Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Community Called Atonement- part 3

In the first section of the book McKnight argued quite persuasively that to adequately speak about atonement a plurality of metaphors had to be used, since each of those metaphors points to a reality larger than what they actually encompass. In the next section McKnight continues this strand by pointing out a plurality of atoning moments in the life of Christ. But first McKnight engages in a brief excuses on the nature of metaphorical dialogue itself.

McKnight says that “metaphor” can be understood as “possibility”. The subject points to the possibility of a reality that is far beyond the thing itself. Metaphors help expand our imaginations to consider new realms of possibility that cannot be adequately captured by words alone. Seeing metaphor in terms of possibility helps us see the relation of the symbol and the thing itself in terms of indwelling: the eternal reality actually indwells the symbol that points to it. In this way McKnight demonstrates that the symbol, while not being the thing itself (that would be idolatry), nevertheless participates in the reality of that to which it points.

McKnight applies this concept to atonement theory by discussing the critiques of penal substitution, which is the favorite atonement theory of most evangelicals. Many feminist theologians have been critical of the penal substation theory because it idealizes victims (the “silent suffering” of Christ) and justifies oppression and discourage the oppressed from trying to better their situation. McKnight says that while such critiques are valid and point out the potential for abuse inherent in any metaphor, we should not throw the baby out with the bath-water. If we have a more nuanced view of penal substitution as a metaphor, instead of as an actual blood-contract between humanity and God, the potential for abuse is more adequately mitigated, and dialogue between the different metaphors can actually occur.

Further, McKnight argues that since our metaphors are so thoroughly conditioned by our context, and therefore limited in their universal applicability, we need to exercise great care in imposing our metaphors (and thus our contextual reality) upon others. A great degree of humility is required to realize that our metaphors cannot contain the ultimate reality of God’s salvation, and that Truth is not something we can ourselves posses. These things are God’s and God’s alone. This lack of humility is a major cause of the trouble in which the Western church finds itself after the collapse of Christendom.

McKnight begins his discussion of atoning moments at the most obvious place: the cross. The event of the crucifixion is the sole focus of most atonement theories, but McKnight raises the question: Crux Sola? Is atonement only to be found in the cross? Atonement is certainly found powerfully in the cross, perhaps most powerfully because of the striking nature of the image of crucifixion. He also mentions Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” in which Luther speaks movingly of the cross being the ultimate meeting of God and humanity because of the intensity of Christ’s suffering. Jesus was at his most human on the cross because here he experienced the fullness of our pain: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The power of this atoning moment, however, does not strip other moments in the life of Christ of their atoning power.

McKnight brings a bit of Eastern theology in by asserting that the Incarnation is an atoning moment as well. In the incarnation God shows how much he loves us by becoming one of us. God experiences all of the things that humans experience: joy, laughter, love, fear, temptation, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, loneliness, sadness, pain, and death. But Jesus is more than just your average human being. He is the perfect Eikon- fully embodying the image of God in humanity. Whereas we are cracked and broken Eikons, Jesus shows the fullness of human potential. It would not have been possible for God to have become human had humanity not already been created in the image of God. As much as we have done to fracture that original perfect relationship with God, it cannot be fully broken because we remain, at our core, God’s image bearers.

McKnight also sees Easter and Pentecost as atoning moments. Pentecost is important because the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Apostles and the church was born, signifying the New Covenant in Christ. Although McKnight doesn’t say it explicitly, seeing Pentecost as an atoning moment enables us to see events in our own lives and the lives of our faith communities as atoning. The Holy Spirit still moves among us, reminding us of God’s continual call upon us.

I believe it is incredibly important to see Easter as an atoning moment. Just as Easter has no meaning without Good Friday, the crucifixion has no meaning without the Resurrection. When we focus solely on the suffering of Christ on Good Friday and pay only mere lip service to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday (Mel Gibson, I’m looking in your direction), then we imply that suffering itself is redemptive. Suffering is not redemptive in and of itself. The endurance of suffering is only possible because of the hope of the Resurrection. We endure the trials of life because we know that suffering will end, all tears will be dried, death will be no more, and all wrongs will be righted. Just as death is not the end of existence, the cross is not the endpoint of our faith. The cross points to the Resurrection and gives us hope for the future.

Reflections: If McKnight’s basis thesis is true and our communities truly can live out atonement and actualize the Kingdom of God in the world, then we have to be willing to see atoning moments throughout our communal lives. To begin to see the different ways our experiences can be atoning, a good place to start is to see how different moments in the life of Christ are atoning. McKnight is making a solid case here, and I’m anxious to see how he carries it forward into modern ecclesial contexts.

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