A Modified Theory of the Atonement: God’s Response To The Human Condition

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Edvard Munch, “Golgotha”

Because we could not come to him or even be brought to him without horror, he came to us, in the form of Jesus Christ. There was never a time when God had not yet intervened in the human condition, so it is misleading to conceptualize the sending of his son as the beginning of God’s response. But Jesus Christ, from before the foundations of the earth, is the ultimate expression and the primary vehicle of God’s intervention. He is “the anointed one”–the “Christ” (in Greek) or “Messiah” (in Hebrew)–the one chosen to serve as this vehicle. As in all of the great hero stories, the hero comes prepared with the necessary assets for the monumental task that is set before him. Often the hero is told of some weakness of the enemy and given a predestined weapon, tempered for the conflict. The hero of God and man came armed, not with any sword of destiny, but with an intimate and unbreakable relationship with his Father. He spoke unceasingly of his Father–from his first recorded utterance (“Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?”) to his dying breath (“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”). Why did he have power to perform miracles? Because his Father showed him how and gave him power. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do” (John 5:19). “All things are delivered unto me of my Father” (Matt 11:27). “The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand” (John 3:35).

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A Modified Theory of the Atonement: The Human Condition

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The Human Condition In One Sad Story

If the Atonement was the completion of a task necessary for man’s reconciliation with God and with his fellow man, then we need to first understand the nature of the breach that the Atonement was meant to heal. If the “good news” of the Gospel is salvation through Christ, we need to comprehend what he saves us from before we can speculate about what metaphor best expresses how he accomplished it. 

My cousin saw a young man from his high school walking on the side of the road, and he felt he should pull over. My cousin was a successful scholar, athlete, and member of the student government, well-liked and looked up to by many of his peers. This young man was at the opposite end of the popularity spectrum. He was occasionally bullied and constantly given reason to understand, through subtle exclusions and other signs familiar to most of the high school population, that he was not “cool” or “successful.” My cousin, for his part, had tried to be nice to this young man, as to everyone else, by such simple kindnesses as saying hi with a smile before class started. My cousin thought he seemed dejected and wanted to offer a ride, but then thought, “I hardly know this guy. It would be weird for me to offer him a ride. Besides, I will already be up late doing my homework.” So he ignored the generous impulse and kept on driving. He got to school the next day and found out that the young man had died the evening before by suicide. Continue reading

A Modified Theory Of The Atonement: Why Modify?

 

The apparent illogic of the notion of God suffering for man’s sin is captured nicely in “Life of Pi”:

Humanity sins but it’s God’s Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine my Father saying to me, “Piscine, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas. Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two of them ate the camel. The week before it was painted storks and grey herons. And who’s to say for sure who snacked on our golden agouti? The situation has become intolerable. Something must be done. I have decided that the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed you to them.”

“Yes, Father, that would be the right and logical thing to do. Give me a moment to wash up.”

“Hallelujah, my son.”

“Hallelujah, Father.”

While the character who finds the story of Christ’s Atonement so illogical does eventually find it meaningful and valuable, he does not resolve the illogic. And that is fine for a character who appreciates Christianity, in common with every other religion, as a set of beautiful stories that contain truth. But for a person like me, who considers Christ himself to be the Truth and Christianity to not only contain truth but to be true, the apparent illogic grates on the mind. Continue reading

What is Revelation Anyway?

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Many of the tensions among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and between members and those that do not (or no longer) affiliate with the Church seem to boil down to different understandings of revelation. For example, questions about anachronisms in the Book of Mormon or the early Church’s practice of polygamy are fundamentally questions about the nature of revelation, the authenticity of purported revelations, and one’s obligations to those who claim the titles “prophet, seer, and revelator.” These questions have been simmering since the First Vision, flaring up from time to time in response to any number of issues, including, for example, the recent policy change regarding children of same-sex couples (i.e., How can you argue that both the original policy and its retraction are revelations or the result of revelation?). Continue reading

We are Losing Precious Members

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People are leaving my church. Good people. People I know. People I like. In response to this modern exodus, I have heard three explanations from within my church community. The first two are rationalization narratives. They attempt to put the community at ease. First, there is the narrative that we are destined to be a small group of believers. The Bible never suggests “the believers” are going to be popular. In the Book of Mormon, Nephi has a vision of the modern-day church and he notes that “its numbers [are] few.” And so declining membership actually seems in line with revelation. Believers are supposed to be a small, peculiar group of persecuted faithful. This is problematic. Continue reading

Why Multiculturalism Fails As A Primary Lens For Viewing Culture

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There are several reasons that I am an attorney instead of an English professor (my original plan). A relatively minor reason that I don’t usually mention is the dominance of multiculturalism in the academy as a lens for talking about and judging literature and culture generally.

What I mean by “multiculturalism” is a particular kind of intense focus on race, gender, class, nationality, sexuality, and other categories that might make a person a minority, and the ways in which cultures construct and deploy these categories (generally in ways that disadvantage the minority). Anyone who has studied English literature at today’s universities should understand what I mean. But so should anybody familiar with the rhetoric of certain liberal politicians, some of whom (for instance) have recently assumed it unnecessary to make any substantial explanation of why they deem it deeply wrong for Joe Biden to have had collegial relationships with segregationist senators. Continue reading