Why Christ? (Part 1)

December 1, 2006

Sunrise over Cemetery.  Photo by Richard BoltIt is a question I struggled with for a long time.

For me, Christ was something so intangible, so contorted by so many voices, that I could not understand what the big deal was.  “Why can’t we just focus on loving each other and move on?” I thought.

For many years, I considered myself Christian largely because of my cultural context– not necessarily because I completely adopted orthodox Christian doctrine.

I still don’t know that I adopt “orthodox” Christian doctrine.

The concept of atonement has been one that I have always struggled with.  I just cannot believe that Christ is the intercessor between us as bad humans, saving us from the wrath of an angry and vengeful God.  Sacrificial atonement, as it had been described to me, was the doctrine that stated that Christ had to come and offer himself as a sacrifice in order to satisfy the Father’s need for judgement.

That’s no god I can believe in.  Where is the love?  Where is the compassion?  Where is the understanding of the plight of the messiness that is inherent in being human?  And if we’re more bad than good, why do we care so much about this?  How come we don’t just do bad stuff and move on?  Our willingness/ability to repent in the first place is a sign to me that we are more good than bad.  Atonement as a sacrifice to appease God? Blah.  Nonsense. 

For a while, I just let it be.  And over time, I gradually looked past those concerns to see different sides of Jesus.  I saw him as a teacher.  I also saw him as a compassionate friend, understanding our plight.

Along those lines, I heard a sermon similar to this one at All Saints Pasadena where the reason for Jesus is outlined as a compassionate friend who comes to be in solidarity with our suffering.  I will probably always credit the Rev. Ed Bacon as the architect of my theological construction.  I still hold true to the idea that Jesus did come to be in solidarity with us.  Another one of my amazing mentors, the Rev. Zelda Kennedy, told me a story which I have laid out here before about the master who loves his servants so much that he wants to be with them.  When he is with them, they cannot “relax” enough to be themselves.  He loves them so much that he wants to have their life experience on their terms– the good, the bad, and the ugly– so he dresses as a servant and goes into their quarters.  He then is free to experience the life they lead as they do.

That, then, is more of what I believe Jesus is for us.

But why, then, is the crucifixion so important?  What does atonement mean?  It is a question I have not been able to answer fully.  Surely Jesus died in solidarity with the suffering of the world, yes– I buy that.  But is there something more?  That is the theological question I have been wrestling with in my first months at seminary.  And what does atonement mean given that I am not willing to yield on the completely peaceful, loving, non-judgemental, and fully compassionate nature of God?

Some potential answers came for me yesterday.  Interestingly, in my history class we studied Anselm– the father of atonement doctrine.  Then, last night, the Seminary Peace Fellowship hosted a session on atonement from a completely different perspective based on the teachings of Rene Girard.  I know you guys don’t like to go all scholarly, so I won’t… at least I’ll try.

The first thing that I came to realize in the study of Anselm is that we have come to limit the meaning of the word atonement from what it actually means.  We have come to use the word to mean the sacrifical, punitive atonement that we now associate with a wrathful God who needs a sacrifice in order to be appeased.  But the term literally means “at-one-ment”– or the way we come to be reconciled with God.  I am reclaiming the word for the rest of this time to mean simply “reconciling ourselves to God”, and I’ll give you more about that in a moment.

The next thing I came to realize is that not all theologians have developed theories of atonement based on God’s need for sacrifice.  There are theories for atonement which provide Jesus as a gift to us because we need it.  In other words, God is all powerful and all benevolent.  God can accept us just as we are, no matter how broken.  But we are unable to accept the gift of grace– I once told the story of the refrigerator on the side of the road that a man was trying to get rid of, so he hung a sign on it that said “free refrigerator”.  It sat there for a week.  Frustrated, he hung a sign on it that said, “refrigerator $50”.  It was gone in an hour.  If grace is too cheap we may not want it.  We may need a sacrifice for our own sake in order to receive grace– not because God requires it of us, but because in our brokenness we can’t get the message without a really revoluationary mechanism.

Having said that, I think I’ll actually break this up into two sections, as I realize that I haven’t yet answered the question yet– the question of “why crucifixion”.  Maybe I’ve partially answered “why Christ”, but at least in my mind, I have not yet answered, to my satisfaction at least, the question of “why all this torture, suffering, and heartbreak.”

I’ll leave that next big revelation of mine for tomorrow!



3 Responses to “Why Christ? (Part 1)”

  1. Andy Says:

    This must be “Atonement Month” or something! I also have always been confused/dazed/speechless by the sacrifice atonement, and in Googling, ran into a book called “The Nonviolent Atonement” by J. Denny Weaver, who is a Mennonite. He builds on Girard’s work, I believe (I haven’t finished, yet…) but comes up with something he calls “narrartive Christus Victor” that says that the atonenment fits into the gospel stories and Reveleation and we need to see that the atonement was the only course left as Jesus truly lived out the call to live in God’s Kingdom. The resurrection was God’s final word to show that even when we think the earthly kingdom thinks it has the last word, God can still have it and be triumphant… Google for his name and find one of his short articles on it, perhaps to get a flavor for his thoughts… I don’t know how your professors (lett alone the people around you!) might think about theology based on this, but it works better than “Jesus as blood sacrifice for us”.

  2. Jeff Says:

    Thank you, Andy, I will try and check out that resource.

    Yes – I agree that it works much better than “blood sacrifice for us,” although as you’ll see in my next post I think there may be an element of sacrifice– not because God needs it but because we need it and God loves us enough to give it to us.

    I think it is hard stuff. So many ideas are also engrained in the tradition by the post-enlightenment thinking that it is hard to see past the last few hundred years to what may have existed before.

    My professors– they are mostly helpful. The students, I think, mostly find it interesting, but I’m not sure they are all yet completely comfortable with the idea of embracing anything that might put them in a position of saying something antithetical to the Prayer Book in front of their Committees on Ministry– at least before they are ordained!!

    I feel like my COM is a little more understanding, fortunately– and I’m not even a postulant yet. But one thing I won’t ever yield on is the hugeness of God’s love, and that doesn’t reconcile with a god who needs a blood sacrifice in order to accept us. So I have to see what Christ does mean for me. To deconstruct the tradition in order to find the meaning that exists there somewhere.


  3. […] Yesterday, in Why Christ? (Part 1), I laid a foundation for my realization that we need Christ as a mechanism for our salvation, not because God requires it of us but because we are incapable of accepting the fullness of God’s love and grace on our own– God gives us more of Godself in order that we may more fully accept God’s grace.  Reading this sentence by itself may sound like I believe we are more bad than good; I do not.  Because we are interested in the topic at all and care about reconciliation with God, we are more good than bad (otherwise we’d just do bad stuff and not care about the consequences). […]

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