Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Cross: new religions, new theologies and the only difference in a pluralistic society 3

Thomas Oden points out that it is important to note, [when thinking about the moral influence view of atonement] "The tradition of Abelard and Socinus, anticipated by Pelagius, is not a consensual tradition, but a distortion that reappears in heavier or lighter tones periodically.”11 Abelard, in his Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans, questions how God could forgive humanity for killing his Son if He was not able to forgive them before this event.

He also questions the goodness of God if it was true that God demanded the death of His Son for the sins of the world. He writes, “Indeed, how cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should please him that an innocent man should be slain—still less that God should consider the death of his Son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world!” Abelard concludes that we are justified, “in that his Son has taken upon himself our nature and persevered therein in teaching us by word and example even unto death-- ”12 At the instigation of Bernard of Clairvaux the Council of Sens condemned Abelard’s view.

Oden offers nine problems with this theory. The first three deal very much with problems in contemporary theology. That Christ was simply a “noble martyr,” and therefore there is no transforming aide for the sinner is the first problem. As an answer to this problem, Oden writes, “Humanity does not need merely to be instructed but to have sins forgiven, not merely enlightened but redeemed from sin, for we are not only ignorant but corrupt, not merely finite but sinners, not merely those who feel guilty but who are guilty.”13

Oden’s second problem with the exemplar theory is that it often “does not say enough about who the teacher was.”14 This is very much in line with both the milder and more radical contemporary theological views that attempt to change or do away with Christ’s work on the cross. In Anna case-Winters’ speech referred to above, she not only questions orthodox views of the atonement she also attempts to say that there is more to Christ than Jesus thus separating the person of Jesus from Christ.15 Delores S. Williams places the incarnation, first in Mary, then in Jesus then in the Church.

As Williams puts it, “Incarnation in a womanist understanding of it in the Christian testament, can be regarded as a continuum of the manifestation of divine spirit beginning with Mary, becoming an abundance in Jesus and later overflowing into the life of the church.” 16 Carter Heyward totally dismisses the incarnation of Jesus Christ writing:

"In making Jesus the sole proprietor of the title ‘Christ,’ we Christians not only have heaped violence upon those who are not Christians (Jews, Moslems, pagans, Buddhists, et al.), but also have disempowered ourselves as Daughters, Sons, People, and Friends of the Sacred, bearers together of the same sacred—Christic—power that jesus experienced in relation to others in the Spirit that drew them together."17

Oden’s third problem with the exemplar theory is that its proponents have “too optimistically assumed that the will is not radically bound by sin and that no punishment for sin is required.” He adds that this is often linked to a “humanistic pantheism that views each individual soul as a spark of divinity.”18 One can note that the above remarks by Heyward falls into this category.

This expectation of the human ability to conform to the holiness of God without the gracious work of Christ is one of the areas that lead to the rise of evil in the religious experience of even Christianity. The desire for an encounter with God, without His provision of the door of encounter, means failure and can be disastrous. I have addressed the problem of evil in religion in a book review of Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and The Search For What Saves Us. The two authors, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, see Jesus death on the cross for our sins as child abuse. I point out in this paper the problem of evil inherent in any religion that minimizes the cross:

"For some, Islam is an example, God is so transcendent, so other, that he would not become human nor could he enter into our suffering. For others, for example Paganism, God is so “us” or “nature” that to know humanity or nature, even with all its/our corruption is to know deity. For still others such as Zen Buddhism, God is all there is and yet a void or emptiness, entered into only with the loss of self-consciousness.

The human propensity to do evil can be nurtured in very human attempts to connect with God by either trying to imitate God’s perfection, integrating the good and evil or seeing such dualities as good and evil as unreal. If God is totally other and does not enter into our world in an act of grace and atonement we are left to overcome evil with our own will. If we are deity then all of our nature is divine, the evil included. If God is that which is all and non-dualistic, in the end evil does not matter.

Humans do not have the ability to live by religious moral codes perfectly. In fact, for some the attempt toward perfection leads to the radicalization of their religious beliefs. That is, in an attempt to obey the laws of their religion as a means of connecting with God, they apply the moral code so stringently to themselves and society that they become authoritarian in nature. For instance, in radical Islam women become non-entities, hidden people, in order to prevent lust and adultery. Radical Islamic men reach for God through the suffering and humiliation of their women.

In paganism, since God is seen as creation, the desire to embrace an ethic that honors and cares for nature often leads to nudity and sometimes sex is accepted as religious rite. Every human protection against vulnerability, including clothing, is removed in order to manifest and connect with the divine in humanity.

A God who comes down in love, who suffers for humanity, is lost in this religious maze. The God who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ removes the human effort to connect with God as well as any insistence that somehow evil is necessary or unreal. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross speaks to the awful truth of human sin while at the same time providing a way past humanity’s guilt. Individuals are set free to serve God knowing that it is the work of Christ rather than their own righteousness. In deed, whenever Christianity moves away from the implicit meaning of the cross—there evil begins to rear its head—whether that means selling indulgences, burning witches at the stake or replacing Jesus as the suffering savior with a Jesus of noble blood as a means of elevating war as the German Christians under Hitler did.19"

11 Oden, Word, 404.
12 Peter Abelard, Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans, in Readings in the History of Christian Theology: From its Beginnings to the Eve of the Reformation, vol.1, editor, William c. Placher, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1988) 150,151.
13 Oden, Word, 406.
14 Ibid.
15 Case-Winters, “Who Do You Say That I Am,” 4.
16 Williams, Wilderness, 168.
17 Heyward, Saving, 32.
18 Oden, Word, 407.
19 Viola Larson, “A Book Review” on Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and The Search For What Saves Us, Rita Nakashima Brick and Rebecca Parker, (Beacon Press 2001) at Voices of Orthodox Women ,


Dave Moody said...

Not sure where to comment, on your last posting or here...

My prof, when going through various alternative theories of the atonement, would say--"It isn't so much what these theories affirm that is problematic, it is what they deny." ie, penal substitutionary atonement.

The cross is more than penal substitution, but it is not less. If that makes sense.

thanks for the theology reminder this morning!

Pastor Bob said...

I say again: it's OK to see Jesus as a moral example but it is not sufficient for forgiveness and salvation. Atonement through the judicial theory along with reconciliation are necessary to understand the full meaning of Christ's death.

BTW I would suggest that the incarnation, the life of Jesus, his death on the cross and his resurrection are all necessary for salvation. Jesus in the God/Man who can take away sins because he is the God/Man. Jesus lives the prefect life and his perfect, sinless life is taken as our lives before the Father. Jesus death atones for our sin. Jesus' resurrection opens the way for our resurrection

A full theology of forgiveness need all of the above.

Viola Larson said...

It makes a lot of sense.

Bob, I agree the whole incarnation is important including the bodily resurrection.