Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Why Theology Is Important
One of my favorite children's books is Fables by Arnold Lobel. It is full of wonderful stories but one of my favorites is The Bad Kangaroo. In it, the child's teacher is visiting the bad kangaroo's parent to talk with them regarding the unruly behavior of their child. The teacher quickly learns that all of the child's behaviors were learned from watching the parents. While many of us would bristle at the thought, our behaviors are deeply influenced by our families of origin, sometimes because we don't want to be like them, but more often, and usually unconsciously, because we fall into long established patterns that we learned from them.
A few weeks ago, my friend Jon put a post u on his blog - Substitutionary Atonement - It's Just a Theory. I commented and said that our theory of the atonement is important because of the ways it effects our behaviors... our thoughts about discipline, child rearing, even crime and punishment. Jon asked me to follow up on that so here were are...
Let me propose that our views of and relationship to God are critical in shaping the way we live. If God is vengeful, then there is always a justification for vengeance. If God's love is always unconditional, then ours must be as well. And the list goes on. The crucifixion of Jesus is at the very center of the Christian story and how we interpret that event tells a tremendous amount regarding our image of God which, in turn, will influence the way we live our lives.
The most popular understanding among right of center American Christians is that of "substitutionary atonement," the idea that there must be a punishment for our sin and the only punishment adequate is death. So, in order that we don't have to suffer eternal death, Jesus who is without sin, dies a brutal and painful death in our place. He substitutes himself for our punishment. So what does this imply about God? God's forgiveness is overcome by the need for vengeance. God's love is never unconditional. It is OK when the innocent suffer for the guilty and that somebody has to suffer. We even have a strong argument for "the end justifies the means."
If that is our understanding of God and we learn how to behave by "watching" our heavenly Father, the results are obvious in every issue from corporal punishment of children to the death penalty to collateral damage in warfare.
But that is not my experience of God and indeed, it is not my experience either as a child or as a father. I would never makes such requirements of my children and my father never made them of me. If I truly believe, as I do, that God is a better parent than I am, that God is all loving, all forgiving, and as Spencer Burke and Barry Taylor said in A Heretics Guide to Eternity, that there are free floaties for all, then I must find a different way to understand that central event in the Christian story. If Jesus did not die as a substitute for me required by God, then why did he die?
As I said in my comments, I much prefer the moral influence and expiation theories. The moral influence theory is just that, Jesus death is a way of influencing humankind to live more closely to God. He gave himself so we might learn how far God will go to show us what we can be... and so we will give ourselves. Expiation is a term used in the Orthodox churches. In it, the act of Jesus is not a legal act but a transformative one... we are changed because he gave himself.
Now, I think we can argue backwards here and ask first, who is God and how do I understand and experience the Holy One? Then, go from there and ask, what would this lead me to think about the death of Jesus? Whatever answer we come up with, theology matters because it gives us a foundation upon which we live.