Pat Conover: Sharing the Journey
Surviving Or Living

Diamond Lake Sunrise by Peter Bowers

Pat Conover
August 21, 2005

Like Deborah, I want to begin by thanking David for his sermon concerning the symbol of the cross in the life of Seekers. The cross is an important symbol for me too, but I"m going to approach the cross from a different angle than David or Deborah did. I"ll work with the lectionary scriptures along the way.

I particularly want to thank David for presenting the symbol of the cross as a meeting place for Christians with different theological perspectives, and different faith traditions. However, if we meet at the cross in terms of contending theologies I fear we will often meet to do theological battle. I"m not about to hide my theology as it relates to the cross but I"m not going to begin by showing why I"m right and others are wrong. On the other hand, I don"t believe we can settle for agreeing to disagree either within Seekers or in discussions beyond our walls. My main point is that it matters a lot how the conversation is framed.

I think the helpful entry point for beginning a conversation with another Christian about the cross is the question, "Why does the cross matter to you?"

You may get the response, "It doesn"t really matter to me." Such a response may be clouded by several versions of, "It is part of my tradition," or, "Jesus died on the cross." Then the first question just needs to be extended a little. Why does it matter to you that the cross is part of your tradition? Why does it matter that Jesus died on the cross?

Maybe you will get some version of the atonement answer. "Jesus died for my sins so I can go to heaven when I die." Then you can ask, "What did Jesus"s death on the cross have to do with your sins? That question will stump a lot of people who firmly believe in an atonement theology. Some, however, may give an atonement theology answer. That answer boils down to, "God punished God"s self, through Jesus, so that I don"t have to pay the price for my sin." More simply said, "God forgives me." When you hear something that sounds like, "God forgives me," then you can forget all about the magical concept of appeasing God through sacrifice, whether through the sacrifice of animals, through sacrificial giving or sacrificial service, or through the cross as God sacrificing for us. When we meet at the love of God, the grace of God, the forgiveness of God, we have a very big tent to move around within.

Here is how Paul puts this welcome before us in the 12th Chapter of Romans.

My friends, I implore you by God"s mercy to offer yourselves to God. Become a living sacrifice, dedicated and fit for God"s acceptance. Offer your worship with your mind and your heart. Conform no longer to the patterns of the present world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds. Then you will be able to discern the will of God and to know what is good, acceptable, and perfect.

For Paul, God"s mercy, God"s love, God"s grace, comes first. Sacrifice doesn"t make a deal with God. Paul offers classic atonement theology, but at this point it becomes clear that what really matters is that God love us before we turn to God, before we find our relationship with God. That is the big tent. Paul calls us, not God, to be sacrificial, to be sacrificial as a response to the freely given love of God.

To make this same point another way, we remember that Paul was shaped by the Jewish concept of covenant. The main point of that covenant, as experienced by Jews in that day, was that they had not adequately kept the covenant and were being punished for their failures. Some, like the Pharisees and the Essenes, were focused on trying harder to keep the law and be pure. Some like the Sadducees, were focused on the temple rituals of sacrifice to propitiate God.

To believe that God loves us before we turn to God means that the covenant of God is always available. Sin is not a debt created by our past, present, and future impurities, our failures to understand and keep the law. Sin is the failure to trust God, to fail to turn to God, to fail to look for God, and ultimately to not really trust and love each other and to fail to celebrate the world and lives we have been given.

Let us return to the original question I have asked, "Why does the cross matter to you?" If you ask that question to a liberal, you also may also get the answer, "The cross doesn"t mean much to me." Maybe they will add some version of, "That happened long ago and I"m interested in serving God here and now." But maybe you will get a more thoughtful liberal answer. I saw it most recently on the memorial markers outside of the village of Santiago Atitlan in Guatamala, memorial markers for a dozen plus boys and men from 9 year old to 57 who were gunned down when they went in peaceful protest to complain against violence by the Army. On each marker was the phrase, "Greater love hath no man than this, to lay down one"s life for one"s friends."

The Guatamalan martyrs inspire us all and their deaths are interpreted on the markers in the light of the cross. This is a presentation of the liberal Christian point that justice needs to be ultimately based in love, not merely in legalistic fair dealing. I hold this theme close to my heart in several ways, including one of my favorite freedom songs from the days of my involvement in the Civil Rights movement. "Got my hand on the gospel plow, wouldn"t give nothing for my journey now, keep your eye on the prize, hold on."

A big danger in the liberal Christian answer is the feeling that God is superfluous. It is such a present danger that it is one of the reasons I avoid naming myself as a liberal Christian. If one is pouring oneself out in good works, if one is staying on call, and particularly if such effort is demanding and sacrificial, then who has time to think about or worry about God or God"s acceptance. For hard working liberals the experience of the covenant is immediate and personal and doesn"t require much prayer or contemplation.

But working hard, being dedicated, being well-intentioned, doesn"t free us from sin, doesn"t free us from hurting others. Furthermore, such dedication lines up easily with pride, with feeling more committed, more sacrificial, more just, more loving, than others. Such feelings produce the alienation and confusion that defeat justice and love. They thwart our best intentions. This is true particularly when our good works are limited to charity but it is also true when we seek partnership with those we serve, but seek it on our own terms.

A couple of Trish"s coworkers praised her for giving up part of her vacation for hard physical labor to get another school building started in Guatemala. That felt strange to her because she approached the experience as a pilgrim rather than as a tourist. That was the context given to us by Faith At Work for this journey. I also appreciated the opportunity to work, to give something back to the poor of Guatemala that our country has injured so severely going back to a CIA coup that overthrew an elected democratic government and established a military dictatorship. The military government protected the rights of the wealthy and the business interests of people in the United States. Thankfully, the new civilian government is doing much better. My work wasn"t charity. It aspired to partnership, but mostly it was just penance.

I would like to say that I come to the cross as a follower of Jesus, and I hope there is at least a little truth to such a hope. But I also come to the cross as one who tries to kill God again and again. Fortunately, God isn"t too affected by such attempted murder. But we are. Over and over we turn away from God in the blindness of self-sufficiency, in the blindness of thinking our good work is enough to create justice and peace. The cross challenges liberals to go much deeper than that.

The Exodus lectionary scripture begins a foundational story for the Jewish and Christian traditions. A nomadic tribe had gone down to Egypt because of drought and famine. The Nile still flowed and produced its abundance of food., the strength of many centuries of Egyptian dynasty. The legend in Genesis is that, through Joseph, there was an initial welcome. But Exodus begins with the blunt facts of slavery, grinding brutal slavery. There was no room for the privilege of liberalism and no dream of atonement.

And along comes Moses, the man for whom the concept of Messiah is named. As in the Christmas stories, a brutal leader was killing Hebrew boy babies. Salvation begins with a story of women who refused to accept such brutality: a mother, a sister, two midwives, and Pharoah"s daughter. The Hebrew women were crafty and risked in hope. But it was Pharoah"s daughter whose heart was touched by God, who broke the command of Pharoah and opened up an opportunity she couldn"t forsee. She had pity and that was enough to get things started. God acted through Moses and began a great story of liberation, but first God acted through a non-Hebrew, acted in love through a non-Hebrew.

The story of liberation was precious to the Hebrews and they interpreted it in terms of a special covenant between God and themselves. They came to see themselves, based especially on the liberation story that begins with our lectionary scripture for today, as a chosen people. And they thought that other people were not chosen. It is a powerful thing to recognize that you are chosen by God, loved by God, and that does indeed lead to a deep liberation that is appropriately symbolized by escape from deep oppression.

In this story the mother, the sister, and the midwives were the liberals who were risking for transformation. But they were dependent ultimately on God"s surprising action through touching the heart of a powerful oppressor, Pharoah"s daughter.

The cross challenges liberal to give up a sense of control, a sense of being specially favored. It challenges liberals to give up their reliance on privilege, especially the privilege of working for charity, justice, and peace on one"s own timetable, within one"s own budget. Furthermore, I believe the cross challenges those whose faith revolves around the concept of atonement to turn from the magic of feeling they have a special deal with God, to understanding sacrifice as a response of appreciation and hope. Sacrifice helps us reach beyond what we already knows and understand, to reach beyond our personal destiny and self-interest. That"s my way of thinking about the big tent created by the cross.

And now it is time to turn to the Matthew scripture. My recent careful study of the Gospel of Mark has made me very aware of the great difference between Matthew and Mark with regard to the disciples of Jesus. Mark tells a story in which the disciples model misunderstanding and betrayal. At the end of Mark"s story Peter betrays Jesus and that is the last we here of Peter. I understand Mark as writing for a Gentile Christian audience that was in rebellion against any dominance by the original Jewish Christians in the early church.

Matthew, however, has a positive view of the disciples and makes Peter a hero. The Roman Catholic Church claims this passage as the scriptural grounding for their myth of apostolic succession. Matthew, however, was perhaps even more anti-Jewish than Mark. Matthew focuses on explaining why the Jews did not understand their own laws, their own prophets, their own story. Peter"s testimony that Jesus is not merely the Son of Man, a messianic designation, but the Son of God, a claim at the heart of trinitarian theology, makes Peter no longer a Jew but the first to understand, transform, and become a Christian before there was even the name Christian.

Despite the hostility of Mark and Matthew to the beginnings of Christianity among the Jews, both incorporate powerful Jewish understandings in their conceptions of the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior. These two gospels stand out in this regard, particularly in contrast to the dozens of gospels and other important Christian writings of the first couple of centuries in which the humanity of Jesus gets more and more clouded by Greek understandings of Jesus as God coming to earth sort of masquerading as a person.

Mark and Matthew meet at the cross. Matthew follows Mark"s basic story and adds some interpretive material of his own. Matthew adds on a resurrection story whereas the original Mark did not. But the story of the crucifixion of Jesus is a very rich part of both Gospels, with many themes that cannot be developed in one sermon.

No one survives life. My summary of the existential meeting point of Mark and Matthew at the cross is that the cross is the difference between surviving and living. Far be it from me to try to limit what God might do in the future. But our primary existential challenge is to celebrate the life we have already been given. That is enough for me. For those who face the mystery of God"s creative activity and hope for more life, I suggest that we share the common project of following the best and most compelling lures of life we have, whatever else might happen. The cross lures us both to give life away for love. This is how we both can experience bonding with what is lasting, what is eternal. That"s an understanding of the cross I think all Christians can honor and proclaim.



Atonement Theology

These comments were developed in response to conversation within Seekers concerning my sermon of August 21st, 2005: Surviving or Living. I edited and extended the comments in December, 2006. I have added a discussion of the relationship between the tradition of atonement theology and the eschatological themes found in the New Testament. They begin with the most fundamental question I received, "What is atonement theology?"

Atonement theology is a basic part of classic Christian theology. I name it as "classic" rather than "orthodox" because I believe my response is in keeping with a common contemporary response that affirms the saving truth that underlies atonement theology while dismissing the mythic structure that provides the framework for atonement theology. To argue about what is "orthodox" is not as helpful as discussing what is true and what is life-giving. A lot discussions about what is or isnít orthodox boil down to arguments about the philosophical and metaphysical assumptions of early theologians rather than arguments about the kerygma of the gospel message of Jesus, the saving truth at the heart of Christianity.

Said alternatively, my comments are an attempt to offer affirming and respectful dialogue with the great majority of Christians today who still hold onto atonement theology in its several formulations: fundamentalist, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and the tradional wings of both Lutheran and Calvinist Protestantism. The core of our connection, from my point of view, is the common affirmation of the core saving truth of the gospels. The core notion of atonement theology is that Jesus paid for our sins by his wrongful death on the cross so that we would not have to be subjected to eternal punishment by a just (sometimes wrathful) God.

Atonement theology is the primary theology of Paul and you can find it in Hebrews and other parts of the New Testament as well. My point of view is that the mythological structure of atonement theology is a distraction from saving truth just as the three story picture of the universe that constitutes the metaphysics of the New Testament is a distraction from the core truths about God as creator. My comments here, join others in pointing to the common bonds of Christianity in deeply valuing the kerygma (saving truth) that is so precious. I find myself in agreement with Paul and others about the kerygma and just see atonement theology as a clumsy way of pointing to the kerygma..

My understanding is that atonement theology was created to solve a serious theological problem faced by many of the Jewish groups of Jesus's day, echoed in today's Judaism with struggles about the meaning of the Holocaust. Paul saw in Jesus, whom he never met in person, a liberating solution to the heart problem that he and other Jews were carrying. This saving word radically changed his life and made him the most successful Christian evangelist of his generation, a powerful initiator of what became Christianity.

That heart problem was doubt about the question, "Does God love me?" For Jews of the first century the question was often framed in collective form. "Does God love the Jews?" That question arose from a difficulty in the Jewish understanding of covenant. The Jews understood their covenant with God as a special relationship with God not granted to other people. They saw themselves as a chosen people, a special people, and the story of scripture they valued above all else was the story of this covenant.

The story of the Jewish people begins with Abraham who was called by God to journey to the land that is now present day Israel, plus some adjacent territory. Abraham declared that God had given this land to his descendants forever. This declaration did not meet the approval of the then current inhabitants and has led to many centuries of warfare, just as it has led to decades of warfare since the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Abraham and his family were nomads and when an extended drought and famine came the Abrahamic tribes moved to Egypt. After awhile they became slaves in Egypt. The second great phase of the covenant story was the rise of Moses and liberation from Egypt. Moses, for whom the concept of Messiah is named, was incredibly important in forming the core theology of Judaism. This theology was based on covenant. However, the covenant framed by Moses has universal themes and not just a special theme of covenant with the Jewish people as defined by blood-line inheritance. An easy way to remember this development is that one of the names that Moses had for God was simply "I am."

Moses gathered the tribes in Egypt by appealing to the memory of the covenant with Abraham and led the tribes out of Egypt to go to the "Promised Land," promised at least in myth to Abraham. But things did not go well. Once again, the then current inhabitants of the "promised land" wanted to keep their land for themselves. The tribes following Moses were rebuffed from moving into the promised land and survived as nomads in the wilderness edges between the promised land and Babylon.

During this time in the wilderness the biblical story is that the people were being punished for not keeping the covenant, starting with the worship of idols while Moses was up on the mountain getting the 10 commandments and other parts of the foundational law around which the tribes gathered. It is important to note that a society based on law is fundamentally different than a society based solely on the authority of a patriarch.

The gathering around law was a fundamental cultural invention that is one of the most precious pillars of contemporary civilization. It is a fundamental cultural creation that has come to largely displace simple family advantage as an organizing principle for society.

According to the Mosaic covenant the people were supposed to obey the law as their fundamental response to being chosen by God. But they didn't obey the law. The story is that their lack of obedience was the cause of their suffering in the wilderness. The explanation of Godís failure to help the chosen people occupy the promised land was to blame the people rather than to blame God. Finally the Jewish tribes gathered enough collective military strength to capture the promised land and set up the Kingdom of Saul, and then David. At long last the mythic promise to Abraham was fulfilled. (To me it is irrelevant whether there really was a person named Abraham who thought that God gave his descendants the promised land. The important thing is that centuries of Jews have focused a lot of their lives around that promise.)

The Davidic kingdom lasted only two generations before breaking into two parts and finally dissipating into several military defeats and exiles. The prophets interpreted the meaning of the collapse of the Davidic Kingdom as punishment for disobedience to the law and alienation from the law and from God. The people were being punished by God for their disobedience just as they were punished in the wilderness. The kerygma of this prophetic analysis concerning political authority is very valuable. In these comments my concern is to focus on the psychological and spiritual results of the Jewish people coming to believe that they were fundamentally sinners and that they were suffering oppression because they had not kept the law.

After the fall of the Kingdom of David the Jews were dispersed into various degrees of wandering and bondage over several centuries, beginning with Babylon. Their ability of hold onto the law as their core sense of unity served them well in their dispersed and oppressed circumstances and they sustained a cultural continuity not based on being a nation with land and a king.

During this time of bondage Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), and some other writings in Hebrew scripture, began to focus more on the universalism of God that was not tied to a specific territory, though they held onto the hope that God would restore the promised land to their control. The polarity of specialness and universalism continued to develop over centuries of quite different circumstances. Such development is precious for the best of Jewish and Christian theology to this day. Here, however, I continue to focus on the theme that the Jews believed that their circumstances were tied to their obedience to the law.

A temporary reprieve from oppression and exile came with a return to the promised land in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. The law was reinterpreted in the Deuteronomic code and there was a great emphasis on purity in terms of keeping the law and throwing out "foreign" influences, including the forced divorcing of "foreign" wives. But this far weaker kingdom didn't hold either and once again the interpretation was in terms of the failure of the people to keep the law. But the demands of the law as freshly stated in the Holiness Code were even higher and harder to keep.

During the time of renewed exile the psychological and spiritual desperation of the Jews increased. It felt harder and harder to hold onto hopes that God would forgive the people and restore them to control of the promised land. One result was the rise of apocalypticism (end of the world mythology). In apocalypticism, as found at the end of the book of Daniel for example, the existential problem of sin, understood as failure to keep the law, was mythically transferred to conflict between heavenly beings. This mythic transformation had the advantage of reducing the emotional burden on believing Jews. The oppressions were not all just the fault of their disobedience but were also the fault of mythic beings. The mythic transfer reduced the feelings of guilt that were becoming too much to bear.

After Alexander the Great conquered "the world" in the 4th century and greatly promoted Greek culture as universal culture, the Jews were given some semi-autonomy around Jerusalem and in Galilee. With the transition to Roman rule we get to the building of the Fourth Temple in Jerusalem (Solomonís Temple, Ezekialís Temple, Zerubbabelís Temple, and then Herodís Temple). Once again the Jewish people had at least some control of the place they felt they had been promised. They had a limited Jewish government under the Herods, who were at least nominally Jewish, with a major role for the Temple priests, even though it was limited authority under Rome bought at the price of crushing taxation.

Jewish worship in the temple was heavily focused on animal sacrifice, not unlike other non-Jewish cults of that era. The theme of Jewish sacrifice however, was distinctive in that the people acknowledged they had sinned, that God had a right to be angry with them because of that sin, and that their penance was the animal sacrifice. (Essenes and Pharisees were not so focused on temple worship and instead focused on purity and keeping the law, with the Pharisees becoming the core of the Jewish movement after the genocide of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70c.e., about 35-40 years after the death of Jesus.)

The core logic of animal sacrifice is basically magic. People can change God's feeling toward's them by propitiating God with such sacrifices. It's a psychic deal. I'll be good to you God, if you'll be good to me. Alternately and more positively stated, "I want you to forgive me God and here is my animal sacrifice to soften your heart." The Sadducees and temple priests busily reinforced this kind of thinking which served as a core marketing strategy for acceptance of the oppressive economic structure that included the building and maintaining of the temple and the priestly groups. (There was vicious infighting between different priestly groups in Herodís Temple for control of the economic income from these sacrifices.)

John the Baptist, a radical in several dimensions, promoted baptism as a once and for all forgiveness of sins. This was a direct threat to animal sacrifice and temple worship in Jerusalem. The core idea is that God loves us first, loves us all the time, and all one has to do is repent and turn to God to receive that love. Jesus, as a disciple of John, continued and extended this message, which found great resonance among parts of the Jewish people, especially lower income Jews who had no chance of keeping Kosher, a key part of being separate and pure. Jesus's proclamation of the love of God as being directly available, his modeling of what it was like to live in such love, his healing and teaching based on such love, was and is the central kerygma, good news, gospel, of Christianity.

But Paul, as a good Jew, was still struggling with his feelings of being alienated from God because of the centuries old sins of the Jewish people and because of his own personal troubles with keeping the law. It was a deep burden on his heart. He latched onto the idea that the death of Jesus on the cross was the ultimate sacrifice, a sacrifice beyond the power of any human sacrifice, because God was Sacrificing God's self. This opened Paul to feeling the love of God and it dramatically changed his life. But, instead of simply proclaiming the love of God, as Jesus did, he wrapped the kerygmatic nugget of God's love in atonement theology. That proved to be powerfully attractive to Jews and Gentiles. (It freed Gentiles from the magic of animal sacrifice as well.)

So, to make the long story short, God loves each of us and we don't need atonement theology as the context of such love.

Taking this point of view, that the center of the Christian message is forgiveness, as imaged by baptism rather than atonement, brings an additional biblical theological question. If Jesus didnít die on the cross as a sacrificial offering how should we understand the meaning of the cross? My answer, an echo of other writers, is that I understand life is precious but that love is even more precious. Love is what life is for. Follow love wherever it leads. Even if the choice is between loving and living, choose love. That is the big tent where many kinds of Christians can come together.

I understand what I have written to be at the heart of what Jesus said and did. This truth of Jesus is wrapped in New Testament writing that tends to have an interpretive understanding based in eschatology (the hope for radical change), an eschatology framed often in terms of the apocalyptic myth which speculated that God would soon bring an end to this world. Then there would be a final judgement in which the lives of everyone would be evaluated and some would go to heaven and others to hell, a mythic solution that preserves an understanding of God as righteous in the face of a lot of experience of unfairness and oppression. (Curiously, in the Book of Revelation, the "New Jerusalem" is pictured as coming to Earth. Other New Testament apocalyptic pictures also refrain from images of disembodied spirits in some heavenly realm but rather picture people in bodies brought back to life by a creative act of God. Life in heaven was more a later development that reflected the spiritualization of the gospel to fit dualistic Greek thinking.)

The early believers were counting on the end of the world coming soon, as Matthew puts it, within the generation of those alive with Jesus. When that didnít happen there was a theological crisis. That theological crisis has repeated itself time after time down the centuries without stopping some substantial number of Christians from thinking that soon time and life as we know it will come to an end. (I understand this apocalyptic thinking to be driven by the existential agony of oppression and unfairness of everyday life as experienced by many people. In some case apocalypticism display a thinly disguised hunger for revenge, a theme prominent in the Psalms. You might think of apocalypticism as a crying out of the human spirit that oppression and injustice cannot be the last word and that, despite all evidence to the contrary, God is in control and will act to set things right. Martin Luther King, Jr. played to this core feeling, but brought it back into the here and know with his repeated use of the language, "Truth crushed to earth will rise again.")

When the end of the world didnít come, many early Christians, especially in the 2nd and 3rd centuries c.e., shifted from a focus on the end of the world to a direct going to heaven when one dies. This transition was accomplished in a church made up primarily of Gentile Christians. Instead of a focus on the body as found in much of the New Testament, they were moved by Greek dualism (think of Plato and Aristotle) to a negative view of the body. Greek dualism also influenced the views of Paul who was both Jew and Greek (a Roman Citizen) and is found as well in the gospel of John, in which Jesus is seen not merely as a man but as the embodiment of the eternal logos (Wisdom) that was with God from before the beginning of time.

From my point of view, the contemporary focus of some people on going to heaven is driven by two kinds of existential angst" the crying out that God is in control despite the evidence of injustice and oppression, and a general fear of death. This angst links with the everyday psychological reality that loved ones who die remain alive in our memories, a psychological experience that prompts a desire and hope to be reunited.

The existential problem is that a focus on atonement theology and going to heaven draws attention away from our life on earth, draws away our thanksgiving and celebration for the gifts of our lives and the world as is. It is hard to feel such celebration of current existence when one is among those who are most oppressed, among those who are treated most unfairly. And Christianity spread fast among the people who were most oppressed.

In summary, I affirm the saving truth that underlies atonement theology. God loves each one of us and wants the best for us. This is true before we feel any relief from our guilt. It is true even if we understand that our lives are embedded in inescapable sin that is part of a great many of the choices we make, no matter how we choose. Jesus followed John the Baptist in proclaiming baptism as a fundamental sign of forgiveness. Such baptism requires repentance and acceptance of the love of God. It is free and costs only your whole life. It is freeing in the sense of putting one on a new path with the turning that is the critical aspect of repentance. The freedom of baptism is always available right now. When Paul and others added atonement theology they merely intruded an unnecessary and distracting theological loop in the basic affirmation of Godís love and forgiveness. This means that, for those of us who understand atonement theology in this way, we can feel full fellowship and continuity with those Christians who hold onto atonement theology.


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