There has been quite the active posts over at Nate’s blog. Unfortunately it has come to people talking over each other rather than a meaningful debate. I believe I can prove who started the berating comments first, but it really doesn’t matter, most of us “took the bait” and things steadily progressed downhill from there. Though I am no longer a “believer” , I still subscribe to receive emails, emagazines , etc. from certain groups in the christian community. I continue to have an interest in ancient history which would include the history of christianity. I received this email article this morning from John Shelby Spong (which I paid to receive) and want to share some of his observations as a scholar and retired Episcopalian Priest. The 2 Guest Christian Literalist Bloggers over at Nate’s would instantly denounce Spong as a lunatic which is why I tend to value his works . 🙂
Part XXIII Matthew
Analyzing the Implications of Atonement Theology: Part I
In recent columns, we have looked at the origins of what has come to be called “The Doctrine of the Atonement.” We noted that the day, in the calendar of the Jewish liturgical year called “Yom Kippur – The Day of Atonement,” was observed in the fall of the year and was marked by emotions of deep penitence. We looked at what this day meant in first century Judaism. Its various elements included a 24-hour vigil, the use of an animal chosen from their flocks for sacrifice and the requirement that this animal must be physically perfect with no scratches, no bruises and no broken bones. We noted how over time, this idea of physical perfection grew to include the suggestion that this animal was also considered to be morally perfect. Animals, it was argued, lived beneath the level of decision-making freedom, so they literally could not choose to do evil. This sacrificial animal of Yom Kippur thus became symbolic of the human yearning for perfection both physically and morally. At Yom Kippur the people were encouraged to recognize their own sinfulness, which, they believed, kept them separated from the presence of God. In this Yom Kippur liturgy, however, they were taught that they could still be “at one” with God if they came to God through the blood of the sacrificed perfect “lamb of God.” In this way, at least for this one day of the year, they could not only share in God’s oneness, but more importantly they also could be reminded that they had been created to be more than what they knew themselves to be. That was the essence of Yom Kippur.
Then we looked at how that first generation of Christians, who were almost totally Jewish, applied the symbols of Yom Kippur to Jesus. Paul, writing to the Corinthians about the year 54 CE, had said of Jesus: “He died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures.” Mark, writing about 72 CE, had used the word “ransom” to describe the death of Jesus. The Fourth Gospel, written in the last decade of the first century, portrayed John the Baptist, upon seeing Jesus for the first time, as saying: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” All of these biblical references indicated clearly that Jesus had been interpreted by his Jewish followers under the symbols of Yom Kippur. As long as the Christian movement was made up primarily of Jewish people, who were familiar with these images, no great misunderstanding of Jesus developed. Jesus, like the lamb of Yom Kippur, represented the human yearning for perfection and for oneness with God.
By the year 150 CE, however, the Christian Church had become primarily a Gentile movement and Gentile people, who were by and large ignorant of the Jewish background of the entire New Testament, began to read and understand Jesus in a distorted non-Jewish way. This misunderstanding ultimately became the essence of what came to be called “Orthodoxy.” The doctrines that are still reflected in the Christian creeds were born in this misunderstanding. This became in my mind the beginning of what I now call a “Gentile Heresy!”
The major “culprit” in this development, I believe, was a man named Augustine, who came to Christianity out of Manichaeism, which contained a dualistic understanding of human life. It divided the world into competing spheres of good and evil. Spirit was good, but flesh was evil. Souls were good, but bodies were evil. Heaven was good, but earth was evil. Augustine ultimately became not only a bishop, but also the gigantic thinker, who laid the foundation for what we call today “Traditional Christianity.” It has five basic elements:
1. The original goodness of God’s creation
2. The “fall” from that perfection into sin caused by human disobedience.
3. The inability of human beings on their own to extricate themselves from this fall.
4. The necessity of a divine rescue accomplished by God in the death of Jesus.
5. The restoration of human life through Jesus’ sacrifice to its original “saved’ status.
Augustine saw the basis for these theological claims in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis, which he assumed were both the literal words of God and historically accurate. He did not know, for example, that the story of God’s perfect creation of the world in seven days, found in the first chapter of Genesis, was actually written some 400-500 years after the story in chapter two of Genesis, which describes how God’s perfect creation was ruined by human disobedience. Nor did he understand that this tale of how human life, now fallen, was banished from the presence of God in the Garden of Eden was mythological. Augustine simply assumed that since Genesis 1 was the first chapter in the “Word of God,” it must describe the original perfection of God’s creation and that Genesis 2 described the later corruption of that original goodness by human sin. In this misreading of the Bible the concept of “original sin” was born.
With the story of the human fall into original sin now fully set, Augustine then proceeded to view Jesus as God’s divine rescue operation and thus to interpret his death on the cross as the price that Jesus was required to pay to redeem or to rescue human beings from this primeval fall into sinfulness. We call this religious idea “substitutionary atonement,” which means that God punished the innocent Jesus instead of punishing you and me who deserved this divine wrath. So the mantra “Jesus died for my sins” emerged. That understanding of salvation then became the foundation upon which the Christian faith would be built and Christian practices would be developed. This was when cleansing power began to be attributed to the blood of Jesus. This was when the cross came to be understood as the place where Jesus bore the pain that we had caused. This was why baptism, understood as the ritual washing away of the effects of the “fall,” became essential. The corruption of the sin of Adam was the reality into which every life was born and so baptism became a cleansing act. A baby unfortunate enough to die unbaptized was said to have no hope of heaven. This was also why the Eucharist involved “eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus.” The saved had to participate personally in Jesus’ death. The service of communion thus became one more cleansing ritual, opening the sinner to redemption and atonement. Finally, that is also why the Christian message became so totally and completely a guilt message and that is why the Christian liturgy has so often wallowed in sin and guilt. Christian liturgies were devised to force worshippers to recognize their fallen, hopeless status. These liturgies dominate Christian worship to this day. Christian worship regularly insults our humanity. We are forced in worship to call ourselves “miserable offenders,” to confess that there is “no health (or wholeness) in us” and to state that “we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs” underneath the divine table. We are encouraged to approach God as a beggar, that is, upon our knees, pleading for “God’s mercy.” We use a threefold Kyrie (Lord have mercy) and a nine fold Kyrie. “Lord have mercy” became the primary language of worship.
Have you ever stopped to entertain the possibility that the proper approach to God might not be the stance of one begging for mercy? Have you ever wondered about just how such a prayer understands either the nature of God or what it means to be human? “Have mercy on me” might be a proper prayer for a trembling child standing before an abusive parent. It might be a proper prayer of a convicted felon standing before a hanging judge, but is it ever a proper prayer for a child of God standing before the source of life and love that we call God?
What does it do to our humanity for our lives to be constantly defined in worship as fallen, broken, sinful, helpless or hopeless? Yet this is what happens in church Sunday after Sunday. We victimize our humanity in worship every week. Why do we tolerate that? Is it healthy? Is there a connection between the victimizing liturgies of Christianity and the lamentable fact that throughout Christian history, we Christians have been the chronic victimizers of others? Out of what does our anti-Semitism rise? Look at how hostility toward Muslims, called infidels by Christians, fueled the Vatican-organized Crusades in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. Was not much of today’s Muslim hostility toward the west born in those Crusades? Out of what mentality did the Inquisition arise in Christianity? Why have we Christians burned at the stake those we called “heretics” throughout so much of our history? Why did we Christians enslave people of color? Not only did the Pope once own slaves, but the institution of slavery thrived in America primarily in that region known as the “Bible Belt.” Why were slavery’s bastard step-children, segregation and apartheid, tolerated in those nations that defined themselves in Christian terms? Why were women treated both as sub-human and as second class citizens in the Christian West? Why were women in “Christian nations” not allowed to be educated until the early 20th century, or admitted into the professions in any significant way until the late 20th century? What was it that caused most Christian churches to refuse to ordain women until the last decades of the 20th century? Why are women still not allowed to be ordained in the two largest churches of the Christian world, the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox? Why are homosexual people condemned today primarily by Christian bodies? Is it possible that our victimizing liturgies predispose us Christians to be chronic victimizers of others? “Atonement theology” begins with a definition of human life as corrupted by the fall into original sin. It postulates a violent God who punishes the divine Son in order to satisfy some inner need in the divine nature, producing a concept of God as the ultimate child abuser. It gives us a Christ who is himself a chronic victim. It turns Christianity into a religion of guilt and control. Unless Christianity escapes this mentality it has no future. Atonement theology is bankrupt. Facing that reality is the first step into a living Christian future. Will the Christian Church ever take that step? We will look at that possibility when this series continues.