A theologian of the cross.

Author:Shelley, Michael T.
 
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In the fall of 1983, I was a young pastor serving in Cairo, Egypt. A year before, I had completed a two-and-a-half-year term as the part-time pastor of the Heliopolis Community Church, an international, interdenominational church located in the Heliopolis section of Cairo, there to provide a church home for English-speaking expatriates. I was now in my second year of full-time Arabic language study, and beginning to contemplate how I could arrange to do doctoral work in Islamic studies afterward.

Since 1982, Mark Thomsen had been the Executive Director of the American Lutheran Church's (ALC) (1) Division for World Mission and Inter-Church Cooperation (DWMIC), which had sent me and my wife, Joanne, to Cairo in 1979. A former missionary in northern Nigeria, Thomsen "was firmly committed to a Lutheran agenda of coming to terms with Islam, socially, theologically, and missiologically." (2) From the beginning of his work with the ALC's DWMIC, he was thinking about developing a cadre of missionaries who would engage in the advanced study of various world religions, including Islam, which would equip them for constructive interfaith engagement in their countries of service and to serve as resources for the church in the United States. My interest in doctoral studies coalesced with Thomsen's interest in training what he grandly called a new order of "Lutheran Jesuits." (3) With the support of the ALC's DWMIC, I spent three and a half years in England doing doctoral work at the University of Birmingham through the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations of the Selly Oak Colleges. I returned to Cairo in the spring of 1988, and in my remaining fifteen years there continued to receive Thomsens support and encouragement for the various tasks I undertook, (4) even after he retired in 1996. This support and encouragement continued after I returned to the United States in 2003, since which time I have been at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. I am deeply indebted to Mark Thomsen.

Thomsen's vision of God

No one could rightly accuse Mark Thomsen of having a small understanding of God. He wrote and spoke of "the Cosmic Abba," "the Cosmic Mother," "the Universal Abba," "the Abba of the Universe," "the Cosmic Other," (5) "the Heart of the universe," (6) "the Cosmic Weaver," (7) "the Cosmic Vulnerable Companion," (8) "the Heart of the galaxies," (9) and the "God of galaxies." (10) However, his majestic vision of God was firmly rooted in a very particular event: the death of Jesus of Nazareth on a cross in first-century Jerusalem, whom Thomsen called "the Cosmic Crucified" (11) and "the crucified Truth." (12)

As Martin Luther "used the expression 'theologian of the cross,' instead of 'theology of the cross,' indicating his preference for theology done from the point of view or perspective of the cross, as a disposition, rather than theology about the cross," (13) so Mark Thomsen was a theologian of the cross. In particular, he reflected extensively on the significance of the cross for Christian mission. One of his early efforts of putting his thoughts into writing was an essay he composed for a task force comprised of eight scholars he convened under the auspices of the ALC's DWMIC who reflected on the topic "God and Jesus: Theological Reflections for Christian-Muslim Dialog." (14) He subsequently elaborated further on this theme in two books: Christ Crucified: A 21st-Century Missiology of the Cross, (15) and Jesus, the Word, and the Way of the Cross: An Engagement with Muslims, Buddhists, and Other Peoples of Faith. (16) In these publications, his chief concern was to draw out the implications of the cross for Christian mission, which he did with a rigor and boldness second to none. As David D. Grafton has noted, "Throughout his tenure with the ALC and the ELCA, Thomsen worked to develop a missiology for the church based upon a theology of the cross, where to be a disciple of the God who reveals himself in the crucified Christ is to enter into a 'cruciform' mission." (17) The remainder of this brief essay focuses upon Thomsen's contribution to this theme.

Cruciform mission

I believe Mark Thomsen would have agreed with the words of the nineteenth-century Cuban writer and nationalist hero Jose Marti, who used to say, "Sometimes the best way to say something is to do it." (18) Thus, for Thomsen it was important for Christians not only to reflect upon and speak about the significance of the cross, but also to live and witness to the gospel in ways shaped by the cross. Christians are called to participate in the missio dei, and as the cross of Jesus is "the primary symbol of the mission of God," (19) their participation must be formed by what they believe God was doing through Jesus crucified.

... of primary significance is the fact that the messengers proclaiming the gospel be understood as participants in the mission of God incarnate in...

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