James Alison on Atonement

This essay was talked about in a recent sermon and the preacher promised it would be linked on this blog. So here it is: James Alison - Some Thoughts on Atonement.

Agree or disagree with him, it is a worthwhile read. Here is an excerpt to get you going:

The first thing that I ought to do, therefore, is to give you a brief account of what is traditionally called the substitutionary theory of atonement; of what we are up against; of what a certain crystallization of texts has thrown up that has kept us captive; and how we are going to try and move from a two-dimensional account to a three-dimensional account and see that actually all the creative lines in that story flow in an entirely different direction. So, here's the standard story, which I'm sure you've all heard before:

God created the universe, including humanity, and it was good. Then somehow or other humankind fell. This fall was a sin against God's infinite goodness and mercy and justice. So there was a problem. Humans could not off our own bat restore the order which had been disordered, let alone make up for having dishonoured God's infinite goodness. No finite making up could make up for an offence with infinite ramifications. God would have been perfectly within his rights to have destroyed the whole of humanity. But God was merciful as well as being just, so he pondered what to do to sort out the mess. Could he simply have let the matter lie in his infinite mercy? Well, maybe he would have liked to, but he was beholden to his infinite justice as well. Only an infinite payment would do; something that humans couldn't come up with; but God could. And yet the payment had to be from the human side, or else it wouldn't be a real payment for the outrage to be appeased. So God came up with the idea of sending his Son into the world as a human, so that his Son could pay the price as a human, which, since he was also God, would be infinite and thus would effect the necessary satisfaction. Thus the whole sorry saga could be brought to a convenient close. Those humans who agreed to cover over their sins by holding on to, or being covered by, the precious blood of the Saviour whom the Father has sacrificed to himself would be saved from their sins and given the Holy Spirit by which they would be able to behave according to the original order of creation. In this way, when they died, they at least would be able to inherit heaven, which had been the original plan all along, before the fall had mucked everything up. My guess is that you've heard something like that before. This is a familiar story.

Now, rather than make mockery of it, I want to suggest that the trouble with it is that it is far too little conservative. I want to put forward a much more conservative account. And the first way I want to be conservative is to suggest that the principle problem with this conventional account is that it is a theory, and atonement, in the first place, was a liturgy...


Stephen Colbert Does it Well

It is a strange thing to see public figures talk about their faith and for it to not be totally cringeworthy and unrepresentative of the kind of religion we think is meaningful. 

Unlike all of that, Stephen Colbert's recent profile in GQ is pretty amazing. Here is an unreasonably long but worthwhile excerpt. Read the whole thing here.

That day after he got back from Michigan, we eventually got around to the question of how it could possibly be that he suffered the losses he's suffered and somehow arrived here. It's not just that he doesn't exhibit any of the anger or open-woundedness of so many other comedians; it's that he appears to be so genuinely grounded and joyful...

“So my reaction when I hear that question isn't”—he shifted into a somber, sonorous voice—“ ‘Oh, I don't want to talk about that.’ It's that I don't want to say this—ready?” He snapped his fingers and locked eyes with me in a pose of dramatic intensity. “MY. MOTHER.” His face softened. “But the answer is: my mother.”

He lifted his arms as if to take in the office, the people working and laughing outside his door, the city and the sky, all of it. “And the world,” he said. “It's so…lovely. I'm very grateful to be alive, even though I know a lot of dead people.” The urge to be grateful, he said, is not a function of his faith. It's not “the Gospel tells us” and therefore we give thanks. It is what he has always felt: grateful to be alive. “And so that act, that impulse to be grateful, wants an object. That object I call God. Now, that could be many things. I was raised in a Catholic tradition. I'll start there. That's my context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next—the catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom. And my dad. And my siblings.”

He was tracing an arc on the table with his fingers and speaking with such deliberation and care. “I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died.... And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Maybe, he said, she had to be that for him. He has said this before—that even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.


Two Great Recent Things on the Internet

Ana Marie Cox, founding editor of the political blog Wonkette and currently a political writer for GQ, has an incredible essay at the Daily Beast in which she "comes out" as a Christian. The piece is calm and straightforward, but surreptitiously explosive. The context, a liberal political writer on a liberal news site, makes the simple and sincere profession of Christian faith by definition exotic and almost unrecognizable...


From Last Week Tonight with John Oliver - “How is Ayn Rand Still a Thing?”

From Last Week Tonight with John Oliver - “How is Ayn Rand Still a Thing?” It’s funny, but also misses a deeper point: no one should be baffled or shouting “Gotcha!” at political conservatives who love Ayn Rand; the fusion of religious traditionalism and economic libertarianism was an intentional strategy and major victory for the modern Right in the U.S., theorized by the political thinker Frank Meyer, embraced by Reagan, and creepily dubbed Fusionism. It’s held together enough to shift our country rightward for a while, it’s now starting to show some cracks, but this video just shows how self-contradictory it is. Trying to combine a purist form of economic individualism with values of community and the importance of moral and religious traditions is like trying to mate a grizzly bear with a banana slug. You end up with a slimy monster that will eat your face. Only this one isn’t imaginary.


Wanderers to Wonderers

"I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one - that my body might - but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature, daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it - rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Whoare we? Where are we?”

- Henry David Thoreau


Against Empathy

At Boston Review there is an interesting forum about empathy.

Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale, argues provocatively that “if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.” Most of the respondents find reasons to disagree with him, and so do I, but a more limited form of his argument makes sense to me - that empathy alone is not enough to guide us living moral lives. Cool rationality and warm but healthily self-differentiated benevolence can be just as important as feeling a ricochet of someone else’s suffering in your own gut.


Viewing Myself from a Distance

David Brooks on how we can best understand ourselves:

"We shouldn’t see ourselves as archaeologists, minutely studying each feeling and trying to dig deep into the unconscious. We should see ourselves as literary critics, putting each incident in the perspective of a longer life story…

Think of one of those Chuck Close self-portraits. The face takes up the entire image. You can see every pore. Some people try to introspect like that. But others see themselves in broader landscapes, in the context of longer narratives about forgiveness, or redemption or setback and ascent.”


Becoming Interested in Life Again

Two of my current heroes, Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of My Struggle, the six-volume, 3,600-page Norwegian novel about a man writing a six-volume, 3,600-page Norwegian novel, and Michael Silverblatt, the brilliant and super-humane host of the public radio show “Bookworm,” recently sat down for a conversation that indirectly but powerfully cuts to the heart of why Root and Branch was created.


What Would Jesus Conceal and Carry?

I’ve been thinking about guns.  Not the ones I wish I had instead of the stick-like things that emerge from my upper torso, but the ones that have been facilitating all the shootings that have been the subject of grisly news reports and impassioned Facebook pleas for gun control lately. Not just the shootings in recent months. Over half of the deadliest mass shootings in the U.S. in the last 50 years have happened in the past decade.

I have to make a confession: the killings reported in the news have not disturbed me enough. What I mean is that I don’t always feel shocked, the stories don’t necessarily stop me in my tracks or make me unable to go about my daily routine. These things happen, it’s horrible and tragic, but that’s just part of this sort of messed up but ultimately not-that-bad world. True, people are killed in Chicago all the time, some very close to where I live, but even that fact is crazily easy to ignore and distance myself from. 


Flannery Says...

The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on the water by himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on the water. All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.
— Flannery O’Connor, letter to Cecil Dawkins, 9 Dec 58 (via habitofbeing)