Peter writes that the Passion movie reminds him of the discussion he had with me about a year ago about the theology of the crucifixion. Actually, I was thinking the same thing, and it's interesting to compare myself then with now. After that discussion I basically dropped the subject and didn't think about it a whole lot. So it's interesting to see how my thinking has moved, even though it's been largely subconscious.
Part of what was different about me then was I kind of understood the relationship between God and human as a giant omnipotent being over a helpless insect. Although Christians see God as sovereign, of course, I hadn't quite realized how exalted they see humanity as becoming: to reign with God in the kingdom of heaven, beneath him but also alongside him. The omnipotence thing is still a big problem for me, but it does explain a bit why God is going at this interactively rather than by fiat. I mentioned in a comment to this post that I had warmed to the idea of "God became man so that man could become divine." Back when Telford first told me that line, on Palm Sunday last year, I didn't understand what he was talking about, because the whole "man becoming divine" thing hadn't quite reached me yet.
I also mentioned that I hated substitional atonement theory, which was the main point of contention back then. When I think about it now, though, I see the theory as not so much bad as incomplete. Peter referred to it then as if it were the lone Christian theory before these newfangled interpretations came along, but actually it originated with Calvin. And it really only makes sense in the Calvinist universe, which it's odd that so many non-Calvinists have adopted it.
The main problem for me is that it focuses entirely on man as transgressor. That fits with the Calvinist idea of total depravity, which holds that except for divine intervention man is completely wicked and deserving only of hell. God, apparently, wanted to deliver a world of hurt on us for this, but delivered it to his son instead.
There are a number of things, it seems to me, that this leaves out. For one thing, it's all about humanity's corporate sin against God, and says nothing about people's sins against each other. People were already suffering for sin -- they mostly just suffered for other people's, rather than their own. Jesus, in fact, talked about this a lot during his life, and both preached and showed compassion for the suffering. But why would God care about this? If all he cares about is the sin against himself, why put "love your neighbor" on par with "love God"? Why love your enemies? According to this line of thought, the suffering on earth are only getting their just deserts ahead of schedule.
When I talked about this with Telford yesterday, he told me of another problem he raises with his students. (Nobody dissects Calvinism like an ex-Calvinist.) What, then, does the resurrection mean? God wanted his sacrifice, and he got his sacrifice. Why raise him again? He also pointed out that the whole thing seems to happen in a closed system, a transaction between God and himself. Humans are strangely passive, which seems to fit Calvinism's idea of predestination and irresistable grace, but leaves it a bit unclear why humans, then, should have to do anything.
As Kynn put it while we were blogging Mark, this leads a lot of conservative Protestants to act as if Jesus came to earth just to die. Which has led some liberal Protestants to downplay the idea that the death actually achieved much of anything, and to focus almost exclusively on the life and teachings. But another idea that's almost the diametric opposite of SA was spelled out by the Methodist pastor in this post at Mark Kleiman's blog. The concept is indeed a venerable one in its own right, Christus Victor. He refers to a passage from Revelation about a battle with a dragon:
If you only read this passage, you might think that the Dragon is a Devil like the devil in Mel Gibson's movie, an evil person who wants to throw souls into hell. But if you read the whole book, it becomes clear that on earth, the Dragon in John's time is the Roman Empire. It is Rome that crucified Jesus, and that murders the faithful. It is Rome that conquers by blood, starves, oppresses, and enslaves. And Jesus defeats Rome: not by his death, but by rising again in victory. His death, desired by Rome, not by God, is apparent defeat. In Mel Gibson’s movie, Satan screams when Jesus dies. In Revelation, Satan screams when Jesus rises. And, Revelation tells us, those who remain faithful to Jesus, to his teaching and example of service, compassion, and nonviolent love, will also rise. Jesus has made atonement, not by his substitutionary death, but by the vindication of Easter...
Christus Victor says, "The Dragon has been cast out of heaven, but he still rages on earth. Fight this dragon, with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your strength. Do not fight with the dragons weapons—he will defeat you every time. But fight with the weapons of Jesus, who healed the sick, ate with outcasts, and prayed forgiveness for his enemies even on the cross. Never accept injustice. Never surrender. And Christus Victor, the Lamb who was slain and yet stands triumphant, will be victorious again in you."
It's a lot more appealing to me than SA. But still, some things seem to be missing, things that SA, oddly enough, actually provides. While it's not clear what the resurrection means to SA, it's not clear what the crucifixion means to Christus Victor. If the message is the triumph of good over evil, why not have it be just triumph, instead of going through the horrendous death first? Also, while SA seems to make people overly passive, this seems to be creeping in the direction of works righteousness. Being Christian seems to be all about action rather than faith.
But the crux of the matter, I think, is that while SA speak only the transgressor within, CV has nothing to say to it. What happened to forgiveness of sins? Forgiveness, oddly, only appears here as a weapon, something you wield that your enemy doesn't. One of the few things it has in common with SA is that it remains myterious why you should love your enemies. Especially since your enemies also seem to be enemies of God. Indeed, this reminds me of a faintly creepy conversation I had with a commenter at The Right Christians, during the discussion about why young straight men don't go to church that much. The commenter wondered why churches would want them anyway, since they're the privileged class and the church is supposed to be for the underdogs. Such exclusivism is the sort of thing liberals usually criticize fundamentalists for, but I guess with some it's OK if you reconfigure the goodies and the baddies.
Although the Bible occasionally "weaponizes" forgiveness (such as the line about how loving your enemy will heap burning coals on his head), much more often it urges forgiveness because you yourself have been forgiven. Over and over, human mercy to each other is tied to God's mercy to humans. We should realize that we all fall short, so we aren't in a position to judge others, we're told.
This recognition of guilt, and having a way to deal with it, is one thing SA does very well. Churches traditionally have often overdone it on the guilt so there's kind of a backlash in the more liberal denominations. But guilt is part of being human, unless you're a sociopath. Martin Luther wrote that the realization that God forgives you is what inspires good works to begin with. Otherwise they become an onerous task, because you're never going to be perfect at them.
Peter made the connection between God forgiving us and us forgiving each other in his last post at the time, and it was my favorite response that I got then. But I think that, really, I should not have to choose between these two theories. Loving your enemies only makes sense to me if, essentially, Jesus died for you enemies and you, for the sinners and for the sinned against, because ultimately we are all both.
I don't pretend to have the crucifixion totally figured out, and my biggest problem remains the fact that sin and evil are still here, despite claims of their defeat. But perhaps the biggest change in my thinking was that somewhere along the line I stopped thinking of it as a mechanical process, and started thinking of it more as a communication -- a message from beyond written in flesh, left for us to decipher. Once I started trying, I couldn't seem to stop.Posted by Camassia at March 10, 2004 02:38 PM | TrackBack