Contrasting Notions of Redemption

I have been running this blog for a good long time and I often have to use the search function to find out how many times I have written about a subject. One I have certainly written about is the Redemption in relation with the myth (in the meaning of an allegorical image of an unknown history) of Original Sin and the idea of a Nationalsozialistische Himmelreich Arbeiterpartei together with a demons looking after hell dressed in SS uniforms taking souls to gas chambers and fiery pits for the millions of damned. Please forgive my cynical satire about a certain notion of a very sick and distorted Christianity which is certainly the delight of atheists. It is not by Godwin’s Law that I make a comparison with Nazism, because Hitler’s ideology was a caricature of a certain notion of Christianity!

I am a Christian and a priest, concerned that my faith in Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Word of the Father may continue to inspire generations of seekers and gentle folk seeking a different spiritual way to that of the clang of arms and the loud brash voices of our time. Since my fifteen years as a Roman Catholic, I struggled with the notion of vicarious atonement and the notion that the sins of humanity would be forgiven through the Son of God dying a horrible and lingering death at the hands of the Romans after having been judged for “blasphemy” by the High Priest of Judaism. Surely Christ gave more through his Incarnation and life than through his death. The theology of sacrifice is complex as we consider the covenants and sacrifices of the Old Testament. Ultimately, sacrifice is the ultimate of self giving in love, the giving of our best to God to create a more loving relationship. Some of us have risked our lives to save the life of another person. It is our duty if we find ourselves in that kind of situation. Sometimes, life ceases to be worth living under the conditions in which we find ourselves. I think of the many martyrs of history up to the score of Coptic Christians having their heads sawn off by Daesh barbarians only a few days ago. A certain journey along the Christian way takes away our fear of death, and it is something we understand or that we don’t.

The centre of a notion of Christianity that underlines authority, no salvation outside the X Church and heartless collaboration with any political regime that promises to uphold its totalitarian agenda is the notion of the Redemption and salvation we find in St Augustine, Calvinist Puritanism and Jansenism. The article Another narrative is fascinating and a scathing condemnation of Augustinian theology (in favour of what?). Only today, I republished the link to John Gielgud’s dramatisation of Dostoevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor. It rings a bell in me when I consider that much of what passes for Christianity is all about “might is right” instead of compassion and empathy, considered as signs of weakness and lack of manliness.

We are so used to Augustine’s explanation of Atonement and Redemption that we take it for granted on both the Roman Catholic and Reformed sides. It is one thing that remained unreformed in the sixteenth century. When we stop and think of it, someone we “know” to be excluded from God’s “elect” can be treated as a sub-human. The twentieth century and our own times make hay of that idea! You don’t have to treat a “sub-human” to the respect with which you would hope someone else would treat you. What is as bad is accepting the idea that we are ourselves sub-humans – and that we can have some influence on God by submitting to the right authority and “true church”.

What happens if we dismiss Augustine’s theories? The validity and credibility of Christianity will have to be based on something other that sanctifying man’s thirst for power, money and being the first. We seem to have no further to look than the Gospels to find the Beatitudes and the other teachings of Christ, the sign of contradiction.

The Eastern Orthodox narrative of θέωσις has its expressions in post-Reformation pietist spirituality and in twentieth-century Roman Catholicism. Pope John Paul II mentioned “the teaching of the Cappadocian Fathers on divinization (which) passed into the tradition of all the Eastern Churches and is part of their common heritage. This can be summarized in the thought already expressed by Saint Irenaeus at the end of the second century: God passed into man so that man might pass over to God. This theology of divinization remains one of the achievements particularly dear to Eastern Christian thought“. It seems to me to be a more beautiful explanation of what God does for us through Christ than some notion of some bloodthirsty demiurge wanting to be appeased by suffering and death.

St Augustine is behind the exaggerations of both Calvinism and Jansenism in affirming that some or most human beings are predestined for damnation. The Another Narrative article is much more scathing of St Augustine than I would be, but it cannot be denied that there is a whole Manichaen side of Augustine’s teaching that is not one that reveals a loving God, but rather the Demiurge of the Gnostics, an emanation that would not be the true God. Luther and Calvin were products of their time, and God for them was the ultimate authority, a divine emperor. Original sin is seen as refusal of obedience to that authority. Then that authority is delegated to the Church and perhaps also to some of the most evil men in history.

The patristic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican (Lancelot Andrewes, John Wesley and others) notion of divinisation by grace brings joy, love and freedom. It takes away our fear of death and all the evils that go with it.

(…) there is no insulted “God,” no infinite offence, no atonement, no compensating for the disrespect to “God’s” authority, no universal guilt, no “double predestination,” no moral impotence, no infants condemned to  eternal torment.

It is perhaps this aspect of Christianity in the west that has been its undoing. With a notion akin to that of the Orthodox and our Anglican divines, together with the more enlightened modern Roman Catholic theologians, there is light, beauty and love. Obviously, that is not all, since many Orthodox folk hate each other. I am sure my Orthodox readers will tell me that belief in θέωσις is only a minority belief and that most have a much more primary notion of Christian spirituality. In any case, one doesn’t become Orthodox for θέωσις any more than you become a Lutheran because you like Bach’s music! We can have both in the Churches to which we belong.

It is Lent. Some are engaging in rigorous fasting and giving up pleasures. Others are taking something up. A revision of some of our fundamental assumptions may truly be our salvation! Let us go up to Jerusalem…

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8 Responses to Contrasting Notions of Redemption

  1. Stephen K says:

    Again, thanks, Father. On the same theme, and worth reading, see the author here:

    a key extract being:
    Jesus died trusting his “Father;” that in itself was his only reward. Loving trust is its own reward. There is no other answer. Quiet as it’s kept, that is the answer to life According to traditional Christian belief Jesus died knowing he would rise. That is not credible. If it were true, then I ask: what was all that anguish and isolation on the cross painted so vividly for us by the gospels …pure theater? I’m sorry, I don’t believe it. If the narrative of Jesus’ death bears any resemblance to what actually happened, then Jesus died not knowing he would “rise again.” His trust was all he had. What drove his fidelity was not resurrection but his relationship to his Father. After eschewing “reward” in his preaching — he never offered it as motivation — would he have had recourse to it himself? He knew his Father loved him; that was enough. That was all he had; that’s all any of us have.

    • This blog is quite frightening because it leads to de-mystification and de-mythologising of Christianity. What is left when this way of thinking is finished? Some trite piece of politically correct moralism or a simple “philosophy of life” in a materialist paradigm? On the other hand, the Augustinian and Anselmian narratives lose their credibility to anyone who wants to go beyond a childish phase of spiritual development.

      It is all quite stomach-churning. We need to find some good twentieth-century theologians who have gone into these problems of the Redemption, but who do not trash Christianity completely as “irrelevant to materialism”. We also need to read things like the Gospel of Judas and the Nag Hammadi texts (all translated into English) and discover a whole different slant on everything. We all have to learn, and take new knowledge in our stride whilst keeping a cool head.

      Tony Equale is a former priest (I do so hate that term), presumably Roman Catholic, and seems to have a fairly secular and liberal agenda. On the other hand, there is a clearly spiritual quest about him. It would be too easy to lash out at him in personal attacks. What would that achieve? He has a profound way of considering death, which everything is really about:

      But what if the reality is that at death we are dissolved back into the elements from which we were formed, to be reused over and over until the whole meets another implosion to singularity and another big bang — a new universe. What if our little heads and our little hearts are not equal to the unfathomable magnanimity of a ‘Father’ who, more like a ‘Mother,’ wishes to share, and share, and share Herself (and us as part of Herself) endlessly, we might even add, purposelessly for the sheer joy of it to share being-here with ever new things and new ‘people’ with a generosity and self-donation beyond our capacity to imagine or endure? . . . Do we want to go to that heaven? Are we really as convinced that ‘God is Love’ if it would mean that much love? . . . Do we love our existential source and the universe it has made, as it is — or only as we want it to be?

      We seem to find reminiscences of cycles of time and cycles of life like in eastern philosophies and religions like Hinduism, even a notion of reincarnation. However much we baulk at these ideas and the prospect of losing the clarity we think we presently have, we have everything to learn as we take intellectual risks. We need to launch out into these uncharted waters and explore. “In the midst of life we are in death” as Job said. The boundaries become unclear. Perhaps we are brought to this simple prayer:

      Lord, if I love you because I desire the joys of heaven,
      Close its gates to me.

      And if I love you, because I fear the pains of hell,
      Bury me in its depths.

      But if I love you for the sake of loving you,
      Hide not your face from me.

      On the other hand, Tony Equale was asked what he thought about women priests. His answer was extremely critical about the “ontological” priesthood itself. If someone wants to celebrate the Eucharist, why tie it to the notion of ordained priesthood? If we go down that road, we really are in trouble!

  2. William Hoag says:

    I suspect Tony Equale to be, at heart, Pelagian.

    • Pelagian? It tends to be used quite a lot these days. What is Pelagianism? Anti-Augustinianism? The idea that one can be saved by one’s own efforts without the help of grace? A lot of names of heresies tend to get bandied about, even by Popes, without the theological meaning being clear.

      • Stephen K says:

        Father, I agree with you that often theological terms are often loosely used. I myself would not have been inclined to say Tony Equale was Pelagian: it wouldn’t have occurred to me to think such a thing. I think that is a label or category that no longer fits where he now is. I don’t think he thinks of “being saved” at all.

        Nor do I, for the most part, unless it is understood as being saved from the worst of myself here and now. For some time now, contemplating the death of our animals, and parents and people in general (I’ve played the organ for scores of funerals in the last few years, as well as note the destruction and wars in the news), I have inclined, myself, to eschew the heavily anthropomorphised way of speaking and thinking about God, as far as my imagination will allow me, and find the idea that we merge at death back into the primordial stuff of which God and universe is made much more comprehensible. I am less daunted – if not completely – by the concept that my personal consciousness will cease. I accept it’s all a mystery and I’ll never know the answer this side of death unless my consciousness in some way persists, but then I think the point of living is to be found somewhere and somehow in the only life have, our present, our now. I think that Christianity is – and Jesus’ message was – a way of living life now, and that our tendency, or the traditional theology that promotes it, to ‘bank up things for the afterlife’ is an unsatisfactory rationale.

        But there is much wisdom everywhere, if we look, and as you imply, Christians can read many long disregarded texts, to personal profit and enlightenment.

      • I don’t have scientific training beyond school science, but there seem to be theories that appeal to modern minds. One is consciousness in relation with quantum mechanics. This is an interesting introduction by Dr Robert Lanza:

        What seems to the central idea of consciousness is that it is biological in order to be anything other than undetermined and random. The person consists of spirit, soul and body. The consciousness needs in some way to be incarnate, so it would seem. Christianity is very insistent on the resurrection of the body, but perhaps in another parallel universe, not this one. The questions of time and eternity correspond with Greek and Christian cosmology.

        I agree that we will not get to the bottom of it in this life, but we will see that biblical and traditional narratives have allegorical value in giving some idea of mysteries that are beyond our intelligence as limited by our biological and “temporal” conditions.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I have not followed the links yet or even read all the comments, but I was struck by the Fourth Tempter’s speech on enjoying Murder in the Cathedral once again earlier today with this post in the back of my mind! Do have a look, sometime!

    And I did want generally to commend Fr. Aidan Kimel’s blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy, for its very interesting discussions of ‘universalism’.

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