“It’s a sad, sad day when those in the believing community (rather it be local or at large), consider the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ to be insufficient or even irrelevant to their spiritual (which is their only) lives. This matter touches on everything from the forgiveness of sins (which some deem to be such a small, small, matter), to the entrance into and residence within the Kingdom of God (which, all of a sudden, seems to be such a huge, gigantic matter). These two matters cannot truly be separated.It would seem as if there is some sort of mass movement which is based upon works rather than faith, whose aim is….honestly, I don’t know what their aim is.”
So begins my dear friend and former Atlanta church-mate Johnny in a post entitled Dogmatic Statement from an Emerging Fundamentalist. I don’t think Johnny is truly emerging into fundamentalism, but his frustration (and good, heartfelt articulation–please, go and read his entire post) is borne at least in part from my poorly-stated sharing about something that’s been bugging me lately: How evangelical Christians interpret Jesus’ atonement.
In short: I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with a depiction of God-the-Father that supposedly requires blood sacrifice in order to divert his vengeance from a humanity he hates so much that somebody’s gotta die. This is not consistent with the God of Jesus Christ that I see depicted in the Gospels or the Epistles; it seems to focus on a forensic understanding of “the cross” derived from a particular reading of Romans and especially Hebrews that ignores the rich tapestry of other atonement understandings held by the first followers of Jesus.
Nonetheless, I am not saying that human beings are peachy-keen on our own merits and in no need of reconciliation. I think we are cracked eikons, fractured images of God who are gathered up in love and power of Spirit for restoration and wholeness, insofar as we surrender to this process. I think we are alienated from God, creation, and each other; inwardly, outwardly, and collectively we can be a tangled up knot of dis-integration and dis-ease (I am not afraid to call this sin, though it’s a religiously-loaded term these days), in need of God’s cleansing presence. I believe that God is all-in-all, but that we receive a special blessing when we open ourselves to God’s omnipresence, trusting Jesus and “letting God in” volitionally. And I think that Jesus’ life, actions, teachings, power, execution, resurrection and ascension and indwelling are intimately bound up in this glory-displaying, grace-enacting gesture flowing out of a gratuitous Triune God.
I simply think that when it comes to God and us being alienated from each other, we moved. And we know a prodigal God, who’s on the move toward us always. It isn’t that “God can’t countenance us without The Blood ’cause we’re too shameful to look at.” Hogwash! Jesus laughed with, visited, and ate meals with all the wrong kind of “filth” before his State-and-Religion-sponsored execution, deliberately trouncing the prevailing opinions of the purity codes of his day. To Jesus, uncleanness wasn’t contagious, holiness was. We need to ask forgiveness of all we have wronged, God first and foremost. But God’s hand isn’t a fist until said moment. It never was.
Johnny, I’m sorry if to you I’ve seemed to deny the “eternal and inward” paths of Christian spirituality to embrace “world peace” and “God’s Kingdom” exclusively. To me these are two facets of an unbroken whole, too. It may be that we’re assembling these pieces together differently these days, which can be painful, I know. Disunity sucks, especially when brothers in faith have walked in such unanimity in times past. Please be patient with me as I go through this (post?)structural renovation of my spirituality and thinking about this matter. I wish to “chuck” nothing that is wholesome, good and true. I don’t want to magnify what I do for God; my boast, too, is only in God’s sustaining presence. All of my rethinking–or reimagining if you prefer, hee hee–is not to adapt myself to the latest theological fashion, but in a quest to love God more fully and honestly, as well as my neighbors more vitally and holistically.This is for the survival of my interior life–my prayer and worship. It’s also for how I frame the Hope I have within me to others. I am terribly interested in how I communicate the good news of God in Jesus to friends, enemies, and strangers. I only want to share with them the very best, and very truest. Even though our images of the Divine are always, constantly provisional, I want the image of God I hold in my heart to be as authentic as possible.
On a practical note, I’d like to get us both a copy of Scot McKnight‘s newly-released book, A Community Called Atonement, to read together. From what I hear McKnight might help both of us articulate what’s nagging at our hearts about Jesus’ death, and its significance to our lives. I know it is written as a peace-making, bible-teaching book, calling for a ceasefire in the “atonement wars.” Sound good?
For the rest of you, please stop by Johnny’s insightful post, and comment there. (You can comment here too, but maybe in light of both of these posts.) Give pause and take your “atonement pulse.” If you follow penal substitutionary atonement (currently the one in favor in official evangelical and Catholic theologies), why is this understanding of Jesus’ death and shed blood meaningful to you? If Christus Victor, moral influence, mimetic, or ransom atonement understandings resonate with you, why is this? What is it like being the underdog in soteriology? [If I get really industrious I might make a post later of nothing but links to define all these terms; I know they might be daunting for some of you. But I don’t have time right now…sorry!]