How a Little Deceit Could Rescue the Atonement from Christian Violence

WEST-WING-ZIEGLER_458In Season 4 of the West Wing, White House communication director Toby Ziegler is rehashing the circumstances that led to the defeat – and subsequent unconfirmability – of a Democratic ally in Congress, Karen Kroft. In his conversation with the former congresswoman, he admits he knew a gas-tax bill she championed was doomed to fail, making her unpopular both with her constituents and the Republicans who would block her potential nomination to a parks service position.

“It was a loser,” he tells Kroft, “and I pushed to have you introduce it anyway.”

Kroft smiles at him warmly and reassures him: “That doesn’t make any difference.”

“I came out for the gas tax because someone from Michigan had to,” she goes on to explain. “Gas prices are too low. It’s why the air is polluted. It’s why no one wants alternative fuels.”

Toby gives that little smirk of his and retorts: “And clearly that argument took the nation by storm.”

And here’s where the conversation gets interesting:

“In my religion,” Kroft says, “the whole symbol of the religion ended in crucifixion and condemnation. That wasn’t the measure of the experience. It’s just the way it ended.

“But I’m the Romans,” Toby remarks.

“It’s in the living, Kroft replies. “It’s in the campaigning that you make your mark.”

It’s a fascinating exchange, filled with deep theological meaning – perhaps deeper than even writer Aaron Sorkin intended. Setting aside the notion that the Jesus experience ended with the crucifixion and not the resurrection, what is perhaps most striking about this conversation is how Kroft, a Christian, de-emphasizes the cross in favor of Jesus’ life. The crucifixion is “just the way it ended,” she says. “It’s in the living … that you make your mark.”

deceiving-the-devilThe statement struck me because the night before I saw this episode I had just finished tearing through Darby Kathleen Ray’s amazing Deceiving the Devil: Atonement, Abuse and Ransom (1998). In it, Ray argues the crucifixion has been misrepresented, misappropriated and misused for too long. The violence-filled atonement theories accepted by the church as “traditional” have been used to perpetrate, justify and ignore abuse and exploitation of women, children, the poor and the environment; their fruits are so toxic, these theories must be jettisoned for Christianity to recover its mission in the world, and a new one must be formed if the cross is to retain any meaning not just for the holders of power but for the oppressed and powerless, as well.

In a way, Ray is addressing the same questions that have been circling in my mind for several months: If a given doctrine contributes substantially to a toxic view of God, don’t we as Christians have a duty to renounce and remove that doctrine? If so, how do we determine which of these doctrines should be eliminated and which should be reworked? And who determines whether a given view of God is toxic anyway?

I’m not sure there are any good answers to these questions. Nevertheless, Ray’s approach is a challenging one to this white male who is surely oblivious of many of the issues Ray raises in her book. Some of these atonement doctrines are entrenched, and many – including myself – see them as crucial to the notions of redemption and salvation. Yet, as Ray hammers home again and again, the point is not that those of us western white males do not find certain passages or theories abusive; the point is that the abusive fruit is there for women, children, minorities, the developing world, indigenous cultures and the nonhuman creation.

This doctrine is based on assumptions about the nature of sin, God and salvation that together actually create and sustain what many today recognize as evil. Ironically, the very doctrine whose job it is to attempt to understand and articulate God’s response to evil perpetuates evil in the lives of many women, men and children. … This revered discourse on evil has come to mirror its subject matter and hence should be rejected.

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“All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 1: Origen of Alexandria

allshallbewell cover

This is Part 2 of a series working through “All Shall Be Well:” Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann. See the intro here.

The most famous proponent of universal reconciliation in the early church was Origen of Alexandria (c.185-c.254) – which isn’t really saying much because, at least in the Protestant traditions where I was raised, Origen himself, never mind his teaching, isn’t that famous.

Although not the earliest overt universalist – that title belongs to the second century’s Clement of Alexandria, who doesn’t get a chapter in MacDonald’s book, or (he says with a wink) perhaps these first-century guys named Paul of Tarsus and Jesus of Nazareth – Origen’s role as the most prominent has made him influential.

Origen’s notion of restoration was condemned in 553 because of its connection to the pre-existence of souls, although Tom Greggs (professor of systematic theology at the University of Chester in the U.K.) in his essay notes that condemnations of Origen were really condemnations of Origenism, which took Origen’s views to extremes. Further, Greggs argues Origen did not view universal reconciliation merely through his misguided views about the soul, but found christological support, as well.

Some have suggested that Origen was not really a universalist, given his ambiguous, if not contradictory, statements in some works, especially those written for more pastoral reasons. “Yet the mapping of Christian theology offered in his systemic theology, along with certain comments offered in his commentaries, clearly suggests that Origen imagined an ultimate end in which all would be welll, and God’s final victory would be triumphant” (31).

So how does universal restoration work, according to Origen? In two distinct ways.

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“All Shall Be Well”: Universal Salvation Through History, Part 1

allshallbewell coverWe’re starting a new series today. Last summer, I spent an inordinately long time going through the question of whether Mary was really a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus (links in the sidebar). I liked it so much that I wanted to do a series this summer on some other pressing theological issue, but kids and a summer class and the resulting paper have conspired to wipe out half the summer before I could even start.

Then, as I was researching and writing for my paper on Gregory of Nyssa’s belief in the salvation of Satan, I ran across “All Shall Be Well:” Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann. There have been shorter titles in the history of books. Nevertheless, this collection of essays on prominent universalists over the past 1,800 years or so promises to provide some theological and historical background to the notion of universal salvation that I think might be helpful for those of you who, like me, are rethinking traditional ideas about everything, including heaven, hell, salvation and judgment. Also, it’s not likely to run you any less than $35, which is a little steep, so this is a way to get the gist without laying out the cash, if you’re as poor as I am (I’m checking this out from the university library).

The book is edited by “Gregory MacDonald,” the pseudepigraphal identity of Robin Parry, who just did some video responses on Rachel Held Evans’ blog as part of her “Ask a …” series. It’s worth checking out those comments, which make clear that Parry is a very nice guy, and smart, to boot.

Parry writes the introduction, which we’ll go through today. I hope to do no fewer than one installment in this series each week. I can’t promise that I won’t combine chapters or give up if I get too busy to keep reading, but my hope is to devote a post to each of the 18 chapters in the book, mostly because I think this topic is interesting, and hey, it’s my blog.

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The Exodus Didn’t Happen, and Why That Doesn’t Matter

Bible_UnearthedA lot of times, it seems progressive Christians get caught between two sides each screaming pronouncements at each other.

On the one hand, there are the conservatives, with their line drawing and their hard-and-fast pronouncements: The Bible is inerrant! Evolution is a lie! You’re probably going to hell!

On the other, there are the liberals, no less enamored with their own lines and declarations: The resurrection didn’t happen! Jesus wasn’t really divine!

Progressives share a lot in common with liberals – certainly more than conservatives – but are a little leery with the hollowing out of the faith that seems to occur over there, just as progressives are leery with the view of God that seems to govern the inflexible fundamentalism of the conservative camp.

So we sit in the middle, and when someone asks us a question, we tend to step aside.

“Well, that’s not the right question …” or, “It depends how you look at it,” or, “Each of us is going to have a different answer based on our own biases and experiences.”

I find myself doing this quite a bit. A friend asked me a couple of weeks ago whether I thought Israel’s exodus from Egypt – not an unimportant part of the Bible, as you may know – actually happened. And my answer began with something like, “Well, you never know for sure,” or something like that. After all, anything can happen, right? Progressives may not be sure about miracles, but we’re not really comfortable ruling them out definitively. Maybe the exodus did happen. Maybe hundreds of thousands of men, women and children spent 40 years in the fairly small space of the Sinai Peninsula and didn’t leave a single archaeological trace of their presence. Who knows, right?

Here’s the problem, though: The exodus didn’t happen.

If any other purported event – i.e., one that wasn’t recorded in the Bible – was supported by exactly zero evidence, and in fact contradicted by whatever evidence did exist, we would say it didn’t happen. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being sensitive to the faith and feelings of those who might not be ready to handle the significant lack of historical accuracy in much, if not all, of the Old Testament, but if you’re here reading this, you’re probably OK with handling some hard things, so let’s talk about why the exodus didn’t happen – and why that’s not really a problem.

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