Being Made Right, Being Right, Being Open

One of the many wondrous things about Christian faith is that the Way to Life is not a proposition but a Person; the Living Word we call Jesus Christ. Even demons might believe correct theology (James 2:19), but the life of the Spirit is not a matter of correct “doctrine” so much as right relationships. We are called to shalom with God, with others, with ourselves, and with the created order; not to a check list of correct ideas.

Strangely however (perhaps due the fact Western theology has a long history of patriarchal domination) the church has tended to be obsessed with “right” ideas about God. In perhaps the ultimate betrayal of Christ, there have even been periods of history where the official church persecuted or killed people for “wrong” ideas about God. When the name of the One who proclaimed and demonstrated sacrificial love is used for oppression and violence, then surely blasphemy has occurred.

One area of much theological discussion (and argument) has been around the nature of atonement; how we are made right with God through the death and resurrection of Christ.

I rather like C S Lewis's analogy in relation to atonement theories in Mere Christianity. He points out that people ate meals and felt better for it before theories about vitamins were developed, and they'll continue to feel better for eating regardless of which theories about nutrition are in favour.

In the same way, participation in the death and resurrection of Christ gives life, regardless of which atonement theory one adopts. This "meal" brings life, regardless of what you believe about how digestion works.

In my mind, if one atonement theory works pastorally to help others, we should use it, if it doesn't, we should use another. Students of church history will be aware various atonement theories have been in favour in different times and in different places, and biblical justification can be found for all of these theories.

To be assured we are at peace with our Maker by sheer grace, participating in the life of God, is the main thing. Whether Jesus was bait for Satan, or the victor over sin and death, or a sacrificial substitute, or the means by which we participate in death to self and rising to new life, or the demonstration of God's identification with us, or any other theory (and so on ad infinitum) isn't central. Being reconciled with God through Christ is central, regardless of how we might understand this “works”.

I think multiple metaphors for atonement are in the scriptures precisely so these can resonate in different cultures and with different personalities. What does good news sound like to different people? Where is the point of connection that gives life and hope? How can my guilt and shame be resolved? How can I find inner peace? How can I connect with the profound love of God for me (and for others) at a heart level?

Understanding different perspectives on this issue, and all manner of theological issues, can be wonderfully enriching. It can deepen our faith, broaden our minds, and touch our hearts. If we can step aside from either/or, right/wrong thinking, and engage with a diversity of views, we can mine rich treasures that might enlarge our understanding and experience of God.

I was having an online conversation in this vein and received the brilliant reply (one part comedy and one part tragedy):

“Here was me thinking you studied theology to be right .... and you come along and saying it is a tool to make sense of being right with God. Hmph, the cheek!”

Strangely enough, I’ve always thought this was the point. Silly me.


Lucy J said…
Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy should dance together! Maybe it's a tango with passion and verve. Maybe it's a circle dance, pulsating with life. Anyway, there should be some fun and enjoyment, not just lemon-sucky satisfactionism. I like how you introduced the idea of shalom being a verb, not just a noun... it has been also said that LOVE is a verb!

One thing about atonement theory... I don't think there is enough variety dished up in regular church circles... especially lacking is NON-VIOLENT atonement orthodoxy/praxy/theology.

Some of the atonement images you mention may "suit" people's preferences, but that's a sailing a bit close to the rocky outcrops of consumerist religiosity... (I'm not accusing you of that Janet, just sounding a little warning bell)

A good understanding of NON-VIOLENT atonement principles actualises radical paradigm shifts. Other valid atonement images/ideas are worth relating to , but I think the non-violent understanding has far more transformational impact on personal (micro) and global (macro) scales... the essence and the practice of shalom...
Janet Woodlock said…
And a quick overview for the folks watching at home...
Janet Woodlock said…
I guess one reflection would be that the idea of Christ's death as a punishment sometimes "works" pastorally for people who feel terrible guilt over something they have done, particularly when there have been bad consequences for others. The idea that Christ has already been punished for this, and that the compulsion for endless "self-punishment" can be dealt with though Christ, can be a helpful metaphor if truly embraced.

But we need other metaphors of course that are more helpful for other people... I think multiple metaphors can be found in Christian scripture.

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