. But the goal of life is not “adjustment,” as modern psychology might suggest; the goal is integrating the demands of each, all of which are legitimate demands (169).
Rosenstock-Huessy points out that “it is obviously fatal to fail on any front—to lose the past, to miss the future, to lack inner peace or outer efficiency.” If we rush forward without acknowledging the past, “acquired qualities of character and civilization would vanish,” but if we dwell in the past “we cease to have a future” (168). Integrating these demands is never easy, and we never fully achieve integration. Life is mobile. We are tossed here and there, shocked and thrown by the demands thrust on us from the outside, surprised by the unanticipated future. While we strive for integration, we cannot be at every point of the cross equally at the same time. Life is thus “a perpetual decision.” We must determine when to perpetuate or revive what is past, and when to let the past die and lie quietly buried. We must recognize the difference between those “within” our circle to whom we speak and the things “without” about which we speak. To live is to dance, as we strive to preserve “a delicate mobile balance between forward and backward, inward and outward” (168).
Rosenstock-Huessy’s cruciform existentialism is a superb instrument for working through the demands, perils, and agony of pursuing unity in the church. The church is at the intersection of the Cross that Rosenstock describes. Attentive to her heritage, she is also, in essence, an eschatological community, reaching forward to a future that has not yet arrived. Though her gates are perpetually open (Revelation 21), she has gates and guardians at the gates; there is an interior and exterior to the church. But she cannot be content to bask in the glories that are within; if the church is to be the church, she must shine the light of God and the Lamb into the world. She cannot be healthy within unless she reaches out; she cannot shine outward unless she is filled with the glory.
All this is true in the nature of the case, whatever the church’s historical circumstances. But the church is an historical polity and people, and her past, her inside, and her outside have taken specific form over centuries. And this sharpens the anguish of the cross. In general, the church is suspended between her checkered past – a past that includes unfaithfulness, idolatry, brutal tyranny, and fragmentation, as well as glories – and the promised future of God. She is suspended between the demands of her own life and the challenges of mission to the world outside, a world made, for good and ill, by the church herself.
In particular, she is stretched between her current state of disunity and the promised future when we will be one as the Father and Son are one. The pain of this condition is intense. We cannot, on the one hand, renounce the specific traditions of which we are a part. Each church today has a history different from many other churches. In a broad sense, Presbyterians and Lutherans and Catholics and Coptic churches share a single past, but we aren’t conscious of sharing a single past. The tangles that preoccupy Presbyterians don’t register at all in Coptic or Catholic churches. How can we pay due respect to the obligations of our past history while also stretching out in hope for the future.
For some, “ressourcement” is the answer. Each church retrieves its own tradition. Nearly everyone who advocates retrieval wants to recover older sources for the sake of the present and future. Yet ressourcement can become a nostalgic quest for a safe haven in a past tradition that neglects the call of the future. It can encourage the belief that the past has all the answers, which is not true. On the other hand, those who urge churches to pursue future unity (like me) run the risk of detaching themselves from roots that give stability and provide the nutrients of growth. Ressourcementists and futurists need each other, and, if Rosenstock is right, a mature catholicity doesn’t arise from an effort to “balance” these demands but can only from their painful, explosive clashes and combats.
Along the spatial axis, the church faces similar challenges. Each denomination or tradition has its own ‘interior,” but churches will remain infantile if they retreat behind their own walls, where everyone is the same. Denominations must also reach beyond the denominational barriers, and, without abandoning their denominational distinctives, history, character, must seek ways to love and honor other denominations with their own distinctives, history, and character. However painful the stretch, churches must seek to indwell one another, and to be indwelt by very different sorts of Christians and exotic forms of church.
Rosenstock-Huessy says that “humans can progress from fragmentariness to completeness only by the cross, only by surviving the death of old allegiances and beginning new ones.” This was the theme of Jesus’ whole life. He lived under the law in order to do away with the law, to die to the law. His entire life scoured away the old to make way for new. He renounced “success” in his own life, giving Himself to the founding of the church, and through this “unsuccessful” career makes himself the most successful man in history. He gave Himself to death to gain abundant life. We His disciples can reach that abundant life – which includes the abundant life of a united church – only by sharing His cross.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.