Faith Unrecognizable

I have no regrets about attending seminary, but my one regret in leaving was that I didn’t get to take Christian history and theology. So I’m working to make up for that now, in reading theology and Christian history. One of the first books I’ve picked up is Diane Bulter Bass’ “A People’s History of Christianity.” If there were a progressive Christian “must read” list, this book would be on it. In reading Christian history, and the evolution of Christian theology, I’ve learned that some tenets of Christianity that I learned from my youth, and thought, in some ways, inherent to the faith, in fact came about relatively late in Christian history.

One of those basic tenets is the idea that human beings are by nature sinful, and it was Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross which provides for salvation for humankind. If one accepts this sacrifice (by becoming a Christian, or being baptised, depending on the particular denomination,) after death, one gets to hang out in bliss with God. If one does not accept, one gets to burn eternally in hell.

Most progressive Christians (including me) have chosen not to adopt that particular tenet (which many do see as central.) Many are universalists – Jesus died not just for some, but for everyone. But this still suggests a vengeful God who only could be satisfied with blood of some sort.

There is a really interesting piece of Christian history, around the 10th and 11th centuries, between the theologians Anselm (1033-1109) and Abelard (1079-1142). It was apparently Anselm’s who “proposed that Jesus died to satisfy the divine justice of his Father, as a payment of a legal debt required as recompense for sin and to restore God’s honor.” Abelard countered “‘Indeed how cruel and perverse it seems that [God] should require the blood of the innocent as a price of anything, or that it should in any way please Him that an innocent person should be slain – still less that God should hold the death of His Son in such acceptance that by it He should be reconciled with the whole world.’ Who, Abelard demanded, would forgive such a God for killing his own Son?” (Bass, Chapter called “Passion”.)

Abelard suggested that Jesus’ death was for the sake of love – so much love that he died for his friends. The political and spiritual activist, teacher, rabbi, leader of “the way” was willing to die at the hands of empire, and at the behest of corrupt religious leaders – not for vengance, but for love.

Anselm’s ideas of blood sacrifice obviously won out in it’s time, and for the next 900 years or so. But for me, that faith is unrecognizable. And, I’m sure, that for many, my faith in an infinitely benevolent God, a God of love, a God whose son died not as a sacrifice, but as a gift of love, is unrecognizable to them.

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How to respond?

Two things have come across my desk recently, that I find disturbing. First, something called the “Manhattan Declaration” (Subtitled, A Call of Christian Conscience). It affirms three truths, and I'm sure you already know what two are: “sanctity of human life” and “dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife”. The third is, well, strange, to say the least, given the first two: “the rights of conscience and religious liberty.” I guess they must not mean the rights of conscience for women, or the rights of religious liberty for people (like me) who think that God dignifies the marriage of two men, or two women.

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