My friend Robin blogged about Brian McLaren’s books, writing an almost throw-away line wondering why the crucifixion is such a big deal, much more so than the resurrection, it seems. I jumped on that in the comments, and a wonderfully rich discussion exploded about the atonement. Now I find that Tony Jones is starting a series on original sin, which has some overlap in this area as well.
First, “atonement” is a theological word that has been highly and diversely developed in the history of the church. At its root level, it looks at how and in what way Christ heals humanity’s broken relationship with God, so that once again we can be “at one” with God. The thoughtful comments to Robin’s post, from a very diverse group of people, have occupied a lot of cycles in my brain over the last several days. So much so, that I probably have to spread this out over several posts.
I think the place I want to start is in the context of the wider Quaker family (I may branch later into atheist/agnostic, but not yet). Marshall Massey pointed out, very accurately in my opinion, that atonement issues are right at the heart of our past and present divisions as Friends. Then, corollary issues immediately arise: what weight and authority we give to the Old and New Testaments, our view of human nature, our view of the character of God, etc.
As an evangelical Friend reading comments from liberal or unprogrammed Quakers, my eyes have once again been opened to how often our differing assumptions can cause us to miss each other completely. From childhood, I’ve accepted that human beings’ actions cause a rift between ourselves and God that needs healing. I’ve accepted it like the air I breathe, without a whole lot of questioning why or even noticing it. Many of us in our circles assume this idea so much, that we jump right in to the question of how atonement works, before we’ve ever established a basis or case for why atonement might be necessary.
The default evangelical answer is to say, “Well, it’s in the bible.” Which it is, as I’ll make the case in another post. But how might I give evidence to someone for whom the bible is NOT authoritative, how might I give evidence from other aspects of life that a breach between humanity and God truly does exist, and therefore needs to be healed? That is what has been short-circuiting brain cells for the last few days.
Here’s the best case I’ve been able to make up to this point, for why a break in our relationship with God must exist, and why atonement is necessary.
My observation of the world is that true evil exists. Not just misguidedness, not just mistakes, not just lapses in judgment or bad habits or failure to do my best. True evil exists, and we see it in the form of horrific human choices. I see it (as do a myriad of others) on a global and societal scale, in oppression, in slavery, in genocide, in the holocaust, in war, in sexual abuse and prejudice and manipulation. I see it on a personal scale, sitting over coffee with people I know and care about who share the choices they’ve made to act out sexually, or to steal, or to abuse a loved one, choices that wound them and their relationships, choices that they cannot explain to me or to themselves. “How did I do this? How did I make this choice?”
Can you hear me say that I believe true evil exists, and that every person I’ve met has succumbed in varying degrees to choosing evil, and that it is a different issue entirely than whether humans are inherently good or evil? I’ll overstate and say I don’t care whether we are inherently good or evil: what matters to me, what troubles me, is that myself and every person I know at times chooses against our desires and our intentions, and does evil that harms ourselves and others. We are powerless to always choose the good, regardless of our desires or intentions. That is building block number one, but it still does not explain why those actions cause a rift between us and God.
Quakers have always believed in a Divine Seed, a Spark, the Light Within which empowers us to live holy lives and to act justly for our brothers and sisters in the world. Central to our faith is a real Deity who can and does interact with us as humans, empowering us to do good in the world. (Sidenote: I realize here I am leaving aside non-theist Friends and agnostics/atheists. I apologize.) All of us Quakers, across the divides, believe that the Divine Presence is available to every human being on the planet, universally.
My understanding of the anthropology and theology of liberal Friends would lead me to this conclusion: liberal Friends believe that perfection could come to individuals and to humanity if everyone attended to the Light or Seed within. Everyone is on a level playing field; no detriment or demerit of the soul has to be overcome. The presence of God is something which can help, enrich, empower and improve our lives, and the absence of God simply means less good is achieved in us and in our world.
I personally have great difficulty reconciling that view with the world that I see. How did the 20th century, the bloodiest, most horrific century on record, occur if the improvement of individuals and the human race were easily “chooseable” by humanity? That would seem to raise questions about the power of this Deity we say we serve. On the anthropology level, how does my friend, who knows and listens to God, commit adultery that my friend did not believe was right? That kind of choice should not be possible if there is no detriment of the soul to overcome. Either God wasn’t strong enough, or something internal blocked my friend from choosing what my friend wanted to choose.
So there is building block number 2: the presence and the accessibility of God, itself universal, does not universally lead to the abolishment of evil. There must be something blocking, hindering, stopping, inhibiting the work of God in humanity, otherwise utopia would have been achieved. (To paraphrase something I read somewhere, the liberal dream of humanity building a better world died at Auschwitz.)
When I or my family are “wronged” in some way, there is a personal offence, an indignation, a pain that must be addressed. If, as Friends believe, the Light is more than philosophical “good”, but the embodiment of “good” who wants to interact and speak relationally to our condition…would there not be a question of offense or indignation or “wronged-ness” on the part of that relational Deity? This is the best I can do to achieve QED outside of the scriptural witness. If there is a Deity who embodies goodness and justice, universally available to all humanity, and yet there is continual choosing of evil by humanity (even with the possibility and power of doing good available through the Deity), there must be both something blocking humanity from choosing that good, and a woundedness and a rift in the relationship between the Deity and humanity must exist.
My wife Elaine may have summed it up best in a question: “What, then, was the condition that George Fox spoke about, when he said ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition?’”
(See also an older post, “Why I identify as a Christ-centered Quaker”. Next up: the biblical witness to the need for atonement, with corollaries on how I read and view the scriptures.)