The Cross and the God of the Gaps

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Guest post by Dr. Paul Knitter, Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. (Posted with permission of Union in Dialogue and Paul F. Knitter – Original post here)


[Recently, on a] Good Friday, I experienced the confluence of two theological streams – one philosophical and the other devotional. I started with the philosophical on the bus to the United Nations this morning, on my way to participate in “The Way of the Cross, the Way of Peace” which would trace its way down 42nd Street and end up in Times Square.  I was reading a piece by John Caputo in the recent issue of Tikkun whose featured topic was “God and the 21st Century.”

Caputo, ever the devoted theologian of postmodernity, described eloquently and engagingly, as he always does, the only God he (and I) can believe in – a God who is thoroughly, intimately, and dangerously part of the ongoing and always messy process of life:  “God is not a warranty for a well-run world, but the name of a promise, an unkept promise, where every promise is also a risk, a flicker of hope on a suffering planet.”  This promise can be kept only if we work with it. The divine “promiser” and the finite “promise-ees” are in this together.

And on this basis, we have an entirely different take on the much ridiculed “God of the gaps” – the God we resort to in order to fill in the holes or gaps of our knowledge or inadequacies, only to find that science keeps filling in the blanks and pushing out God.  The way Caputo puts it can well serve as a zinger for all our “new atheists”: “God does not bring closure but a gap. A God of the gaps is not the gap God fills, but the gap God opens.”

God is that power, that presence, or that something that keeps opening, surprisingly, new gaps, new questions, new possibilities.

Caputo’s philosophical proddings were stirring in my mind as we started the “First Station” of the Way of the Cross in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza near the UN.  I was waiting for the usual prayer, traditional to Roman Catholic Good Friday liturgies and used in the “Way of the Cross, Way of Justice” that I used to attend in Cincinnati: “We adore thee, O Christ, and we praise thee, because by thy holy cross, thou hast redeemed the world.”  Instead, this is what we read and prayed from the printed program: “We adore you, O  Christ, and we praise you. BY THE POWER OF YOUR HOLY CROSS, HELP US TO CHANGE THE WORLD.”

The difference between those two formulations is the difference between two very different soteriologies – or ways of understanding how Jesus’ death on the cross saves us.  In the first, the cross redeems us by changing God – that is by satisfying God’s demand for reparation or atonement for humanity’s sin.  In the second, the cross redeems us by enabling US to change the world.

The cross doesn’t pay off God.  Rather, what we see and learn from the cross changes our hearts so that we can change the world.

And here is where I reconnected with Caputo’s understanding of the God who opens gaps. The cross and the death of Jesus represent the primary gap or new possibility that Christianity offers the world: on the cross, we see a man who was filled with the Spirit of God and who challenged the powers that be (mainly the Roman Empire) to the point that they decided he had to be “disappeared” and executed.

But rather than respond to the violent hatred of his executioners with hatred, he responded with non-violent love.  He forgave them.

That’s the new gap – the new possibility opened up for humanity:  in order to save or really change this messed up world of hatred, injustice, and greed, we have to confront the powers that have caused this mess.  But when they respond and come after us, we can’t hate them; we have to confront them with the power of love and non-violence.

It may cost us our lives.  But if we die like this – if we confront evil but do not hate the evil-doers even though they kill us – we can change the world.

This gap, this possibility, this way of living cannot be proven to bring the birth or resurrection of a new world.  But given the example of Jesus – as well as so many others like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Archbishop Romer, the Dalai Lama – we can bet our lives on it.


paulknitterSince his ground-breaking 1985 book, No Other Name?, Paul Knitter has been exploring how the religious communities of the world can cooperate in promoting human and ecological well-being. His latest publication is Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian (Oneworld Publications, 2009).

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