Thursday, September 18, 2014

Looking at the awful

My kid was awful today.  She got more upset when I mentioned she had a bad day at kindergarten too.  "No, I didn't!" she screamed at me.  "Yes, you did," I answered, "and I'm not going to pretend it was good when it wasn't."

One of the peculiarities of my church is an aversion to any references to blood sacrifice, or much of anything to do with the crucifixion.  The latest objection was to the line "I have been set free / by the Word who lived and died for me" from Sojourn Music's really fantastic song We Are Listening.

Penal Subsitutionary Atonement was the understanding of the crucifixion I was taught growing up, and it continues to have it's ardent defenders.  But it's philosophically and theologically problematic. I think the first time I heard an alternative perspective articulated was at Rob Bell's "The God's Aren't Angry" tour--this was before the brouhaha about Bell's possible universalism in "Love Wins," so the audience was pretty Evangelical, and they ate it up.  Bell essentially presented a kind of Redemptive Hermaneutic, presenting the notion that blood sacrifice never originated with God, but was a human/pagan attempt to appease the God's who seemed so indifferent, arbitrary and cruel (as this world certainly seems).  The Levitical sacrifices were limits on sacrificial means of atonement, and by becoming a blood sacrifice himself, God takes on the sin of the world by becoming--by taking on--the very kind of atonement God sought to limit in  Leviticus.  God takes on even our sin-filled, blood-filled attempts to atone for our sins, and in doing so, frees us from ever having to wonder if God loves us, if we must appease him more.

C.S. Lewis takes a parallel approach, articulating well the philosophical/theological problems with penal substitutionary atonement, arguing that in the crucifixion, God walks the path of dying to the old self, and so offers us a path (and the power) to do that ourselves. (Here is the full passage)

In the Orthodox view, the cross means this: Not even in death can we run from God--he joins us even if we decide to make our alliance with the grave.  "The Orthodox understand the Cross as the ultimate proof and demonstration of God's completely sacrificial, forgiving and all-victorious love that is necessary in a fallen world—not because God had to have an (alternate) Victim for His wrath, but because, in a fallen world, this is the only thing that could reveal and convince fallen and sin-blinded human beings of the quality, extent and the limitlessness of God's love for us (i.e., ignite saving faith). This love alone is the grace that has the power in itself to transform us from the inside out into the image of Christ, which is God's will (both from an Orthodox and a Protestant perspective)." (Quoting "Karen" from a lively discussion on PARSE)

Now, what does this all have to do with my daughter?

Well, it's quite one thing to say that God must have been doing something else on the cross besides satisfying his own bloodlust.  But it's quite another to avoid the crucifixion altogether, as if it was an accident of history that God endured, but not one that God used, in some manner, to show us the depth of his love in which we have a hard time believing and to save us from the spiritual death to which we are so easily drawn.

To ignore the atonement on the cross would be the same as me telling my daughter she had a fine day at school, when she did not.   The cross must mean something more than a case study in injustice and corrupt political power.   The cross IS ugly, brutal.  So is this world.  So is the process of dying to the old self.  So, sometimes, is my kid's behavior.  But resurrection will happen on the other side of it.

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