Thursday, August 07, 2014

Part XXV Matthew – Atonement Theology, Conclusion: Seeking New Possibilities

By John Shelby Spong

Have you ever wondered why the work of Charles Darwin has been so threatening to traditional Christians and to institutional Christianity? In fundamentalist and Bible belt regions of the world, Christians have gone to extraordinary efforts to blunt Darwin’s teaching. One recalls the publication of a series of tracts between 1910 and 1915, which were produced by literalistic Christians operating out of Princeton Theological Seminary and mailed each week to over 500,000 Christian leaders around the world. These tracts were called “The Fundamentals” and their writers called themselves “Fundamentalists.” They were funded by the Universal Oil Company of California (Unocal) and represented an attempt to defend traditional Christianity from the Darwinian challenge.

Next, one recalls the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1926 when John Scopes, a young biology teacher in the public schools, was found guilty of teaching in a Tennessee school that which is “contrary to the Word of God.” This was then followed by massive attempts up to this day to control the curriculum of public schools through local elections so that Darwin would not corrupt the Christian faith of the children of traditional Christians. Finally, these critics sought to infuse public school textbooks in order to teach first, “Creation Science” and later “Intelligent Design” as alternatives to Darwin in the science classrooms of public schools.

In 2014 four of the seven Republican primary candidates for the United States Senate seat in Georgia declared their opposition to evolution, a stand that they deemed to be critical to winning the nomination. Ultimately, each of these challenges failed, sometimes at the hands of the laws, sometimes at the hands of the voters, but it is clear that Darwin and evolution disturbed the faith held by many Christians. Part of their fear was that if Darwin turned out to be correct, the literal Bible could no longer be something that could be defended. On a deeper level, however, what Darwin really challenged was each of the presuppositions of the primal Christian myth, which had been erected on the precepts of “Atonement Theology.” Thus, Darwin was thought to represent a kind of ultimate threat to what they believed was the essence of Christianity.

This kind of Christianity assumed that there was an original perfection from which human life had fallen into “original sin.” From that fallen and sinful state human life was unable to save itself and was therefore lost without divine intervention. Jesus was then presented as God’s divine rescue operation. In contrast to these primitive ideas, Darwin confronted us with a vision of humanity that was not fallen, but incomplete. For Darwin, life emerged out of the forces of nature in the simplest single cell form and began its journey through history. From that beginning some 3.8 billion years ago, life evolved through hundreds of millions of years first into clusters of cells, which allowed complexity, cell differentiation and cell specialization to appear. Next, and again after hundreds of millions of years, this thing called life split into two different streams, one animate and the other inanimate, but with each deeply interdependent with the other.

Every living thing was and is in some other living thing’s food chain. Then out of the animate side of life, primitive forms of consciousness appeared and began to grow. How conscious is an insect, a clam or a lobster? Compare their levels of consciousness with that of a horse, a dog or a cat. Creatures that are alive and conscious do not transcend the boundaries of nature. Every living thing, conscious and sub-conscious, is also programmed by nature itself to maximize its survival. Vines in the rain forests of the world are driven to seek sunshine and water. Predators and victims alike share in what looks like a kind of “survival dance” in the jungles of the world. Survival alliances seem to form between various species of life that defy rational explanation. Ants and wasps build their nests in the same tree and each wards off the enemy of the other. Parakeets that live on the toxic seeds of the fruits of the forest learn how to lick the anti-toxins from the soil of the forest in order to survive. Each of these behaviors is instinctive, but all are in the service of survival, which controls and drives every living thing.

A day ultimately came, however, in our evolutionary history when a major new boundary was crossed. Out of conscious life self-consciousness evolved. That was the moment when a creature emerged in the evolutionary process that did not see itself as part of nature, but as a self over against nature. This creature could say “I,” “me” and mine.” This creature did not escape its drive for survival, but it did transcend nature’s previous limits. It knew self-consciously that it was survival-oriented. Every decision it made was in the service of survival. Sometimes it gave up individual life to guarantee the survival of its species. So it knew and valued sacrifice. Nonetheless, it installed survival consciously as its highest value and both knowingly and forever acted out of the drive to survive. If one knows one is survival-oriented, if one’s highest adopted value is survival, either of the individual or the species, then that self-conscious creature cannot help being self-centered.
This was and is the deepest and the most universal characteristic of all life, but only human life is consciously aware of it. That is part of what it means to be human.

When ancient people sought to understand the radical self-centeredness of human life, they interpreted that behavior, not as part of our biology, which it surely is, but as a flaw in our nature, the result of a “fall.” Because human beings know themselves to be self-centered, they assumed that there must have been a time when they were “at one” with the world of nature and with God, so they sought to recover that original bliss. Occasionally, they would experience that rare quality of transcending survival’s drive in life in the discovery of transcending love. They could even give up their survival quest and give themselves away in love for another. Husbands and wives, parents and children sometimes know that reality.

So the mythmakers explained this understanding of life as an original perfection or oneness from which, they suggested, we had fallen into the universality of “sin” expressed in the self-centeredness of our survival-driven nature. That was when “Original Sin” was assumed to be the mark of all humanity. So human beings began to develop primal myths of lost original perfection lived in a mythical, pre-historic place called the Garden of Eden, where we were “at one” with God, with each other and with the world of nature, but which now was gone. We could not return to Eden, since all life had to be lived “East of Eden.” So indelible was this self-centered survival aspect of life that we felt we had to be rescued from it by a power not limited by our human condition.

Ultimately the Jesus experience was explained in these terms. Jesus, we said, came from another realm. He shared in our humanity though he was not bound by it, we asserted. He was our “savior” who did for us what we could not do for ourselves. He broke the power of self-centeredness and restored us to our original state of being one with God. When we sought to explain just how he did this the story got more and more barbaric. Jesus, it appears, did this by absorbing the punishment from an angry God in order to overcome the effects of “the fall.” He thus paid the price our sin required and thus restored us to an original oneness with God. Jesus was a divine invader sent by God to rescue a fallen humanity.

What is wrong with that understanding? Everything, not the least of which is, that none of it is true. There never was an original perfection. We have evolved from primitive single cells into complex, self-conscious life. There was no fall. One cannot fall from a perfection one has never possessed, nor can we be rescued from a fall that never happened or “restored” to a status that we have never known. “Original Sin” is thus both a distortion of reality and a lie. It is an idea based on bad anthropology. Good theology can never be built on bad anthropology. “Atonement Theology” is based on an understanding of human life that is simply wrong, Unless Christianity dismisses “Atonement Theology,” there is no way that it will continue to live.

Can we, however, rid ourselves of these destructive concepts and still be Christian? Can we dismiss the brainwashing of the ages and begin to see Jesus, not as the rescuer of the fallen, but as the expander of the potential of our humanity? Can we drop the idea of “redemption” and substitute for it the idea of being made whole, being given the power to step beyond survival into a new consciousness? Can we tell the Jesus story in this dramatically different way?

To do this means that the traditional understandings of God like the Incarnation and even the Trinity must be reformulated, since both are based on the definition of human life as fallen. These fourth century doctrines do not define God, as we have been taught, they only define our understanding of God and are based on ideas that we no longer believe to be true. The dualistic boundary, which we have arbitrarily created between the human and the divine, must also go. The human is not the opposite of the divine, it is the doorway into the divine. When one becomes fully human, one crosses the boundary into the divine. The two are on a spectrum just like the spectrum between male and female, between life and consciousness.

Finally, the idea of salvation won for us on the cross must go. Salvation has come to mean lifting us out of something broken and into a new state. The task of the Christ becomes, therefore, not to save us. It is to call us, to love us and to empower us to become so deeply and fully human that we might escape our boundaries as self-conscious creatures and evolve into the realm of universal consciousness. There we will begin to recognize our oneness with all things living and, perhaps, even our oneness with the Source of life itself, which we call by the name God. Then we will recognize that the purpose of Christianity is not to save us from our sins, but to enlarge and enhance what it means to be human. Jesus will become for us, not our redeemer but our life-giver, our guide into the depths of our humanity. The choice before us is clear, but it is not easy. Perhaps that is what it means to walk by faith.


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