In his book, The Double Search, Rufus Jones intimates the notion that Atonement is a process. In other words, it’s not a one time, one off event. What’s more, it must be a process, because it involves humans, people. People are finite but unfinalizable, to use Bakhtin’s expression.
A large portion of the Christian community believes the contrary. Many, maybe most, Christians—especially in America—understand the Atonement as something more or less like this: 1) God is just 2) Sin is unjust 3) Sin makes God angry 4) God must punish sin in order for there to be justice. 5) But God is also loving, so he sends his own Son to die and take on the penalty for our awful sins, thereby balancing the scales of justice through a seeming act of love.
This, for so many, just simply is the Gospel.
Let me be straightforward, I don’t assent to the logic of this five fingered discount. This view is closely associated with the Evangelical tradition. I don’t belong to that tradition.
I am a Christian Mystic, and though I’m not a Quaker, I closely associate with the Quaker tradition. There is no consensus within the Quaker tradition as to what the Atonement is. So, what I’m about to set forward is my own view. At the same time, Quakerism does have its own vibe, and I’m going to be consistent with that frequency. So, here goes something.
Well, maybe I should talk about that vibe for a bit. Maybe I should give a few pointers toward how a Quaker might think or act, toward what many Quakers have believed, do believe.
A major foundation for Quaker belief is the notion, extending from George Fox, that there is “that of God in everyone.” This has wide ranging implications, but one thing it means consistently is that every person is related to God at some deep level. No one is ultimately separated from God.
There is another closely related, yet still distinct, belief that there is an Inner Light. Many Quakers have understood this to be Jesus. As a Christian Mystic, I agree. This belief implies that all who are guided by the Inner Light, by Jesus himself, are capable of receiving insight from God. It’s not just the prophets or apostles, of Scriptural fame, who are able to receive messages from God.
Some modern Quakers have taken this notion to mean the elimination of sacred texts. I don’t follow in that leading. I am all for the use of sacred texts. Why wouldn’t you want to be guided by the wisdom of the ages?
The Bible, of the Old and New Testaments, are the sacred texts to which I’m most closely tied, from which I’ve learned the most. I do learn from many other sacred texts, but the Bible feels like home.
I should say, as a final word of introduction, that I don’t understand the Bible to be the literal Word of God. I believe that these Scriptures testify to God’s leading in the world, God’s inspiration. From these Scriptures, we can gain insight into who God is and how God works in the world. With that, we can then better distinguish true leadings from the actual Inner Light versus those promptings that are just our own voice and desire. I take this to be very important.
Alright, so enough with the vibe; let’s dig in.
To articulate any theological position is to build something of a house. And every house needs a foundation. My study of the Bible, my encounter with Jesus, has led me to believe that God is Love and Life. One can see this clearly in the Gospel of John and in the epistle of 1 John.
Maybe we should define Love and Life. I think that Aquinas’ definition of Love is great: “To will the good of the other.” This covers a ton of ground, from parents relating to children, to neighbors lending a helping hand to each other, to spouses living in harmony. And Life…well, life is known to us all simply by the living of it. We know what helps Life, and we know what hinders it.
Sin, then, is anything that stands in the way of Love and Life. I’m not afraid of using the word sin. It’s true that it has been used poorly, destructively, in the past, by emotionally abusive clergy. No doubt. But sin understood as that which stands in the way of Love and Life would, I think, make most people perk up and agree.
I think God agrees.
Love and Life, then, is what we want. These I take as the two most universal desires. And yet, we live in a world wherein which these desires seem to be suppressed at every turn. What gives?
Competing desires: That’s what. We need to survive, and so we do things that help us to survive. Too often, we do these things in spite of others rather than in efforts to help them. We care for ourselves, but we don’t love. This is the problem that needs solving.
We the people are caught in this conundrum. And God has decided to help us out of it. God is Love and Life and so God acts in accordance with this character. God wills our good.
I see this most clearly and insightfully in the Life of Jesus the Nazarene. Jesus teaches us the way of Life. He pours himself out in Love. I believe Jesus to be the example, par excellence, of God working in this world. He shows us, demonstrates, the way of God in the world. This gets him killed. But! God is not content to leave things there. God brings Jesus back to life, changed for sure, but changed to a Life that will not die.
It is virtue that lasts, that’s eternal. Jesus was virtue incarnate. He will last. And the message is that the more we live like Jesus—into virtue, into Love and Life—the more we will be living a life that will last. Sin will not last. It’s what stands in the way of Life. Another name for it, then, is death.
God’s plan is to show us the way and give us the power, if we want it, to live in the way of Love and Life. But sin is so easy. It’s easier to wreck a house than to build one. Entropy is a lazy man’s game. Holiness, on the other hand, is an epic, an adventure. And I’m calling anything holy that promotes Love and Life. It takes a real mensch to pull off holiness. That was Jesus, and he is with us—by means of the Inner Light—to empower us along the way to our own holiness.
It is this energy, this power, this guidance that I am calling Atonement. Rufus was right. It’s a process. I surmise it will be an adventure that takes us even beyond the boundaries of this world we live in.
So far, I’ve kept things on the horizontal plane. But Atonement, as our good man Rufus points out, is a double search.
I’ve talked a bit about God’s empowering us to make things right between ourselves, on the human plane. I haven’t made a mention of how we relate to God, or if there is something that needs to be made right between God and people. That, after all, is the whole basis of the Atonement in the mind of most Evangelical Christians, indeed most Western Christians.
I’ve decided to talk more about how God has provided the teaching and the power to go along the way of Love and Life. And I think that’s the right emphasis. At the same time, it’s necessary to understand that we are not exactly putting our best foot forward when we are acting against Love and Life in the various, even small, ways that we do.
God, though, is an eminently better person than we are. God is not concerned to hold a grudge, rather God would just assume that we are children in need of an education. When we don’t consent to do things in accordance with Life and Love, then God is content to let us find out for ourselves what the consequences are, even after warning us what they would be.
We do need to get things right between God and us. Thankfully, God is good enough to take the initiative. And however content God is with letting us discover the consequences of our actions, God is not content to ever give up on us. Not ever. Not even after we die.
The final goal of all of this is that everyone would be holy as God is holy, that everyone would Love and promote the Life of others. When this happens, we will be living in harmony. We will be experiencing what the ancient Hebrews called Shalom, which means more than just peace. It means a state of existing where everyone promotes the welfare of everyone else whom they can.
As Walt Whitman once asked, “Is it a dream?” To answer in accord with him: No! I think it’s the only state of being that could count as fully real. Everyone reconciled, every wrong act righted. This is Good News. Let’s get it started now! I hold you in the Light. Amen.