About a year ago, I wrote a post that became one of my most controversial to date: Spilled Blood & The Cosmic Christ: Atonement Dissonance. In my youthful zeal of last year, I expressed myself in some ways that I wish I’d stated differently. Given my newfound ROM-and-centering-prayer perspective, I think some of my thinking is clearer and more precise. Let me see if I can better lay out the perils and promises of atonement models as I see them.
Simply put, it’s exceedingly difficult to take Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence and peacemaking seriously while also taking seriously a punitive model of Jesus’ atoning death. Penal Substitutionary views of atonement (a fancy way of saying that Jesus died in my place so I don’t have to, because God requires the shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sins) just don’t square with the God of Jesus Christ, who encourages us to not remove an eye for an eye, or plot against our adversaries. Sure, ‘Vengeance is mine, says the Lord,’ but we cannot be sure what God repays. As Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch say in ReJesus, “It is true that Jesus is like God, but the greater truth, one closer to the revelation of God that Jesus ushers in, is that God is like Christ.” (pg. 12) How would a Christ-like God redeem humanity?
To place this in a larger frame, it’s difficult to hold with integrity both the message of Jesus (that is, change your living for God’s in-breaking, all-encompassing Kingdom is at hand) and the various messages about Jesus that have been promulgated in the millennia after Jesus’ death and resurrection. If I’m honest, it’s even difficult to square the message of Jesus in the gospels with some of the messages about Jesus even later in the New Testament. Not trying to be a reverse-Marcionite or anything…just sayin’.
And yet! One of the tasks before me, as an emerging Christian, is to hold liberating truths in creative tension. As a follower of Jesus in this era that many of us believe is one of ‘great emergence,’ I feel like our task – not in some lofty way, but simply for our individual & collective spiritual sanity – is to not repeat the mistake of the 20th-century modernist-fundamentalist divide. The Church of 100 years ago was being met by a flourishing of science, the arts, and scholarship. They were also, we now know, on the cusp of meeting the full impact of the darker side of full-on modernity: eugenics, total war, entangling geopolitical alliances, racism, environmental degradation on a massive scale, and the full industrialization and compartmentalization of everyday life, from cooking to entertainment.
In the face of all of this change and sensory input, the Church in the West fissured (as we Western Christians often do). The fundamentalists forged a retreat from the promise and terror of the modern world, from its evolutionary science to its weapons of mass destruction. They chose the messages about Jesus, the good news as told by his friends. They dismissed the message of Jesus as too utopian for this life; it must be referring to far-off heaven, to the world that awaits us after this corrupt place breathes its last. Thus did the message about Jesus become in vogue for fundamentalists and later evangelicals; thus did the good news about Jesus become distorted beyond recognition.
But that isn’t the whole story of the split. The modernist Church, by contrast, saw much that was amenable about modern culture. They wanted to engage this culture, and be relevant. There was heartfelt concern about the viability of major components of the modernist project, and the teachings of Jesus were, in a fashion, brought to bear on these problems – poverty, for instance, and other forms of injustice. But where science or critical scholarship brought into question some of the tenets of Christian belief – the actuality of cherished confession and experience – the modernist Church was quick to capitulate, feeling that earlier generations probably didn’t know what they were talking about when they were ‘strangely warmed’ by amazing grace.
By contrast, I want it all. And so do you, I think. I don’t want an Ockham’s razor minimalist faith, that attempts to strip down to the “real” or “historical” Jesus. Faith has ways of knowing that sight simply doesn’t know. So I wish to embrace the good news of Jesus and the good news about Jesus. But my problem, my struggle, is that the good news about Jesus needs to be ethical, it needs to be loving, and it needs to square with what I’ve apprehended of Jesus’ own life, message, and depiction of Abba God. And frankly, most of the atonement metaphors in vogue today seem to be about an evasion of justice, a glorification of violence and victim-hood, and a denial that the message of Jesus really has the power to work in our day and age.
I want to affirm the historic Christian faith (and reality!) that Jesus saves us. More specifically, I want to joyously experience Jesus’ incarnation, life, teachings, signs & wonders, death, resurrection, ascension, and indwelling as saving us.
The crux of the question – both for followers of Jesus and the world at large – is how Jesus saves us, and from what Jesus saves us. Tomorrow I’m going to try and articulate how I’ve been processing this lately.
To be continued in Re-Visioning Jesus’ Atonement: Possible Reconstructions.