In Toronto there's a sculpture of Jesus depicted as a homeless person just outside Regis College, a Jesuit school, at the University of Toronto. But it found its home there only after being rejected by St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. It has been reported that rectors of both cathedrals were enthusiastic about the piece but higher-ups in the New York and Toronto archdiocese chose not to install the sculpture.
Timothy Schmalz, the artist, was told that the sculpture could not be installed because it was "inappropriate." The word "inappropriate" suggests offense.
Except those churches, the one in Toronto and the one in New York, being Roman Catholic, have multiple depictions of Christ inside the building where he hangs, dead or dying, from a cross. Do the decision makers in the archdiocese of New York and Toronto not take offense at Christ crucified?
Is the humble depiction of Jesus as a sleeping homeless person more offensive than Jesus on the cross? That depends on why the sculpture is offensive in the first place. Perhaps it's the depiction of Christ as less than divine, a simple human, and a homeless one at that. The sculpture says more about the viewer than it does about God. The sculpture challenges what we think about ourselves, and about those around us who we may not see or who we chose not to see. It is personal. Meanwhile, the cross has come to challenge what we think about God more than it personally challenges we who stand before it. But our reaction to the cross is what faith is all about, and we have lost the ability to really see it.
The Impossibility of Offense
Perhaps the men who rejected the sculpture in question stand before the cross and, through a work of faith, do not choose offense. Soren Kierkegaard tells us that "the possibility of offense is precisely the repulsion in which faith can come into existence—if one does not choose to be offended."[^1] It is possible that the same people who reject Christ depicted lying destitute on a park bench do not reject Christ in his abasement on the cross, but it ain't likely. It's likelier that something else entirely is going on.
The sculpture is genius because it delivers the possibility of offense back to us. The image of Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one, the Human One, the beloved one of God tortured, hanging from a bloody cross is not offensive to us not because of our faith but because the offense of the cross as been obliterated by time and the ubiquity of an image that says "here is a church."
Christ says, "Blessed is the one who is not offended at me." But it is not a blessing to find oneself in a situation where offense is impossible. To bring in Kierkegaard again, one must be confronted with the possibility of offense, must move through it, in order to have faith.
So I ask myself: why do I accept the sculpture of Jesus as a huddled homeless person? Does my acceptance come from a genuine belief that God is truly incarnate in the least among us? Or does acceptance come from a knee-jerk, right-headed, progressive liberalism in which Christianity is "stirred in as a seasoning"?[^2] Or is the possibility of offense impossible, because the existence of God has been rendered impossible in this secular age?
- [^1]: Practice in Christianity, 121
- [^2]: Ibid., 112