Friday, November 02, 2007

A Community Called Atonement- Part 2

Hey everyone. Sorry I haven't posted in so long. It turns out this "Full Time Senior Pastor" thing cuts into blogging time. Who knew?

Picking up where we left off last time, McKnight begins Part 1 of the book by asserting again that when he uses the word atonement he is talking about far more than soteriology (how salvation works), but instead about our understanding of the Kingdom of God itself. That is, McKnight is talking about how we understand the Christian faith itself.

Since atonement theories point to a larger reality than that which they can encompass, therefore being ultimately inadequate to provide a full understanding of the subject in and of themselves, we have to use a plurality of metaphors when talking about atonement. If I may overlay Paul Tillich on McKnight’s text for a moment (something which I think McKnight would not mind terribly), a metaphor is another way of saying “symbolic language”. A symbol participates in the reality of that to which it points, but is not the thing itself. So if we were to absolutize only one atonement theory/metaphor/symbol we would be absolutizing something that is far less than absolute reality, i.e. God. The Bible calls this idolatry, which is a pretty major sin, so McKnight is right on in his insistence on using a plurality of metaphors to talk about atonement.

While McKnight’s list of starting points for talking about atonement is certainly not the end-all be-all list of possibilities (and I don’t see him implying that it is), his list is fairly comprehensive and each item merits some discussion.

Jesus: This may seem like a giant no-brainer, but most discussion of atonement begins with a definition of Sin, only then proceeding to Jesus. McKnight contends that Christian theology must begin with Christ. I tend to see theology as a circular undertaking, where our stance on every issue affects every other issue; hence there is no single starting point. Still, starting with Jesus is probably as good a place as any. McKnight takes Luke’s Jesus (let’s be clear- each gospel writer has his own distinct Jesus) and highlights the constant theme of reversal in Luke’s gospel: the last will be first, etc. This theme of reversal continues through Acts, of course, with the Gentiles inheriting the Kingdom that was supposed to be just for Israel. In a world where the divide between haves and have-nots is greater than ever, Luke’s Jesus has a special significance if we’re trying to articulate a relevant Christianity to that world.

God, Eikons, and Sin: For McKnight, these three things are the chronological beginning of the narrative. Theologians call this theological anthropology: how we understand humanity in relationship to God. Long story short, the loving God created us in God’s image (Eikons) and we quickly brought Sin into the picture and screwed up the imago Dei (Latin for the image of God). McKnight understands Sin as “hyper-relational”: breaking many strands in the complex web of relationships between God, the creation, individuals, families, communities, etc. It is this brokenness, estrangement, marred image, and separation that creates the basic problem that Jesus came to deal with. In Jesus, all of this brokenness is made “at one” again: atonement.

Eternity, Ecclesial Community, and Praxis: If Sin is hyper-relational, dealing with a complex web of relationships, than the cure is going to be complex and intertwined as well. It’s so complex as to literally have no beginning or end: hence the term eternity. McKnight employs the image of Ecclesial Community for much the same reason. Atonement is not simply the reconciliation of individual souls to God. It is also the reconciliation of our communal lives to God (Social Gospel, anyone?), and of ourselves to one another. How does this all work? That is the realm of Praxis: the intersection of theory (theology) and practice. Living out these nice, clean abstractions in the messy realities of everyday life is the tough part, and it’s a never-ending (eternal) conversation as to how this whole Christianity thing actually works.

Reflections: I like the ground McKnight has covered thus far. He genuinely seems committed to ecumenical dialogue without letting one particular voice dominate the conversation. I am trying to figure out what particular theological tradition McKnight hails from. My hunch is some branch of the Reformed/Calvinist tradition, but I’m not sure yet. Anybody have any thoughts or insights on this question or anything else I’ve brought up here?


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