A GOD OF JUSTICE: As promised earlier in the week, I want to come back to the issue of the Atonement . In my original response to Camassia’s question, “what does it mean to say that Jesus died for our sins,” I offered an explanation that stuck pretty close to the mainstream of the tradition: the sin of humanity has disturbed the natural order of justice. If God were to compensate for that disturbance out of sheer mercy, this would be contrary to justice and would render man’s temporal existence meaningless. Something must balance the scales, and it is something no finite human being can offer. In a way that is very difficult to understand, the suffering and death of Jesus acts to restore the order of justice.
There is no denying that many find this theory of the atonement very difficult to accept (click here, here and here to see some of the questions Camassia raised about it). It is usually explained badly (my own efforts probably fall into that category) with the result that God seems to be a petty legalist, a being who countenances the suffering and death of an innocent to restore some sort of mysterious cosmic harmony. The concept of an atoning sacrifice, so widely understood in the ancient world, seems almost barbaric to us today.
I will admit, though, that despite many of the legitimate criticisms leveled against it, the traditional theory resonates with me in a way that most of the modern attempts to restate it do not. Perhaps this is because I have, for a Catholic, a somewhat pessimistic view of human nature. I am willing to accept that Grace builds on Nature, but I would hold that Grace is building on an awfully low foundation. The injustice of the world cries out to be made right, and there seems to be none but God who can make it right.
But I, too, struggle with the traditional understanding of the atonement. I struggle with it for a lot of the obvious reasons that other people struggle with it. I also find that the traditional account is often cut off, in a sense, from the life and preaching of Jesus, so that what Jesus said and did during his ministry becomes of far less importance than what he accomplished for us on the cross. In my own thinking on the Atonement, I’ve been trying to bring my understanding of the life of Jesus closer to my understanding of His death.
What follows is something that I will call a “theologically informed meditation.” It draws from my theological understanding of the paschal mystery, but it is more personal and metaphoric and less intellectually rigorous than a true theological exploration of these issues would have to be. This is a delicate way of telling the reader to proceed with caution.
The central message of Jesus’ preaching is that the Kingdom of God is at hand. In his words and deeds, Jesus tried to communicate what life in the Kingdom of God was like. He spoke of the blind gaining sight and the lame getting up to walk. He suggested that under the reign of God, human beings would behave in ways that seem inexplicable: we would pray for our enemies and those who persecute us; we would give our shirt when our cloak was demanded; we would turn the other cheek, we would avoid evil thoughts, let alone evil deeds.
Central to Jesus’ message about the Kingdom was forgiveness and reconciliation. So important was this to Jesus that he included it in the prayer that now bears His name: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” He spoke of the need to forgive endlessly (“seven times seventy times”). He said that participation in worship was false unless we had reconciled with our neighbor. He went so far as to say that God will not forgive us unless we forgive others.
Jesus presents me with a choice: “Follow me now. Build this Kingdom. Be this kind of person.” This is more than the Law demands, considerably more. Jesus presents me with a very different vision of an authentically lived human life.
Jesus’ words have been ratting around our culture for so long that we no longer understand how radical they were. There are, in fact, very good reasons why some thought Jesus was from the Devil. In particular, Jesus teaching on forgiveness can seem, if properly understood, to be almost immoral.
Like many people, I have a fear about forgiveness. I fear that it’s cheap. It’s easy to say “I’m sorry.” My kids say it all the time. Most the time they even mean it. Most of the time I mean it. But it’s still cheap.
Just what does it mean for a murderer to say “I’m sorry” to the victim’s family? For concentration camp guards to recant on their deathbeds? For President Clinton and Kofi Anon to apologize for their lack of response to the Rwandan genocide? For rapists to apologize to their victims? For the descendants of slave-owners to apologize to the descendants of slaves? Does it bring back the dead? Does it really heal suffering?
Is not forgiveness, in fact, morally monstrous? Does it not break faith with the dead and those who have suffered? There are many places in the world where people believe this. In the wake of September 11th, there are a large number of people in the United States who believe this. They believe that to forgive is to betray, to commit a terrible evil against those whom one loves. Forgiveness is not enough. There must be justice.
We like to believe that our “system of justice” actually delivers what it promises. But it doesn’t. It can’t. It can punish the murderer, but it can’t bring back those he killed, nor can it punish those who helped make the murderer what he has become. If we truly tried to pursue justice, it would paralyze us. Is there a human being, living our dead, against whom a claim of justice cannot be made? Clinton may have failed to act to prevent the Rwandan genocide, but his failure was rooted in a belief that the American people were not willing to shed blood to save the lives of Africans. What does that say about us? What does it say about me? Where was I while hundreds of thousands died by the blade?
Even God, it should be said, does not guarantee justice in this life. The Psalms are filled with promises that the righteous will be saved and the wicked punished. The Prophets promise that God will rend the heavens and deliver His people from bondage. After Auschwitz, it is hard not to read these words with a heavy heart.
So what am I to do? How can I follow Jesus? How can I betray myself, my family, my clan, my race, my country? How can I forgive when there is no justice? If my life is to mean anything, then good must be rewarded and evil must be punished. There must be eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, blood for blood.
Jesus responds, “You want blood? Here, take mine.”
If Jesus were only a man, I would be inclined to laugh. What is the death of one more man, even an innocent man, when faced with the enormity of human suffering? But He is not only a man. He is also God, my Creator, without whom nothing would exist, the very ground of Justice itself. When faced with such an offering, how can I press my claim? Is not the only acceptable response to fall silent before what I cannot understand and to repent, like Job, in “dust and ashes?”
Was it really like this? What evidence do we have that Jesus understood His death in this way? Jesus was killed because He said “Follow me.” He asked people to follow Him, to accept his authority, to become radically different people. His movement became profoundly threatening to the religious and political authorities of his day, who articulated a very different vision of human life. The Scriptures suggest that toward the end of His life, Jesus came to understand that only His death would bring about a decisive resolution to the crisis His preaching had provoked. This does not mean that He actively sought His death, but rather than He understood that His death was inevitable if He continued to speak and act as if the Kingdom of God was at hand.
But what does the sacrifice of Jesus change? Before I could not tell whether following Jesus would force me to break faith with my humanity, or affirm it. Could I follow Jesus without breaking faith with the dead and with those who suffer from injustice and exploitation? Could I forgive my enemies, and even pray for them? Was this vision of human life from God or the Devil?
But Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection answer the question. On the cross, Jesus fulfills my demand for justice while seeking to lead me beyond it. After the cross, I have no more excuses. The Resurrection makes clear that Jesus was right and I am wrong, that His vision of human life is the authentic one, the one willed by God.
Expressed in its vulgar form, the traditional understanding of the atonement suggests that God needed a sacrifice of blood to be reconciled with us. But perhaps we have it backwards. Perhaps we needed such a sacrifice before we could be reconciled with Him. Given human history, so full of suffering, so full of sin in which we, too, are implicated, would anything less have sufficed? Would anything less have made forgiveness and reconciliation possible? Would anything less have made following Jesus so compelling?
Here's where the shoe pinches a bit for me in the issue of how we might respond to those who have "lost faith" because of the actions of others. Of course faith has God as its object. And indeed faith is ultimately a gift. And yes our genuine assent requires the grace of the Holy Spirit. But all of this is sort of highlighting the end of a very long and nuanced theological argument. It's a response to a denial that God is the Source and End of all that is, was, or will be, including the assent of faith in each of us when it occurs; but I'm not sure it's a response to the despair many find themselves in when they are betrayed by priests and bishops.
When people claim that their faith in Christ has been shaken by the sexual abuse scandal, when they claim that their priests and bishops have betrayed them and left them bitter and abandoned, we need to be careful we don't pull our notion of faith out of the grit and grime of our incarnate condition and flop it antiseptically onto the stainless steel table of creeds and theological statements.
CAN WE GIVE AN ACCOUNT OF OUR HOPE? I want to get back to Camassia’s specific questions about the Atonement later in the week. But I also want to try to address some of her obvious frustration at the apparent inability of the on-line Christian community to offer her an explanation of the Atonement that makes sense. Why should this be so hard for us?
First of all, as a professor of mine said recently, “religious language is always limit language,” because it deals with things at the limits of human experience and understanding. That is why religious truths are so often expressed in mythic and metaphoric language. This always creates a certain tension. The “rationalist” temptation is to conclude that these truths are nothing more than metaphor. The “fundamentalist” temptation is to make a complete identification between the metaphor and the truth it expresses. We have to avoid letting ourselves be pulled too far in either direction.
What this means, though, is that there are few formulations of religious truth that don’t, if pushed to their limit, start to fall apart. The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner once said that every dogmatic definition is both the end of one discussion and the beginning of a new one. We continue to interrogate these definitions not because they are false, but because they are true, and probing them continues to reveal new insights. Theological knowledge often proceeds dialectically, with the weaknesses of a previous formulation laying the foundation of a new, more robust understanding.
A second point I want to make is that we should not be surprised that the vast majority of Christians are unable to give a strong argument for the doctrine of the Atonement. The truth is that most of us do not believe in the Atonement because we have come to a personal conclusion about it, but rather because—if I may radically simplify—Saint Paul believed it. We believe it because we grew up in a community that believed it.
This is actually very consonant with the way that we as Americans, for example, come to understand the truths that underlie our system of government. How many of us can give a philosophically sophisticated defense of the proposition “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain rights, among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?” Most of us accept this proposition because we grew up with it, not because we have reasoned our way to this conclusion.
But what of those who are outside the community? How are they to come to an understanding of these truths? While the immigrant who seeks American citizenship does receive some formal instruction, this is not where he learns what it means to be “an American.” He learns to be an American by living among Americans. One comes to understand the truth of the proposition “all men are created equal” by living among people who believe and live that truth, even if they cannot always explain why.
When a Christian is faced with someone who raises questions about the truths of our faith, the temptation is to explain, to use the faculty of reason, to argue and refute. I certainly do this myself (I’m doing it now!). But our more fundamental response should be to say “Come, live among us and see who we are and how we live. What we believe has made us who we are. While we can give reasons for what we believe, the only ‘proof’ we can offer is what these truths have made of our lives.”
Is this just intellectual evasion? A fancy way of avoiding the fact that our arguments do not seem intellectually compelling? Perhaps. But, speaking only for myself, I know that if my faith depended solely on my ability to articulate a convincing justification for each and every article of the Creed, I would be lost.
But I do not feel lost. While I enjoy theology, my faith does not depend on theological understanding. It does not depend on my ability to sift through a great mound of evidence and come to a conclusion. After all the arguments are made, sifted and digested, faith remains a leap. It remains, fundamentally, an act of trust.
I trust because I find something compelling in the life and death of Jesus. In Him and in those who bear His name I recognize and can give a name to something powerful within me, something that I both resist and want to surrender to. Jesus speaks to something in my heart and confronts me with an invitation, a moment of decision. I have no proof, no mathematical certainty. But I still leap, trusting that I will be caught.
NO IMMACULATE CONCEPTION:Richard M. Doerflinger, the U.S. Bishop's point man for pro-life activities, has a theory about why the Raelians were trying to have a cloned baby born in December. He speculates that the group may have wanted to draw a parallel between the birth of Christ and the birth of a cloned human being, which in the Raelian's cosmology is the means by which our "eternal life" will be assured.
Many of the commentators on Amy's site have fixated on the fact that 80 percent of the allegations of abuse involved boys and suggested that this demonstrates that homosexual men should not be priests. I think this demonstrates nothing of the kind. In fact, I think it shows that the overwhelming majority of homosexual priests are faithful to their vows and do not abuse minors. I think this is true even if you take the worst set of numbers, which shows that priests ordained during the 1970s committed abuse at a higher rate (3.3 percent).
Let us assume--for the sake of making the math easy to do--that we have a pool of 200 priests, of whom 3.3 percent--about 7 priests--are likely to commit an act of sexual abuse. Let us also assume that about 40 percent of the priests are homosexual (80 of 200), and 60 percent heterosexual (120 of 200), which I think is more or less in the middle of the range of estimates. Let us also assume, using the New York Times study as a guide, that 80 percent of the priests (6 priests out of the 7 in our sample) who commit an act of abuse are homosexuals who commit a same-sex act of abuse.
What this means is that 6 homosexual priests out of our sample of 80, or 8 percent are likely to commit an act of abuse. What this also means is that 92 percent will not. The idea that homosexuality, in and of itself, is a reliable predictor of abusive behavior is just nonsense. To exclude a large percentage of our seminary applicants simply because they have a homosexual orientation is not justified by the data.
There are some who will look at the figures above and quickly conclude that this, too, is evidence that homosexual men are more likely to commit abusive acts than heterosexual men. But there are strong reasons to believe that homosexual seminarians are not completely representative of the general population of homosexual men, so we should be extremely cautious in using this data to generalize to that population.
I posted something on this issue a few months ago and nothing in the New York Times study has led me to change my position. Behavior, not orientation, is the issue. Those who have a vocation to the priesthood and can live chastely should be ordained. Those who cannot should not be. There are heterosexuals and homosexuals in both categories.
Obedience is not a matter of heeding the angel whispering in your right ear and ignoring the devil whispering in your left. There is no angel or devil when these exams are administered; there are only God and common sense. Twenty-four hours a day common sense – that is, the rationality of my culture, which is the most powerful culture in the world – is telling me to nurture and protect my future, not jeopardize it by leaving it in God's hands. Twenty-four hours a day the Kingdom, of which I am a citizen, is telling me to take up my cross and follow Jesus, to leave my posterity to God. Often the two programs do not send me in very different directions; there are times when the world's proverbs and the Kingdom's proverbs seem interchangeable. But just as often the distinctions frame even the similarities in radically different ways.
What is salvific for us...and our salvation is Jesus' life, death and resurrection. Without the resurrection, the crucifixion is just the execution of another inconvenient man who challenged both regime and religion with his words and life.
We Christians reflect...on the events of Jesus' life revealed in the Gospel, but we have to take the totallity of the Jesus experience of the Apostles into account to enter into the Paschal Mystery. We get hung up on suffering, the dying without the rising, when we attribute too much to the scandalous death of God with Us, without noticing what happened next....
It might be useful for your discussion of atonement to retrieve an earlier, Semitic understanding of the roots of the word. At-one-ment means doing what it takes to make amends when we've screwed up, to try to remedy the situation we created by sinful actions or omissions. Building the kingdom of God actually requires some work, rather than a passive reliance on the idea that Jesus died for our sins. We have to die for our sins, too. The Old Man, our old selves, has to die to the new. This is usually effortful and painful, if rewarding. Discipline is not easy for us, but growth demands it.
I think this is a very good point, because one of the weaknesses of some of the traditional understandings of the atonement are that they appear to divorce what Jesus did on the cross from the rest of his life and from the resurrection. There are reasons I still want to hold on to some of the traditional understanding of the atonement, and I'll try to post something on that later in the week. But I think many of the criticisms of those theories are valid and need to be taken into consideration.
Camassia has posted a number of new comments on this issue, including some of the mail she has received, which are definitely worth reading. The conversation continues.