Yesterday we at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleighwere treated to the final lecture in a series of discussions about incarnational theology. Dr. Marcia Mount Shoop, http://marciamountshoop.com/, has beautifully served as our summer theologian in residence for the past month and I am sad to see her go. Maybe a little more so because she, like me, hails from central Kentucky and says her “a”s a little flatter than our Tar Heel friends.
Marcia juxtaposed the orthodoxy of atonement theology with that of incarnational theology. Although we’ve had Marcus Borg come and speak, I’m sure this is the first time some folks have heard this alternative theology put so plainly and understandably. And although some tend to lump all non-atonement folks in the Borg camp, Marcia isn’t Marcus. She’s more mystical than Borg and allows more room for an encounter with the mysterious than Borg. I love that about her. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Borg would take that away from people. But to steal a phrase from Marcia, I think Borg is a bit more of a “brain on a stick” than Marcia, who really tries to embody the Spirit in her preaching and her life.
I’ve blogged here before about sacrificial atonement and written about it extensively in Banned Questions about Jesus. Suffice it to say that it’s my view sacrificial atonement, a view held by much of the Church over time, can be overly violent, judgmental, and focused on the individual at the expense of the collective. You’ve probably heard the atonement view summarized as this: We humans are all sinners. God rightly judges us for it. Jesus was sent in to the world and died on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. Through his bloodshed we are forgiven. In his resurrection we are justified in God.
Atonement is very focused on the personal sin of the sinner, the sacrifice of Jesus as the “lamb of God”—alluding to the sacrificial lambs used in theTemple— and the forgiveness of the individual is found only through Jesus’ willingness to die for us and be resurrected. As I’ve written about extensively, as a small girl I was horrified that my sin caused Jesus to suffer so. I’ve never quite gotten over that imagery. I get guilty pangs in the pit of my stomach just thinking about it.
I’ve also written here and in Banned Questions about Jesus about several alternative theologies to this view including Process Theology, certain Mennonite theologians, Quaker theologians, and others including Borg, whom I would describe as a liberal pragmatist. Incarnational Theology is another nonviolent, Spirit-filled theology that gets us past the violent Jesus-on-the-cross for our sins and puts us squarely in the land of Jesus-on-the-cross as an example of Jesus serving the people.
Incarnational theology is about un-drawing boundaries and honoring uniqueness and individuality while focusing on the good of the collective. Where atonement theology teaches that God judges and so should we, incarnational theology teaches God loves and so should we. Where atonement theology teaches God forgives and so should we, incarnational theology teaches there is nothing to forgive because we are all knitted from a divine spark. Where atonement theology is inexorably intertwined with patriarchy and hierarchy, incarnational theology is about eating meals with the unclean and the outsider.
Some may say all of this is theology, high-minded mumbo jumbo for PhD’s and lawyers who have too little to do … Amy. Others simply want to go to church on Sunday and feel good when they leave. But theology matters even to those Easter and Christmas Christians who just want their church as light as they can get it. Because theology seeps in to the pores of the congregates. It gets in the Sunday School messages and in the sermons. It becomes a part of the basic beliefs of an individual and a family. Just ask anyone “raised up” in a church with a heavy emphasis on a hell …. Amy.
You know those people who will find the worst possible interpretation of any situation? Your nanny quit? It was probably because your kids are badly behaved and she couldn’t take it any more. Your car died? It was probably because you didn’t get it serviced. You lost your job? You probably weren’t very good at it. When it reality, your nanny’s mom was ill, your car had a fluid leak you couldn’t have known about, and your company was simply cutting numbers and you were the last one hired. You know people like this. They’re beyond Debbie Downer. They’re Debbie It’s All Your Fault. It’s like personal accountability on crack.
Most of these people that I know were raised in highly atonement-oriented churches and atonement oriented homes. They may never have heard the words Atonement Theology and would probably tell you they don’t give a rodent’s hindquarters about theology. They just want a good Christmas Cantata. As children these people were taught that humankind is sinful, and that honorable, “good” people own up to that. They consider “telling the truth” about your “faults” to be a virtue. If you don’t own up to your “short comings” your just “fooling yourself.” How do I know? Because this is how I was raised. Was this done out of spite or mean-ness? Lord, no. Quite the opposite. It was done out of love. Pure love. White glowing, angels singing, rocking chairs and big Christmases love. It’s how my parents were raised, and their parents, and so on ad infinitem. This is how loving parents raise their children in the atonement model and it’s why theology matters.
But there is another view. There is the view that I think God calls us to hold about each other. I think it’s the incarnational view or at least consistent with it. I saw this in how Marcia delicately rephrased the congregation’s questions when they were tinged with judgment or self-doubt. There is the view that each person is valued and valuable. That a person’s uniqueness matters even if it means her body comes with migraines or arthritis. God made this body just as it is and so we must come to love it, just as it is (I have to fight the urge to sing “Just as I Am” here). Incarnational theology would say a life change is often just change—not good or bad. We must sit with the Spirit and discern what is best to do with it. Having studied Buddhism, one of the most important and life changing tenants of that faith tradition is that the only constant is change and great suffering is caused by trying to change that!
There is so much healing that can be done in the Church if we can move away from language about sin, judgment, and forgiveness toward a more inclusive and healing view. I’m not saying we have to abandon those terms altogether. I’m not advocating throwing out the baby with the bathwater. But so many lives have been harmed by atonement language. Maybe we could use some new words for a while, and develop some more inclusive and less judgmental rituals to go with them that are intentional about embodying Jesus’ walk with the unclean, the unwanted, and marginal of the word. Maybe we could spend half as much time un-drawing lines as we have spent drawing them. Just maybe we could raise children who love themselves as profoundly as God does and who are wildly confident that they are loved in their homes, in their church homes and by their God.
What kind of mission work would it be to send those kind of children into the world?