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

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

A Letter To Those Who Believe In God But Don’t Go To Church

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Dear Friend,

You have expressed, by your words and/or your actions, that you feel no need to go to church. You don’t see how it would benefit you and your family (as I believe it would). I appreciate the frankness with which you shared how you feel, and I will also be frank even though that will entail explaining why I think you should feel differently than you do. In explaining this, I want to be clear that I don’t think you are a bad person for thinking as you do. But I do think you are mistaken on this point, and I consider it a point of sufficient importance that I want to explain why I think so.

On my mission in Taiwan and since then, I have met many people who have said they don’t see the need for church even though they believe in God. Many of these have told me something to the effect of “I’m happy with where my relationship with God is right now.” And if this is what they sincerely think, rather than glibly saying it to brush aside the matter, then I think it is their first and greatest error. Continue reading

Nature of Scripture: Part 5: Conclusions

Image Credit: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/2015/11/12/in-praise-of-polyvocality/

Scripture, taken as a whole, is not straightforward and simple, but rather elaborate, polyvocal, heteroglossic, and ambiguous. This suggests to me that the truth about God and man resists capture by human language. Jesus never attempted to set forth the whole truth in plain prose. Perhaps this is because it cannot be done. Jesus instead taught using stories and wordplay and metaphor. The kingdom of God is like a pearl of great price—and then again, it is like a lost coin—or leavening—or a mustard seed. He never gathers all the images and teachings in one—never purports to be able to set forth the whole at once. He gives us momentary snapshots, from different angles. An Emily Dickenson poem sheds light on the issue:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind — Continue reading