Cancer and theology: my friend Todd Billings has written a book on the relationship between cancer and theology; motivated by his own diagnosis with an incurable cancer known as multiple myeloma. As many of you know I too, back in late 2009/2010, was diagnosed with an incurable/terminal (typically) cancer known as desmoplastic small round cell tumor (sarcoma), or DSRCT. Both Billings and I have miraculously survived our respective cancers, and by God’s grace carry on.
Throughout the rest of the post I would like to reflect on cancer and theology, and how they relate and even can inform each other. I am prompted to write this post because of a mini Facebook discussion I had yesterday with my friend, Derrick Peterson. He had written a blog post himself on proofs for God’s existence. Eventually in the conversation I brought up cancer, and how God had worked through that in my own life to assuage and in fact rebuff serious doubts I’ve struggled with about God for many years. The type of doubts I had were not unhealthy doubts, but doubts I believe that God in Christ allowed to come upon me to push me deeper into Him. Nonetheless, I had them, and they were very strong; they caused depression and anxiety; and I just wanted them to go away, so I studied and prayed a lot (we are talking over a season of probably fifteen years). But I am starting to digress, let me move into the post now, and try to bring cancer and theology together.
The first question, if we are going to talk about cancer and theology is to try and define what in fact the entailments of a genuinely Christian theology actually are. This will be an important step, because in order to understand how theology can inform and relate to cancer, we need to have a solid understanding of what Christian theology is. To help us develop what genuine Christian theology is Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance will have the honors as he is describing Karl Barth’s way of doing theology as well as his own:
Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.
This is the way I approach theology as well. It is to understand that Jesus Christ in a principled and even absolute way must be the center for knowing God for us; since as the Apostle John makes clear, that was a fundamental part of Jesus’ mission. There are other ways of doing theology out there that don’t do theology this way; as we have noted elsewhere on this blog, classical ways for doing Reformed theology (and I am Reformed, so I will camp on this) are much more abstract and speculative—i.e. they don’t necessarily start with Jesus Christ in an intense way for doing theology. This is not to say that the piety of some of these practitioners does not attempt to make up the difference in some of these other ways of doing theology, but they are not directly given shape by starting with Jesus in the ways that Barth and Torrance do (as does Athanasius). In other words, I would contend that starting theology with Jesus in a principled way starts with the triune idea that God is love; it does not work its way discursively towards that reality as some classical theologies might be wont to do.
At base then, at least for me (as an evangelical Calvinist, and student of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance), theology is Jesus; theology is objective in the sense that God is God, but genuine Christian theology moves the object into the subject (without losing its objective character) in Jesus Christ. In other words, genuine Christian theology is by definition, personal and relational. It is both of these because theology is not an idea, or simply a discipline, but genuinely Christian theology is a personal subject, it is the triune God Self-revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ. It is this type of revelation that makes theology so inextricable to something like cancer; cancer is personal. So it is fitting, if God who is wise in Himself, if He is going to reveal Himself to us in Christ, does so where we are; hidden in the midst of our squalor and various forms of human suffering brought on by the fall of humanity into the abyss of sin.
To drive this reality of a genuine Christian theology home even further, let’s hear from Karl Barth directly as he writes about what Martin Luther called a theology of the cross versus a theology of glory. This will serve as the bridge that brings my desire to talk about cancer and theology together. Barth writes at length:
[I]n contrast Luther tries to draw attention to the vacuum, to the fact that passion (suffering) stands at the heart of life and speaks of sin and folly, death and hell. These fearful visible thing of God, his strange work, the crucified Christ — these are the theme of true theology. A preaching of despair? No, of hope! For what does that break in the center mean? Who is the God hidden in the passion with his strange work, and what does he desire? Explaining Heidelberg Thesis 16, Luther pointed out that the strange work leads on to the proper work, that God makes us sinners in order to make us righteous. The gap in the horizontal line, the disaster of our own striving, is the point at which God’s vertical line intersects our lives, where God wills to be gracious. Here where our finitude is recognized is true contact with infinity. He who judges us is he who shows mercy to us, he who slays us is he who makes us live, he who leads us into hell is he who leads us into heaven. Only sinners are righteous, only the sad are blessed, only the dying live. But sinners are righteous, the sad are blessed, the dying do live. The God hidden in the passion is the living God who loves us, sinful, wicked, foolish, and weak as we are, in order to make us righteous, good, wise, and strong. It is because the strange work leads to the proper work that there can be no theology of glory, that we must halt at the sharply severed edges of the broken horizontal line where what we find is despair, humility, the fear of God. For despair is hope, humility is exaltation, fear of God is love of God, and nothing else. The center of this theology, then, is the demand for faith as naked trust that casts itself into the arms of God’s mercy; faith that is the last word that can be humanly said about the possibility of justification before God; a faith that is sure of its object — God — because here there is resolute renunciation of the given character of scholastic faith (infused, implicit, and formed) as an element of uncertainty; faith viewed not as itself a human work but as an integral part of God’s strange work, sharing in the whole paradox of it.
For Barth, and now for me, genuine Christian theology, as the Apostle Paul so eloquently declares is the wisdom of the cross (see I Cor. 1.18-25). God in His ineffable wisdom humbles himself to not only become a man, but humbles himself to the point of death, the death of the cross (see Phil. 2.5-10). God reveals Godself, hidden in the manger, in the body (which was His own human body) of a growing boy, and finally in the public ministry of Jesus Christ culminating in his death, burial, resurrection (see I Cor. 15.1-4), ascension (see Acts 1; Col. 1–2), and coming again (see I Thess. 4; Rev. 19–22). When theology starts with God’s life revealed in the eternal Son, Jesus Christ, it cannot but help but to be meaningfully personal and cruciform in shape, since this is the shape that is most fitting for God become man by His own free and gracious choice; and this concordant with His character (in His inner triune life in se).
Cancer is one of the most visceral fearful things, it seems, in our society of which people hope they never have to face. The sad reality though is that statistically more than fifty percent of all North Americans will receive some sort of cancer diagnosis in their life time (probably most towards their aging years, but that is also unfortunately changing quickly). I had to face it, and many of you (God forbid it!) might well have to face it yourself; if not, someone you know closely will in their life time. So cancer, among other ills produced by living in a fallen world, is an inevitability (although I think through proper diet most of cancer could be eradicated) that we will face one way or the other.
As I described theology above, that was not an abstract exercise for me; that is real life. When I received my “terminal” incurable cancer diagnosis it was the God revealed in Jesus Christ, in the cross and resurrection where I found immediate hope, confidence, and comfort. I did not have to work through an abstract apparatus of theology in order to work my way to God; because of the theological moorings I already had I knew He was ever present in this real time of trouble. I already knew that the God who I desperately needed was a humble, but all powerful God, who is able to enter into the depths of death and sin, and overcome it because of the inner-strength of His triune life of love. I knew that God first loved me, because He wasn’t a God who just talked the talk but He walked the walk before I was ever born or thought of (at least humanly speaking). I knew that I had an immediate and direct access to God because He had made clear to me in His Self-revelation in Christ that He had already come to me by enfleshing Himself with humanity and entering into all my suffering and despair. I found comfort in knowing that not only was God all powerful, but that His almightiness was shaped by immediate and personal love. I knew that He had power over death, because while He might appear to be hidden in the cross, for those with eyes of faith it was there where I could see Him most brightly.
When I started this post I had mentioned that discussion I had had with my friend Derrick about God and doubt. God revealed Himself, and met me so strongly in the midst of cancer that many of the doubts I had dealt with prior (for around fifteen long years) were crushed. It was through encounter with the living God in Christ, as I woke up every morning only to remember that “oh yeah, I have an incurable cancer in my body,” that this God of the cross broke in quickly on that fearful thought and made clear that nothing could separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This is how good theology ought to work. It shouldn’t, at base, be an elaborate, even scholastic web of intellectualisms; instead it should be able to bring knowledge of God in the spaces of life where we would least expect to find Him.
 Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.
 See John 1.18.
 Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin, 46.