As a theologian researching the theology of the cross (theologia crucis) in Bonhoeffer, it was time for me to read Andy Root’s “Christopraxis, A Practical Theology of the Cross.” I’m not a practical theologian. Not by profession, that is. I do think of myself of a systematic theologian who is deeply interested in the practical, and transformational power of theology. But practical and systematic theology are two different disciplines that, though intersecting, have their own, method and rationality. In this review, then, I will not discuss the contribution of Root to the field of practical theology, simply because I’m not qualified to do so. I will, however, look at the integration of the theologia crucis into his discipline.
I was more than pleased. Root is a kick-ass theologian, who, utilizing the theology of the cross, seems to make genuine strides toward bringing divine action back into a discipline that has pretty much sold out to an attunement to rationalism with its bracketing of revelation and an interest in sociology and social theories as boundaries for the discipline.
For Root, the theology of the cross has the function of pointing out the impossibility of human thought to find a beginning for itself, to construct its own reality. Like Luther, who conceived of the theology of the cross as a revolt against Aristotelian-infused scholasticism, Root makes short thrift with those practical theologies that are based on an Aristotelian system of possibility and virtue. Such approaches are always based on what human beings can achieve for themselves. Root’s practical theology of the cross begins with the ex nihilo of God’s justifying and creative act. God creates possibility where there is no possibility. Root calls this ‘christopraxis’ because divine possibility comes to us, through the power of the Spirit, in the form of Christ who joined human impossibility on the cross out of which new life, healing, justification, and possibility are born.
Practical theology cannot, for that very reason, do without the cross. Only through divine action that joins with human action, through which humans participate in the being of God is transformation possible. Any practical theology that from the outset rules out or neglects divine action does not do justice to the myriad experiences of people who, encountering God as person (hypostatic encounter), felt divine cause pervade their being; cause to respond to God; cause to work with God in God’s ministry for the world.
Root and Bonhoeffer
I noticed two things. First of all, Root references Bonhoeffer once. This is very curious, For someone who wrote a book on “Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker” (the title was published just 6 months after Christopraxis, if I’m correct) I would have expected a lot more interaction with Bonhoeffer. Not so much because I expect everybody to love Bonhoeffer, but more because of the odd (and strikingly beautiful) affinity between Root and Bonhoeffer’s thought. Root works as a practical theologian toward the theoretical, while Bonhoeffer was a solid systematician who only after his academic work transformed his theology into something practical. Most people neglect to focus on Bonhoeffer’s dissertations and Root as a practical theologian may have thought that whatever useful he could find in Bonhoeffer would only be available in Bonhoeffer’s practical works. I’m only speculating.
Whatever explanation might be there, a comparison is quite stunning. Bonhoeffer developed a modern articulation of Luther’s theology of the cross, which eventually helped him move into a more practical domain even though as a systematic thinker he was in the process of articulating one of the most sophisticated and comprehensive theological approaches of the 20th century. Root works from the practical to the theoretical via the theologia crucis while Bonhoeffer, for his part, makes the opposite move. Across time, they corroborate each other’s projects.
Bonhoeffer’s version of the theologia crucis involved overcoming modernist epistemology. He did so by blending the relational and the epistemological. The knowing is in the encounter; it is a knowing that doesn’t possess knowledge in autonomous self-sufficiency but in relationality, i.e. through self-surrender to the other. Root similarly uses critical realism to bracket modernist calculating reason. His non-foundationalist approach, however, needs more. It comes in the form of personalism: hypostatic encounter with God moves to transformation and new being. He talks about a analogia relationis to describe the possibility of ontological encounter between human and divine.
‘Analogia Relationis’ is a term Karl Barth borrowed from Bonhoeffer. Root doesn’t mention Bonhoeffer in this regard (or I must have missed a footnote). It appears that Root as a neo-Barthian takes most of his theological cues and categories from Barth and Barthian theology when dealing with the systematic. It seems to me, Root is using a version of the theologia crucis that works with a Barthian epistemology of distance. It shows for instance in his opposite pair of eternity vs time. Having said that, I must emphasize though that Root powerfully brings together divine and human in the God who’s being is in becoming.
Root repeatedly talks about ‘act’ and ‘being.’ God’s being is in God’s act just as we participate in God’s being by responding to and joining divine action. Again, I miss either the footnote or witness a lack of reference to Bonhoeffer’s second dissertation called “Act and Being” in which Bonhoeffer’s theology of revelation is sophisticated and attentive to the experiential. God’s being is found in Christ who exists as community in the “Gemeinde” while the act of ‘grasping’ knowledge of God is found in the believer’s self-surrender. This is an epistemological theory combined with a theology of being through encounter that is making important steps toward what we could easily call an embryonic form of practical theology.
A Barthian Theology of the Cross?
So far the comparison between Root and Bonhoeffer’s theologies. One more word about the theologia crucis. I already mentioned the Barthian framework in Root’s thought. This framework might have been responsible for a certain reduction in Root’s thought of the theology of the cross to the epistemological (saying this is rhetorical reduction on my part, for Root’s thought is sufficiently rich to warrant intense study). But as a crypto-theologian of the cross myself who entertains many ideas about the theology of the cross by way of 20th-century Lutheran thought, I do notice one omission that, if utilized, might have been of great use for Root’s argument. In fact, he makes the argument, but hardly ever in reference to the theology of the cross.
Root insists that practical theology (and this counts just as much for systematic theology since doctrines are merely stratified and codified narratives of experiences of the divine) needs to attend to the experiential in a hermeneutical/critical manner. Well, this very turn to the real is what Bonhoeffer’s version of the theology of the cross would have given him on a silver platter. The theologia crucis not only implies divine judgment over human thought and the giving of salvation and justification. Now, implied in Luther’s theology of the cross is a turn to the real. Unlike the Barthian Wholly Other God (epistemological distance) we encounter through the cross God in the manger, God in the flesh, God on the cross. All we have of God is the flesh of Jesus. That is, the lived reality of our world is the fabric through which revelation comes to us. All we have is embodied reality in which divine action blends with human response. God is in the real.
This is exactly where Root ends, so why did he not anchor this turn to the real in the theologia crucis as well? I suspect it is because in a Barthian framework theologians are used to working with epistemological distance rather than hermeneutical and embodied closeness. But then again, Root is sufficiently influenced by Luther, Bonhoeffer (and I’m sure many great other thinkers) to end where the theologia crucis was pointing in the first place.
Christopraxis is a great book. It practices theology at its best!