07 April 2004

Holy Week thoughts about the Atonement

What follows is a somewhat rude post about the Atonement. Please be warned: whatever your point of view, you might be offended at some point if you keep reading. Also note that, although it deals with the theology of salvation, it doesn't tackle the question of Christian exclusivity vs. pluralism. I think I'll have something to write about that issue in a future post, but for the record, I'm a pluralist. Anyway, without further ado:


So it's Holy Week. It's the annual week-long commemoration of Jesus' last week of human life. Also, there's this movie out, which you may have heard about, which is a graphic (some would say pornographic) depiction of Jesus' last hours of human life. Like many Christians, I found the movie both moving and thought-provoking. I find Holy Week, and its services, much the same.

So it's Holy Week, and I've been thinking about the Doctrine of the Atonement. Actually, there are a whole set of intimately connected theological issues here. At the broadest level, there's the Gospel (Good News) of Jesus Christ. Just what is that Good News? Most Christians would say that a large (perhaps the central) part of that Good News is "Salvation". So what is Salvation? Here, it starts to get complicated.

I've actually been thinking about this stuff since I read an article in the Christmas 2003 edition of the Sewanee Theological review. The article, by Ellen T. Charry, is called "On Being an Anglo-Catholic". Among other things, Ms. Charry discusses an ancient controversy regarding the nature of salvation. The theological term for salvation talk is "soteriology", and the two main points of view she discusses are "participation soteriology" (favored by the Greek Orthodox churches and certain prominent Anglican theologians of the past and present) and "atonement soteriology" (favored by the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Churches, and certain prominent Anglican theologians of the past and present). She compares participation soteriology to being pickled--salvation is a slow, ongoing process of "participation in and union with God." Atonement soteriology is being toasted like a Pop-Tart. Christ paid the price for us, and once we opt in to that atonement, "pop!" we're saved.

OK. I personally think that's a bit of a false dichotomy. Whatever the positions have historically been called, the contrast she's drawing is really between a salvation envisioned as immediate and complete, and one envisioned as gradual and growing. The pickle/Pop Tart analogy is apt, but it seems to me that there's room for a doctrine of Atonement (whatever that is--I'll get to it in a minute) in so-called "participation soteriology" if Christ in some way did something to make possible the gradual pickling of all those pickles. Likewise, all those "atonement soteriology" Pop-Tarts, having been immediately and completely toasted, are surely thought to participate in and be in union with God. So I'll just say that I guess I mostly favor the pickles, and move on to a discussion of Atonement, with the claim that it's an important doctrine whether you smell of vinegar or--er--whatever that stuff is on Pop-Tarts.

So anyway, about this so-called Atonement: If indeed God and Jesus did something 2000 years ago to make possible what Christians call salvation, how does that work, exactly? There's an excellent article on this subject in this week's Time magazine (of all places) which lays out three broad positions. The first speaks of the Atonement as a victory of Good over Evil: a mysterious, pivotal change in the universal balance of power and the beginning of the end for the Devil--a point of view current among the Eastern Orthodox Christian churches. The second, "substitutionary atonement", favored historically in the Western churches (Catholic and Protestant) and probably the most familiar formulation of the doctrine of atonement in the West, speaks of Christ's death on the cross as paying in full a debt owed to God the Father by all humans for our sins. This is the main point of view of that movie I mentioned. The third, "exemplary atonement", holds that the significance of Jesus' life, suffering, and death is mainly as an example to us of an ideal life of humility, goodness, love, and sacrifice.

The Time article goes on to say that it's extremely common among modern Christians to mix and match among these theories. Well, I certainly do. I generally find the theology of substitutionary atonement abhorrent. But the other two points of view have a tendency to de-emphasize the importance of the events of Good Friday. (If you don't know what those were, and you have a strong stomach, you can find out at your local multiplex.) I certainly agree with the exemplary model as far as it goes, but I believe that there's more to Jesus than that.

I guess my point of view is closest to the Orthodox position--something mysterious and of universal significance happened when Jesus suffered and died. It wasn't that an angry Father said, "Well, OK, somebody paid the blood penalty for all those sins that were pissing me off, so I guess I'll stop sending everybody to Hell. Too bad it had to be the boy." For me, the most moving faith statement in the Time article was from an Anglican preacher named John Stott, who said "In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?"

Yes, that's it exactly. God, as Jesus, did something remarkable in the Incarnation: he became fully human. Somehow, mysteriously, this bridged a gap that humans, without divine intervention, can't bridge. If you've ever seen an evangelical tract, it probably had a diagram with God up at the top, humans down below, and a gap between them. Then it had the same diagram again, but this time with a cross reaching down from heaven and bridging that gap. At least, every tract I've ever seen, from those creepy Jack Chick ones to more mainstream jobs, had diagrams like that.

So God in Jesus did something special by becoming fully human: he made it possible for the alienation that is our normal state to be overcome, and for us to be in union with God. I believe that, and am content to leave the details of that mystery--well--mysterious. But what does this mean, to be fully human? The Buddha had an answer to that: it means to suffer. Pain, anguish, and suffering are a central part of human life. To be fully human is to experience that. We suffer, and in the Passion of Jesus Christ, God demonstrated that he/she suffers too, right along with us. How could one worship a God who is immune to pain? How could one reach out, in our deepest, darkest anguish, to a God who doesn't--couldn't--understand? In addition to the mysterious universal sea change that I believe was accomplished via the Incarnation and Atonement, in addition to the example offered by the life and sacrifice of Christ, the events of the Passion also provide Christians with a unique comfort--a God who, in the dark night of our souls when we need to reach out for consolation and to ease our pain, has been there.