Have we shrunk the mystery of atonement into words?
“Given the difficulties surrounding commonly-held atonement theories, then, perhaps we should quietly shove the whole thing under the carpet and focus on nicer aspects of our faith? I believe we need to lift up that carpet…Perhaps we may discover a few dusty lumps, long pushed out of sight by all but dusty theologians, which, when polished, show gleams of gold,” says The Ven. Dr Anne van Gend
Deep at the heart of Christianity are mysteries: mysteries of love and death and time and space and worlds beyond our imaginings. Deep in the heart of many faithful believers has always been the conviction that the mysteries of God are beyond words, “unspeakable”.
If God is God and therefore infinite, how could the mysteries of God ever be contained in finite words, creeds and doctrines? It can only be done by shrinking them to a manageable, and therefore inadequate, size. The appropriate response, some say, should be awe and silence.
This – one of the great dilemmas of religious thought – could be a rather discouraging introduction to a discussion on atonement. After all, discussions tend to involve a lot of words. Yet we shouldn’t be too worried.
On one hand, yes, if we’re going to delve into something as mysterious as atonement, we do need to remind ourselves of the limitations of human words and human minds. Most of us are not mystics, and we are far more likely to fall into the trap of believing our particular expression of a Christian belief is the ultimate, complete Truth, than to fall silent before the inexpressibility of it all.
On the other hand, Jesus and his followers seemed content to use words to get their ideas across. His followers were even happy to commit these words to a written form – fortunately for us 2,000 years later. Maybe words are clumsy and inadequate tools when it comes to expressing great mysteries, but with such an example before us we should be encouraged to do what we can with them.
Why atonement? Mainly because it is the heart of our Good News. “Atonement” is about what Jesus did – what he achieved through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension. Unless what he did was something remarkable, life-changing, world-changing, we have Fairly Feeble News, or One Inspiring Message Among Many.
Some are able to build their lives on this sort of foundation, but as our connectivity and education increase with the Internet and we expect abundant choice in all aspects of our lives, such ideas may be passed over, as they would the next inspirational Twitter meme.
Whatever has drawn centuries of Christians to lives of love and sacrifice, it was more than that. Whatever has given centuries of Christians hope and purpose through happiness and extreme suffering, it was more than that. Whatever transformed the first bewildered, then terrified, followers of Jesus into people with no fear of death, it was not Fairly Feeble News.
And yet, in many parts of the Church today, we often avoid talking about it. Atonement is a good example of a mystery that has suffered from being “shrunk” into words – or at least, into the style of words we have chosen in recent centuries. Things we know instinctively when we talk of, say, the mystery of love, are, for some reason, overlooked when it comes to atonement.
We know love is best expressed through stories, poetry, music and art. Yet we have insisted that atonement be understood as a logical, even legal, process. With love, we welcome a new story or poem that which allows us to glimpse another facet of the great mystery. Yet Christian history is littered with debates and arguments and wars over loyalty to one expression of atonement over another.
This has led to a certain reluctance on the part of many Christians to refer to atonement at all, except in very hazy terms. Not only do we want to avoid yet another painful debate that highlights our differences, but discomfort with the most common expressions of atonement may give rise to a disquieting, if unexpressed, question: is atonement still good news? This question can apply to descriptions of how atonement “works” from either end of the theological spectrum.
Are stories laced with ideas of judgement, punishment, sin and a father killing his son, still received as “good news” in our secular world? Or is holding up Jesus as one among many long-since-dead moral examples for us to follow inspiring enough that our young people would dedicate their lives to following him on his demanding path?
My work in recent years has been with school chaplains – people who deal on a daily basis with an audience who relentlessly demand authenticity. Unless the stories we tell “ring true” for them as genuinely good news, young people have no reason to bother with them.
Given the difficulties surrounding commonly-held atonement theories, then, perhaps we should quietly shove the whole thing under the carpet and focus on nicer aspects of our faith?
I believe we need to lift up that carpet, give it a good shake, and deal with whatever has been hidden beneath it. Perhaps we may discover a few dusty lumps, long pushed out of sight by all but dusty theologians, which, when polished, show gleams of gold.
Editor’s note: Join The Ven. Dr Anne van Gend at an atonement seminar at St Francis College on Saturday 28 May between 10am and 4pm. Register online.Jump to next article