Transformed Lives: Making Sense of Atonement Today

Transformed Lives: Making Sense of Atonement Today

by Cynthia S. W. Crysdale


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781596272682
Publisher: Church Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 06/10/2016
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 1,279,098
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

CynthiaS. W. Crysdale is Professor of Christian Ethics and Theology at the School of Theology, University of the South, Sewanee. She has a BA in psychology from York University in Toronto, Canada, and an MA and PhD from St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. She taught for 18 years at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, DC, before moving to Sewanee, and is the author of several books and articles exploring the topic of atonement.

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Transformed Lives

Making Sense of Atonement Today

By Cynthia S.W. Crysdale

Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2016 Cynthia S. W. Crysdale
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59627-269-9


Falling in Love

Healing and Reconciliation Enfolded in God's Embrace

We have seen the problems that some of the standard accounts of salvation — in the language of redemption, atonement, sacrifice — have yielded, particularly for the contemporary believer repelled by the proliferation of violence and abuse, especially as propagated in and through religious practices and institutions.

Nevertheless, persons continue to live faithful lives and many find radically renewed lives in Christ. Let us look in this chapter at how lives are changed through encounters with God, and specifically through a relationship with Jesus Christ, encompassed by the Holy Spirit. Here we will give a generic, commonsense account of the human person, his or her need for God, and a lifetime journey of death and resurrection as part of a community of faith. The details of how this unfolds in any particular life in its concrete context need to be added. A few examples are given at the end of the chapter, but each reader can add his or her own specifics. How all this fits within the Christian tradition that we have inherited and how we might explain it in a more analytic way today will come in later chapters.

A Life of Death and Resurrection

The first thing to note about our current context is that we now understand "salvation" or "atonement" — the making-us-right-with-God — as a process not a state of being. This is part of a bigger historical shift in modern consciousness — which we will explain later — but for now we will begin discussing the human person in terms of the life cycle.

Being Human

As infants we are mostly taken up with animal instincts and needs. This includes not only the need for food, water, and someone to change our diapers, but the need for touch — cuddling, holding, caressing — and other kinds of stimulation. Hence, we now recognize the importance of early attachment to caregivers, and the power of modeling and imitation at critical stages of childhood. Yet right from the start, human infants have another quality: the ability to wonder. Our bonding with care-givers includes sounds and sights that stimulate attention and, eventually, inquiry. From the beginning, the tools for language are being put in place so that when we become toddlers the incessant "Why?" questions begin. Play and experimentation figure into this exploration of what is not us. This means that we all have the capacity to move beyond ourselves; to bond with others in meaningful ways, to trust our caregivers implicitly, to try on different roles in social interaction, to long to understand and conquer our worlds, however small or insignificant.

Thus it is the nature of being human both to go beyond our current realities and to be entrapped within them. We are fascinated — ever fascinated — with the other, with the world around us. An aspect of this interest is of course self-interest, yet its reach beyond ourselves is unlimited. There is always more to experience, more to try and to understand, more to affect with our actions. Still, we are stuck in a body, a time, and a place. We do need to eat and poop and get some sleep. So we are — forever — a contradiction; captivated by unrestricted wonder yet limited in our reach, both literally and figuratively.

We also are all born into an already constituted community. Biologically we are conceived through some relationship, whether it involves romance, licentious sex, or a petri dish. No one comes alone into the world. Whether wealthy or poor, from an upper middle-class American suburb or a refugee camp in Lebanon, none of us is a blank slate. We are born into a world of meaning and value. We inherit these meanings and these values and they affect us from the very moment we are brought into life, if not before.

So our needs and our wonder are shaped initially by others. These others find themselves in worlds defined by still others, not only other individuals but other social structures, social institutions, economic frameworks. A child born in a refugee camp in Turkey in 2014 is conditioned, from the beginning, in a very different way than a child born in 1966 in a commune in San Francisco.

These preestablished meanings and values then come to shape our wonder and our needs. Our needs are met — or not — laden with narratives about who we are, to whom we belong, which needs are legitimate and when and how they should be met. Our wonder is met with answers; we are told what is true, we are given explanations to make sense of these truths, we receive hints about what counts and what doesn't. In the process our very experiencing is shaped: our seeing, our hearing, our paying attention, our feelings of excitement or shame.

What becomes most significant is the way our needs and our wonder themselves are interpreted. If meeting my needs is understood to be optimal (in other words, I am spoiled), I will inherit a particular set of expectations. If, on the other hand, I am punished for being hungry, or having a dirty diaper, my expectations of life and of myself will be diminished. Likewise, if my inexhaustible wonder is encouraged, even if my world is resource-poor, I will have a sense of my own capabilities that will support my native tendency to marvel.

Accordingly, not only am I as an individual a combination of constructive creativity and very real limitations, so also is my community. The strengths of a tradition lie in its role in protecting infants and guiding child development. A community's meanings and values take naturalinquisitiveness and orient it, providing the curious child with tools to negotiate her questions about and interactions with the world around her. The liability of communal life and the power of social persuasion is that dramatically negative influences can affect very malleable hearts and minds toward distorted feelings and ideas. As mentioned above, these are most destructive when they involve messages about our creativity and embodiment themselves.

So we come to what the Judeo-Christian tradition has designated as sin. This is the recognition that the human spirit, while itself oriented beyond itself, can become mired in self-indulgence in a way that curtails this orientation to the good. Ironically, there is a way in which the distortion of this native goodness lies in its unrestricted nature. Because our imaginations and our questions reach to the sky, so to speak, we can think that we ourselves have no limits. We mistake our urge for comprehensive knowledge with the reality of such knowledge. We erroneously think we are gods. Or we simply assume that our ideas and needs and pleasures and urges take precedence over everyone else's, that we deserve special attention as if we were gods.

The author of the book of Genesis gets at this aspect of human nature in the third chapter — the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. This is the stuff of "mythos," of story told as events that serve as commentary on the nature of the cosmos. In this case, it is the heart of human nature and its stubborn propensity to overreach itself that is at stake. While a surface reading interprets the essence of Adam and Eve's sin as disobedience, there is something deeper at work here. It is the temptation to be like God — knowing good and evil — that so captures our iconic forbearers. The story is not about some literally existent parents of the human race but is about each and every one of us. We are all tempted to overreach ourselves and do what we can to become like gods.

But the dilemma does not remain merely at the individual level. The disorientation that comes with the basic sin of self-aggrandizement has its social consequences, as the further chapters in Genesis illustrate. Power and shame are perpetuated; jealousy and rancor are passed on from one generation to another. So while sin is, at root, a failure to accept our limitations while yielding to the wonder that moves us beyond ourselves, the effects of these failures become entrenched in cultural mores and social systems.

Social sin is the systemic evil that keeps certain persons disenfranchised while elevating others to privileged status. It involves practices that disregard the earth's natural systems and the impact of human affairs on those systems. It affects not just structures like an economy, but penetrates to the very consciousness of whole social classes. The very way one is aware of one's world, the way one pays attention, the expectations one has of life, can become disordered. Thus, not only is it true that we come into the world already influenced by the meanings and values of a community, those meanings and values are skewed by generations of individual and group biases. Social prejudices and the assumption that "man" can manipulate "nature" at will permeate our cultures.

This distortion is what we traditionally have called original sin, and its fruit is a social "surd" in which reasonable and good persons who choose reasonable and good courses of action are less and less numerous. This results in a moral impotence in which the course of human affairs — writ large or small — gets stuck in cycles of decline. As Bernard Lonergan puts it:

There is no use appealing to the sense of responsibility of irresponsible people, to the reasonableness of people that are unreasonable, to the intelligence of people who have chosen to be obtuse, to the attention of people that attend only to their own grievances. Again, the objective situation brought about by sustained unauthenticity is not an intelligible situation. It is the product of inattention, obtuseness, unreasonableness, irresponsibility. It is an objective surd, the realization of the irrational.

We are each, thus, a combination of a great eros of the human spirit reaching beyond ourselves to truth, beauty, and value, and the very mitigated reach of our embodied spirits. This limitation is due both to our finitude as creatures and to the sinful social structures in which we grow and develop. It is also due to the choices we make. Sin is both what I receive and what I create. I am subject to the social sin that comes beforeme and influences me. But I am also responsible for the choices I make within the concrete reality in which I live. Either way, both I and my culture are stuck in the moral impotence whereby the actions we take to solve the problems created by sin only perpetuate them. As St. Paul puts it:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. ... For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but the sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Rom. 7:15,19–24)

Moral impotence in the inner person involves this struggle and failure to do what we most desire. Moral impotence reveals itself at the sociocultural level as the surd whereby reason fails to make its case since people are unreasonable, and the good cannot be discerned because the discerners are themselves prejudiced. How can we turn a situation around if even our understandings of the situation are distorted by our dysfunctional psyches? How does new vision and new life emerge if even our deepest desires are disordered in determining the good?

Turning Moral Impotence Around

Concretely, what happens in some people's lives is that we fall in love and this falling in love changes everything. It could be the love of parent and child, of romantic partners committed to the long haul, of lifelong friends. The love given and received, not as fleeting emotions but as an undertow carrying everything forward, transforms our lives from self-service to self-sacrifice. "Besides particular acts of loving, there is the prior state of being in love, and that prior state is, as it were, the fount of all one's actions. So mutual love is the intertwining of two lives. It transforms an "I" and "thou" into a "we" so intimate, so secure, so permanent, that each attends, imagines, thinks, plans, feels, speaks, acts in concern for both." This undertow of love propels us to seek truth when deceit is rife, to promote values that will enhance the flourishing of our loved ones, to speak out for justice when power has triumphed over the good.

Furthermore, for some of us this experience of love goes beyond the human to the "transcendent," the "wholly other." In other words, we fall in love with something beyond our creaturely existence. Bernard Lonergan calls it an "otherworldly falling in love"; Paul Tillich calls it "being grasped by ultimate concern"; and Rudolph Otto speaks of the mysterium fascinans et tremendum (fearful and fascinating mystery). This religious experience, like all of human life and meaning, begins very simply in childhood and grows and changes over a lifetime. It involves the deep level of our lives that defies explanation or expression. It catapults our concern for others beyond our inner circle of kin and compatriots to a wider vision that includes all human persons and creation itself in its many manifestations.

For those in the Christian tradition, this Other with whom we fall in love is not just a creative force field but a person. We inherit from the Jewish tradition not only a robust view of God as an all-powerful creator but also a notion of God as engaged in history and in relationship with human persons. This is both a majestically awesome God and a lovingly present one, a God who establishes a covenant with Israel and faithfully follows her through apostasy and infidelity. This God provides his people with the Torah — the Law — as a means of preserving and nurturing the covenant relationship.

Christians believe that this awesome and faithful God entered history in a particular way in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In addition to the "inner word" involved in the otherworldly falling-in-love mentioned above, there is the "outer word" of a person in history who supremely revealed God to humankind. In fact, as Christians we believe that this historical person was God himself. Furthermore, after his death and resurrection, the risen Christ returned to the Father and a new era emerged; the Holy Spirit that had raised Jesus from death was sent anew into the world to be ever-present with the community of disciples that came to be called "Christians."

The point here is not to begin delineating Christian dogma, but to note that the fascination with the mysterium tremendum that constitutes religious experience is, for Christians, an experience of relationship. Indeed, it is a threefold relationship, with a nurturing Father/Mother, a risen Lord who lived concretely in history, and the Spirit that permeates all of creation and promotes the reversal of sin and decline in our lives today. We enter into the love that exists within God in Godself, and experience this love over and over again as our lives unfold.

How does this concretely operate in Christians' lives? While the specific ways in which we are met by this incomprehensible love-made-incarnate are as manifold as there are persons and circumstances, we can say a few things in general about how this loving relationship goes forward.

We may be socialized into the Christian tradition in a way that captivates our deepest desires and stimulates our imaginations. So we are provided with a treasure trove of stories, images, and personal narratives that ever propel us forward in living out our deep longing for the "more" beyond our small world of minor concerns. Alternately, we may have been raised into a religious tradition that so stifled our deepest yearnings, and/or promoted such a terrifying or restrictive view of God that our psyches were severely damaged. Or we may have had no religious training as children yet been encouraged in our curiosity to always seek truth, beauty, and goodness.


Excerpted from Transformed Lives by Cynthia S.W. Crysdale. Copyright © 2016 Cynthia S. W. Crysdale. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: Problems with the Atonement 1

1 Falling in Love: Healing and Reconciliation Enfolded in God's Embrace 9

2 Retrieving the Biblical Tradition: Paul and Jesus 33

3 From Metaphor to Theory: Further Attempts to Make Sense of What God Has Done in Christ 65

4 From Theory to Modernity: Meaning-Making Today 91

5 What Does All of This Mean for Theology? 117

6 Transformed Lives Reconsidered 139

Bibliography 169

Index 177

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