Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What Is the Redemptive Meaning of Jesus' Death?

Jesus became a scapegoat to put an end to all scapegoating; he became a sacrifice to put an end to that whole system of offering up the innocent victim. Spiritually, socially, and psychologically humans have always needed to find some way to deal with sin and guilt. Historically, humanity has employed sacrificial systems to that end. In ancient systems of religion human sacrifices were offered to placate the deity (such as the firstborn, the virgin, the only child, etc., but never the adult man; these were mostly, if not all, patriarchal cultures). In the evolution of religious consciousness animals took the place of humans.

It doesn’t seem that our spiritual consciousness has evolved a great deal over the last several millenniums. In this past century the educationally advanced Germans made scapegoats of the Jews and consider all the horrendous scapegoating that took place in the genocides of the past several decades.

We have incorporated the scapegoat mechanism into Christianity by adopting a theory of the atonement that makes Jesus a victim of a stern, punitive divine Magistrate who requires redemptive violence. This is more or less primitive religion Christianized.

This type of infant religion is by its very nature dualistic and inevitably leads to exclusion and violence, because adherents of this type of Christianity think they have to destroy the evil element. Rarely do they see the evil in their own hearts; it is generally projected onto the other. This makes the God of Christians appear violent, vindictive, and petty.

What does Jesus do on the cross? He forgives. He bears the wrath and the hostility of the worldly powers—without lashing out, without vengeance, without returning evil for evil, without projecting fear or hate or evil back onto his persecutors and killers. Jesus exposed the folly and evil of scapegoat religion. As the quintessential “Son of Man,” the archetype of authentic humanity, he publicly exposed the great illusion of evil disguised as “holiness” by the religious gatekeepers and as “securing the peace” by the imperial powers represented by Pilot and the Roman soldiers. Jesus unmasked the true nature of egotistical religious and political power much the way the civil rights marchers who crossed the bridge in Selma, Alabama unmasked the illusion of white supremacy. (And yet consider how many Christians, especially Southern Baptists, bought into the illusion).

And still today we have deceptive versions of Christianity that permit, even encourage, Christians to buy into the illusion that might makes right. Control and manipulative power are legitimate means to an end in such systems. These versions of Christianity are primarily about spreading doctrinal beliefs and influencing the other to conform to their system, or else face God’s wrath; and in their exclusionary system, assuming themselves as the sole possessors of the truth, they have no problem being instruments of divine wrath on the other who does not conform.

In these unhealthy versions of Christianity (such as the kind reflected in the “Left Behind” novels) Jesus’ death is nothing more than a solution to some cosmic judicial problem. In these versions God requires the violent sacrifice of his Son in order to procure forgiveness. This is what evangelical philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard calls a “sin management” system that does nothing to effect real change in an individual or society.

If the life and teachings of Jesus tell us anything about the nature of God it is surely that God has no need for some cosmic, judicial retribution. If God can forgive, then God can forgive. There is no need for a divine payoff, or satisfaction of divine honor, or appeasement of divine wrath. (Ideas normally associated with the theory of substitutionary atonement).

Sin has never been a problem for God; it has been the problem for humanity, preventing us from reaching our potential, fueling greed, the lust for power, and the hoarding of wealth in an alienated and alienating ethos. Jesus did not come to change the mind or heart of God about humanity, but to change the mind and heart of humanity about God, each other, and our world.

Jesus’ death was not demanded by God; it was the logical culmination of a life that challenged the coercive, controlling powers that be with the power of an inclusive, unconditional, humble compassion. In a healthy Christianity it is not Jesus who needs to die, but our ego. We must die to our selfish ambitions, our need to be right and in control, and to all our projections of guilt, hate, and evil onto the other, whoever the other may be.

Jesus’ death becomes the means of our redemption when we follow Jesus to the cross and die there with him; when we refuse to return evil for evil and bear, with Jesus, the evil and hate of the powers that be. Jesus, through forgiveness and non-violence, offers us a way through the darkness, a way to break the cycle of hate and violence, and bring healing and transformation to our personal lives, families, communities, societies, and our planet.

Jesus’ death is not the solution to a problem residing in God; it’s the solution to the problem of evil residing in us. It is the ultimate, prototypical symbol of the nature and reality of God. Its salvific significance is primarily that of a “lure,” inviting us into the mystery and miracle of forgiveness, reconciling grace, and redemptive love.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Church in Western Culture

Walter Wink, in The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium writes: “American culture is presently in the first stages of a spiritual renaissance. To the degree that this renaissance is Christian at all, it will be the human figure of Jesus that galvanizes hearts to belief and action, not the Christ of the creeds . . . An in the teaching of Jesus, the sayings on nonviolence and love of enemies will hold a central place. Not because they are more true than any others, but because they are crucial in the struggle to overcome domination without creating new forms of domination.”

It’s interesting how Wink frames his hope in a spiritual renaissance: “to the degree that this renaissance is Christian at all . . .” He doesn’t seem very optimistic that Christians will be leading the way in helping to create God’s beloved community on earth; to help bring in God’s peaceable kingdom. The teachings of Jesus on non-violence and love of enemies will surely serve as a divine lure, a catalyst for change, but will Christians be the ones taking Jesus’ life and teachings seriously?

I believe Christians will be in the forefront of this renaissance; but I doubt if the church will be there. Let me clarify. The church as an institution, that is. Look around at the average church in western culture. What do you see? A force for change? Welcoming, accepting, grace-filled communities? Communities working for justice and peace? Communities that invite questions and dialogue? Communities that cooperate and collaborate with all groups of people, people of other faiths or no faith at all, working for the good of others and our planet? Some churches are, thank God, but these are the exceptions.

Most churches are closed systems; little corporations that exist for their own benefit. Fortresses of dogma; they have their doctrine, policies, and institutional life all carefully regulated and controlled, and they don’t need the help from anyone outside the system. Oh, they will accept people—on their terms; as long as they conform to their beliefs and practices. And this is why most churches have become completely useless and ineffective in partnering with Christ in the realization of God’s peaceable kingdom on earth. Longing for an afterlife, they have given up on this life. Preaching a gospel of escape to heaven, they are quite content in letting the earth go to hell.

When Christ called out a group of disciples, who would later reproduce and organize into churches, he called these disciples to walk in his way (the first disciples were known as followers of “the way”). The way is not the way to heaven. The way is the way to a transformed world pervaded by goodness and grace; it is the way to communities of love, to redeemed and reconciled relationships, to careful stewardship and care for the planet. The way of Jesus is the way of humility, forgiveness, inclusion, and unconditional love.

In some ways the average church has become one of the greatest obstacles to transformation, caught up in its own petty squabbles over doctrine and policy. Mission projects are simply that—mission projects. They ease the conscience without having to take seriously Jesus’ call to take up our cross, die to our egocentricity, and live self-giving, missional lives. Most churches would rather hunker down and protect what they have, than dare to live the risky adventure of breaking boundaries, extending forgiveness, and reaching out to people very different than themselves to help redeem and transform this world. If the church is the bride of Christ, then she has failed to keep her vows over and over and over again.

I believe that the human Jesus, who is also the living Christ, will indeed, galvanize hearts and empower feet and hands in the service of a great cause, creating a spiritual renaissance. But I agree with Wink; it will not be the Christ of the creeds, the Christ of the institutional church, the Christ of western Christians, either conservative or liberal.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Leaving Jesus in order to find Jesus

Philip Gulley tells about speaking at a church where afterward they had a question-and-answer period. He was asked whether or not he believed in the virgin birth. He knew the motive behind the question, but nevertheless, he had to answer honestly. He chose his words carefully, but explained why he did not accept the orthodox doctrine of the virginal conception of Mary.

Later that day, he received a call from a woman who had been at church that morning. She asked if she could speak to him. Gulley invited her to his house. When she arrived, she was visibly agitated and said that she hadn’t slept the night before for thinking about her response. She said to Gulley, “Now I don’t know what to believe. If I can’t believe the virgin birth, I can’t believe anything.” Gulley pointed out that while he didn’t believe in the virgin birth, she was not required to agree, that many people in the church still believed it, and she was free to affirm it if she wished.”

She then asked why he questioned it in the first place, saying that ministers should not cast doubt on the church’s teachings. Gulley obviously disagreed. He explained, “The purpose of a spiritual teacher isn’t to be a propagandist. It’s my responsibility to discern the truth. Sometimes, I agree with the church’s historic conclusions; sometimes I don’t. When I do agree, I will say so. When I don’t, I will say so, and say why. But my goal will always be the discernment of truth.”

Then he returned to her original statement: “You said if you didn’t believe the virgin birth, you can’t believe anything. But I know many people who don’t believe that doctrine who have rich spiritual lives, who have a profound respect for Jesus, and follow his teachings with real devotion. In fact, I would like to consider myself one of them.”

As she began to share her spiritual journey she confessed that disagreement with the church’s doctrines was an option she had never thought possible. The church she was in discouraged any kind of theological inquiry that deviated from its traditional teachings. As she talked about her faith journey an image came into Gulley’s mind which he shared with her. It was the image of a rose that had never been told it could blossom. The potential was there, the flower had budded, but always stopped just short of blooming.

The woman left her church, stopped going altogether for a while, and then eventually discovered a church whose leadership encouraged spiritual exploration. There she blossomed. When Gulley ran into her again, a new joy infused her life. She said, “It’s funny. My friends in my old church have told me I’ve left Jesus. But it feels like I’ve finally found him.” (If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus)

Is it any wonder why people who have legitimate questions and doubts about the traditional teachings of the church have left the church altogether? How many churches do you know that are safe places, welcoming all kinds of people and all kinds of questions?

Here is a wonderful quote from Rainer Maria Rilke in his book, Letters to a Young Poet: “I beg you . . . to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into an answer.”

Why has the church been so ineffective in helping her members live transformational lives given to the well-being of all people? And why are more and more deep thinking and truth seeking individuals avoiding church altogether? Could it be that the average church has become more interested in proclaiming platitudes and defending certitudes, than loving and living the questions into a dynamic, growing, risky faith?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Adult Religion

The Talmud tells of a rabbi who hosted a great celebration in his home, inviting all of his friends, family, and followers. A friend inquired about all the singing and dancing when there had been no new birth or marriage. The rabbi explained: “Yesterday, I was going about my business with the elders of the village when a woman approached and asked me to come to her home because her daughter was ill. I could not interrupt my appointment with the village elders, so I told her to go home and wait. When I finally arrived at her home later that evening, the girl had died. Later that night in my home I woke up and prayed: ‘Please let me resurrect the girl tomorrow! If she lives, may my name be taken out of the Book.’ And God accepted my offer. This morning, I went to the girl’s house and resurrected her. And now I am celebrating with my disciples and all of my family and friends.”

“What are you celebrating?” his friend asked.

His face beaming, the rabbi responded, “I am celebrating my freedom. For the first time in my life, I can serve God not for the sake of my rewards but for the sake of my love for God.”

Religion at an infant stage is religion grounded in a system of meritocracy, governed by a modus operandi of rewards and punishments. Religion that requires fear and guilt as motivation for doing what is good and right is not at all attractive or compelling. Religion at this stage of development is dualistic, exclusive, and often judgmental, having very little moral worth or value. The God imagined tends to be vindictive and arbitrary. This kind of religion rarely advances issues of justice for the disadvantaged, peace, and good stewardship and care of the planet. Religion at this level usually focuses on heaven and hell, and is primarily about escaping this world. It is characterized by a clear cut division between the insiders (the saved, those going to heaven, those who possess the truth, etc.) and the outsiders (the unsaved, etc.). As a society grows spiritually the power of this type of religion over the people gradually looses its influence.

Religion that is more life enhancing, affirming, and morally compelling advocates doing what is right and good, because it is the right thing to do. But still, we can go one step further.

The highest form of religion empowers a person or community to do what is right and good, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because the person or community is permeated and immersed in a divine, magnanimous, unconditional love. Mature religion is self-validating; it is egalitarian, holistic, inclusive, transformational, and filled with compassion and grace.

As a Christian I believe that mature Christianity can be a global force for good, greatly contributing to a flourishing life on earth. Unfortunately, a lot of Christianity is stuck at the infant level. Mature religion can transform the world; infant religion can destroy it.