Category Archives: Atonement

Why did Jesus of Nazareth accept Crucifixion?

  1. To rescue us from fear of the judgement of others – what Jesus calls ‘the world’ (John 16:33) – by overthrowing, without violence, the judgement of the world of his time, and all time. This fear of judgement, which comes not from God but from the Adversary, is the root of all Status Anxiety (fear of ‘what people think’), status seeking, inequality and violence.
  2. So that we might follow him out of love rather than fear.
  3. To teach us to forgive as He did.
  4. To reveal to us the origin of all violence in Status Anxiety – and the Satanic historical pattern of the accusation and scapegoating of the innocent that arises from the Status Anxiety of those seeking or wielding punitive power.
  5. To give us a limitless horizon – beyond mere consumption, sexual fixation and death.
  6. To offer freedom from fear to those challenged to speak the truth to abusive power, the whistle-blowers who are needed even in the church.
  7. To allow us always to review the history of the church and to lament the Status Anxiety that misled it too often into too close an alliance with state power (c.313 CE to c.1918 CE) under Christendom, and the many victimisations, enslavements and compromises with violence that followed – including the abuse of children by ordained clergy.
  8. To take away even those sins when we have seen them, and properly atoned.
  9. To clarify our understanding of sin as stemming from doubt of our own value, leading to the coveting of status in the positive regard of others – and all other unloving and unjust actions.
  10. To make way for the Holy Spirit, close counsellor of everyone.
  11. To bring us back to the Father our maker – and sender of Jesus our Rescuer and the Holy Spirit our counsellor.
  12. To save the world in an always New Creation – through our conversion and our witness to the Blessed Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who accompany us always and forever.

If the earliest Christians were given new life by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and a vision of a new creation in a violent world now passing away, why should Christians of our time not always see this world of now as equally limited in judgement, and the Trinity as calling them always to a new and peaceful Kingdom of God, beyond all ambition and conflict? The medieval God seen by St Anselm of Canterbury as bent only on balancing the scales of an eternal justice is not the God of the apostles or of Irenaeus or the other early fathers, for whom it was God the Father who had burst their chains by sending them His Son.

Using the psychological and anthropological insights of Alain de Botton and René Girard it is time to return to the early church’s vision of Jesus of Nazareth as Christus Victor, who with the father’s help has overturned the verdict of the world, by exposing the real author of the lies that had condemned him. In the words of Gustav Aulén, interpreting Irenaeus:

First, then, it must be emphasised that the work of atone­ment is regarded as carried through by God Himself; and this, not merely in the sense that God authorises, sanctions, and initiates the plan of salvation, but that He Himself is the effective agent in the redemptive work, from beginning to end. It is the Word of God incarnate who overcomes the tyrants which hold man in bondage; God Himself enters into the world of sin and death, that He may reconcile the world to Himself. Therefore Incarnation and Atonement stand in no sort of antithesis; rather, they belong inseparably together. It is God’s Love, the Divine agape, that removes the sentence that rested upon mankind, and creates a new relation between the human race and Himself, a relation which is altogether different from any sort of justification by legal righteousness. The whole dispensation is the work of grace.” [Gustav Aulén, Christus Victor, 1931. S.P.C.K. edition 1965, p 34.]

Views: 192

Church Is Mission?

Without official rejection of a mistaken medieval understanding of ‘redemption’ the call to mission is futile.

~

Rather than saying that the Church has a mission, we affirm that Church ‘is’ mission.

Those are just two of 110 occurrences of the word mission in the Synthesis Report of the October 2023 16th Synod of Bishops in Rome.

Nowhere is there a convincing manifesto for this mission.  With the Irish national synodal synthesis of 2022 saying that ‘we are unsure about how to evangelise in the modern world‘ there is no help with that problem in the forty-one pages of the report.  

So far also the two Irish bishop representatives at the synod – Brendan Leahy of Limerick and Alan McGuckian of Raphoe – are also unhelpful.  All Catholic bishops are still imprisoned by a medieval theology of atonement and redemption that no missionary in Ireland today could offer as ‘Good News’? 

Blaming the Father

Originating with St Anselm of Canterbury in the late 11th century this theology proposes that the crucifixion of Jesus was demanded by the Father who sent him – to give ‘satisfaction’ for the ‘dishonour’ caused to the Father by all of our sins – by dying an excruciating death in ‘substitution’ for ourselves.  (CCC 615)

God the Father was Liberator for the early church.
This was not the theology of the early church. The very idea of ‘redemption’ derives from the ‘buying back’ of the freedom of a slave.  It was to God the Father that the first Christians attributed their own liberation from fear of the condemnation of their own Roman world.  The greatest power of that time had been proven powerless to overwhelm an ever-living  truth – by Jesus’ Resurrection.


What exactly do Irish bishops believe: that the Father of the mission we are now to embark upon is bent upon our liberation from the source of all oppression and fear in our present world – or that he is still, as he was for St Anselm in 1098 CE – in the business of calling in debts? 

This theology never even liberated any bishop. No Catholic bishop anywhere in the world is known to have warned his flock about the possibility of clerical sex abuse of children – before victims of that abuse or their families took secular legal action themselves.  In December 2009 the Irish Conference of Catholic bishops named the fear that had paralysed them: of a loss of ‘reputation’ if the truth was known.

The Root of All Evil?

An overbearing concern for ‘reputation’ now has a name – Status Anxiety – given in 2004 by the philosopher Alain de Botton. If our bishops cannot see this same affliction in every aspect of the evils that surround us – from manic consumerism, absurd inequality and climate change to compulsive cosmetic plastic surgery, stalking and mass shootings – and even invasive imperialism in Ukraine and violence in the Holy Land – how are we to convince anyone that Jesus has anything to do with overthrowing the power of evil?  If they cannot see it also in the problem of clericalism, how are we to overcome that? 

Status Anxiety is essentially fear of scorn – of being ‘cast out’ – the fear that stalks our dreams. It also drives the pursuit of ‘likes’, admiration, influence, celebrity – and power.  This explains the absorption of younger generations with digital media.  A globalized personal ‘brand’ can now be created, via a handheld device, even by children. 

Meanwhile our prisons and psychiatric hospitals and addiction centres struggle to cope with the depression, self-harm,  trolling, addiction and criminality that results from the lack of status – even the shame – that the victims of the digital age must feel. 

Jesus the Whistle-Blower
Is not Status Anxiety also the source of the fear that attacks would-be whistle-blowers everywhere?  Is that not what Jesus was – a whistle-blower against all injustice, who stood firm – without violence – against the merciless judgement of that ancient world? Did he not name his own mission, when he said, just before his own judgement, that he had ‘overcome the world’ – the fear of that judgement? Did he not by his crucifixion and resurrection dissolve the same fear in his earliest followers, who then took up their own crosses – and changed an empire? 


We Catholic Christians urgently need official recognition that the first person of the Trinity, far from being himself trapped in medieval Status Anxiety, is still bent – with the Son and the Holy Spirit – on rescuing us from that affliction. Until that happens the mission ahead will be ‘mission on pause’.

First published on the website of the Association of Catholic Priests of Ireland – Nov 21st 2023.

Views: 220

Did God want Jesus Dead?

Now committed to a synodal programme, Irish Catholics will struggle to make missionary sense of a medieval theology that implies a divine need for a divine victim – the crucifixion of Jesus on Calvary to repay a human debt of honour to the Father God of Creation.

Satisfaction and substitution, keywords of the medieval and early modern theology of the cross, are both used in the Catholic Catechism of 19941CCC615 ‘”For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5: 19) By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”.  (Isaiah 53 10-12) Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father. – to explain why Jesus submitted to crucifixion on Calvary. Human sinfulness is so great, according to this theology, that the voluntary suffering and death of God’s only son was needed to atone, reconciling the Father to ourselves.

In this understanding Jesus ‘satisfied’ a cosmic debt, substituting himself as sufferer of the divine punishment that must otherwise fall upon ourselves. This is the essence of the redemption theology of the Catechism.

Paradoxically, however, this leaves the same Father God obviously open to a suspicion of unforgiveness, making Jesus’s own forgiveness of his accusers a startling contradiction. Any ‘new evangelisation’ in Ireland must contend with this theological Gordian knot. Has any of us have ever heard, in church, a convincing attempt to untie it?

How many are aware that this medieval emphasis on divine debt recovery was not the understanding of the early Christian church? For over a thousand years, until the time of St Anselm of Canterbury in the late 11th century, it was taught that Jesus’s self-sacrifice had ransomed humankind from the powers of darkness – from ‘Satan’.

In this understanding, God the Father – in raising Jesus from the dead – was co-liberator of humankind. To ‘redeem’ was to buy the freedom of a slave, and, in the early church’s understanding, humans had been in captivity to evil until the time of Jesus. For those earliest Christian believers, the God of Abraham had done for themselves – through Jesus – what he had earlier done for the Israelites enslaved by Pharaonic Egypt.

In Cur Deus Homo (‘Why God Became a Man’ – 1098 CE) Anselm argued that the life of the Son of God was worth far more than any debt that could have been owed to Satan. To undo this mistake he essentially attributed the captivity from which Jesus liberated humankind to God himself.

To understand this shift we need to remember that for Anselm and his contemporaries the monarchical political order of the time was God-ordained. From the fourth century adoption of Christianity by the failing Roman empire, Christian clergy had supported the authority of the political order that protected them, an authority that rested on military power. It did not make sense to Anselm that God the Father would not rescue Jesus by the same forceful means, unless the crucifixion had been necessary to restore the perfect creation described in Genesis.

Anselm’s explanation of the Crucifixion became the bedrock of the fundamentalist evangelical Christianity of our own time – a Christian extremism that can favour the Old Testament principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ and scorn any reference to the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

There Jesus insists that enemies be loved instead. Never does Christian fundamentalism attend to Jesus’s repetition of the warning of the prophet Hosea – that what pleases God is ‘mercy not sacrifice‘ (Matt 9:13).

With the church no longer beholden to any political elite in the West, St Anselm’s perspective is a missionary millstone. Who cannot see that a state power that rests upon force – rather than consent – is unjust and sinful? Who cannot see in political ambition the covetousness of the 9th and 10th commandments of Moses?

And who cannot now see that it was in his rejection of ambition – political or religious – that Jesus overcame the temptation of ‘the world’? Oblivious of this danger even Christian religious elites can be corrupted, the problem described as ’spiritual worldliness’ by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium (2013).

The crucifixion is explained simply by the refusal of the Trinity to force us to follow them. How could the Father be freely loved if he was less loving than the Son?

Violence – and victimisation – arise easily from human ambition. Jesus stands unique in the ancient world, as an historical figure who refused power on those terms, at staggering personal cost. That sacrifice bears witness to a source of moral strength that lies beyond any of us. It was in this non-violent self-giving that Jesus reached the summit of human achievement – bearing witness to a heavenly father who thinks the same way. His forgiving self-sacrifice finally abolished the contradiction between mercy and sacrifice. He died as he had lived, in solidarity with the most vulnerable – those many millions who have died to save the faces of the Caesars of history.

The sacred purpose of the Trinity is to free humankind from selfish ambition (the root of all imperialism), from elitism and from violence. We need to reconsider a theological perspective that falls scandalously short – by imputing self-absorption and a need for violent sacrifice to the Father.

Notes

  1. CCC615 ‘”For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5: 19) By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”.  (Isaiah 53 10-12) Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.

See also: Why did Jesus of Nazareth accept crucifixion?

Views: 182

Salvation and Social Media

a

Jesus died on the cross …

to free us from fear of what other people think…

… and from the danger of being misled by their flattery or adulation.

What is it like to be occupied by a foreign power … to be told that your culture is inferior and your God is powerless … to have every attempt at resistance beaten down and your leaders tortured and executed in the most brutal and degrading way?

Are you then in danger of believing what you are told, and even of blaming yourself for your foolishness?

That was the condition of the poorest in spirit in the Palestine of Jesus’s time.

And that was why they understood the Resurrection of Jesus as freedom now – from the mistake of believing that they had been forsaken by the God of their ancestors, the God of Moses who had freed the Israelites from the Egyptian Pharaoh.

It is time to recall what belief in the Resurrection originally meant, and still means:

We need not fear the judgment of other human beings, whoever they are – and will be foolish if we spend our lives in search of their approval.

How did we lose the original meaning of salvation?

How did it happen that Christian teachers today have so often forgotten the original meaning of ‘Salvation’ – and cannot explain the relevance of prayer to the epidemic of self-harm now ongoing via Internet social media?

For the earliest Christians the story of Jesus was ‘salvation’ right now – not just a promise of life after death. Occupied by an often brutal foreign power the Jews of Israel were in real danger of of internalising Rome’s judgement of them as an inferior people whose God had failed. It followed that a belief in Jesus’s resurrection was also a belief that Rome’s power lay at the mercy of the God of Israel and was ‘passing away’.

History was to prove them right. An empire that ruled by fear and the most cruel shaming had been overthrown where it most mattered – in the minds of a minority who were quick to pass on this electrifying news.

The same story of Jesus, amplified in the Gospels, also overturned the myths that wealth, health and social status were signs of God’s approval, while illness or misfortune or extreme poverty must be proof of God’s condemnation. The assumptions that sustained the social pyramids of the ancient world had all been thrown into question.

So, in their own lifetime many of ‘the poorest in spirit’ had become convinced that they had never been deserted by a transcendent power that knew them individually – and the world’s greatest empire had been proven a hopeless judge.

However, through the centuries this original understanding became dimmed, especially by a theology of atonement that implied that God was still dissatisfied by our sinfulness – identified mainly with our sexuality. St Anselm of Canterbury convinced many in Cur Deus Homo (1098) that God the Father sent Jesus to collect a debt on which we had defaulted, and that Jesus accepted crucifixion to repay this debt.

And then, in the 1500s, Protestant leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin developed the idea of Jesus as penal substitute, the one who accepted the extra punishment that must otherwise fall on ourselves – because the suffering that sin itself brings is not enough.

In this way the liberator God of the early Christians had become instead the Great Medieval Debt Collector who will send us to Hell for defaulting. No wonder this doesn’t make sense to so many of today’s young people.

Social Media – an Empire Built on Our Search for Recognition and Approval

In our own time, following the rise and fall of the prestige of Christian churches (over twenty centuries) a new global empire has arisen: the empire of global electronic media. Its favourites are no longer the military heroes of the ancient world but the ‘silicon’ hardware and software icons of the Internet, and anyone else who can ‘influence’ its markets. Everywhere the teenagers of today can look for proof of their own significance on screens they need never darken.

The result? The verdict of many studies confirms the research of an Oxford University team: screen time correlates with poor mental health and “the association of well-being with regularly eating potatoes was nearly as negative as the association with technology use”.

Furthermore, the renowned US psychologist Dr Jean Twenge has found that the correlation between social media consumption and mental health challenges for young girls is even stronger.

“…The link between social media use and poor mental health for girls was 10 times as large as what the Oxford paper identified for “screen time.” A recent paper by two Spanish statisticians also examined the Oxford researchers’ techniques and also found a much stronger link. These findings fit with Facebook’s internal research, leaked by a whistleblower and published last fall, which concluded that Instagram led to depression and body image issues, particularly among teenage girls.” (Washington Post, 16th Feb 2022)

Why the Phone Fixation?

The power of ‘social media’ lies in the simplest of mistaken assumptions – that our value and importance can be determined by the judgement of others. Disappointment and elation – obscurity or recognition – honour and shame – are in the power of a handheld device that will tell us at a glance where we stand.

Anyone can therefore fall victim to an iron law of history. Wherever there is a search for status there will also be the formation of alliances in the shaming of those who are anyway vulnerable.

That many of the young are now mentally distressed and disturbed as a consequence is now well established. To believe in the Internet – or in media generally – as the arbiter of a person’s worth – is, for millions, to become poor in spirit all over again. It is also to be in danger of entrapment in cults or conspiracy theories, completely isolated from reality and the real world.

And that is why we need to remind ourselves, constantly, through prayer, that we should never make ourselves the prisoners of the judgement of others.

What has the experience of media shaming taught Irish clergy?

An Irish Catholic Church that has fallen from high social prestige to social disgrace in little over a generation has so far adjusted poorly to this situation. Clergy whose vocations began before ‘the fall’ were themselves teenagers when their own corporation was a power broker of both honour and shame in Ireland. Resentment and even anger (much of it justified) can be their default reaction to the reversal of fortunes they have experienced.

There is another option – to look again at that human tendency to see ‘honour’ as truly in the gift of other humans – and to identify that as the driving force of all ascent to social superiority, in all eras – and as the ‘worldliness’ that Jesus came to conquer. If the Gospel story was not a revelation of that mistake – and of the fallibility of human judgement – even when all are in agreement – what was it?

Is not that mistake – the seeking of honour in the adulation of others – the root of all tyranny in all eras? Was not that the mistake of the sons of Zebedee also, and the root of all conflict?

Can homilies address the threat to young people of online bullying?

Why should we not see the disgracing of the Irish church – at the hands of a secularising media – as deliverance in disguise – especially from the mistake of supposing that when the church was itself the great social arbiter of honour and shame it was where Our Father wanted us to be? Was it not to protect its social eminence, its ‘reputation’, that the clerical institution failed to be truly Christian in its protection of Catholic children?

Has not their own ‘humiliation by media’ been in truth a later stage of the formation of Catholic clergy for the world of now? Is not the Creed – the shortest summary of the story of Jesus, and of Catholic belief – to be celebrated and re-affirmed now, in the face of a secularism that direly needs it?

Certainly there must be many Irish teenagers ready for saving from the mistake of believing their dignity is decided by the Internet – so intensely controlled merely by ‘the market’. Who is now ready for the rescuing? Is that not a calling for all of us?

Sean O’Conaill

[This article was revised on January 14th 2023, in light of reinforcing research data on the negative influence of social media on the mental health of young people.]

Views: 217

How White Men Lost the Meaning of Redemption

For the earliest Christians, Jesus’s Resurrection had set them free from the worst kind of fear – that the judgement of Rome was God’s judgement also. Without an army, Jesus had defeated the world’s greatest power, simply by speaking the truth. The still living Jesus, their brother and Lord,  was now judge of the living as well as the dead. In their own minds and hearts, whatever others might think, they were beloved children of the only God who mattered.

If Crucifixion could not disgrace or kill Jesus it could not disgrace or kill those who believed that Jesus was indeed the way, the truth and the life.

And so St Paul could write :  Now this Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Cor 3: 17)

This was why Jesus was also called ‘Redeemer‘ – liberator – because his forgiveness, experienced before Baptism, had also liberated his earliest followers from the fear that eternal death would follow not only from the mistakes of their own earlier lives but from crucifixion

To redeem‘ was literally to buy the freedom of a Roman slave, so those earliest Christians were truly free in the most important sense.  The greatest power that Rome had – the power to both kill and shame by crucifixion – had been set at nought by Jesus.

That cruel Roman world was passing away.

Two thousand years later a Christian descendant of African slaves in the USA was to write as follows:

“The cross stands at the centre of the Christian faith of African-Americans because Jesus’ suffering was similar to their American experience. Just as Jesus Christ was crucified, so were blacks lynched. In the American experience, the cross is the lynching tree.”
(James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree,  Orbis Books, 2013)

James Cone was describing the belief that had led Martin Luther King to give his own life for the cause of African American civil equality in the USA, the Civil Rights campaign of 1956-68.

The same belief – that God and history are always on the side of the enslaved and the abused – the rejected ones – continues to make history today.

The paradox is that James Cone’s own ancestors had been enslaved by white Europeans who also thought themselves Christians. Those white Europeans had instead used the Bible to justify their own greed and brutality.

The white American landowners to whom they had sold their slaves had given the same Bible to those slaves in the hope that it would teach them obedience.  They had no expectation that something utterly different would happen:

Those slaves now saw in the story of the Israelites in Egypt their own story – and in the crucifixion they saw the lynchings that became all too frequent after the US Civil War defeat of the slave-holding southern states, in the period 1865-1945.

How had it happened that white European slavers – and even kings and popes – had forgotten what St Paul had also written about the Kingdom of God called into being by Jesus long ago: “There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female — for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3: 28)

The answer lies in an event that happened just three centuries after Jesus’s time on earth: the decision of the Roman Emperor Constantine to claim in 312 CE that the God of Jesus had helped him win power over his rivals, and would help him to further victories if he marched under a Christian symbol of that time – known as the Chi Rho.

The Chi Rho – early Christian symbol formed by placing the first two letters of the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos) on top of one another. It was adapted to become the battle standard of the armies of the Roman Emperor Constantine 312-337 CE

Not all Christians were convinced of the truth of Constantine’s claim – for it was also known that Constantine had earlier claimed the support of the pagan God Apollo.  However, a majority of the Christian bishops decided that the sufferings of Christians under periodic Roman persecution had finally been rewarded, and did not contest this claim.  By the end of that century, 400 CE, Christianity had replaced belief in the ancient Roman and Greek Gods as the official religion of the Roman empire.

This had a profound impact on European Christianity from then on, in three main ways:

  • First, as the Christian church was now under the protection of a military Roman upper class, it came itself to be organised in the same way – with Christian clergy organised also as an officer class and social hierarchy throughout western Europe.
  • Second, the social importance of Baptism lessened greatly.  Originally received by adults converted by the ‘Good News’ of Jesus life, death and resurrection, Baptism became gradually a sacrament received in infancy in Christian families.  This strongly contrasted with the rising social prestige of the adult sacrament of ordination – the gateway ‘rite of passage’ to the Christian clergy, the church’s own officer ranks.
  • This in turn meant that ‘Redemption’ for most European Christians no longer meant freedom in the present from fear of the judgement of others, but merely a promise of eternal life after death – if one was obedient to the Christian clergy who now formed society’s moral and intellectual elite. 

This was Christendom – an era that began in the 300s CE and lasted, as a semi-Christian society, until 1914 CE.  Its downfall came when five ‘great’ European imperial powers fought World War I, the most absurd and costly war in history – the Great War of 1914-18 – all claiming that the God of Jesus would help them to victory.

This disaster – its effects still ongoing – has greatly weakened those Christian churches that had supported those imperial powers. It has led many Christians in all traditions to recall that Jesus began his ministry by resisting the temptation to seek any form of political or ecclesiastical power, and that he died holding to that same course. Christendom was obviously not the Kingdom of God, and this is slowly being understood.

James Cone’s statement quoted above helps us greatly both to pinpoint the greatest mistake of European Christian churches in the past and to chart the future.

At the highest level of the church today it is also understood that the importance of Baptism took a negative turn following the Constantinian conversion in the 300s CE:

” Theology and the value of pastoral care in the family seen  as domestic Church took a negative turn in the fourth century, when the sacralization of priests and bishops took place, to the detriment of the common priesthood of baptism, which was beginning to lose its value. The more the institutionalization of the Church advanced, the more the nature and charism of the family as a domestic Church diminished.” (Secretary General to the Vatican Synod of Bishops, Bishop Mario Grech, Civilta Cattolica, 16th October 2020.)

And that is why defending the importance of Baptism and raising its status in the church needs to be a priority for all Irish Catholics today – especially because of the continuing power of clericalism – a mistaken exaggeration of the importance of ordination.  Clericalism pays only lip service to Baptism.  In particular, Irish clericalism still denies the baptised people of God the ordinary necessity of frequent dialogue. This in turn means that clergy are too often unable to help lay people to develop a mature Christian faith that is free of the need of clerical approval and oversight.

Yet, in 2020, as Catholic clerical morale reaches its lowest ever ebb in Ireland, many Irish Catholic lay people are discovering that the Holy Spirit, the counsellor promised by Jesus, is always at their elbow, reminding them that with the fullest understanding of the Apostles Creed comes a freedom greater than they have ever known. It does not matter that due to its mistaken alignment with wealth and power in the past, Catholicism is written off by today’s fashionable opinion-makers.

Those same opinion-makers existed in Jesus’s time – he called them ‘the world’. Knowing that world was passing away he left to all Christians a far greater faith in the living presence of the Holy Spirit and in the better world to come.

In the end all human judgement and social and spiritual pretence is set at nought by the Cross. It is our pride, our mistaken pursuit of superiority, that leads to snobbery, inequality, clericalism and injustice in all eras.

Prayer – especially reflective prayer on the Apostles Creed – will remind us that it is the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are the true Lords of Time.  As ever we are all equally and infinitely loved, and need to believe this firmly to become a true Christian community – and heralds of the world to come.

[This article was published first at:  https://acireland.ie ]

Views: 348

The Mass: a ‘Holy Sacrifice’?

Josefa de Ayala, The Sacrificial Lamb (c. 1670-1684)

Must Catholics believe that God is violent? Taught that the Mass is a ‘Holy Sacrifice’ must we therefore believe that ‘the Father’ required a violent sacrifice to still his anger, and that this is the central message of the Eucharist?

Never having heard an Irish Catholic cleric squarely address such questions, and therefore inferring more than a little uncertainty, I (and others in Ireland) have followed with fascination the key ideas of the late American-French anthropologist René Girard and his collaborators. (These can be traced from the website of the Girardian Colloquium on Violence and Religion.)

René Girard 1923-2015

Girard argues that the historical origins of all religion lie in an attempt to minimise social violence by focussing it upon a single victim. He argues also that the Judeo-Christian scriptures point to a unique critique of this religious violence – and especially of the ancient practice of blood sacrifice. His work has therefore been exploited by some theologians to deny that the death of Jesus, or the Mass, can safely be understood as a sacrifice.

However, Girard himself famously changed his mind on this very issue. Influenced especially by the Austrian theologian, Raymund Schwager, Girard concluded in his mature work that the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ is itself undergoing a shift in the course of the Judeo-Christian texts. The ‘precious gift to God’ aspect of sacrifice had always accompanied the ‘killing’ aspect (for example in Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac). This story shows how this ‘gift’ aspect gradually becomes predominant – in the end supplanting, in Jesus self-giving, the element of priestly killing. In offering himself, Jesus united the always previously separate roles of priest and victim – defining a sacrifice that resists all projection of the consequences of sin onto someone else. This leaves open an interpretation of ‘Christian’ sacrifice as directly oppositional to violence, and as ‘self-emptying’ or ‘self-giving’ – utterly uncompromised by any suffering inflicted upon a third party.

In the latest issue of the Girardian journal Contagion, Anthony R. Lusvardi S.J. argues that theologians who use Girardian anthropology to reject any concept of the Mass as ‘Holy Sacrifice’ are therefore mistaken. Lusvardi tracks this scholarly debate with detailed footnotes and makes the case for regarding the Mass as a divinely inspired act of worship that makes present “that central moment in human history when seemingly endless cycles of violence and falsity are brought to a halt by the limitless self-offering of God” (‘Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”: Mimetic Theory and Eucharistic Theology’, Contagion Vol. 24, 2017 ).

For me this article strengthens a conclusion that it is unnecessary to oppose an understanding of the Mass as ‘holy sacrifice’ on the one hand, to its character as celebratory ‘communal meal’ on the other. If Christian sacrifice is self-giving, the ‘communal meal’ implication also follows logically from that understanding. In this understanding to ‘sacrifice’ is ‘to give completely of oneself’ – a meaning wholly compatible with contemporary understandings of ‘goodness’ and ‘heroism’.  It is the ‘Offering’, the self-giving ritual in which we all can join, that makes possible the communal meal, and no violence is implied by the Christians who practise this sacrifice – even if blood is nevertheless shed by others who misunderstand. The ‘bloodiness’ of Jesus crucifixion was solely due to the human sin that impelled his persecutors, in defiance of God – not to divine need, wish or intent. For Girard, the Calvary event starkly revealed the archetypal practice of scapegoating or ‘lynching’ – the unjust blaming of any individual for any social crisis to save the community. The Cross therefore lies at the root of the principle of ‘human rights’ – in opposition to all scapegoating.

Far from requiring our assent to his ‘divine violence’, the Father can therefore be understood as true to Jesus’ teaching that ‘the Father and I are one’ – in the rejection of violence, as in all other matters. The Mass is a ‘holy sacrifice’ because non-violent self-giving is central to the divine nature – and to heroic human potential also, when aided by grace. It is to that self-offering that all of us are called.

Clerical reticence on ‘divine violence’ and ‘sacrifice’ surely began with the fourth century acquiescence by Christian bishops in Constantine’s assertion that his violent acquisition of imperial power had been sanctioned and assisted by the Christian God. That acquiescence lies also at the foundations of Christendom – the long and often horrifically scandalous imbroglio of church and state that lasted into the twentieth century. Girard’s insights, and those of theologians who continue to be stimulated by Girardian theory, allow for a re-evaluation of all that, without in any way compromising the Creeds. Pacific self-offering was never utterly absent under Christendom, proving the subliminal counteraction of the Cross to all violence.

The secular Enlightenment was partially motivated by a revulsion at the semi-religious wars that followed the Reformations of the 1500s, but is still lacking a convincing explanation of human violence. On the other hand, Girard’s insight into the origins of our own aggressive desire in the desire of someone else – vindicating the thrice-repeated biblical ban on ‘coveting’ – is as copiously illustrated in the daily news as it is in the TV epic Game of Thrones.

Meanwhile Christian fundamentalism continues to scapegoat the Father for the crucifixion, and to cloud our thinking on Christian sacrifice. This can be regarded as a time-limited hangover of Christendom. Anthony Lusvardi’s article well illustrates how Girardian anthropology, and the theology it inspires, give us a far better pair of glasses.

(Anthony Lusvardi’s article is available for download from the website of the Association of Catholics in Ireland, by clicking the title below.)
Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”

Views: 236

New Light on the Problem of Atonement

In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus asked, in terror and anguish: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:39)

As we know, the cup was not taken from him. Jesus then suffered arrest, isolation, humiliation and an excruciating death. Are we then to blame Abba, our Father too, for the crucifixion? Did he ‘make Jesus die in reparation for our sins’ as people sometimes say?

This question – the problem of atonement – is possibly the most difficult in all theology. Even Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Church’s top theological official in 1997, asked “Why does God reign from the Cross?” Dean Andrew Furlong of the Church of Ireland admitted in 2002 that he could not accept any of the classical theories of atonement – one of his reasons for rejecting Jesus’ divinity.

Atonement means simply ‘at-one-ment’: the coming together, or reconciliation, of ourselves and God. So the problem of atonement is to understand how Jesus’s passion and death bring us humans and God together.  It is also the problem of understanding what could be called the necessity of the cross.

The earliest theory of atonement, the one probably held by all the apostles, was that in some sense we humans had been enslaved by Satan, and that Jesus’ death had somehow purchased our liberty. However, in the Middle Ages theologians came to doubt that any debt to Satan could have warranted such a high price. One of them, St Anselm, proposed another theory, the satisfaction theory.

To understand this we need to remember that in the middle ages people were very unequal in dignity or ‘worth’. The king at the summit of the social pyramid was held to be far more ‘worthy’ than the barons and knights, who were in turn far more worthy than the farmers and peasants or serfs. So, for a serf to steal from a king was a far more serious matter than for a serf to steal from another serf. In order to make good the injury to the king the serf would have to pay a far higher penalty, so that the debt to him would be satisfied.

St Anselm pointed out that God is at the summit of the heavenly pyramid, so that every sin we commit is an extremely severe offence to Him. He taught that no matter how much we may suffer for our sins, we are incapable of paying the full price of making good the injury, as we are so much less worthy than God. So Jesus died to make up the difference – because his life was worth so much more to the Father. In that way humanity’s debt to God was satisfied.

Although other theologians have argued against this, in the absence of anything more persuasive it became a standard explanation for the crucifixion. In the highly rated Alpha programme devised for evangelisation in our own time by the Anglican Church, a very similar explanation – the substitution theory – is used. Nicky Gumbel tells the story of two friends separated for many years who meet one another eventually in court. One is the defendant who has committed a crime for which a heavy fine has to be paid – so heavy that he cannot pay it. The other is the judge, who must find him guilty according to the law. The judge does so – but then descends from his high bench and pays the fine, as a friend. Justice is served – but the guilty man has been ‘redeemed’ from the full price of his crime, which would have been imprisonment.1Since this article was written the Alpha programme has changed this particular story in video 3 – with Nicky Gumbel now referencing instead the story of Fr Maximilian Kolbe – who took the place of another prisoner sentenced to death in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941. Alpha’s emphasis upon God’s unfailing love for everyone counteracts any mistaken inference that it is God the Father who was responsible for Fr Kolbe’s death, so the video is an opportunity to discuss the fascinating history of the theology of atonement.

That story is in the end unsatisfactory. The problem is that if we see God as all powerful, we see him also as in a position simply to cancel the debt – something the judge in Gumbel’s story obviously could not do. The ordinary person finds it very difficult to square God’s infinite justice with God’s infinite mercy – but tends to believe that an infinite God could manage to do so – sparing his own son.

The Gospels seem to support this difficulty. In explaining the ‘Kingdom of God’ Jesus tells the story of a king who cancels the debt of a servant, as an example of the forgiveness we should ourselves show one another (Matt 18: 23-35). The story of the father who welcomes back the erring prodigal son, without conditions, teaches the same lesson (Luke 15:11-32) – God does not hold back on his forgiveness. And it was especially for his habit of forgiveness that Jesus was accused. Since He taught us that when we see Him we also see the Father, we expect that Father to be as forgiving as he was.

Maybe we are right to be dissatisfied with the satisfaction theory. There is another possible explanation for the crucifixion: that the Father and the Son both suffer for our sake: to release us from a captivity we could not otherwise escape from – the captivity of violence, the culmination of every other evil.

In the ancient world there were broadly speaking two main sources of violence. One was warfare, brought about by the mimetic desire and ambition of warrior kings. The greatest of these was Alexander, King of Macedon, who built an empire reaching from Greece to the Himalayas and Egypt. His victories were unprecedented in the ancient world, and made him in the eyes of many, a God. We can see this as the fulfilment of the temptation offered in the Garden of Eden – ‘thou shalt be as Gods’. Julius Caesar set out to emulate Alexander in the century before Christ – and became indeed the founding God of the very empire into which Jesus was born.

In the temptation in the desert, Jesus is offered an even greater empire, ‘the kingdoms of the world’, by Satan (Matt 4: 8-10) – but resists this temptation. He will not be a warrior king, like Alexander, Caesar, or even David – Israel’s greatest military hero. This must mean that he will be vulnerable to those whose power is based upon violence: the Roman government in Palestine.

The second kind of violence in the ancient world was internal: the practice of scapegoating violence – the murder or expulsion of vulnerable individuals as a means of defusing internal conflict.

To understand this we must simply grasp that the ancient world did not have advanced policing and judicial systems, like modern societies. This meant that a blow struck by one member of one tribe or family against another was liable to be reciprocated – and then to escalate uncontrollably. We are an intensely mimetic species – i.e. we often unconsciously mimic one another’s behaviour. Where there was no restraint upon this by a developed policing and court system, such mimetic violence – fuelled by the usual resentments that develop out of human competition, jealousy and rivalry – could escalate out of control.

What happened then is well illustrated by the story of the woman ‘taken in adultery’ in St John’s Gospel – the woman brought into the presence of Jesus in the Temple Court. This woman would – in the normal course of events – be stoned to death by all who wished to participate. The selection of a vulnerable individual, shamed so that no-one would take her part, allowed all to defuse their anger in such a way that there could be no retaliation. In this way, one person could literally be made to pay the price for the aggression – i.e. the sins – of all. And a peace – temporary of course – would then fall. We should see this isolation, humiliation and intended murder of the woman ‘taken in adultery’ as a rehearsal for the very similar process soon to be mounted against Jesus himself.

In the accusation and crucifixion of Jesus, both forms of violence come together – the violence born of internal rivalries, and the violence born of political ambition. Caiaphas insists that the death of this one man will ‘save the nation’ i.e. defuse an internal Jewish crisis threatening to undermine his own power. It will thus also prevent another Roman assault upon the Jewish people to restore order. The semi-riot he then foments persuades Pilate, the Roman governor, that Rome’s control is also at stake.

At Gethsemane, Peter offers the standard riposte to violence – more violence. But a violent God can set only the same violent example as Caesar and Alexander, and the name of Jesus must stand far above theirs. His kingdom can only be built on forgiveness – and so the cup that he dreads cannot pass him by. The Father gives him the strength to stand alone – for the sake of en entirely different kind of kingdom – one for which no blow may be struck – either to win, or to retain, power. And one that will never sacrifice individuals for the sake of its own survival.

Thus, the crucifixion brings humankind and God together – because it is God who first moves towards us. But we also then move towards him, because Jesus is human, and can therefore be imitated in his spirit of self-sacrifice – for example, by Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz. To sacrifice oneself for another is the very opposite of sacrificing someone else for oneself. Following Jesus, we move towards the Father.

The early understanding of atonement: that it broke the power of Satan – can easily be reconciled with this – because the power of Satan does indeed culminate in violence – the violence of ambition, and the violence of victimisation. And the crucifixion did indeed break this power.

Not immediately, of course. Traumatised by the persecutions of early Christians by Rome, the bishops of the Church made an unfortunate pact with another military adventurer in the fourth century – the Emperor Constantine. This was the beginning of the process by which the Church became itself a privileged and powerful – and victimising – institution in the medieval period. This was why St Anselm could not see the crucifixion as a protest against all violence – for Constantine too was supposedly the benefactor of the Church. Modernity has stripped away that power – as Pope John Paul I recognised with gladness. It is time the inadequate medieval theory of atonement – which argues, foolishly, that Abba is too proud to bend – was put to rest as well.

Today, as we try to build a new Ireland upon the principle of forgiveness, not violence, we should see Jesus of Nazareth, and his Father – and the Holy Spirit that unites them – as the real founders of that ideal kingdom. And with him all those who were also innocent victims of political ambition. We too need to atone – to be spiritually, if not politically, ‘at one’ – in grief for all those we have lost.

And all others can move towards God through Christ – all those driven by social and political humiliation to addiction, criminality and violence. In the kingdom of God no one is to be humiliated or left out in order to secure the peace of all the rest.

There is another important reason for welcoming the insights of René Girard for the light they throw on the problem of atonement.  The competing mimetic desire or covetousness that lies at the root of all violence is also the root of human over-consumption – the most important cause of Earth’s growing environmental crisis.  Awareness of this is also in the gift of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion.  This strongly supports Richard Rohr’s conclusion that Jesus’ life, teaching and death all tend towards changing our minds about God, rather than changing God’s mind about us – and towards warding off all of the dangers that gather around the future of humankind.

See also ‘Why did Jesus of Nazareth accept crucifixion?’

~

For an excellent overview of Girard’s understanding of the relationship between religion and violence, I recommend René Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver, MSU 2013.  

Sean O’Conaill – May 2015

Views: 171

‘Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs’

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life March 2004

Church-of-Ireland Canon Hilary Wakeman – recently retired from parish ministry in Co Cork – is chiefly concerned in this work1Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs, Canon Hilary Wakeman, Liffey Press, Dublin, 2003 to stem the decline of what she calls ‘moderate Christianity’ – especially here in Ireland. By ‘moderate’ she means non-fundamentalist – and she ascribes this decline largely to “the unwillingness of all the churches, in all countries but perhaps especially now in Ireland, to look honestly and openly into what we say we believe”.

Opening with the familiar tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, she soon makes it clear that she shares the embarrassment of Episcopal bishop J.S. Spong at having to utter the Nicene creed as part of a religious service, as though it was in all respects literally true.

“Sunday by Sunday, countless Christians, reciting the Creeds in church, have the experience of metaphorically crossing their fingers behind their backs when they say some particular set of words. This brings a sense of dishonesty, of integrity apparently having to be set aside for the greater good.”

Canon Wakeman soon makes clear which creedal doctrines she sees as causing this finger-crossing: the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. She points out that surveys of belief increasingly find that many Church of England clergymen don’t actually believe these doctrines – less than half in the case of the virgin birth. (Unfortunately she provides no supporting data on the finger-crossing, so ‘countless’ it remains.)

At this point Canon Wakeman reaches for the now-familiar theory that the left and right halves of the human brain have different functions: the left is ‘analytical’, the right ‘intuitive’, and so on. She offers the possibility that religion belongs properly to the intuitive side, while doctrine tends to be a left-brain analytical and organisational matter. In the Creeds, she fears, “Christians are being asked to state that poetic-paradox statements about God are literally true”.

At this point, I must confess, alarm bells were insistently ringing for me. Are the categories ‘poetic’ and ‘literal’ (or ‘factual’) necessarily mutually exclusive? What would happen to the poetry of the Creeds, or of the Gospels for that matter, if we were to insist that they were merely poetic (i.e. fictive), and not, or not necessarily, substantially true in a historical sense. And if Christianity belongs wholly in the realm of the intuitive and fictive, who will then find it compelling as a source of meaning? Certainly the Gospels and the creeds have poetic resonance, but their endurance to this late date has surely had to do essentially with their claim to a substantive historical and factual foundation – an actual intervention by a transcendant reality into human history.

Would Canon Wakeman attempt to discern the actual as distinct from the poetic truth about such an intervention? Disappointingly for me, she ends this chapter on doctrine by proposing that Richard Dawkins’s objections to the Catholic doctrine of the Assumption are valid on the grounds that this elevation of a material body into a heaven is comprehensible only within the ‘flat-earth’ vertically ordered universe of the early first millennium.

This, for me, is an unfortunate descent into Spongian rhetoric. It is also strangely dated scientifically, stuck somewhere before 1900 C.E. – as though ‘hard’ matter had not been discovered in the last century to be mostly empty space, to consist otherwise largely of vast quantities of energy, and to be gravitationally compressible to the point of its own disappearance. Given also the theoretical possibility of multiple invisible further dimensions within what we perceive as empty four-dimensional space, just how much ‘commonsense’ certitude can there be these days on the actual nature of ‘space’ and ‘bodies’?

The fact is, surely, that the most advanced physics today has destroyed the ‘commonsense’ Newtonian universe that underpins atheistic certitude, and is as inscrutable on the precise nature of physical reality as theology ever was on the subject of heaven. I strongly wish the progressive school would progress to the point of acknowledging this. If we are to update the Creeds (an exercise not attempted in this book), we must do it properly and not leave ourselves with something that would have been spanking new and acceptable to, say, Charles Darwin.

Furthermore, for theologians, heaven has almost always had more to do with a relationship of unity with God than with questions of ‘where?’ or ‘how?’ Is there for Canon Wakeman, I wondered at this point, truly a God to relate to?

Again unfortunately, her chapter on ‘How we experience God’ is centred once more on the assertion that we experience God with the ‘right’ brain, whereas doctrine is a ‘left’ brain activity. This is ultimately inadequate, as it seems again to fudge the issue of truth. Can we really deal with people who ask “Is there truly a God?” by saying something like:

“Well, the right side of my brain – the poetic side – says ‘yes’, while the left side, the analytical side, is far less sure of it.”?

If we do we should be well prepared for the next obvious question: “But isn’t the right side of your brain the bit that makes things up?” Where, I wonder, would the Canon go from there?

On the grounds of their poetic resonance she is willing to accept doctrines such as the divinity of Christ, the Fall and the Resurrection as ‘basically life affirming’ but, she insists, the concept of atonement “(that Jesus died to placate an angry God) seems to have no salvageable aspect”.

If that particular theory of atonement is the only acceptable one within the Anglican communion I shudder at such authoritarian rigidity. Especially because the earliest understanding of atonement centred upon the idea of release (or redemption) not from a debt owed to God, but from the power of evil, personified as Satan. Canon Wakeman is here identifying a travesty of Anselm’s feudal satisfaction theory of atonement with the Creeds – a clear anachronism.

The point is important, because Canon Wakeman has begun by arguing that a twenty-first mind cannot truly accept a first- or even fourth-century worldview. Given Rene Girard’s anthropological analysis of the Gospel text as an exposure of the process of scapegoating violence in the ancient world – a process still ongoing in phenomena as diverse as the war on terrorism and schoolyard bullying – the first century understanding of atonement may well in fact be bang up-to-date.

Catholic demythologisers might note at this point that this must score as a plus for the Catholic catechism, which is non-definitive on theories of atonement. It does not insist that God demanded satisfaction (or substitution for that matter) – merely that Christ’s suffering and death has forever reconciled us with God2But see Article 615 of the 1994 Catechism: 615 “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”. Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.. Atonement is simply at-one-ment – final reconciliation. The doctrine in itself is not definitive on how Jesus reconciles. For me – poetically and factually – God moves towards us – and reveals himself through -Jesus – in the way that the father of the prodigal son ran to meet him on his return. (And of course I can say so while acknowledging that to speak of God as merely male is inadequate.)

In a chapter on ‘Some Basic Christian Doctrines – and New Ways to Express Them’ Canon Wakeman comes closest to defining her positions on revelation, the nature of God, and the sonship, resurrection and divinity of Jesus. She dwells sensibly upon the ineffability of God, but her account of the concept of revelation seems woefully inadequate, leaving out as it does the centrality of Jesus to the concept – the belief that it is through the revelatory Jesus above all that we come to know the ineffable God.

This is important, because the statement ‘Jesus is God’ needs to be understood as a statement that speaks as much about God as about Jesus – an assertion that we come to understand the goodness, intentions and wisdom of God uniquely and indispensably through him.

And this in turn means that the statement ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ could never have been fully understood in a simplistic biological sense – as though anyone ever thought he already knew who and what God is and how exactly he could become a biological parent. The doctrines of the sonship and divinity of Jesus are best understood as expressing a belief in the unique filiation of Jesus – the belief that his filial relationship to, understanding of, and fidelity to the being he himself called ‘Abba’, was of an order way beyond the sonship of, for example, David – so far beyond it that Jesus became for Christians the definitive, sufficient and indispensable authority on who God is and what he expects of us. Literal biological sons (e.g. Absalom) were not uniformly faithful to their parents, so that to say of Jesus that he was the ‘literal’ son of God would not pay him a unique compliment. ‘Light from Light, True God from True God’ on the other hand suggests true fidelity to and identity with the spiritual essence and benevolent purpose of God. This is a far higher claim that does not insist upon a ‘literal’ interpretation of ‘sonship’ (whatever ‘literal’ might mean in this context).

Canon Wakeman would probably object that the doctrine of the virgin birth is surely insisting upon some kind of biological sonship. As biology was an unknown science in the fourth century it could be argued equally that it is no more than an attempt to explain and justify the exaltation of Jesus to the pinnacle of the revelatory process – to explain how he could have become what he was, so entirely unaffected by, yet opposed to, the evil he confronted.

Canon Wakeman rejects even the use of the word ‘unique’ in reference to Jesus, and prefers this formula: ‘In Jesus there was so much of God that those who came in contact with him could not see where Jesus stopped and God began.’

I must confess that I find this embarrassingly twee – a sentimental reduction that is not only condescending but completely incapable of explaining the commitment-unto-death of so many of those who followed Jesus – precisely because they believed in his revelatory uniqueness.

It’s clear soon enough what consequences flow from such negativity. To begin with, although Jesus’s crucifixion was the result of an ‘archetypal’ confrontation between good and evil, the concept of Jesus ‘dying for our sins’ can only be understood through the unacceptable Anselmian lens, and must go. With it goes, of course, any notion of an historical centrality for the Gospel story.

Was ‘Abba’ a right-brain mytho-poetic (i.e. fictive) construct of Jesus? If so, did Jesus confront bogus religion and endure crucifixion essentially because he had a dangerous habit of talking to himself? Canon Wakeman does not address such questions – but they go to the heart of the larger question of whether Christianity is worth saving

And inevitably, Jesus’s bodily resurrection must go the way of ‘literal’ sonship. The intense sense of loss that was felt by the closest followers of Jesus, and their recollections of his life and teachings, led to a conviction that he was in some sense still present, and must therefore have survived death. It was the surviving Christian community that created the right-brain myth of the bodily resurrection. The possibility, strongly argued by the NT texts themselves, that it was on the contrary the unexpected eventuality of some kind of actual tangible resurrection that restored the already dispirited and fragmenting Christian community, is not one that Canon Wakeman can entertain.

A few historian’s questions surfaced in my mind at this point. If this was all there ever was to Jesus, why did his followers soon go to the suicidal lengths of making of this rejected one the cornerstone of more than one separated and excoriated community within, and then outside, Judaism? Was Stephen’s self-sacrificing testament merely another (right-) brainstorm? And why did Paul take the equally dangerous and inexplicable course of substituting belief in a liberating Jesus for rigid adherence to the minutiae of the Jewish law as expounded by the religious elites of his time – the belief system for which he had earlier been willing to kill Christians on the grounds of the threat they posed to it? Why were they such a threat?

These questions are important, I believe, because they relate to the origins of the historical phenomenon of global Christianity that lasted the two millennia needed to justify any discussion today on the meaning of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. If you reduce Jesus to the status of another prophet – even a supreme prophet (and Canon Wakeman shies away even the use of the word ‘unique’ to describe him) – you are faced with the problem of explaining the emergence of Christianity from Judaism as a quite separate belief system that was willing to endure the most frightful persecution that followed. No amount of right-brain poetry can fully explain the often horrendously risky dynamism of the early church.

What other consequences flow from progressive reductionism, in Canon Wakeman’s view? Can we still celebrate Christmas and Easter, for example? Yes, we are assured – the celebration of light piercing the darkness and the victory of life over death is beneficial – and the soul does indeed need the periodic renewal that Lent can provide. The Bible can be read for its nourishment of the right brain – but the idea of divine inspiration is liable to nourish fundamentalism and so should be discarded. Lectio divina, however, is encouraged.

As for the future, Canon Wakeman sees little hope for ‘moderate’ orthodoxy, which is slowly ‘dying out’. The future lies either with reaction (going backward and tightening up) – the road taken by fundamentalism – or progressivism (going forward and loosening up) in the style of her book. The preservation of an ‘exclusive’ core of doctrine is a futile exercise. The future of ministered sacraments is tied to the problematic future of ministry itself, and we should encourage one another to see the beauty of the natural world as ‘sacramental’.

Was Jesus even archetypally sacramental? As Canon Wakeman quotes Schillebeeckz and admits that Jesus was at least an archetype of some kind, one might expect that she would explore this possibility at least. Unfortunately she doesn’t – leaving me with essentially the same disappointment that I had with J.S. Spong’s ‘Why Christianity Must Change or Die’. If Christianity is worth saving shouldn’t its reductionist saviours at least attempt to be inspirationally reconstructive of the primacy of the person at its centre – if only to mitigate the pain of those exposed to so much reduction? A Chapter on ‘Jesus for Our Time’ or ‘What Jesus teaches us about God’ suggests itself – but perhaps that might be the theme of a sequel to this book.

I certainly hope so. I have learned much about progressivism from this book. Unlike Spong’s, the canon’s style is never insufferably self-congratulatory. The very last thing a minister of the Gospel should be is hypocritical or dishonest – and Canon Wakeman has certainly acquitted herself on that score. She has read widely and produced a highly stimulating and provocative text that can be easily absorbed. How would her views of Jesus and God be affected by reading Girard, I wonder, supportive as his work is of orthodoxy, and of the Bible as a supremely revelatory text – and from an unexpected rationalist direction? (So far, I believe, Girard remains undiscovered territory for progressives – suggesting that it is essentially an Anglican phenomenon).

Although Canon Wakeman’s argument rests largely upon the conviction that the decline of moderate orthodoxy has to do centrally with the prevalence of finger-crossing during the creed, she provides no data that would confirm this. A survey or even a poll would surely be possible. I can only say that I see the creeds not as an insistence upon an ancient physical cosmology but as an affirmation that, in all eras, there is, factually, a transcendant moral cosmos to which we also belong, and from which we can draw inspiration and strength – especially through the one whose belief in it was both absolute and fatal to himself. I neither cross my fingers nor switch off my left brain when I say them.

Central to the phenomenon of progressivism so far, it seems to me, is an unnecessary intellectual embarrassment – an overwhelming desire to dissociate oneself from the fundamentalists and ‘creationists’ who have rejected so much of modern science. It originates, I suspect, at academic dinners when, reaching for the salt, the Christian theologian is assailed with a smirking “Not another Saviour, I hope?” from the eminent evolutionary biologist in the next seat. The need to make one’s own faith unembarrassing in such company is necessarily acute – and an unremitting reductionism is obviously one way to go.

But what of the intellectual hubris such a sally implies – that our own era has not only answered every important question but saved everyone in need of saving – as the archetypal anti-Christian programme, the Enlightenment of the 1700s, expressly promised? It often implies also that what is positive in modern secularism owes nothing to orthodox Christianity – as though values such as liberty, equality and fraternity originated fully formed in the mind of the late 1700s, had no earlier provenance, and have by now anywhere been fully achieved. There is so much ignorance and insouciance in such a worldview that it surely requires challenge rather than encouragement.

Era-chauvinism is as close as I can get to a name for the phenomenon – the Panglossian view that of all past and possible eras this one is by far the wisest – and especially because we are so knowledgeable, and first century folk were so superstitious.

Of course it is essential to detach Christianity from bigotry and obscurantism, but the surgery required to do this must not pierce the heart that keeps Christianity alive: the belief that, independent of both sides of our brain, there truly exists a spiritual entity that intends our good, knows and understands us intimately, and wishes to release us from cyclical self-harm.

This book has not convinced me that ‘progressive Christian’ surgery has left Christianity with a heart that can still beat. One simply cannot save Christianity by implying (without quite saying) that Jesus’s faith in Abba was no more than a right-brain poetic fancy. The death of what this kind of progressivism proposes to save would surely be too high a price to pay for the approval of an intellectual elite that is often every bit as arrogant and insouciant as the one Paul found in the Athens of his day. And, let’s face it, nothing less than the final death of the Christian tradition will fully satisfy that self-satisfied coterie anyway.

Notes

  1. Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs, Canon Hilary Wakeman, Liffey Press, Dublin, 2003

Views: 7