We hired someone a few years ago to help us design a new logo for our church. One of the first designs she submitted had a cross in the center. When I saw it, my immediate reaction was, “They’re not going to go for this; it’s a cross.” Her incredulous response was, “But you’re a church!” Turns out I was right. The design was rejected.
For many progressive Christians, the cross has become a stumbling block – not for the same reasons Paul wrote about in I Corinthians 1:23 (“. . . but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”).
The reason is the rejection of the idea that God purposefully sent Jesus to die – what some have called “divine child abuse.” In fact, it’s the rejection of the very idea of the need for a ransom or payment or substitution for humanity’s fallen state. It is not rejection of the reality of sin within the human experience or our need for confession, forgiveness, reconciliation – with God and with others. The cross is seen as what it was: an instrument of terror, torture and death, used by the forces of empire to control occupied people. And Jesus was killed, not to save us from our sins, but because he was a threat to the Roman empire.
So if that’s the case, should we keep the cross as the central symbol of Christianity? In 2013, the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston said “no.” They chose the design of a cross-section of a nautilus shell against a blue background, to be backlit at night. The Dean of St. Paul’s said that the nautilus is “the perfect metaphor for a spiritual journey.”
The artist who created it explained, “I wanted to find a symbol, an image, that would speak to everyone and be beautiful. The spiral is the most ubiquitous shape in the universe. It’s in the movement of subatomic particles and it’s in the vastness of galaxies. So if you’re thinking about God, or even if you don’t believe in God, the spiral, I think, can still speak to people.”
As you can imagine, controversy ensued.
I love the nautilus symbol and totally get the reasoning behind the Cathedral’s decision. However, I’m not ready to throw out the cross. But, like so much of Christianity’s language and symbolism, it needs to be reinterpreted. We have so much new knowledge of science, new biblical studies, new awareness of the harm that Christianity has often done under the banner of the cross. How can we communicate a message of the cross as symbol of compassion and hope?
That message has always been there. Divine power is revealed in suffering and weakness of the cross, not in strength and glory (despite Constantine’s use of a cross on his military standard.)
Richard Rohrer, the Franciscan priest and writer, says it best: “I believe that human consciousness is now finally ready to accept that Jesus’ sacrifice was made to transform us, to reveal a God who is self-giving, suffering love. Jesus died to reveal the nature of the heart of God.”
I do not believe that sacrifice was a pre-ordained plan. I do believe that in the willing act of going to the cross, Jesus showed us that suffering is not the final answer. Hope, healing and transformation come about in the midst of our own very real circumstances of pain, suffering and death. I believe this because my times of greatest healing, most profound self-discovery and spiritual growth have come about in the process of recognizing, feeling and working through my own suffering.
I love the nautilus shell symbol for different reasons. But I love the cross for telling it like it is. As the Buddhists say and as M. Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Traveled, “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.” The cross reminds me of this. But beyond that, the cross is a reminder of Divine love for humanity and the promise of new possibilities. And I’m going to stick with that!