Atonement: The reconciliation of God and humans brought about by the redemptive life and death of Jesus. While the Universal Anglican Church has no official atonement theory, many if not most Christian denominations do. Unfortunately, most atonement theory is problematic for many reasons – not the least because they paint a shame-based sexist picture God as an angry vengeful judge.
I believe in a God that desires a relationship with us. For various reasons, that relationship has been difficult. The Christ event is seen by many as God’s attempt to reconcile with us and through us. I emphasize “through us” because we all too often de-emphasize the fully human aspect of Jesus. Atonement theory tends to hang sin on humanity and eliminate the import of human agency in the Christ event. The way I read the agony in the garden is that Jesus makes a very human decision.
I do believe all persons have free will; have agency in the world. However we must admit it has its limits. Circumstances of our birth, our historical and cultural circumstance, our dependence on the environment and other people all limit our choices. In fact, many of these limitations are not noticeable until our attention is brought to them. And of course this is all complicated by our subconscious. Given these limitations, is it really just to blame humankind for all the sin in the world? I think not.
Before I go on, a note about scripture. I think of Christian scripture much like I think of family stories. Now many family stories are not very factual, as family tree researches often find out. However, family stories give us a sense of how the family views itself, of our place in the family. These things impact us more than ant “true fact” can. So as I turn to the family story of Adam and Eve, I am not denying evolution or scientific discoveries about our origin. Instead I’m using a primary metaphor of the Christian family.
I have thought for some time that the key to understanding the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, was that the tree of knowledge is actually the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This in a story where God said everything created was good. Might this metaphor for the fall point to the problems inherent in dualism – particularly oppositional dualism? Is our tendency to reject the things we dislike or make us uncomfortable as “not of God” indeed a rejection of God? And then I stumbled upon the following quote:
“The ‘original’ sin is not primarily that man has ‘disobeyed’ God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God. The sin was not that man neglected his religious duties. The sin was that he thought of God in terms of religion, i.e., opposing Him to life. The only real fall of man is his noneucharistic life in a noneucharistic world.”
-Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World
Jesus, in his ministry, constantly pointed out the spiritual immaturity of a dualistic system; a system where some were clean and others were unclean; where condemnation of others keeps us blind to our own sins. Jesus, in showing love and compassion and forgiveness to the “others” of this world, shows us a glimpse of the Wholly Other. The God he was so very intimate with. The God who gave us the gift of consciousness so we might know him.
Yet in developing our consciousness, we must pass through dualistic thinking; even as it ultimately divides, separates, causes strife. Recognizing contrasts is an important and unavoidable stage in growth. To some extent thinking in terms of a binary is ingrained in us. In other words its part of the system we live in.
In the bigger picture, in order for life to exist on this planet, there is a geological system that creates an environment wherein life is sustainable. Earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes are all a result of this system. So the very process that allows for life, creates suffering and harm.
With this in mind, I’ve come to a new appreciation of the cross. This appreciation is illuminated by the context of the Jewish practice of Al Chet. If I understand it correctly, Al Chet is when the community confesses to sins together in a group in such a way as the person who may have committed a particular sin does not have to bear the shame of confessing it personally. That corporate confession seems to fit with the idea of taking responsibility for systemic sin. For example, I had a conversation once where I spoke about the US torture as something WE did. The person I was talking to said WE didn’t do it – the Republicans did. I thought that was a bit of a cop out. A rejection of our whole society’s complicity in our government’s actions. We all participate in systemic sin – like it or not.
What if on the cross God was atoning* for his part in setting up a system in which we suffer? A system that allows for the grievous harm we do to one another? The system that was created so that through agency we can be loved by God and love God back.
*Now before anyone rejects the notion of God atoning for anything, let’s remember that in the Noah story God repents. God’s repentance is contained in one of our family stories.