Participatory soteriology and the shape of Christian life together

Christopher offers a semi-defense of Pelagius (a semi-Pelagian defense?) and calls for a movement of “Advent asceticism” that sees a particular form of communal obedience not as an attempt to earn heaven, but as a response to Heaven as it has come to live among us in the Incarnation. He notes that much Protestant theology, with its focus on a once-for-all transactional account of salvation, has a hard time underwriting this kind of response. Instead, he advocates a “participatory soteriology”:

What this means is not that we save ourselves, or that salvation has not been given once-for-all, but rather in Christ we receive this Life as pure gift and participate in and live out of the Life of this One who is our salvation, our healing, our reharmonization as a leavening society and as a people of and friends of the earth, that is, the whole of creation and every creature.

Somewhat relatedly, I’m reading Keith Ward’s Religion and Human Nature, which is the third volume in his four-volume “comparative theology.” In it, Ward is trying to develop a Christian theology that is open to the insights of other traditions while still remaining a distinctively Christian theology.

An important distinction Ward makes in this volume is between “forensic” and “soterial” models of sin and salvation. In short, for a forensic model, the fundamental human problem is guilt and the solution is remittance of guilt (whether through punishment, satisfaction, or forgiveness). For a soterial model, by contrast, the fundamental problem is the the sickness of the human self: its affections and desires are disordered. The self is turned in on itself, to borrow Luther’s phrase, loving itself in a disordered way. The corresponding solution is healing: we need a re-orientation of our deepest selves toward love of God and neighbor.

Writing about different forms of Hinduism (but in a way that he intends, I think, to apply to Christianity) Ward observes that “a concentration on a forensic notion of desert misses something basic to the religious perception”:

What is missing is the idea…that the goal of human life lies in a relationship of devotion to the supreme Lord. A mechanical and forensic model, concentrating on individual moral success of failure, misses this element of personal relationship that lies at the heart of devotional faith….[A] soterial model…construes the spiritual state of the human self primarily in terms of analogies to disease and health. The healthy soul is one that is in a state of devoted login service to the Lord, that is transfigured by the beauty of the Lord, and empowered by the Lord’s love. The sick soul is one that withers and atrophies because it is incapable either of giving or receiving the love that alone gives life. (p. 53)

A lot of traditional theology, particularly Protestant, has favored the forensic account. Jesus dies on the cross so that our sins can be forgiven. The problem, as Christopher notes, is that Protestantism (particularly Lutheranism) hasn’t always had a good account of what we’re supposed to do after that. The result has all too often been a complacent conformity rather than lives conformed to the image of Christ.

Correspdonding to the forensic and soterial models, Ward distinguishes two understandings of “justification.” The first, which has dominated much Protestant theology, understands it as a kind of declaration of legal innocence. God “imputes” the righteousness of Christ to us, even though in ourselves we remain sinful. Arguing for a different view, Ward suggests understanding it more relationally. Justification is being rightly related to God.

When ‘justification’ is taken to mean, ‘a declaration of legal innocence’, one faces the difficulty that a guilty person has to be declared innocent by God. But, if God is perfectly just, how is this possible? As I have interpreted it, justification means ‘establishing the possibility of being rightly related to God’. How can a person whose deepest motives and dispositions are to cause great harm be rightly related to God? Only if those motivations and dispositions are wholly changed, by an inward turning of the mind, a metanoia. (p. 190).

What is accomplished in the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection is that God unites humanity to divinity and makes possible this restored relationship. The cross shows both “the suffering that self-regard causes to self, to others, and to God [and] the life of obedient self-giving that God requires” (p. 191). But it is more than that: it is “the historical vehicle of divine power to forgive and heal” (p. 191).

Instead of ‘satisfaction’ and ‘substitution’, it might be better to speak of ‘healing’ and ‘participation’. What God requires of sinners is a transformation of life in penitence and obedient love. This requirement is met by participation in the power of the Spirit, which is luminously expressed in and mediated through the life and self-sacrificial death of Jesus. Jesus’ sacrifice gives particular form to the Spirit’s activity, and founds the community of the new covenant in which the Spirit can transform human lives into the image of cruciform love. (p. 214)

That last point strikes me as key in light of Christopher’s observation that Protestant Christianity often lacks forms of disciplined community that give a paritcular shape to the Christian life. Participation in the Spirit is participation in the particular cruciform shape of Jesus’ humanity. This incorporation into Christ restores our relationship to God and makes possible a re-ordering of our desires. We “put on the mind of Christ,” to use Paul’s phrase, and are renewed in our humanity. This is a gradual process, one that may not be complete until after death. But by being “in Christ” we are empowered to receive a new self, one that is rightly related to God, our neighbor, and the rest of creation.

Communicating the gospel after Christendom

I urge everyone who cares about these things to read these two posts from bls at The Topmost Apple on how the church is dealing (or not) with our current “post-Christendom” situation. She makes two main points: first, the church often acts like it has nothing very interesting to communicate, and, second, what it does communicate is too often encased in impenetrable religious jargon that is meaningless to a lot of people. She thinks that the gospel carries the explosive truth about the human situation, but the churches are afraid, unwilling, or unable to offer that to people:

I think the Gospels – and Paul – are making some really convincing claims about the facts of the world and the human condition – and that A.A. has (re-?)discovered some of these things almost by accident. I think Luther was really onto something in his parsing of “Law” and “Gospel”; it has taken me a couple of years to come to understand more about this-but it’s real. It’s true-and it’s actually backed up by quite a lot of real-world evidence. This kind of thinking really does change your point of view – and it’s philosophy as much as religion, really. It’s got legs.

We need to be able to say these things to people who do not know our language already – and we need to offer people who do know the language a way for the faith to remain vital and alive – to continue to offer sustenance and excitement – in and for them, too. We need to make a case. “Mystery” and “mystification” are two completely different things; we really can retain the former and eliminate the latter, I believe. It’s clear to me from years of discussions about these things that many people are interested in religion – but just can’t get with some of its manifestations (mentioned above). And of course, we have the problem of some of the …. erm ….. more extravagant claims of the Christian faith (sometimes called “believing six impossible things before breakfast”). So I do not believe we can count anymore, my friends, on Christianity being “believed in” as it’s been “believed in” in the past. We are going to have to assume that many (most?) people will not be convinced about these “impossible things” much anymore – and we’re going to have to depend far more on Christianity’s fascinating unveiling of counterintuitive ideas and mystical insights.

In a related vein, Ben Myers at Faith and Theology writes on the limitations of preaching from the lectionary:

There’s a lot to be said for the use of a lectionary cycle. But the lectionary tends to presuppose, rather than to foster, a broad understanding of the biblical story. Lectionaries were designed for use in societies that were already implicitly Christian – societies in which the rhythms of the liturgical year, and the broad sweep of the biblical narrative, could be more or less taken for granted. In the Revised Common Lectionary (which my own church follows), just look at the theological subtlety with which the OT and NT readings are often connected: a subtlety that is quite lost on anybody without a good working knowledge of scripture and liturgical tradition. And preachers only exacerbate the problem when they take these subtle liturgico-theological connections as the theme of their proclamation, instead of preaching from the texts themselves. (Preachers, please note: the content of your proclamation is not the liturgical calendar, but the Word of God!)

I think most churches–primarily in the U.S. and European context–have still not come to grips with the fact that a large number of people no longer consider religion particularly important or interesting. Not that they necessarily reject it passionately like the new atheists; they just don’t see why they should be much concerned about it at all. Moreover, they don’t necessarily have the background familiarity with the Bible, the church, and Christian claims that might once have been taken for granted. Those of us who take a special interest in theology and religion, either as professionals or amateurs, tend to become embedded in the language, history, and arcana of the church. As a result, we lose sight of what all this must look like to someone on the outside. If we believe that the gospel offers people something decisive and meaningful for their lives that they can’t get (or maybe more modestly aren’t getting) elsewhere, we have to find ways to communicate it. In a way, this is just a recapitulation of the insight of theologians like Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: we have cordoned off matters of faith to a special “religious” sphere; but if the gospel is true, its truth is for our “secular,” ordinary, quotidian lives.

More on Anselm and atonement

I just finished listening to this presentation by Fr. Thomas Williams–an Episcopal priest, distinguished philosopher, medieval scholar, and blogger–on Anselm and the atonement. Fr. Williams does a terrific job of clearing up some misconceptions about Anselm’s soteriology, and he provides a spirited defense of some of its essential elements.

One interesting and I think important distinction he makes is between a “substitutionary” understanding of atonement and a “vicarious” one. The former posits Jesus as an object (of God’s wrath, say) to whom something is done instead of us (our substitute); the latter emphasizes Jesus as the one who takes the initiative of acting on our behalf. Anselm emphatically takes the latter route.

Another key point is that Cur Deus Homo was written in response to the objection that God would be acting irrationally and in an “unseemly” fashion by securing our redemption through the Incarnation and Passion. After all, in the context of a classical view of God, it does seem a mark against the divine majesty for God to become a squalling, squirming human baby or to die a shameful death between two thieves on a cross. Thus Anselm was motivated to show not only that it was rational and fitting for God to act in this way, but that it was the only way God could’ve redeemed humanity. Even though he is associated with the slogan “faith seeking understanding,” Anselm holds that pure reason alone can demonstrate–without relying on scripture or Christian tradition–that, given human sin, God had to become incarnate. And yet, the only thing Anselm thinks he can show by pure reason is that the God-man must give up his life to provide satisfaction, not that he had to die in any particular way, such as crucifixion. Which is why, according to Fr. Williams, Anselm doesn’t go into the “gory details” of Jesus’ death, a la Mel Gibson (at least, not in CDH).

Fr. Williams provides a clear summary of Anselm’s key argument in the logically direct form beloved of analytic philosophers:

1. Necessarily, if human beings sin, God offers reconciliation.

2. Necessarily, if God offers reconciliation, the Son becomes incarnate and offers his life as a recompense.

Therefore, necessarily, if humans sin, the Son becomes incarnate and offers his life as a recompense.

Support for the first premise: God, by his very nature, will not let the project of creation come to nothing. The only alternatives in dealing with sin are punishment or recompense–and Anselm explicitly rejects punishment. Punishment may take care of the debt humanity owes to God, but it can’t restore the relationship. God doesn’t just want to right the balance, but to restore the relationship that sin has breached. (Which is why, incidentally, Anselm’s theory is not a variety of “penal substitution.” In Anselm’s account, punishment and satisfaction are mutually exclusive alternatives.)

Support for the second premise: The only way for reconciliation to happen is for the Son to become incarnate and offer himself. This is not something imposed on the God the Son by God the Father, because the Son has the purposes for creation in common with the Father. Christ’s self-offering, because his life is divine and therefore infinitely precious, can make up for the infinite badness of human sin. And because he is man, it is an offering made by humanity. Human beings have to do something to repair the relationship, but we can’t. Fortunately, the God-man can! However, the self-offering must be voluntary if it is to truly be an act of reconciliation. Violence–a death “unwillingly sustained”–can’t solve the problem. This goes some way, Fr. Williams maintains, toward addressing the critiques of feminists and others who see Anselmian atonement as tantamount to “divine child abuse.”

In Fr. Williams’ summary, Anselm’s argument can be stripped of some of the cruder commercial and feudal metaphors and essentially comes to this: The voluntary self-offering of the infinitely precious life of the God-man repairs the infinite breach that sin had opened between God and humanity and restores the possibility of eternal happiness that God had always intended.

Fr. Williams stresses that he’s not saying this is the right understanding of the Atonement. For that matter, Anselm says this too! The mysteries of the faith are so deep and inexhaustible, no one account gives you the uniquely right way of thinking about them. However, there does seem to be something deeply right about this basic picture. Anselm’s theory has been badly misrepresented by careless readings and second-hand rumors and should not be lightly dismissed.

Having Fr. Williams lay out Anselm’s position so clearly and elegantly reminded me how compelling it can be, but it also clarified some remaining issues I have with it, which I’d put under two headings:

Death as a result of sin. Jesus’ sacrifice is meritorious in part because, being sinless, he didn’t have to die. Anselm shares with most pre-modern theologians the belief that death occurred as a result of human sin. But living in a “post-Darwinian” world as we do, it’s much harder for most of us to see death as a result of sin. What happens to Anselm’s account if death is seen as a natural process rather than something that only enters the world in the train of human sin?

The apparent salvific irrelevance of Jesus’ specific life. Anselm’s rationalist methodology requires him to abstract away from the concrete details of Jesus’ life. But doesn’t this imply that the specific life the God-man led is irrelevant to our salvation? And doesn’t this seem contrary to the gospel accounts? In his proclamation of the Kingdom, his acts of healing and forgiveness, his miracles, his preaching, his consorting with sinners and outcasts, Jesus seemed to be mediating the salvation of God–restoring relationships and making new life possible. Can an Anselmian atonement theory make room for this?

I appreciate Fr. Williams’ effort to dispell the many misconceptions and half-truths that tend to circulate about Anselm, particularly in “liberal” theological circles. But I also think a satisfying contemporary theory of atonement would have to modify Anselm’s account, possibly in fairly significant ways.

On the murder of David Kato

I know others have been blogging this story, but we had a canon from the Episcopal diocese of San Diego at our church this morning who spoke about it, so I thought I would try to give it some small additional bit of attention.

Last month, David Kato, a gay rights activist in Uganda, was beaten to death after a tabloid (oddly called Rolling Stone) published a photo of him and several other people it maintained were gay under the headline “Hang them.”

According to this article in the New York Times,

Mr. Kato was beaten to death with a hammer in his rough-and-tumble neighborhood. Police officials were quick to chalk up the motive to robbery, but members of the small and increasingly besieged gay community in Uganda suspect otherwise.

“David’s death is a result of the hatred planted in Uganda by U.S. evangelicals in 2009,” Val Kalende, the chairwoman of one of Uganda’s gay rights groups, said in a statement. “The Ugandan government and the so-called U.S. evangelicals must take responsibility for David’s blood.”

Ms. Kalende was referring to visits in March 2009 by a group of American evangelicals, who held rallies and workshops in Uganda discussing how to turn gay people straight, how gay men sodomized teenage boys and how “the gay movement is an evil institution” intended to “defeat the marriage-based society.”

What has invariably been described as a “draconian” anti-gay-rights bill has been working its way through the Ugandan parliament for over a year, which among other things would “broaden the criminalization of homosexuality by introducing the death penalty for people who have previous convictions, are HIV-positive, or engage in same sex acts with people under 18 years of age.”

Meanwhile, a retired Anglican bishop in Uganda, Christopher Senyonjo, an advocate for gay people in the country who was expelled from the Church of Uganda when he first started working with gays and lesbians, is calling on the Anglican Communion to take a stronger stance in support of the rights of LGBT people. (The Anglican church of Uganda, while objecting to some of the more stringent penalties called for by the bill, has come out in support of a modified version that strengthens the current criminalization regime.)

The police have apparently arrested a suspect and are saying that the killing resulted from a “personal disagreement” and not from Kato’s activism. Some sources have been reporting that this was a case of some sort of sexual tryst gone bad, and not a hate crime. (Some conservative Anglican websites are even reporting this with a kind of satisfaction, as though it shows that concern about violence against LGBT people is just a bunch of liberal handwringing.)

Whatever the investigation turns up (and I know nothing about the circumstances of Kato’s murder beyond what I’ve read and nothing about the probity or otherwise of the Ugandan criminal justice system), the kind of climate of hate being fostered in Uganda–by professed Christians in many cases–is nothing other than the antithesis of the gospel of Jesus. The church of Christ, and particularly its leaders, needs to be crystal clear about that and unstinting in its defense of human rights and dignity for all.

Some links for the weekend

- Peter Singer on balancing concern for the environment with efforts to lift people out of poverty.

- Kevin Drum on the difference between liberals and libertarians.

- Bob Herbert on Sargent Shriver: “one of America’s great good men.”

- Peter Berger’s blog at The American Interest. (Here’s a piece on recent developments in American Lutheranism.)

- A three-part article from Derek on communing the unbaptized:1|2|3.

- Bls says the church needs a program. (Or does it already have one?)

- How Moby-Dick navigates between fanaticism and nihilism. And a previous piece on a similar topic by the same author.

- A killer new song from the German tech-death band Obscura.

Theology of the cross as incarnational theology

Christopher has a powerful meditation on the incarnational emphasis in both Anglicanism and Lutheranism that is very consistent with the “theology of the cross” as Douglas John Hall understands it. Christopher notes that both the emphasis on incarnation in Anglican theology and the Lutheran insistence on the theology of the cross take in the full sweep of God’s self-giving in Christ. “This is what Anglicans have tended to call ‘incarnational,’ that notion, that because God has become a creature, nothing creaturely is outside the purview of God’s concern.”

As Hall points out in The Cross and Our Context, a theology of the cross is sometimes contrasted with, or even pitted against, a “theology of incarnation.” If our incarnational theology is limited to what we might call “Christmas-piety,” he says, it risks missing the point of the theologia crucis. God “descending” to share our creaturehood is indeed wondrous, but the human predicament isn’t creatureliness as such. Rather, it’s the sin, anxiety, and fear of death that prevent us from living authentically human lives. This is why, Hall argues, the cross is the consummation of the incarnation, so to speak: God enters into the very lowest depths of the human condition in order to transform it from within. And therefore the theology of the cross is the incarnational theology par excellence. And this incarnational movement gives shape to the life of discipleship; we are freed to be human (not angels, gods, or beasts)–and sent into the world to show the same kind of love for our fellow creatures that God in Jesus has shown for us. Or, as Christopher says, we learn a new humility–a word that relates both to humaneness and earthiness–that sends us into the world of flesh to love and serve, not away from it into a realm of bodiless “spirituality.”

(Previous posts on Hall’s theology of the cross here and here)

Anglican-Roman doings

There’s been a lot of virtual ink spilled over the last week or so about the Vatican’s announcement that it will make it easier for Anglicans to convert, establishing, it appears, a more widespread use of the so-called Anglican Rite liturgy and allowing for some degree of self-governance for former Anglican communities. (Including continuing the practice of allowing married Anglican clergy to convert, be re-ordained, and lead these parishes.)

People have interpreted the announcement as everything from crass sheep-stealing, to creating a haven for Anglicans opposed to women’s ordination and/or gay clergy, to attempting to establish a united Christian front against Islam. But I think before we jump to conclusions about the significance of this move, it’s important to get at least some sense of who’s likely to actually make such a move.

A lot of the media reports have been focusing on “traditionalist Anglicans,” a vague and not terribly helpful term that could include everyone from a Nigerian charismatic-evangelical to the spikiest of high-church Anglo-Catholics. The former is, for obvious reasons, far less likely to swim the Tiber than the latter.

But even among Anglo-Catholics–a notoriously fissiparous lot–there are significant differences of opinion and practice. There are Anglo-Catholics who worship with the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (or its equivalent in other countries) and those who insist on using the 1928 BCP. There are Anglo-Catholic parishes that use the Catholic Tridentine Rite; there are others that use the reformed Roman rite (the so-called Novus Ordo). There are “Affirming” Anglo-Catholics who support the ordination of women and equality for LGBT Christians; there are others who take traditionalist positions on these matters (or, in some cases, a traditionalist position on one and a revisionist position on the other). There are Anglo-Papalists who identify very strongly with the Catholic Church and long for reunion with Rome, and there are even a few “Byzantine” Anglicans who identify with the spirituality and theology of the Eastern church. (Obviously not all these groupings are mutually exclusive.)

Needless to say, not all of these folks–even within the minority persuasion of Anglo-Catholicism–will be enticed to convert. It’s true that in addition to Anglo-Papalist types, there may be some people in the traditionalist wing of Anglo-Catholicism who will be tempted to convert not because they unhesitatingly accept all the claims of the Catholic Church but because they feel–rightly or wrongly–that Christian orthodoxy is a losing proposition within Anglicanism. Even still, it’s hard to imagine more than a small minority of Anglicans making the decision to go over to Rome. Whether the Pope showed ecumenical bad manners is debatable, but if Benedict’s goal was to absorb the Anglican Communion, Borg-like, into the Catholic Church, this is a peculiar way to go about it.

CofE vs. Anglicanism

Interesting column by Giles Fraser:

the genius of the Church of England has been to allow different theological temperaments to wor­ship alongside one other, united by common prayer and community spirit. This was how we recognised each other as members of the same Church. This was our particular charism, and we were widely valued for it.

In Anglicanism, however, the joys of common prayer and community spirit are replaced by ideology. This Anglican Church is a new invention, a global piece of post-colonial hubris, driven by those who feel that a Church that is genuinely Catholic must have outposts throughout the world.

Bishops get on planes and fly to other parts of the world to sit in com­mittees with other bishops, hammer­ing out policy — although no one in the secular world cares two hoots about what they decide. Over time, these meetings have created a new Church with a single-issue magis­terium based on an unhealthy fascina­tion with what gay people do in their bedrooms. This, apparently, is how we are to recognise each other as Anglicans.

I try to avoid commenting on the affairs of other churches (though, I guess given the full communion arrangements between TEC and the ELCA I have some stake in it). But the obsession with keeping the “Anglican Communion” together is blowing the importance of an institution–one that I can scarcely remember hearing about just a few years ago–all out of proportion. And actual living, breathing human beings are getting ground under the wheels in the process. I’m not sure what kind of ecclessiology really underwrites this effort to create what looks like an ersatz Catholic Church. Maybe it’s that Anglicans never seem to have made peace with being Protestant (or reformed, if you prefer).

Hopefully the Lutheran World Federation can maintain its existence as just that: a federation bound together by bonds of affection and sharing in good works. The last thing we need are more top-heavy church bureaucracies.

What’s going on with TEC?

The headlines say that the Episcopal Church has overturned its “moratorium” on gay bishops. N.T. Wright, predictably, scolds the Americans for fomenting “schism.” But more nuanced interpretations of what’s going on are available. See Christopher here and Father Jones at the Anglican Centrist here.