Richard Rohr on Atonement

Two generations ago, the landmark theologian in our tradition (Nazarene), H. Orton Wiley, wrote that the penal substitution theory of the atonement was inconsistent with Wesleyan (Nazarene) theological commitments, and therefore could not be our atonement theory. Franciscan priest and thinker Richard Rohr is also concerned that penal substitution has led western Christianity down very negative pathways. He writes,

“For the sake of simplicity and brevity here, let me say that the common Christian reading of the Bible is that Jesus “died for our sins”— either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God the Father (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury [1033– 1109] and has often been called “the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written”). Scotus agreed with neither of these readings. He was not guided by the Temple language of debt, atonement, blood sacrifice, or necessary satisfaction, but by the cosmic hymns of Colossians and Ephesians. If Scotus’s understanding of the “how” and meaning of redemption (his “atonement theory”) had been taught, we would have had a much more positive understanding of Jesus, and even more of God the Father. Christian people have paid a huge price for what theologians after Anselm called “substitutionary atonement theory”: the idea that, before God could love his creation, God needed and demanded Jesus to be a blood sacrifice to atone for a sin-drenched humanity. Please think about the impossible, shackled, and even petty God that such a theory implies and presents.  Christ is not the first idea in the mind of God, as Scotus taught, but a mere problem solver after the sad fact of our radical unworthiness….

We have had enough trouble helping people to love, trust, and like God to begin with, without creating even further obstacles. Except for striking fear in the hearts of those we sought to convert, substitutionary atonement theories did not help our evangelization of the world. It made Christianity seem mercantile and mythological to many sincere people. The Eternal God was presented as driving a very hard bargain, as though he were just like many people we don’t like. As if God could need payment, and even a very violent transaction, to be able to love and forgive his own children— a message that those with an angry, distant, absent, or abusive father were already far too programmed to believe….

Scotus, however, insisted on the absolute and perfect freedom of God to love and forgive as God chooses, which is the core meaning of grace. Such a God could not be bound by some supposedly offended justice. For Scotus, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could not be a mere reaction to human sinfulness, but in fact the exact, free, and proactive work of God from the very beginning. We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made,” as Paul says in Ephesians (1: 4). Sin or problems could not be the motive for divine incarnation, but only perfect love! The Christ Mystery was the very blueprint of reality from the very start (John 1: 1)….

It is no wonder that Christianity did not produce more mystics and saints over the centuries. Unconsciously, and often consciously, many people did not trust or even like this Father God, much less want to be in union with him. He had to be paid in blood to love us and to care for his own creation, which seems rather petty and punitive, and we ended up with both an incoherent message and universe. Paul told us that “love takes no offense” (1 Corinthians 13: 5), but apparently God was the big exception to this rule. Jesus tells us to love unconditionally, but God apparently does not. This just will not work for the soul or mature spirituality. Basically when you lose the understanding of God’s perfect and absolute freedom and eagerness to love, which Scotus insisted on, humanity is relegated to the world of counting! Everything has to be measured, accounted for, doled out, earned, and paid back. That is the effect on the psyche of any notion of heroic sacrifice or necessary atonement. 9 It is also why Jesus said Temple religion had to go, including all of its attempts at the “buying and selling” of divine favor (John 2: 13– 22). In that scenario, God has to be placated and defused; and reparation has to be paid to a moody, angry, and very distant deity. This is no longer the message Jesus came to bring.

This wrongheaded worldview has tragically influenced much of our entire spirituality for the last millennium, and is still implied in most of the Catholic Eucharistic prayers. It gave lay Catholics and most clergy an impossible and utterly false notion of grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness— which are, in fact, at the heart of our message. The best short summary I can give of how Scotus tried to change the equation is this: Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. Christ was Plan A for Scotus, the hologram of the whole, the Alpha— and therefore also the Omega— Point of cosmic history.”

Rohr, Richard (2014-07-27). Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (pp. 183-187). Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.

Advertisements

Sex, God, and North American Christians

North American Christians are experiencing all kinds of rumblings and changes in the culture around us regarding sex. A Nazarene university president who has shown himself to be wise, thoughtful, compassionate and Christlike is Dan Boone, who recently wrote Human Sexuality: A Primer for Christians. (This must win the “Least Inspiring Title Award of the Year.”) On the back cover Boone says that amidst all the new experimentation regarding human sexuality, Christians most often are found angrily condemning or fearfully quiet. Instead of that, he contends we should be in the middle of this societal conversation: “We have something to say about the body, singleness, chastity, dating, marriage, and same sex attractions. Not all of us will agree with each other… but informed conversation will trump angry judgment and fearful silence every time. My prayer is that you will begin to explore a theology of human sexuality.”

This sounds just like Dan, who has always called for charitable discourse. Something to know about Dan, he is not a fundamentalist calling for gay people to be ejected from church. Neither is he simply swallowing the narrative currently in vogue in the West regarding human sexuality and freedom. By allowing the culture to set the parameters regarding our conversation about human sexuality, I once heard Dan say, we have forced ourselves to try to come up with answers that aren’t from within the Christian story.  A friend gave me the book, and the first place I opened to said this:

“Sex is good, but it is not the end goal of life.  ….If intimacy and sexual behavior are essentially one and the same, I suspect one of our favorite virgins, Jesus, must have lived a half-life. I would also suggest that another of our favorite virgins, Mother Teresa, missed the essence of life and lived as a lonely, loveless, half-person. The idea that human intimacy is fulfilled only in sexual intercourse is a leap of disastrous proportions. Jesus, Mother Teresa, and a lot of my single adult friends are among the most alive people I know. The human need is not sexual intercourse; it is intimacy – to be known, loved, touched, understood, and cared for.

Sex is good. Yes. ….Trinity is not ashamed of naked human bodies…. Christians shouldn’t walk around blushing when the topic of sex comes up. Sex is the gift of our Creator. But when we connect the need for human intimacy with sexual drive, and assume that these two are automatically and inextricably woven together, we are in the wrong story.”

This is classic, vintage Dan. Thanks for writing something for us, Dan. I look forward to the read.

What have we been told about Pelagius?

My last five posts have been about the Augustinian iteration of Original Sin in Western Christianity and questions surrounding its usefulness in the postmodern world. During the same time, I was perusing a book called Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community, Ireland and to my surprise came upon this write-up about Pelagius, Augustine’s adversary on this subject. I am going to quote it in its entirety. When I was in seminary the ultimate trump-card in a dispute was to call someone ‘Pelagian.’ Once you did that, you won. But is it possible our take on Pelagius has been a bit truncated in the Augustinian-drenched theology we’ve been handed? Is it possible Christian theology needs a better, more fully Biblical doctrine of humanity than the version of Original Sin Augustine taught?

“Pelagius (c.350-418) August 28.   We have chosen to mark Pelagius’ memory on the feast day normally assigned to Augustine of Hippo, who did so much to malign Pelagius and who is the source of many erroneous teachings and emphases that still dog Christian teaching today!

Pelagius was a British theologian, teacher, writer and soul-friend who settled in Rome. He was highly spoken of at first – even by Augustine. He taught about the value of soul-friendship. He celebrated the fact that the goodness of God cries out through all of creation, for ‘narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from earth.’

But soon he was criticized for teaching women to read Scripture, and for believing that the image of God is present in every new-born child, and that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. He did not deny the reality of evil or its assault on the human soul, or the habitual nature of sin. Augustine’s own peculiar ideas were in stark contrast, seeing humanity as essentially evil, and polluted by the sexual activity which causes conception to occur.

Augustine tried twice in 415 to have him convicted of heresy – on both occasions Pelagius was exonerated in Palestine. In 416 Augustine and the African bishops convened two diocesan councils to condemn him and Celestius, another Celt. In 417 the bishop of Rome called a synod to consider the conflict, and declared Pelagius’ teaching entirely true, and urged the African bishops to love peace, prize love and seek after harmony. They ignored this, and in 418 they persuaded the State to intervene and banish Pelagius from Rome for disturbing the peace. The Church then was obliged to uphold the Emperor’s judgement, and excommunicated and banished him, though no reasons were made clear. He returned to Wales, probably to the monastery of Bangor.

Two centuries later all the same ideas were still to be found in Celtic Christianity. History is written by the victors, so most reports of what Pelagius said are given from Augustine’s view-point, not in his own balanced and sensible words. He was also criticized for being a big, enthusiastic man, stupid from eating porridge and over-confident in his own strength, and for wearing his hair in an inappropriate style!”*

There are quite a bit of things we could say about all this, concerning the affect of politics, cultural prejudice and personal dislike swirling around this debate between two early theologians. But I will limit myself to saying: we are 15 centuries out from Augustine. Do we really want to allow this one man to dictate directions in Western theology simply because he held sway in majority positions and the Protestant Reformers liked him?

*(Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community. HarperOne: 2002. Northumbria Communty Trust Ltd.)

Postmodern Considerations of Original Sin

I was going to post a three part series on International Development and Guns: Economics, Violence, and Governance – but I seem to have lost it in my computer somewhere. So let’s talk about Original Sin.

We all prioritize some texts over others in Scripture. Everyone does this, all traditions. I’ve never known any Christian who gave as much weight to the chapters of mildew laws in Leviticus as they do to John chapter 3 or Romans chapters 5-8. When we sideline or ignore substantial passages in order to protect a particular rendition of a doctrine, (what in economics is called an ‘externality’), we end up charge-able with cherry picking our way through the Bible.

Something Christians have always done for 20 centuries is re-work doctrines when it becomes evident that the cherry-picking simply can’t be sustained. Whatever stimulates it in the discoveries or politics of the day, things get to the point where the old iteration of that doctrine can’t stand the weight of the externalities it can’t explain, and Christians go to work again on that doctrine. It seems pretty evident to me that our Augustinian version of “Original Sin” is in need of some serious re-think if a doctrine describing human depravity is going to make much sense to postmodern people. Saying that  everyone should be sent to hell for being born with a condition they had no control over, won’t stand up to moral scrutinizing today. And my problem with Augustine’s version is not that it’s old. I’m all for Paleo-Orthodoxy. Considering how many other doctrines have come under serious re-work, I’m surprised this version of OS (“Original Sin”) survived the Reformation seemingly unscathed.

So my 22 year old son started a facebook discussion due to something he posted from a theology class he’s in at college. I slid into it and it evolved into a detailed discussion concerning what is on the chopping block when it comes to OS. Here’s the quote that started it all off:

“Recent research in molecular biology, primatology, sociobiology, and phylogenetics indicates that the species Homo sapiens cannot be traced back to a single pair of individuals, and that the earliest human beings did not come on the scene in anything like paradisal physical or moral conditions. It is therefore difficult to read Genesis 1–3 as a factual account of human origins. In current Christian thinking about Adam and Eve, several scenarios are on offer. The most compelling one regards Adam and Eve as strictly literary figures—characters in a divinely inspired story about the imagined past that intends to teach theological, not historical, truths about God, creation, and humanity.”- Daniel Harlow “After Adam: Reading Genesis in an age of Evolutionary science.”

I’ll pick up from there next time.

Structuration and Christian Theology PART THREE

CS Lewis said this about scientific theories – once enough externalities (he didn’t use the word, but it means things unexplained by the current theory) pile up so high that the current theory can’t sustain the weight, people go hunting a new theory that will be able to carry the freight of the externalities. It’s not, Lewis argued, that the new theory is actually more true than the old theory, but it serves the questions or discoveries of the current generation better in explaining what they see.

I think what Lewis said about scientific theory is also true about theology. That’s why it changes.

I believe God’s Spirit at work in this interplay, responding to the ways human society develops in its freedom. It’s a much more  “responsive” picture of God’s interaction in His world, rather than a controlling, deterministic one. (This kind of picture of God  doesn’t mean God doesn’t intend to do some things He said He will do, but it looks more to kairos moments rather than chronos pre-scheduled ones). So, a Structuration look at theology would say: as human societies have developed and advanced they have developed their theology to keep up. It’s a parallel view to progressive revelation’s view of the Bible wherein the Mosiac Law gives a deeper understanding of God than Abraham had, which is in turn deepened by the relational insights of the Psalms, developed further –with a deeper level morality – by the Prophets, and finally revealed far, far more accurately in the “mirror image of the Father,” Jesus. Just as the view of progressive revelation says God revealed more of His nature (or the Israelites came to understand more) as time went by across the pages of the Old Testament, and finally most definitely in Jesus, so in Structuration theory we would say our theology understands more about what God is like as time goes by, or at least apply what we know better to our century’s specific issues.

As to the question: “is our theology getting better, more accurate?” Well, in certain areas, hopefully. For example, I do believe that our theology that “Slavery is bad. Period.” is better than theological systems that allowed for slavery. We have a better theology of slavery than the Bible does. Period. Does anyone want to argue that?  We have worked out the implications of the  Bible’s theology of women further than the people in the Bible did.

However, in general, although the development and survival of societies should typically tend to direct their theology in ways that promote well-being, (as I think has happened for both women and slavery), as Lewis said about scientific theory, I don’t know that our theology is necessarily always truer than former ones, but it serves the current generation in more wholesome ways than ones from eras which no longer work, no longer answer pressing questions we have before us. Theology will continue to morph and change in ways, hopefully true to the Gospel, but also answering the questions of each generation in meaningful ways, as time goes on.  Christians with a huge variety of theology have been in love with God and trying their best to do what Jesus says to, for 20 centuries. This is why changes in theology don’t bother me overmuch.

The ‘Mesa’ list of Ten Commitments

Mesa is a gathering conversation, on-line and in person, of emerging/Emergent Christian leaders around the world. Their website (http://mesa-friends.org/) says “What is mesa? La Mesa is a Spanish word for table. It suggests a way of coming together in mutual acceptance, respect, and service. It reminds us of the life and message of Jesus – who used a table to tell the story of God’s welcoming and reconciling love.”

Mesa lists ten commitments (below). I find them to be characteristic of the kinds of emphases emergent Christians have been talking about for some time now. One thing in this list will probably jump out bold to those against the Emergent movement. I might talk about that next time.

1. We believe in Jesus and the good news of the reign, commonwealth, or ecosystem of God, and we seek for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven by focusing on love – love for God and neighbor, for outsider and enemy.

2. We seek to know, serve, and join the poor in the struggle for justice and freedom … through advocacy, relationships, and action.

3. We seek to honor, interpret, and apply the Bible in fresh and healing ways, aware of the damaging ways the Bible has been used in the past.

4. We seek to reconnect with the earth, understand the harm human beings are doing to it, and discover more responsible, regenerative ways of life in it.

5. We seek the common good, locally and globally, through churches of many diverse forms, contexts, and traditions, and we imagine fresh ways for churches to form Christlike people and join God in the healing of the world.

5. We build inclusive partnerships across gaps between the powerful and vulnerable – including disparities based on wealth, gender, race and ethnic identity, education, religion, sexuality, age, politics, and physical ability.

6. We engage conflict at all levels of human society with the creative and nonviolent wisdom of peacemaking.

7. We propose new ways of encountering the other in today’s pluralistic world and we collaborate with other religious and secular groups in alliances for the common good.

8. We host safe space for constructive theological conversation, seeking to root our practice in theological reflection and seeking to express our reflection in practical action.

9. We value the arts for their unique role in nurturing, challenging, and transforming our humanity.

10. We emphasize spiritual and relational practices to strengthen our inner life with God and our relationships with one another.

Reading Paul differently than the Protestant Reformers

The Protestant Reformers of the 15th and 16th centuries have handed down to us a way of reading Paul which basically boils down to “Romans and Galatians give us the framework for what Paul really wanted to say; the other letters fill in the details here and there.” Said that way, it’s quite an assumption, isn’t it?

The Reformers were hunting for answers to questions which perplexed them in their day. And they found answers. They calibrated those answers according to the thought systems and categories of their own day and age. The question is, were the answers they found actually what Paul was talking about himself, in his own day? Once you assume that what is on your mind is what was on the biblical writer’s mind, you start reading everything through the  lens of those assumptions; you start hearing and seeing things in the text the writer was not actually saying.

The world’s leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright proposes a thought experiment. What if we DIDN’T assume that Romans and Galatians are what REALLY count, and that the other letters are second-place  fillers?  “Suppose we come to Ephesians first… Colossians close behind, and decide we will read Romans, Galatians and the rest in light of them (Ephesians and Colossians), instead of the other way round.  What we will find, straight off, is nothing short of a (very Jewish) cosmic soteriology. God’s plan is ‘to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth’ ….and as the means to that plan God’s rescue both of Jews and Gentiles …now coming together in a single family… the sign to the principalities and powers of the ‘many-splendored wisdom of God’. [1]

If this unity of all mankind, Wright goes on, Jew-and-Gentile as the sign of God’s coming reign over the whole world, had captured the Reformers’ hearts and minds, and they only THEN went and started fitting in Romans and Galatians, what would we have gotten? “…the entire history of the Western church, and with it the world, might have been different. No split between Romans 3:28 and 3:29. No marginalization (in Reformation theology) of Romans 9-11….” Wright goes on to list much more.

In short, we’d end up with a different theology and a different picture of the Gospel. (And, I might add, the Reformers’ teachings would not have been used in anti-Semitic persecution of Jewish people!)

So, should we just assume Romans and Galatians are the real deal and the other letters take second place? Or should we be trying to hear Paul all over again? And if we do, will we find that the Reformers were answering questions in their day, but not necessarily accurately describing what Paul was talking about?  These are the kinds of questions that lead many of us to contend that we continually need new theology, up to date with everything we can learn about the Scriptures, and what the writers were talking about in their own time and situation.

 

 


[1] N.T. Wright Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. IVP 2009.