Saturday, December 27, 2008

Morning meditation - Dysfunctional theology creates a hell on earth

"The doctrine of atonement valorizes violence as life-giving and redemptive. The interpretations of Jesus' death on the cross as a saving event speak of the violation that happened to Jesus as the will of God and the source of salvation. When this theological perspective prevails, either explicitly or buried within cultural patterns, the violence and abuse that human beings experience or perpetrate become valorized as necessary and good for the salvation of the world."

Rebecca Ann Parker, Blessing the World, p. 32

Rebecca Ann Parker describes in the quote above what Walter Wink calls "the myth of redemptive violence." If God can torture his own Son to save the world, then surely human beings who copy this mythic God are justified in torturing and killing for what they consider to be redemptive reasons.

And so the death penaly, militarism, domestic violence, child abuse, vengeance, retribution, attacks and punishment, are seen as holy work, as doing the will of a mythic God which humans have created in their own minds and culture.

Spare the rod and spoil the child. This hurts me more than it hurts you. I am punishing you for your own good because you deserve it. We believe that misbehavior deserves punishment because justice demands it - do the crime, do the time.

And so in accordance with a dysfunctional theology, we continue to inflict pain and suffering on each other. This is nothing Jesus taught although vengeance and retribution certainly are depicted in the Old Testament and in myths from all historic cultures.

And what is the Unitarian Universalist response to the myth of redemptive violence? Silence for the most part. We have not preached actively against it. We have not promoted models of managing injustice and suffering which offer other options for dealing with misbehavior, crime, personal affronts, slights, and injury.

In our own families have we taught our children how to rectify injustice and forgive? In our personal relationships have we healed them or are they still in disrepair? Do we have a religion that helps us to repair our alienated relationships and make them right again? What are the stories? What are the models that we present for right relationship especially when harm has been done? Do we have stories of restoration and forgiveness that work, that we can teach to others, that offers a new way of life?

We have learned in the third millenium that the myth of redemptive violence is dysfunctional. Can we envision a better way? Jesus does give us a hint when he says that the way to the kingdom is to "love as I have loved". The Buddha offers an idea of detachment and offering a non anxious presence. Clues, but it is up to us to give them life. What is clear is that a dysfunctional theology has created hell on earth.


  1. Parker is only partially correct when she criticizes atonment theory. She should be speaking more precisely, to criticize only the doctrine of sacrificial atonement.

    Moreover, I think she even misconstruse the doctrine of sacrificial atonement. In the orthodox understanding it is not we who must suffer in order to achieve our own redemption, but Christ who suffered on our behalf in order to bring about the redemption of which we ourselves acting alone are incapable. That's why it's most correctly called the doctrine of vicarious sacrificial atonement.

    Having said all that, it's still a doctrine that we Unitarians (but not, historically, Universalists) have always rejected, because even in its clearly-vicarious formulation it it can be seen to portray a cruel, retributive God rather than a God of love.

    We do, however, have our own Unitarian doctrine of atonement. It stresses human moral capacity rather than incapacity, and in the 19th century went by names such as "self-culture", "salvation by character", and "likeness to God". This is a doctrine of atonement that as far as I can determine originated in the 4th century with the British monk Pelagius. It was revived in a somewhat different form in the middle ages by the French theologian Peter Abelard, whose "moral influence" doctrine taught that Jesus saves by inspiring us to follow his moral example. (This is the same "love as I have loved" to which you refer.) Pelagius was bitterly opposed and eventually anathemized by St. Augustine, the author of the doctrine of Original Sin, while Abelard was opposed by St. Anselm, who helped develop the vicarious sacrifice view.

    In addition to vicarious sacrifice and moral influence, there are other orthodox doctrines of the Atonement that do not rely on a cruel streak in God's character. The "ransom" theory, for example, supposes that Jesus paid a debt not to God for human sinfulness, but to Satan to release humanity from bondage. (Incidentally, that's the theory that C. S. Lewis uses in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.) The "Christus Victor" theory, which is probably the oldest of all of them and is still current in Eastern Orthodox churches, emphasizes not the crucifixion but the resurrection, as a symbol of triumph over sin and death.

  2. Hi Fausto:

    Thanks for your comment. I learned a lot from it.

    All the best,

    David Markham

  3. Hi Fausto & David,
    I learned a lot from each of your comments too. In particular that St. Augustine originated the idea of Orginal Sin. How could he have convinced so many of such a dumb idea? And as a boy I was taught that I was inherently sinful - what a horrible way to start a life.