Looking through the Cross

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Graham Tomlin

Bloomsbury, 2014

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book this year is short, readable and contagiously wise. Graham Tomlin is Dean of London’s St Mellitus College and, declaring a personal interest, was my chaplain at university 20 years ago. His doctoral thesis was on the theology of the cross in St Paul, Martin Luther and Blaise Pascal, which he had wanted to turn to more popular ends. Looking through the Cross is, in large measure, the product. The result is a book that goes all the way down, a deep and deeply-thought through meditation on what the world looks like through the lens of the cross.

Lens is an apt metaphor but misleading in a far as it sounds modern and ignores the venerable tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy, which Tomlin discusses in his introduction, of treating icons not as things to look at (which might constitute idolatry) but as images to look through, images by means of which we can see the world differently.

Looking through the cross involves understanding God, and therefore creation and humanity differently. In a succession of short chapters, entitled The Cross and… Wisdom, Evil, Power, Identity, Suffering, Ambition, Failure, Reconciliation, and Life, Tomlin explores how the crucifixion of God makes reality look different.

The foundational difference is in our understanding of God himself. The cross, as he perceptively remarks, is perhaps the best evidence of atheism there is. A wholly good and loving man is publicly tortured to death by brutal and self-righteous authorities without a whisper of protest from heaven. “Precisely at the place and point at which you would expect God to intervene, there is a deafening silence.” Yet, it is in precisely this execution that Christians claim God is most visible. Such is not the logic of the world, as St Paul was not slow to point out. It implies, as Tomlin says, “we cannot think our way to God through what appears to be just common sense”. If we can get our heads round this, we will necessarily see things differently.

Looking through the Cross attempts just this, but does so with appropriate humility. The faithful theologian of the cross can be just as hubristic as the confident apologist or philosopher, turning a message that is inherently mysterious and discomfiting into one that is comprehensible, yet another test of orthodoxy or programme for spiritual enlightenment. Accordingly, as Tomlin notes several times, “the best theology begins and ends in silence”.

In between the silence, Looking through the Cross has many fine words. At the book’s launch in February, Tomlin was compared to C.S. Lewis. Tomlin himself would no doubt deny the comparison and he would be right, not because he writes less well, or is less any homely or vivid in his illustrations, or indeed any less willing to engage with Christianity’s fashionable enemies (there is wonderful moment in the last chapter when he shows how Richard Dawkins provides a powerful illustration of a point that St Paul was trying to make about the resurrection body: theological judo at its best).

The comparison is wrong because Tomlin is a much better theologian. His understanding of the gospels and the early church is historically and sociologically sensitive in a way that Lewis’ never quite was. Ultimately, this is perhaps the book’s greatest strength. Tomlin helps us see the human dynamics of the first Christian lives as way of helping us to understand the Christian dynamics of our own, all too human lives.

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