Straw Atonement Theories

One of the dilettante hobbies of the secular liberati is mocking a god who doesn’t exist and who Christians should hate if he did exist.  But it is an amusing hobby, and so persists.  These cheap thrills take many forms – for example, the atonement, as imagined by those who hate the very idea of law, sin, or rescue.   Their idea of atonement would not be good news if it had happened.

The church has fed the scoffers by butchering its own message.  Any given Sunday you can hear from Christian pulpits a cartoon of the biblical vision.  Some words have meanings so poorly understood by the audience they should not be inflicted on the sleepy crowd.  “Sacrifice”, “atonement”.   Such words have only a half-life of meaning for the typical congregation.   Each generation must refresh them as if they had never been heard.

I’m remembering an anatomy book from my boyhood.  I’m not sure they are around anymore, but this one had multiple transparent pages that overlaid one by one deeper and deeper sections of the human body as you flip the pages.  The first page shows the skin.  Lift the page, and the skin is peeled away to show muscle underneath.  Lift another clear plastic page and the muscle is gone, leaving internal organs visible.  And so on.

The modern critics of atonement are looking at the top page and insisting the body could never stand erect because there are no bones.  The reductionist mind, typically, strips the delicate tissue out of a concept then criticizes the corpse for being dead.    They see the crudest satisfaction theory which would represent nothing new in the history of religion and never think to wonder why such a sacrifice would revolutionize an empire.

You see, satisfaction makes no sense if it means Person A, acting on Person B, for the benefit of Persons C.   Structured like this, it is a deracinated version of the biblical truth; it is no advance over a hundred ancient myths.    The entire point of the biblical redemption is not that God acts on His Son for the benefit of the world.  Rather, it is that God acts on His Son who is, in fact, somehow, Himself, for the sins of the world which have become, somehow, His sins.  God does not act on an Other; He is the Other.  God does not act to save a world that is Other; He has entered that world and is bearing the sin.  There is no action on Others; God saves by assuming the ontological space of the Other and exercising justice and mercy at once, and this coinherent logic of agape is the entire point.  If we were not asked to wonder at this new, radically new logic the Bible would be wasting our time rehashing the perennial religion in recycled images.

This unity of Actor, Agent, and Beneficiary doesn’t just drop out of the ceiling wires like a convenient plot device.   The theme has already been played and played again in the magnificence of Incarnation and Trinity, those other chapters in the drama with Persons who are at once distinct yet not separate.   So that when God in Atoning love both acts and recieves on behalf of the world, this union of subject, verb, and object is not new.  In Atonement, as the culmination and Grand Reveal,  the one God in multiple Persons wills to discharge the burden of His own law by exacting and taking His own penalty.

The Christian drama of redemption hasn’t been tried and rejected; it is largely a lost drama.







In the word, the thought

“the Son is in the Father . . . because the whole being of the Son is proper to the Father’s ousia, as radiance from light and a stream from a fountain; so that whosoever sees the Son, sees what is proper to the Father and knows that the Son’s being, as from the Father, is the Father and is therefore in the Father. For the Father is in the Son, since the Son is what is from the Father and proper to him, as there is in the radiance the sun, and in the word the thought, and in the stream the fountain: for whoso thus contemplates the Son, contemplates what is proper to the Father’s ousia, and knows that the Father is in the Son.

Leithart quotes Athanasius, and finds the nugget phrase: “in the word, the thought”. Now that’s full, but you can’t draw a mental picture of it. If you came to this passage looking for a more clear spatial metaphor for your Trinity category, you didn’t get it.

When the Fathers are doing this thing, this attempt to exegete theology, they are not doing what we’ve been doing since the Scholastics, and doing feverishly since the Enlightenment. They are not trying to draw a diagram. What they are doing is poetry — but not what “poetry” means to you.

Not “poetry” in the sense of “expression of feeling as opposed to thought” or “escape from rationality into mysticism” (yuck.) These are modern dichotomies. These are post-line-of-despair categories (cf Frances Scheaffer).

They are doing poetry the way David Hart fills out the word “rhetoric”…RATIONALITY THAT IS SO FULL AND GLORIOUS IT MUST SPILL OVER THE STRUCTURES OF PROSE. So the theological work is not intended to give you a diagram, but it is meant to help you understand it better, by giving you the same truth in a different language.

If you know the English word for “tree”, and the elvish word for “tree”, you are able to see the tree better. The two words are not the same nominal sign, they are two signs to the one thing. So, poetry is not translatable into prose, and theology is not translatable into diagrams. This does not mean theology is not true — least of all does it mean theology is directed at “faith” instead of at “reason” (yuck.) — but that theology is directed at the synthetic faculty, as opposed to the analytical faculty. God is bigger than your mind, so to talk of Him we must rhapsodize, so that He is not falsified to your intellect.


“Eternal Perspective”

“Eternal perspective” as used in evangelical preaching, usually amounts to docetism.  Only what is done for Christ will last, and so on.  The implication — intended or not, people imbibe it — is that only the ghostly souls of men will pass into the next age; spend as little work as possible on things like art, engineering, plumbing, which are Works of Hay and Straw, to be burned up on the last day.

Jesus, My Boyfriend

Loss of the capacity to believe in anything beyond the senses, leads to loss of belief in the universe as a moral construct, leads to all theories of salvation sounding abstract, leads to the poverty of having only romance as a filter to approach God, leads to contemporary worship music.

On The Summer Urge To Sit Outside

I can’t claim to understand my own urge to sit among the wildflowers.   Beauty?  Sure.  But even before the candied blooms pop, as soon as green shoots break the spring soil, I’m sure I’m missing out on a secret.  Before the beauty,  nature draws.  Why?

The cliches are many:  “the healing power of nature”.  Again, sure.  But what, exactly, is this “power”, and what is this “healing”?   It’s more than rest, more than just that we ‘feel better”.  There’s an existential longing before there’s any tiredness.

I can sit cross legged in the middle of a daisy field and feel vaguely that I’ve come home.   As I listen to the sigh of wind through the field, I don’t hear anything missing.  That moment is not a passage on the way to, for example, people.   People, even beloved ones, are not missing from this, though none are here.   This field is the means to no end.   Even the history of kingdoms and holocausts, here in the daisies and the wind, does not ask for redemption.   Why not?

It’s a feeling that something important is happening right here.   And that this importance somehow outweighs whatever is the chatter on the evening news.  Western culture adds one more brick on its Hell project, yet somehow the hummingbird sipping at the lantana on my porch seems more important.

No, I have no theory to support this.   I’m not sure the Romantic movement ever produced one; did Wordsworth ever do more than say this in a thousand fine but redundant ways?   And the chance universe of the secular modern is just silent about the meaning of everything.  After all, if what we see around us just happened, then both hummingbird and hell are random collisions of particles.  No feeling means anything.  No thoughts will survive the sun.

Even my own Judeo-Christian and designed universe doesn’t fully account for my pre-cognitive intuitions,  intuitions surely common to churched and unchurched alike.   Unless I’m so audacious to say that the love of the Creator for every sparrow, for every blade of grass, is literally what you and I are feeling.   We feel His affections – His bowels, in that old Hebraic sense.  All nations, races, and tongues feel His pleasures but they don’t even know it.

We feel His paternal love for what He makes, and we mistake what moves through our depths for our own self, but He is in fact closer to us than we are to ourselves.  The Spirit within me longs with longings that cannot be articulated?  Longings for the daisy, the hummingbird, and the lantana, as well as for the hymns and the alms?     Is it You?  Is it really You?

The Flaming Sword

There is no return from exile unless transgression is undone.  Any attempt to return to the garden without a blood atonement cheapens the transgression.  It’s like a man who turns from a whore to kiss his wife.   The affront is as vile as the infidelity.  His wife should vomit in his mouth.

A sword then – precisely because swords shed blood.   Any return to paradise, the place where God and man were married, requires blood, because their union had been as real as could be.

The Moral Meaning of Individual Deaths

Some believe souls survive death, and some don’t.   The two premises are nakedly adversarial assertions: “there is life after death”, and “this is all there is”. These two religious positions are so far apart that discussion cannot bridge them.  These are the two camps that make up the human race, and many moral and political disagreements are really these two opposite visions warring with each other from guerilla disguises.

This gulf is hard to overstate. The believers and the deniers can’t finally even talk about the meaning of any particular death.  Despite the millions of words that will be spent today arguing over the meaning of suffering or of untimely death, none of this argument is of any value. The premises are too far apart. It’s like one person barking, then the other responding with a meow. No communication has occurred, though both may leave ruffled.

Of course, what is really happening in these conversations is both parties are arguing cloaked premises, which are impossible to reconcile, and always make conversations painful, even for the good-hearted.

You’d never evaluate the morality of any event while intentionally blinding yourself to the sequelae.   You’d never reach a final conclusion on a scene or character without seeing it all through to the curtain.   The ending colors the beginning and middle.

Yet these debates attempt to stop the play, have one viewer say “nothing comes next” and another say “there is an infinite number of scenes left” and then intelligently discuss the play.  They’re literally talking about two different stories.  Shall we  blind ourselves to the state of a person a minute after death, then try to talk about whether that death was good or bad, fair or unfair?  For believer or skeptic alike, this is stupid logic.

The only hope to make such conversations productive would be to actually talk about life after death. But this is seldom the topic, because there isn’t actually much material.   Christians accept a written report, skeptics do not. That simple.

Of course, even the believer doesn’t know enough about the condition of the individual dead  to talk about it, even to himself, and for the purpose of talking to the unbeliever he knows nothing (though he may believe much.)

In fact, the believer is rendered silent about individual deaths precisely by his belief in an undetermined eternity.   He can repeat what his scripture teaches about eternal states, but since the skeptic doesn’t accept his scripture this is futile, and often insulting to the skeptic.

I say “silent about individual deaths”….what we believers believe is that the dead behold the Creator an instant after death, and that beatific vision subsumes the entire life leading up to it.

I’m not objecting at all to traditional Christian comfort at funerals. “She’s in a better place…her suffering is over…etc.” These are believers talking to each other. Within their common vision their words make sense.

It’s just that non-believers can’t be expected to do other than scoff at assertions of “God’s will” or paradise after death.
But, by the same logic, believers will just never see the same meaning, or lack of meaning, in any moment of suffering. Even when your faith is strained, when suffering is no longer a word in a blog post but is your child in pain – even then you can’t pretend not to see the story continuing after death. It may be no consolation, you may even hate your own dogma, but you’ll still see the play from the balcony seat, while the skeptics are at ground level.

My point here is not about comfort or emotional truths at all. All the emotional days and nights we roll through, all the scenery in the story, is all hung on logical scaffolds, which are usually invisible. Those who believe the stage is infinite and those who believe it is not could save lots if time.
Either argue about the size of the play, or just hush.

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No Random Event is Interesting

No random event is interesting. Some thinkers, materialist by temperament, will express wonder at some part of what they insist is a random universe. But this is borrowed wonder, a borrowed emotion felt by people who may be analytically strong yet lack insight.

Fortunately, insight is a free gift within language. If we ask the subject to exegete the wonder instead of just driving by it, within minutes they’ll unconsciously speak – name – the source of the wonder. But the word representing the source will be a noun they don’t believe in, an anthropomorphism. Embarrassment. And embarrassment often shifts to anger, which is why those who like to have their random cake and eat their wonder too get angry when asked to explain.

Random events only hold interest in relation to non-random causes. By “non-random” I mean an event with an intelligent cause rooted in moral purpose. And the moral purpose is supplied by the observer as well as the causative agent; the observer, the one housing awe and wonder, sees in the “random” event some opportunity for human good, however that observer defines good, and no definition of good comes intrinsically from the random. It is supplied by an intelligence.

Physicists study events with long causal chains which stretch through billions of Sol-cycles. No moral purpose arises from these chains and years.

To convert the unknown cause into a known effect – to learn – implies a moral purpose.

So what is the purpose for the many years of hard study, first to finish school then to advance the discipline?

Knowledge is its own reward? This is an assertion as naked as “God exists.” It really means “I derive personal pleasure from increasing my knowledge of the causal chain one more step backward toward…” Good for you.

Knowledge reduces pain, increases pleasure, and delays death? It does (well, at least medicine and engineering does), and I’m glad it does, but in the spirit of pulling on causal chains: why should humanity survive? “It is self evident” is no more intellectually rigorous than “turtles all the way down”.

They import their purpose from somewhere wholly unrelated to the scientific method. Any physicist who attempts to articulate his purpose will not be able to finish the first sentence without standing, logically, upon some good which he would personally defend against any random destructive force. So he would viscerally, instaneously sort among the effects, deflecting some and grasping others, as he grabs his child from the traffic in the road. Which is to say physicists are people first, and they spend their days like you and I do, sorting among the effects of long ago causes, rejecting some and embracing others on the basis of personal benefit. Then, when safe and fed, they do science.

No random event is interesting. It becomes intresting when a non-material moral framework is projected onto it by the observer, rightly or wrongly.

So there is no such thing as wonder at the random universe; there are simply people who are happily out of touch with their own feelings. There is no such thing as a perception of the random which is interesting except as a potentiality for order is visible within the random. “Order’ You see the flower, it is beautiful,

Borrowed wonder

Moderns say ancients invented God to explain the terrible lightening, the large sky, the unexpected drought or harvest. The ancient rustic had a simple equation in his head with an unknown operator, and he substituted the symbol “God” in the place of the unknown operator.

“Wonder” ocupies the same term in the same mental equation in the modern sophisticate’s mind.

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Christmas thoughts, 2013

Christmas intensifies the “already / not yet” tension that makes us, at once, at home and ill in this world.  More “already”, and more “not yet”.   As the Kingdom appears here, we sense more of it that is beyond us.  Thirst is slaked, but then the mouth is more dry.   This experience comes and goes in normal times, fleeting, hinting, but the approach of Christmas condenses it.   With Advent we nearly come apart with longing.

The Christmas symbols we’re given in the gospels are one thing:  babe in manger, virgin and angel, choirs in the sky.   But the symbols we’ve crafted for ourselves in the centuries since reflect the same increasing tension between Mundanistan and Narnia.  They are suggestively but not clearly shaped.   They teach us what we almost know.

Lights in trees.  Lights in trees!  What are lights in trees?  Not biblical.  But you must imagine seeing them for the first time, like a child, or hearing a stunned cry in the street – “Look, there are lights in the trees!”  (We would hear this in angel voices every Advent, if we were  not asleep.)

Light in the tree.   The supernatural grafted onto the natural.  Even half-aware savages, under the pressure of grace, create simple but enduring symbols.

And money!  We bemoan the “commercialism of Christmas”, as if the money shooting around is some peripheral add-on, some alien barnacle encrusting our lily-white holiday.  But the Magi brought gold!  They brought wealth!  Lucre!  Smack!   The separation between what we know as “money” and the stuff of life which it procures is modern and docetic.  Money, or currency, is a modern invention.  It is an abstract, symbolic store of value which makes wealth mobile and standardized, which allows the production of more wealth.   Which is all good.  But this new distance between our currency and what it symbolizes is the historical accident that allows the pharisees in our pews to want to amputate wealth from celebration, when in fact there is no celebration without the consumption and gifting of wealth.   In fact, wealth (in some form) is what is being celebrated, by means of wealth.

So, Christmas, which was started by God making us rich for no reason, cannot be anything, culturally, if people are not giving each other stuff bought by money.  When God acts, earthly wealth must move.

But the man-made symbols are derivative.   Light in the trees goes dark unless fed from somewhere.  Wealth is moved by something.  We are living through the death of Christendom, as the long, slow tide of faith recedes.   The world has declared its majority and says it can build a civilization without infusions of supernatural.   So:  can Christmas survive without the Church’s perpetual proclamation of the Incarnation of the Son of God?

A festival of lights and wrapped presents?