Friday, 8 February 2013

An Atoning God?

I spent two days with the (Anglican) Doctrine Commission last week, pondering the question of the atonement with a group of theologians who represent the breadth of Anglicanism in this country. It was a stimulating time and we discussed the matter in a spirit of charity and respect, even where we differed considerably in our interpretation of the meaning and mechanics of Christ's atoning sacrifice.

Since then, the ideas we explored have been going round and round in my head and, with it, a level of confusion. I'm not unhappy to be in some sort of confusion - I'd certainly resist being talked out of it - because I know we're in the realm of mystery where not everything is clear to the blurred human mind. And I'm a bit afraid of ruthless clarity.

One of the fundamental issues we discussed was whether sin and wrongdoing are punished for restorative or retributive reasons: to transform the wrong-doer or to punish the offender. These are not, of course, either/ors, as most people who believe in the need for punishment also recognise the greater need for restoration. But it has significant consequences for how we understand Christ's death.

Those who believe the death of Jesus is 'propitiating' argue that God has taken the punishment for sin on himself, so that no further retribution is needed. They do not believe, incidentally, that an angry Father punishes unjustly an innocent Son. Thus the debt for our sins has been paid, the punishment taken on our behalf and in our place. We now have a new legal status that enables us, though guilty, to stand as innocent before our divine Judge.

On the other hand, those who believe the death of Jesus is 'expiating' and not 'propitiating' argue that no punishment is required in the miracle of God's compassionate and forgiving love, but that Jesus' death removes sin - root and branch - and cleanses us from its guilt and stain. Forgiveness now becomes the new world order: not vengeance or retribution but forgiving, atoning, restorative love.

Both sides argue their case from biblical texts and from careful study of individual biblical terms.

I find myself, for the most part, in the latter camp. Yet I see the logic of the propitiatory view and I'm aware that many of our forebears believed it - at least to some extent. Karl Barth speaks of 'the Judge judged in our place', and that conveys an image to me of God throwing himself on a hand-grenade about to explode and taking the explosion into himself. That makes some sense to me theologically. Perhaps, for me, the image of God's wrath is a way of speaking of God's emphatic No to all injustice, all destruction, all oppression, all wrong. It also conveys to me a sense that the fearful consequences of wrong-doing are graciously and gratuitously borne by God.

For me, there are a number of different images of the atonement in the Scriptures and each of them contributes something to our understanding of the whole: none captures the entire event with its full significance. I'm happy to examine each and allow each to speak, taking seriously what it has to offer. I suspect it's dangerous to gallop off with one image in one direction, while ignoring or downplaying the rest. The 'penal substitution' view, to my mind, tends to do that. It creates a trajectory and pursues it, even remorsely, wherever the logic takes it. Calvin, of course, had a tendency to do that with his lawyer's mind. And I confess it makes me uneasy. He ends up believing that Christ died only for the elect and not for the massa damnata, left off the divine Teacher's class list before they even entered the school.

The view, too, of a God who will condemn people to Hell for all eternity is another one that, frankly, fills me with repugnance. Once again, it seems to take a biblical image - that of Gehanna, the rubbish tip - and push and push it into a full-blown theory of everlasting torment. But I don't believe that any part of creation - human, animal, plant, planet or angel - exists without the sustaining grace and providence of God. Just as creation is not a clock that God has wound up at the beginning of creation, so neither is the soul. It is not self-subsisting, for it exists, subsists, only in God. Everything in creation is dependent utterly on the life-giving Spirit of God, whether spiritual or material.

If that is true, it means that the souls of those who have died (incidentally, I use 'soul' in a non-Platonic sense) continue only because of the life-giving presence of God. Why would God keep them 'alive', as it were, only to torture them for all eternity for their earthly sins? Or, if Hell really means separation from God (as C.S. Lewis and others have argued), why would God maintain such souls in being only to keep them from him once they've crossed the impassible line of death?

For me, judgement means ultimately how each of us responds when we see the face of Christ. Will it reveal all beauty and goodness to us, or will it be hateful and unbearable: something from which we avert our gaze? That is much more the essence of judgement than whether or not we're card-carrying Christians in our lives or not. I want everyone to know Christ, to know God, but there are people, in my view, who may one day realise that they have known God all along and that the face of Christ is strangely and wonderfully familiar to them. There are also 'Christians' who may abhor that face and turn away in fear and disgust.

In the end, I believe in a God who forgives, who restores, who atones, who bears the burden and consequences of all sin on the cross. I believe in a God who gives freedom of choice. I believe in the New Jerusalem which remains always open: at whose gates the Spirit and the Bride perpetually stand, calling 'Come' to all on the outside.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Relating to Jesus

Is Jesus My Personal Lord and Saviour? I've been thinking a good deal lately about this question: what it means to be a Christian and to be in some kind of relationship with its founder, whom we believe rose from the dead and is ever-present through the Spirit. This reflection has come as a result of several distinct and disparate conversations with friends and colleagues, mostly of an Anglican bent.

This is hardly a new thought, but we in the Anglican Church are not actually united in our opinion of what the connection to Jesus Christ means for our lives. On the one hand are those who insist that a personal relationship with Jesus - 'my personal Lord and Saviour' - lies at the heart of Christian discipleship and ministry. Candidates in our diocese are often asked about that relationship with Jesus. On the other hand are those who find such language a little strange and even off-putting. They understand the Christ-connection rather differently, perhaps in a more sacramental or ecclesial way.

It's too tempting, of course, to identify the former expression with evangelical Anglicans and the latter with catholic Anglicans. But that would be simplistic and therefore distorting of something that is more complex in terms of both theology and spirituality.

 I must confess that, having been through selection processes in two denominations, I've never once been asked directly about my personal relationship with Jesus. I think, if I had, I might have been somewhat at a loss. I had a Puritan upbringing, grounded in Reformed faith, which didn't have a lot of pietism about it. The first time I heard Billy Graham in one of his campaigns (on tv) I felt a bit embarrassed by the explicitness of his language. 'Arminianism' was what the true Calvinist called it: the manipulation of people's emotions to make them come forward and express publicly and all-too-personally their faith.

As a consequence of this upbringing, I would have found the question puzzling. What does it mean to have a 'personal relationship' with Jesus? And I might have found it intrusive, perhaps embarrassing, like asking about my sex life or my innermost feelings.

Some time ago I was talking to a (Roman) Catholic friend of mine, who has a good grasp of theology, and he said he found the whole notion of a 'personal relationship with Jesus' troublesome. He said he thought the language irrelevant: that, for him, he was in Christ and that that was what mattered to him. 

Other catholics I know (small 'c' or large) speak of meeting Christ rather in the sacraments, especially the eucharist, or in other Christians. But others of the same persuasion do want to emphasise the personal aspects of a direct relationship with Christ - for the Jesuits, for example, following Jesus and meditating on the Gospel stories lies at the core of their spirituality.

 For myself, I'm happier to be undogmatic about the whole thing. Theologically, in any case, I'd rather speak about the blessed Trinity. I'm also much more comfortable with the notion that it's not my relationship with Christ that matters, but Christ's with me - and, actually, Christ's with us, with the church, with the whole of creation. I don't and can't make Christ my personal Lord and Saviour. He already is the Lord; he already is the Saviour of the world, whether I know it, or half-know it, or long for it, or not know it at all.

 For me, too, the eucharist is central, because that's where the Word becomes flesh, in bread and wine, and where I'm embraced by the Son's epiphany and his self-giving death. Whether I fully appreciate that each time I come to the Lord's Table is another question entirely - sometimes I believe it, sometimes doubt, sometimes don't care: but that too is secondary. It's the sheer, bare, flesh-ness of the divine self-revelation that stands, for me, however I may or may not respond to it.

 I'm glad of that. There are days when I sit in the presence of the Trinity with nothing or everything on my mind. Do I have a personal relationship with this God? Well, I guess I do, but not so you'd always know it; not always palpable, personal, prayerful. Sometimes the sheer silence is enough for me, and all I'm given.

 I believe that God's relationship with the church, with creation, is personal, intimate, transforming. But it's vaster and deeper and more mysterious for me than what is implied in the phrase 'a personal relationship with Jesus'. It's trinitarian and sacramental, thus embracing all the world and all reality, known and unknown.

And I'm happy to creep within those borders, day by day - sometimes barely inside the gates, sometimes radiantly at the centre. Just being there is enough: to stand in the glow of that divinely human fire, whether close or distant. It's God's faithfulness, God's personhood, God's grace, God's mystery, that matters to me in the end: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not how I might respond in my all-too-earthly variance.