This is part of a developing series – consolidating, clarifying, and (perhaps) expanding ideas presented in this blog. These posts are, as it were, pages in my sketchbook on faith and theology.
Part 1 — God
Part 2 — Bible
Part 3 — Yeshua
Part 4 — Crucifixion
Part 5 — Resurrection
Part 6 — Ascension
Part 7 — Faith
Part 8 — Salvation
Part 9 — Trinity
Part 10 — Belonging
While I draw deeply from the wells of a host of significant thinkers and writers, this is a very personal undertaking for which I bear full responsibility for any distortions or mis-use of their ideas.
I recently finished reading “Paying the Piper” in J. Philip Newell’s Christ of the Celts. In this chapter Newell attacks the thorny issue of the relationship between the cross and the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. I deeply appreciate Newell’s exposition of the poetry of Celtic spirituality; agree with his assessment of the bankrupt nature of substitutionary atonement; but was disappointed that he didn’t discuss the relationship of the cross to a positive understanding of atonement.
Christianity’s understanding of atonement (what makes us right with God) has depended upon the doctrine of original sin which stretches back to Augustine in the 5th century of the common era. Our conception in the womb presents us as primally flawed – separated from God. (The flaw is transmitted through sexual intercourse.) Therefore, we are in need of someone to “fix” us (that is, to restore the connection between us and God). Enter Jesus! He is protected from the flaw, born of a virgin (with a later addition of immaculate conception). His crucifixion is the “price” that must be paid to satisfy God’s need for justice. Once God is satisfied, the connection is e-established.
If this is my only option for connection with God, I wonder why I would even want to be connected with that God! That picture of atonement presents a vengeful God, less interested in me than in His(?) own need for justice through violence. It also presents me as a lemming who is going to march off a cliff into the ocean – the only question is whether I will fall into a stormy ocean or calm seas. No thanks!
Celtic spirituality is more poetic than doctrinal. It understands life from a different perspective – that is, life is sacred. We don’t need to be re-connected with God; instead we are challenged to live into the natural connections that are already there. Human life is sacred (within the compass of God’s care). Animal life is sacred (within the compass of God’s care). Nature is sacred (within the compass of God’s care). Do we sin? Of course we do. While sin describes our acting beyond the bonds of sacredness, it is not a description of our essential being. Even less is it a description of God’s essential being.
I want to replace the theological question of atonement (“How can God restore us to holiness?”) with another theological question – Wherein shall we abide? Shall we abide with that inner insistence that perseveres in the name of God? Or will we settle for our ego’s shadowy projections which press our own power and prestige?
“Empire” is a theological description of the collective impact of relationship gone awry, of maintaining privilege through power. It can be used to describe governments, cultures, religions, tribes, families, etc. For me, the crucifixion of Yeshua is evidence of empire’s need to stamp out insurrection. But where does God fit into the picture? Why does Yeshua cry out “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?
The truth of the cross is that empire’s reliance on privilege through power cannot eradicate the sacredness of life. Even death does not overcome that sacredness. The influence of Yeshua’s living into the sacredness continued (continues) through his followers. While we call that “resurrection,” it is simply the dogged resolve to resist any temptation to be less than who we truly are. Will we abide in compassion, peace, and tender justice – moving along the path toward a wholeness that embraces self, others, and the creation? Or will we populate those dreams and delusions that move us toward either a self-centered superiority or a self-denying inferiority? God has planted and cultivated the seed; God can’t do the growing for us!
Catherine Keller writes: “If we can embrace this insight – that the very desire which drives us beyond ourselves in earthly relations of attraction and of justice is that which drives us in and beyond speech, and that in this eros we are iterating the love that always exceeds us – no paternalism of the distant and dysfunctional transcendence can long remain erect…” (Cloud of the Impossible, page 75). Atonement is not a waiting for something external (God’s rescue) to happen. Instead, it is embracing the divine eros (the yearning) that resides within and yet “always exceeds us.”