Holy Thursday 2011
As a part of my Lenten reflection on the historic insights concerning the Cross and atonement, here are two additional comments:+ First, from the moral theology of Peter Abelard (1079-1142). As noted earlier, the two dominant understandings of Christ's atoning work on the Cross involved the repayment of a debt: the earlier theology suggested that Christ paid Satan a debt for human sin - and in doing so outwitted evil and redeemed Hell in the process - while the wisdom of St. Anselm trusted that Jesus paid a debt to the Father out of love. This "ransom" theology has dominated both the East and West and continues to influence and shape Evangelical thinking into the 21st century.
Abelard, however, took a more subjective and tender approach noting that the life and death of Jesus Christ gave to the world such a radical demonstration of the love of God that our hearts are moved to love God in response. It is this human response of gratitude that reunites our hearts with God's who then shares forgiveness as well as compassion by hearing our prayers. He wrote:
Our redemption through the suffering of Christ is that deeper love within us which not only frees us from slavery to sin but also secures for us the true liberty of the children of God, in order that we might do all things out of love rather than out of fear - love for him who has shown us such grace that no greater can be found.
This subjective view of the atonement became popular during the Enlightenment, a time of intense skepticism towards anything transcendent or supernatural. (http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/people/abelard.htm) Additionally, Abelard's insight came to guide much of the Liberal/Progressive Protestant spirituality of the Cross. The Lenten hymn, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," is the best articulation of this theology.
+ The second part of today's reflection - and fourth in a series of five - has recently been popularized by Marcus Borg and the Jesus Seminar folk. This perspective - which ebbs and flows from time to time - considers the Cross in mostly political terms. Jesus was taken to the Cross because of his challenge to both the religion and politics of his day: his articulation and embodiment of God's kingdom was a bold alternative to the kingdom of Cesar. One consequence of such moral and social justice is the alienation from the status quo; and as other social reformers from MLK to Gandhi have experienced, once the powers of the status quo are pushed beyond the breaking point, they move to execute the cause - in this case Jesus of Nazareth.
Sometimes this perspective intuits a spiritual dimension to the Cross, but this dimension is considered symbolic in much the way Anselm's wisdom required a human response: when we consider the Cross, we are changed towards greater love. Borg has written:
The cross in the New Testament also has a more personal and individual meaning as a symbol or an image for the path of transformation, for what it means to follow Jesus. It means to die and rise with Christ. We find this in Paul. "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." The cross there is an image for that path of spiritual and psychological transformation that leads to a new identity and way of being...metaphorically now, it means that God has already taken care of whatever it is that we think separates us from God. It means that God accepts us just as we are and that the Christian life is not about getting right with God. God's already taken care of that. The Christian life becomes about something else, namely, living within this framework of radical trust in God and relationship to God that makes possible our transformation, and, ideally and ultimately, the transformation of the world.
There was a time when I was persuaded by both Abelard and the political symbolism of these two theologies - and I continue to be shaped by my subjective and emotional response to Christ's love on the Cross - but these insights continue to weaken in my emerging theology of the Cross. To be sure, there is a call to justice - when I reflect on the insights of Rene Girard this will be clarified - but something deeper than subjective symbolism is at work in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.