Friday, March 11, 2011

Reconciling Tradition follow-up: The atonement and appeasement models in Christianity (again)

I recently ran across (was not looking for or expecting to find) some sources related to my recent series critiquing and  exploring some of the concepts often considered traditional and essential to modern Western Christianity, especially the more fundamentalist or legalistic varieties. Whether you are a student of theology, a practicing Christian, or someone curious about what people believe, these sources may be of interest to you. In my series I really hammered atonement and appeasement models for understanding the death of Jesus, particularly how they are understood and employed.  But I kept suggesting these and other concepts I was criticizing were not as central and essential to Christianity as some think, either historically or globally. So if you want to go further into how that is or what other perspectives sound, give the following sources a whirl.

First up is an essay that helped me find some of these other sites and which echoes my own problems with how many people, especially many outspoken Christians, present such ideas and how through that others come to have a truly horrific view of God and the sacrifice Jesus represents in the Gospels. It comes from the blog of a friend, Joe Hinman, who uses the nom de plume "Metacrock". From there, other sources open up, such as this one describing the varied views of the early church:

The dominant Christian understanding of the atonement is the ‘penal substitution’ theory, which states that Christ was punished by an angry God as a substitute for those he came to save. However, the ‘representative’ or ‘participatory’ understanding of the atonement was the first to be held, originating with Clement of Rome (fl. 96).[1] [2] [3]

This interpretation understands Christ as the representation of how Christians should live, making salvation dependent on participation in the life of Christ.[4] The atonement changes the attitude of the sinner towards God, but no penalty is inflicted, no substitution made.

Early beliefs on the atonement often contain a range of elements. For example, Ignatius described Christ’s sacrifice as an example,[5] yet included other themes in his exposition of the subject.
 An essay from an Orthodox perspective by Carmen Fragapane elaborates on this theme:
 "...EH Jones writes that in Orthodoxy "discussions of substitutionary atonement and propitiation are virtually absent from their published explanations of salvation.

... the notion that redemption should be rigidly interpreted in one particular way is itself foreign to early Christian thought: "The seven ecumenical councils avoided defining salvation through any [one model]
alone. No universal Christian consensus demands that one view of salvation includes or excludes all others...

J.N.D. Kelly further explains: "Scholars have often despaired of discovering any single unifying thought in the Patristic teaching about the redemption. These various theories, however, despite appearances, should not be regarded as in fact mutually incompatible. They were all of them attempts to elucidate the same great truth from different angles; their superficial divergences are often due to the different Biblical images from which they started, and there is no logical reason why, carefully stated, they should not be regarded as complimentary."
More on the historical/Orthodox view can be found summarized well at blog Finding the Way to the Heart. Don't misunderstand me. I am not sure that either author I quoted concerning the diversity of views in the early Church would agree with each other on how they personally see the issue, and it is doubtful either would be enthusiastic over my take on it. Indeed, my phrasing reformulates a longstanding traditional way of speaking of ideas such as deification. But they do make the point that the current penal models such as substitutionary atonement are universal in Christian theology. Additional material on views differing from substitutionary atonement and appeasing an angry deity, such as participatory atonement, can be found or is referenced at the original link to Metacrock's blog.

The difference in other models, such as participatory atonement (refined into views such as "solidarity", that is, God joining us in our suffering to show his love for us) are broad and hard to reduce to a simple formula, but perhaps we can get a general picture from the notion that in God's eyes, we are worth dying for. That is, Jesus, representing and embodying a full connection with God in human form (and not just God "in a human suit", but truly human), is willing to give up his own divinity, to exist for a time solely as a lost human with no sense of God, alone and scared and hurting ("Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani!"). And then to die that way.

A couple of years ago I described it thus:
Take substitutionary atonement. It works up to a point as a metaphor, but if it doesn't get you to the bigger picture, it leads to the strongest forms of Calvinism, of extreme judgmentalism and exlucisivism. The way I understand that particular theological model is that we are all already embraced by God but we cannot see it or accept it. It is our duality of thinking, of God and not-God, of exaggerating the objective reality of good and evil, that keeps us from accepting this truth and resting in God. This way of thinking, of a cosmic struggle, of us and them, is clearly expressed in the most concrete of terms in the Bible as the view of God alternates between a jealous and insecure sky-deity and an all-embracing Source of all that is becoming.

But that doesn't mean we are just supposed to accept that view without further thought or reflection, as the flat-thinking folks would have us believe. I believe it does however, when combined with what Christ taught, ask us to follow through. Christ had to die because we are the ones who see a distance between ourselves and God, because we give our faith to such distinctions. We are the source of alienation, and we don't know how to truly love ourselves and each other, to forgive ourselves and each other, to heal and allow ourselves to be healed. It isn't God's sense of justice that must be satisfied...

Jesus reminds us we are not lost and dies to make sure we know we are found - that any possible reason we might cling to that we think would keep us from God is no longer an obstacle. Details about his divinity and his resurrection are generally considered mysteries of the faith. Points where we can never receive a complete or satisfactory answer and which are therefore left as a matter of faith. Panentheism, for example, is just as good an analogy as any but like all such systems it is ultimately incomplete and just a useful guide marker on the spiritual journey. 
Describing how and why substitutionary atonement models can point to something beyond it's own limitations a few months ago, I tried to express the notion this way:
Coming out of a system involving sacred law and offering sacrifices, Jesus becomes the Christ by entering the world as a human who then operates within the prevailing religion and cultural beliefs by becoming the perfect sacrifice capable of covering all people for all time. He is the face of God, of Ultimate Reality, who again is saying, "Whatever you have been taught by your religion or culture about existential guilt and punishment that debt is going to be covered -- you are free."
That is, such a model obviates the the very thinking on which it is premised. Makes it null and void. And then, again, one is left with a picture in which God is willing to do whatever it takes to demonstrate unflinching love for the world. It also reveals the method, the conduit, through which this is expressed. It isn't grandiose magic, a shock and awe campaign of violating the nature of reality with what we tend to call miracles. It is through the actions of human beings, channeled through the human heart.

1 comment:

  1. Great analysis Tiny. You are right the participatory thing, especially in the solidarity from suffers a bit from multiple metaphors. I think they all relate to each other in that they all revolve around the idea that the atonement mechanism is solidarity and not recompense.


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