Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Re-Post For Holy Week: Jesus' Soteriological Significance

What is our salvation all about? Why did Jesus have to be born and have to die? Christians have struggled with these questions from the beginning. Broadly speaking these are questions of soteriology, focused on the issue of atonement: "how does Jesus make God and man 'one'?" In the West, the main theory of atonement is juridical. We are sinners who deserve punishment, a punishment meted on on Jesus instead to spare us. In the East, the idea is that of theosis: God, by appropriating human nature, set man back on the course for which he was originally created, namely to become more like God.

These do not in any way exhaust the ways people have thought about atonement. There is the idea that Jesus defeated the devil, or that Jesus Himself was a sort of trick played by God in the devil to get the devil to lose power. There is the idea that mankind was in some way ill, and that Jesus came to heal us from that illness.

All these routes have some value, and the more intriguing theories often combine elements of several. I have on occasion defended Rene Girard's theory of atonement which is just such a fusion. Here I give my own opinions on the matter of soteriology and Jesus.

The convictions from which these reflection emanate are born of experience. Religion does not begin with dogma or doctrine, though it may begin with belief and faith. But whether the beginning point or the slowly-growing under-current, no religion is worth anything without experience. The early Christian writers, of which the Gospel writers are the apex, experienced something that changed their lives and around which their lives would come to be centered. They experienced salvation in and through Jesus Christ. The risen Christ was as alive in the early church as my heart is within me.

I believe in Jesus because I have encountered the risen Christ, as I have experienced the Holy Spirit. "Jesus was Christ and saved us." This is central to the New Testament texts. But equally central are the inherited (from the Old Testament period) experiences of both the sinfulness of mankind and the unity and primacy of God. A human being cannot be savior unto himself. Only God saves. The Old Testament is clear on this matter: to experience salvation is to experience Yahweh and Yahweh ALONE.

So only God saves, yet Jesus Christ saves us. These are the experiences of the early Church and they are my experiences today. I encounter the risen Christ all the time, as a Revelation of God, as the presence of the One True God. I will not get into the details of how these experiences work or what the phenomenology of them are like, as that is beyond the scope of this post. The central convictions must be clarified: the experience of God as One, the experience of human sinfulness and spiritual destitution, the salvation wrought from Jesus Christ.

The encounter with God as One is found throughout the Old Testament. The Jews discovered, encountered, the One True God. One can look at this discovery within a wider human context. Everyone all around the world was looking for god. What, people asked, is truly worthy of worship? That something is worthy of worship is almost a basic part of human nature. People pray and worship as a matter of course, it is as comfortable, nourishing and necessary as eating or drinking or human contact. Yet where this energy should be directed is not as clear.

Some worshiped sex, others romance, others the cycles of nature, and so on. Eventually most peoples looked at all of these as worthy of worship. But this attitude was inconsistent with the place in which the Jews discovered God: in the moral order. For the ancient Hebrews, in the earliest of times, the attitudes ABOUT God did not differ all that much from other peoples. Worship styles were very similar to other Canaanite peoples. Yet what did differ was the way this worship was directed: towards goodness itself. This attitude, that goodness was truly God, truly the Ultimate Reality, precluded any other object of worship. For multiple objects of worship implied multiple moral orders of behavior, and the conviction that morality itself was God made that impossible. Discovering that goodness was God, the Hebrews could no longer call anything else god, for that would imply that there was no one, over-arching moral order to which worship could be directed.

The working out of the implications of this encounter with the God-Who-Is-Good is the the substance of what Christians call 'the Old Testament'.  But as these implications were worked out, problems arose. For one, there was the problem of innocent suffering. The writers of Ecclesiastes, Habakkuk, many of the Psalms and the Book of Job all questioned how, if goodness is truly God, nature and human nature do not exhibit an abiding moral order at all. The suffering in the world makes belief in this God problematic.

A separate problem is the problem of Mercy and Justice. The prophets go on long rants wherein they state clearly that next to the goodness that is God, all human moral action looks like 'filthy rags'. No person is good, or justified, before the God-That-Is-God. And so we have long monologues (just look at Zephaniah for an example), where we are told God is so good, and the world so rotten, that when the Good-God meets the evil-world, the latter will be completely annihilated. Yet the prophets then schizophrenically go on rants proclaiming the mercy of God and a coming salvation for those who are 'good'. This is strange, given the fact that we were often told moments before that none are good, at all.

Perfect goodness would include both perfect mercy and perfect justice. Yet mercy is to refuse to give people what they deserve. Justice is to give people exactly what they deserve. The problem of innocent suffering recognizes a disconnect between our experience of God and our experience of the world. The problem of mercy and justice recognizes a conflict within our experience of goodness through which we encounter God Himself.

These problems were not only experienced by the Hebrews. Other peoples who had come to broadly monotheistic conclusions, like the Greek Philosophers, faced similar logical problems in their ideas. "How," these great men asked, "is this world to be brought in line with Righteousness, which we experience as divine?"

The answers came in a tacit worship not of goodness, but of the power that people identified with it. If goodness is God, then goodness must be indeed powerful, coercively powerful, and it is that power that we should seek in the world. The quest for power became the quest for God. Hebrews waited for a worldwide empire that would establish God's justice forever, Greeks looked for the philosopher-king who would make this world all it could be, and Romans worshiped Caesar as god on earth. The worship of human kings became common place.

The irony is that such a worship of power replaces, rather than clarifies, the worship of what God actually is. Worship of coercive power is actually the worship of something other than God, it is satanic in its manifestation. Like Girard, I see sin as a kind of disease of the mind, that manifests itself personally. But whereas Girard focused on violence, I focus instead on the need for control that underlies that violence. As Girard saw the devil incarnate in the polytheistic gods, I see that same incarnation in the worship of political power that became ascendant in the late centuries of the BC era and the early centuries of the AD era.

The devil became incarnate before God did. He became incarnate as the political idolatries that promised to usher in God's kingdom, a kingdom of righteousness, while taking up the very coercive structures that made God's righteousness unattainable in any political order.

God's incarnation was an answer to this challenge, and a way to finally end the tensions that sat at the heart of the conviction that virtue is God, that in and through the moral experience we encounter the divine. For until these tensions were solved, the worship of power was inevitable. (No clearer examination of this can be found than Dostoevsky's THE TALE OF THE GRAND INQUISITOR).

God must be reconciled to man. We must make sense of how a God-Who-Is-Goodness exists simultaneously with a nature that lacks a moral order.

Man must be reconciled to God. We must make sense of how mercy and justice can co-exist. Until we have some sense of how this works, we will seek the power that makes our moral vision more likely, rather than rest in faith in God as God is now.

Jesus comes as an answer to all of these problems. In the Old Testament, there are hints of an answer, but no Revelations, nothing like we see in Jesus. Jesus tells us how God saves. For in Jesus we see God receiving the consequences of every sin. Jesus stands not in the place of every sinner, but in the place of every victim of sin. God, we now know, is the one who suffers BECAUSE of our sin. Our sins hurt God. This is the central message of the Gospels (as it is the central message of Hosea, btw). It is the truth that is laid out on Jesus. Jesus is the cost of not only salvation, but of creation itself.

In this way, Jesus solves the problem of evil by making it clear that God, too, suffers. Nothing can be cheap to us that is costly to God, if God cannot exist without suffering, then neither will we. To be angry at God for the suffering in the world is to blame the victim. It is to hate God for what God is: Suffering Love. As Rene Girard says, "Man is never the victim of God, God is always the victim of man."

Jesus also solves the problem of mercy and justice, as Kazoh Kitamori points out in THE THEOLOGY OF THE PAIN OF GOD. For the pain of God, Christ's suffering, exists as a higher concept beyond both mercy and justice. A God who gives mercy without acknowledging the depth of sin is indeed less than good. But a God who chooses to take on the pain of all sin and forgives anyways, exists Himself AS a judgement on all we do. If every time you sinned, your own child was tortured, this torture would be a punishment on you as much as them. God's pain, then, is a judgment upon us, and our punishment for our sin. The one we love and who loves us is nailed with each lie, each forsaking of our ideals, each pain caused to another. The cross reveals our sin for what it is: a terrible evil of infinite proportions. But it also shows us a God who chooses to make sin THIS, so that we can be forgiven.

This then also robs the devil of his power to incarnate, at least for those who believe in Christ Jesus. For if Jesus is God, then indeed God is like Jesus. Jesus reveals God's nature, and the real nature of goodness. Persuasive love is the Ultimate Power, coercive power is lesser and cannot be worshiped. The Caesars can no longer pretend to be god because of their power. For their power is something less than the power of God, which is found paradoxically through suffering for others, through humility, through service, and through obedience to others.

We clamor for fame and fortune as if these are the trappings of divine blessings, yet to see Jesus is to see that God is actually only found when we wash the feet of others. As we clamor for the top, He waits with a towel and bowl of water at the bottom. The Cross reveals the true Glory of God. The Resurrection reveals that the glory of the Cross is truly God's.

This makes sense, then, of the idea that Jesus is truly vital, while keeping us from falling into the trap of believing anything we do... by faith or by deed... has the power to save us. Jesus death resolves the contradictions of God and reveals that God is not separated from us. That is a fact, plain and simple. Nothing can keep us from the love of God now or in eternity. Yet without faith in Jesus Christ, without the conviction that in this man we truly see God, the God that is Goodness, without knowledge that suffering love is goodness and that goodness is Divine, we are left to the mercies of satan, who incarnates in every generation as the political power that promises to make the world what we think it should be. It sows dissatisfaction with the way things are and leads us to worship things like money and power.

Without the historical Jesus, the living incarnate Jesus Christ, we will never be able to see God for what God is. This leaves us open to all kinds of disappointments and disasters. Yet to know Jesus Christ is to know a God who right now and for all times truly can save, each and every moment of our lives.

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