I created this blog as a way to process and record my experience as a seminary student. I also hope it will provide a platform for my friends and family to participate in the journey. Some of the entries are kind of long, but what can I say--I was in graduate school, they made us do that...


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Soteriology For The Material World

{Here's my theology paper on Soteriology, which is the doctrine of salvation}

Jesus of Nazareth died. I don’t know anyone who would disagree with this fact. There is, however, much disagreement as to what happened next. Christians believe that he rose from the dead, appeared to his disciples, and ascended to the father in heaven—offering salvation to his people in the process. Many people think of this as simply a far-fetched story, and there are countless others who because of differing religious views, believe it to be heresy. So while the death of Jesus is most certainly a fact (for death comes to all of us), his resurrection is a much harder detail to confirm. However, while the resurrection may or may not be a historical fact, the existence of the story of it is very real. The resurrection of Jesus did happen, at least in the religious narrative of Christianity. And within this narrative, belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection brings one salvation. The problem with a narrative of salvation that requires a death is its effect on humanity’s relationship to suffering.

Narratives, especially dominant narratives, are always wrapped up in history. In the last chapter of New Testament Story, David L. Barr discusses the nature of history. He recognizes the fact that “History always remains a tentative reconstruction of the past based on the available evidence, which must then be rigorously tested.” In relation to the historical method of testing evidence, he notes:

Generally, modern historians are trained to be skeptical of their sources, to subject them to careful analysis, to prefer empirical and testable data, and to use only natural explanations. These factors raise problems for the ancient historian, whose sources are few and distant, but the last point raises special problems in investigating religions.

Supernatural stories of resurrection are difficult to rigorously test. Barr goes on to say that the available sources regarding Jesus of Nazareth are documents of “faith and imagination.” In other words, all we know about the resurrection of Jesus, and what it means for salvation, is what we can glean from the ancient stories people wrote about him. The narrative is all we have.

People can—and many do—spend their lives searching for proof of an actual resurrection or an accurate portrait of the historical Jesus. Others choose to spend their energy discerning the symbolic meaning of the narrative. Some want physical proof, while others are willing to simply accept the narrative as a divine story. Both styles of inquiry are ultimately after the same thing—an attempt to understand who God is and what the means and meaning of salvation are. Regardless of whether the narrative is viewed as a historical fact, religious symbolism, or mere nonsense, its influences on the world’s view of salvation can’t be denied. Religious narratives, such as the terribly familiar death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are powerful. Barr is right, they are stories of human ‘faith and imagination.’ And as such, they act in the material world.

The Christian narrative identifies the death of a man believed to be innocent—Jesus of Nazareth—as the redemptive act that offered salvation to all of humanity. It is believed that by Jesus’ innocent suffering, the guilty are set free, they are saved. Therefore, the suffering experienced by Jesus is celebrated. Implicit in the Christian narrative, then, is the notion that suffering can be good for humanity, that it can be something worthy of celebration. Arguably, without the suffering and death of Jesus Christ salvation cannot be attained. As the Book of Hebrews puts it, “But we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” Or again, “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” It’s clear that in the Christian narrative suffering is not only a prerequisite for avoiding death, but also a “fitting” means by which to be brought to glory. That is, to be saved seems to necessitate suffering.

According to the Encyclopedia of Religion:

The term soteriology means “doctrine of salvation” or, more concretely, the “way of salvation,” and derives from the Greek soteria, which in turn is built on soter, or “savior”…[and] is usually used to refer to the salvation of individuals.

In the Christian narrative the ‘way of salvation’ for individuals is indeed built on a ‘savior,’ a personal savior offering reconciliation to the Father God through belief in the suffering Son. Jesus, in the Christian narrative, is the ‘way of salvation.’ In response to the question, “How can we know the way?” Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Even so, ideas of salvation don’t exclusively belong to the Christian narrative.

There are a multitude of religious narratives in the world, hence there are numerous stories regarding the ‘way of salvation.’ Religious narratives play a critical role in the creation of identity and community for those who believe in them. The narratives people believe impact the way they interact with the world. As Anis Bawarshi, in his work on genre theory has noted “‘lived textualities’ interact with and transform ‘lived experiences.’” Put another way, narratives matter, in fact, they shape our world and experience of it. Thus when an influential narrative like Christianity teaches that salvation comes through suffering, humanity’s relationship to suffering is negatively impacted.

Many people would take issue with my claim that salvation comes through suffering in the Christian narrative. They would argue that the focus of Christian salvation is the empty tomb, the resurrection—not death. And they would be right. However, it’s impossible to have an empty tomb without first having a crucifixion. In order for Jesus to rise, he first had to die. Consequently, the Christian narrative accepts suffering as necessary. It has to, for the only way to acknowledge the resurrection, is to first acknowledge the death, in this case the torturous violent death, of Jesus. So while Christianity may focus on resurrection, it cannot escape the role suffering plays in its ‘way of salvation.’

In the town I live in, I see church reader boards with messages such as, “God can use your suffering for His good.” and “Jesus died for your sins.” I concede that I also see signs celebrating the resurrection; however, these are usually limited to Easter Sunday. One would be hard-pressed to find a church reader board claiming “Jesus resurrected for your sins.” The common understanding of Christian salvation does not exclude suffering. These reader board messages—designed to help people find salvation through Jesus—teach of the goodness, or at least, the usefulness of suffering (God used the suffering of his son to bring about salvation for the world). I find this belief to be dangerous however, and think it causes damage in our world by distorting views of real human suffering. In his essay, “There is No God” for the popular series This I Believe, Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) writes:

Believing there is no God means the suffering I’ve seen in my family, and indeed all the suffering in the world, isn’t caused by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force that isn’t bothered to help or is just testing us, but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future.

Looking at Jillette’s last sentence from the other direction, I can say that as long as redemption is understood to come through suffering, suffering will always be understood as acceptable, necessary and even justified.

One of the most well known verses in Christian scripture is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This verse is displayed on reader boards in sports stadiums, handed out in pamphlets on the street, and has been memorized by countless children. The familiarity of the verse has seemingly blinded people from its horror. It is offered as a verse of hope, of the generosity of God, and of the saving power of Jesus. But as I have worked to de-familiarize myself with it and read with fresh eyes what the words actually say, I have come to understand the injustice, abuse, and demand inherent in it’s words. Since I’m familiar with the rest of the Christian narrative, I know that God is giving his only son over to be tortured and killed. According to John 3:16, the reason God is doing this is because he so loves the world that he wants to save his believers from perishing, and apparently, belief in this divine act of child abuse offers eternal life. I am left struggling with deep questions regarding the nature of God in relation to this narrative. Why does God need his only child to die (I’ll leave the question of how God has an only child for a paper on the doctrine of the trinity) in order to offer salvation to his believers? Why is suffering and death necessary for redemption?

Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement works to answer these questions. The satisfaction theory claims that through the sinfulness of humanity, God has been dishonored. Therefore, humanity must give satisfaction or be punished. According to this theory:

While humanity must provide this satisfaction, only God can provide it…For this reason God has become human in Christ. In his perfect obedience unto death, satisfaction is rendered, justice is done, God’s honor is restored, and sinners are forgiven.

In other words, blood and violence are prerequisites for salvation. Justice (punishment) must be done in order for God to offer forgiveness. In Faith Seeking Understanding, Daniel Migliore highlights the fact that Anselm comes from “the medieval thought world and presuppose[s] then-current understandings of law, offense, reparations, and social obligations.” Migliore follows the tradition through John Calvin, who “wavered on the question whether the motive of the atonement was the need to satisfy God’s righteous anger or whether God was moved by pure and freely given love for the world.” He then moves on to Karl Barth who went “beyond both Anselm and Calvin by consistently interpreting the atoning work of Christ as motivated solely by the holy love of God.” I would argue, however, that the Christian narrative has not moved beyond Anselm’s “medieval thought world.” As I look at the rampant use of the death penalty in America, (between 1930-2007 thousands of people have received the death penalty ) I find that contemporary views of ‘law, offense, reparations, and social obligations’ aren’t that different from the thinking of Anselm. And as the common church reader board messages of Jesus dying for us indicate, soteriologies based on satisfactionist theories of atonement are still very real in Christian churches.

The death of Jesus is clearly presented as being for us in scripture. I’m not attempting to argue that it isn’t. Rather, I’m trying to point out the dangerous ways in which this narrative is working in our world. Migliore highlights the fact that many believers have skillfully disguised the violence of Jesus’ death. In other words, they can hide it and ignore it. They can “become accustomed to gilded and bejeweled crosses.” When we are so desensitized to the violence of Jesus’ death that we are celebrating a killing machine by wearing it around our necks, our relationship to violence is severely damaged. How effective can a narrative that offers salvation through suffering, violence and death, actually be at challenging violence and suffering? Migliore makes the claim that:

The crucified Christ embodies the love of God in our violent world, conquering the hatred that inspires violence and the spirit of revenge that prompts counter-violence. In the teaching, ministry, and crucifixion of Christ, God exposes the lie of the inevitability of the circle of violence and counter-violence. God refuses to oppose evil with evil. The cross is God’s free and costly gift of love whose goal is the transformation of the world.

While I find this to be one of the most convincing arguments I’ve encountered regarding the necessity of the violent cross, I still disagree with it. According to the Christian narrative, God didn’t ‘refuse to oppose evil with evil,’ he opposed sin by sending his only son to die. Divine child abuse does not fall outside the bounds of evil. And how can the cross be simultaneously ‘free and costly?’ It can’t. The cross cost Jesus his life. There was nothing free about it.

Another theory of atonement working to answer why Jesus’ death was necessary for humanity’s salvation is the Christ as Victor theory. In Faith Seeking Understanding, this theory is described as:

[A] dramatic struggle between God and the forces of evil in the world…Under the veil of his humanity, Christ triumphs over the demons, the devil, and all the principalities and powers that hold human beings captive. By his cross and resurrection, Christ decisively defeats these powers and thus frees their captives.

While Migliore has problems with this theory, he still finds important truth in it. The theory is further explored in Journeys by Heart by Rita Nakashima Brock:

[Jesus’] death is seen as a death for others, a cosmic event in which the death of God in Christ becomes the death of death…His resurrection is interpreted as the sign of divine triumphal powers that vindicate Jesus as the true messiah...The passion narratives have been interpreted as the story of a heroic savior who faced his enemies alone and unaided. Jesus’ death becomes the battle of unilateral powers. In returning Jesus to life, divine unilateral action conquers the power of sin and death.

Both Brock and I struggle with this theory. One of the most obvious problems is the fact that the emphasis of the Christ as Victor theory lies in other worldly battles. When the battle between good and evil is over-spiritualized, it fails to connect to the actual battles of good and evil happening on the planet earth. How can powerful and oppressive structures be fought in this world when our narrative tells us that the battle has already been won? According to Brock, the Christ as Victor theory teaches that “only a transcendent and powerful deity can save us, for all human power has failed.” In other words, the powerful and oppressive structures of our world cannot be fought, at least not with human power. But in the Christian narrative of salvation, we are told not to worry about our failure to fight oppression and suffering because the resurrection has already defeated them. Herein lies my problem with Christian views of soteriology that hold the violent death of Jesus as necessary and victorious. In Brock’s words: “To make claims that any person’s tragic, painful death is divinely willed or necessary for others to be saved mutes our ability to be angry about unnecessary suffering.” If we live with the assumption that we are saved, that evil has already been defeated, and that salvation can be offered to all of humanity by offering them belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection, how are we to fight the hidden and explicit injustice that exists in our world? We can’t; but the bigger problem is that we often don’t even think we need to.

I realize that many believers, because of their faith in the Christian narrative, have spent their lives working to end suffering, violence, oppression, and injustice. I celebrate their work and no way mean to deny or demean it. However, I argue that because traditional views of soteriology—such as the theories of substitution and Christ as Victor—are so prevalent in the systems and beliefs of the Christian narrative, they are also prevalent in the systems and beliefs of the entire western world. Hence, I live in a society where suffering and violence are viewed as acceptable—sometimes necessary and justified—and always inevitable.

Brock has put forth a feminist view of Christology that de-centers Jesus from the doctrine of salvation. She says “We must find the revelatory and saving events of Christianity in a larger reality than Jesus.” By challenging the narrative’s longstanding focal point, namely that the death of one individual leads to salvation, she aims to rewrite the Christian narrative in a way that prevents suffering from prevailing. In my view, her work suppresses any cause to celebrate suffering. For she proposes that the locus of the redemptive act is not the individual death of Jesus, but is rather found in what she calls the Christa/Community, which takes a relational view of Christ. For Brock:

The power that gives and sustains life does not flow from a dead and resurrected savior to his followers. Rather, the community sustains life-giving power by its memory of its own brokenheartedness and of those who have suffered and gone before and by its members being courageously and redemptively present to all.

In the Christa/Community Jesus participates in the life-giving power, just as the rest of us do. He is not the life-giving power. The Christa/Community calls each one of us “to risk a commitment, as a caring community, to the promise of…a domination-free community.” In other words, salvation is everyone’s responsibility. In her epilogue, she says:
No one heroic or divine deed will defeat oppressive powers and death-delivering systems. We cannot rely on one past event to save our future. No almighty power will deliver us from evil. With each minute we wait for such rescue, more die.

I read this as a powerful call away from dependency on a Father God who offers salvation through his suffering Son.

As Brock argues that we must de-center Jesus from the doctrines of salvation, I argue that we must go even farther. We must de-center the Christian narrative itself from ideas of human salvation. We must shock ourselves out of the normality of the Christian narrative and closely re-examine what it is we claim to believe. The feminist theologian Mary Daly has called soteriologies that proclaim as salvific the death of Jesus, necrophilic. This statement would shock (and no doubt insult) most Christians, but it is exactly the kind of statement that will call for a re-examination of the Christian obsession with death as the bearer of salvation, and consequently, its celebration of suffering.

In order for the idea of salvation to really matter in our everyday, very human, decisions and actions, we must pull it down from the skies of transcendent reality and place it squarely in the material world. We must take full responsibility for it. Only then will salvation be possible for ourselves and our world. Every time the human spirit of love, generosity and kindness stands up against violence and oppression, humanity is brought one step closer to understanding the meaning of salvation for our lives. Assuming that salvation and the defeat of evil have already been accomplished, the Christian narrative excuses people from very real work that needs to be done. It allows for the acceptance of suffering. If we are to be saved, we have to work out our salvation together, right here in the physical world.

{my footnote numbers didn't copy, if you want to see them let me know and I'll send you the Word Doc. sources are below...}

Barr, David. New Testament Story, 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001. p. 472
Ibid, p. 471.
Ibid, p. 473.
Hebrews 2:9
Hebrews 2:10
Smart, Ninian. "Soteriology" Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. Vol. 12. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 8526-8530. 15 vols. p. 8526
John 14:5b-6
Devitt, Amy J., Anis Bawarshi, and Mary Jo Reiff. “Materiality and Genre in the Study
of Discourse Communities.” College English 65.5 (May, 2003): 541-558. p.549
Church reader board messages in Richmond, IN
Jillette, Penn. “There is No God.” The Portable Atheist. Ed. Christopher Hitchens. USA: De Capo Press, 2007. 349-350. p. 350
Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004. p. 184
Ibid, p. 184
Ibid, p. 184
Ibid, p. 184
Migliore, p.188
Ibid, p. 190
Ibid, p. 182-3
Brock, Rita Nakashima. Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power. New York: Crossroad, 1988. p. 90-1
Ibid, p. 91
Ibid, p. 94
Ibid, p. 68
Ibid, p. 105
Ibid, p. 96
Ibid, p. 105
Ibid, p. 90


Ally said...

This is good and powerful writing, Summer. Well done. There's a lot to think about here!

Chris said...

I bet you would really appreciate reading Jack Miles. God: A Biography & Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God offer fascinating theographical (rather than theological) interpretations of the life and death of Christ.

What remains to be done if your efforts at ending or reducing suffering fail? If, for example, you see your friends or children heading straight long into very bad decisions? The only thing I see available to me when Power fails is Presence. When you can't control, or fix, or solve, you can still BE WITH.

And perhaps that's all G-d was trying to do - unable or unwilling to solve Israel's suffering, G-d chose to join them - not to somehow save us through suffering, but perhaps to save us in the midst of it.

That interpretation might allow professing Christians to work within suffering to reduce suffering without turning suffering into some sort of sacrement.