The Power of the Cross
by George Weigel, First Things:
Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890)—a theologian who came to prominence in the Victorian Age—can help us check the Church’s spiritual pulse in the post-modern twenty-first century, thanks to his prescient sense of the deep cultural currents shaping (and warping) Western civilization. Thus on August 26, 1832, Newman preached a sermon, “The Religion of the Day,” that bears reflection during Holy Week 2017:
What is Satan’s device in this day? … What is the world’s religion now? It has taken the brighter side of the Gospel—its tidings of comfort, its precepts of love; all darker, deeper views of man’s condition and prospects being comparatively forgotten. This is the religion natural to a civilized age, and well has Satan dressed and completed it into an idol of the Truth. … [Those] fearful images of Divine wrath with which the Scriptures abound … are explained away. Every thing is bright and cheerful. Religion is pleasant and easy. …
Judging from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the temptation to reduce Christianity to a comfortable lifestyle option has been around a long time. Thus Paul insists that he did not come to Corinth to preach “with eloquent wisdom”—human cleverness; no, he came with a message inconceivable to sophisticated (or even not-so-sophisticated) ancients: “Christ crucified,” in whose Cross is found “the power of God” [1 Cor. 17, 20]. Eighteen hundred years later, Newman found the perennial temptation to empty the Cross of its power in the cozy cultural religiosity of his time. H. Richard Niebuhr, closer to our day, saw the same corrosive thing when he pilloried the liberal Protestantism that offered “a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
Against these “idols of the Truth,” this Christian happy-talk, the Cross stands in stark relief.