Author Andy Crouch makes the case that meaningful action requires meaningful risk

“Two questions,” writes Andy Crouch, “haunt every human life… The first: What are we meant to be? The second: Why are we so far from what we’re meant to be? These questions reveal a crisis: human beings recognize our lives are supposed to have a purpose and, all to often, we sense also that we are not fulfilling that purpose. This being said, Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, is no existentialist. In his newest book, Strong and Weak, he insists that the human condition is what it is not because life is an absurdity in which we clamor for meaning in a universe devoid of meaning, but rather because we have forgotten, sometimes willfully, what is necessary to achieve fulfillment, to flourish – to be what we were made to be.

At a recent Trinity Forum “Evening Conversation”, Crouch noted that our perception of the gap between who we are and who we hope to be has helped fuel a multi-billion dollar self-improvement industry. On offer are easy-cures for the human condition, basically through deepening personal comfort and avoiding pain – usually through increasing our power, influence, wealth, fitness, or beauty. However, the cure does not fit the ailment. Rather, Crouch argues, true human flourishing is paradoxical: it requires that we embrace not simply those things that give us strength but also those things that might well put that strength in jeopardy.

This is framed in terms of “authority” and “vulnerability”.  Authority is identified as a species of strength – a capacity for meaningful action. Actions are meaningful when they affect the conditions of history. Human beings, made imago Dei, were created for just such kinds of actions in order to exercise dominion – power over creation. This responsibility can be either honored – when we care for creation – or abused – when we exploit creation. Similarly, vulnerability, as a mode of weakness, is the capacity for meaningful risk, a gamble that opens one up to “the possibility – though not the certainty – that the result of our action in the world will be a wound.” Meaningful risk hazards the loss of something of “real and even irreplaceable value.”

To illustrate this, Crouch gestures to St. Paul’s claim that he is truly strong only when he is weak in Christ. Indeed, because authority and vulnerability must always be present in proper measure to achieve flourishing, Jesus Christ becomes the obvious model. Christ, Crouch reflects, was all authority but took on all vulnerability in order to meet us where we are and to call us to real life. Jesus, he writes, “could have stayed with authority without vulnerability” but instead went to “the absolute, uttermost vulnerability without authority” to bring both “together in his life, death, and resurrection.” From this, Crouch draws an important conclusion: “I have come to believe that the image of God is not just evident in our authority over creation – it is also evident in our vulnerability in the midst of creation.” Because those who love God must love what God loves, so too must those who love him follow his lead in risking everything in a life characterized by other-centered acts of self-donation.

This conclusion is right, but there’s a problem: it cannot be true that Jesus took on “absolute, uttermost vulnerability without authority.” If authority is the capacity for meaningful action, then even in the midst of crucifixion Jesus did not abandon authority. This is because the cross was efficacious: Christ’s sacrifice was a “meaningful action” that reconciled human sinners to the triune God. Christ’s cross was filled to overflowing with the authority necessary to accomplish what it set out to accomplish.

This is crucial, for it has become commonplace among Christians to believe that Christ-likeness includes the necessary abandonment of power, the mortification of self-concern, and the rejection of violence. But if human history has taught us anything, it is not that power is an evil to be resisted, but rather that we must resist evil powers. History does not automatically move toward human flourishing, it must be made to. This requires that those with the will to move history also possess the capacity. Of course, acting for the common good in history has risks – and so vulnerability enters in. But it is neither vulnerability for its own sake nor authority for its own. Both support the other in proper measure. But as with the cross, vulnerability must be known both by its meaningful purpose as well as its meaningful hope of attaining it.

But Crouch knows all this. He holds no presumptions against Christian power, just a recognition of its terms, limits, and function. “If you want to flourish”, he asserts, “you have to act, you have to pursue authority, ultimately you have to offer yourself to the world.” And you have to risk.

In a book flowing over with anecdotes, none are more illustrative than when Crouch writes about parenting. Whether you’re a loving God who therefore created your children with moral freedom, or an earthly mother or father preparing your children not only to attend to the daily business of life but to long for eternity, you know: to love is to risk. To take up authority for the care of kids is to be exposed to enduring vulnerability and the ever-present possibility of sorrow; but there are few, if any, more good or purposive tasks to be found in this life.

Therein, then, is encapusulated the meat of Crouch’s message: meaningful risk is worth the meaningful action that embracing it allows.