by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 9, 1990, p. 491, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Our sense of the inevitability of suffering compels us to affirm dimensions in the cross of Jesus that Paul might not have found.
"But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God ."
There was once a time when stern Christians knew or thought they knew the divine rationale lying behind the claims of this text. Both orthodox and liberal Protestants subscribed to theories of the atonement reflecting their respective visions of Christ’s work.
I wish not to review the shortcomings of the great atonement theories, but to point out that mainline Protestant preaching and teaching has largely abandoned any attempt to expound rationally the divine priorities behind the cross. If the theories still play any part, it is as symbols or metaphors for religious convictions we hold to be beyond rationalization. Maybe we need a new hymn: "Jesus Saves I Know Not How."
Science seeks a theoretical grasp of every aspect of nature. The ideologues of academia provide us with a whole string of reductionist theories which attempt to comprehend all human phenomena in a single stroke. Yet, ironically, many churches that desperately seek to be relevant to modernity still consider the crucifixion central to their faith, if also rather incomprehensible. There are many reasons for this, including the historical failure of any of the various theories to compel enduring universal consent, a general sense that we blaspheme against the sheer mystery of God by witnessing to the glory of God’s actions with a cocksure orthodoxy, and a philosophic climate characterized by a profound skepticism about all metaphysical or theological attempts to probe rationally the truth of things.
As we acknowledge the inevitable failure of any attempt to nail down God’s thinking, we must recognize that there is more to the matter of our widespread agnosticism regarding the atonement than theological modesty before the mystery of the divine. Indeed, our overweening pride in our culture gives the lie to any claims we might make to theological modesty. Theological vagueness on the atonement is less modesty than evasion. We often cover our unbelief in sweet theological nothings: And beyond our nagging doubts, we are troubled by the implications that we as modern believers might be forced to draw were we to face up rationally to our claim to have been justified by Christ’s blood.
Obviously, our understanding of sin and guilt is deeply conditioned by our cultural assumptions. Consider, for example, the implications of our belief in the political and moral superiority of liberal democracy. The assumptions undergirding our democracy are a somewhat paradoxical amalgamation, characterized by a free-flowing sense of moral relativism, a laissez-faire individualism and a fairly profound liberal sense of social responsibility: It is difficult enough to make sense out of these dogmas without considering our Christian faith in the saving power of Christ’s cross.
Are we not driven to think some unthinkable thoughts? For example, our liberal democratic sense of both individualism and collective responsibility impels us instinctively to defend the little guy against the big guy. In the face of historic injustices, can we forever repress a theological reading of what our social instincts tell us — that we should stand in solidarity with the oppressed and be suspicious of the totalitarian potential of power? Is not God the ultimate source of all power? Since the Father has sacrificed the blood of the Son to achieve our justification, must we not ask whether the same suffering the Father imposed on the Son should be imposed on the Father himself if he is to be justified in humanity’s sight?
The feudal system entailed an awful sense of sovereignty. Thus, the medieval church had little problem with Anselm’s contention that God cannot forgive unless satisfaction be made for sin. I cannot ignore or deny this terrible potential, but my American sense of sovereignty also compels me to think in terms of mutual responsibility, indeed mutual culpability. How can I, white and middle class, acknowledge my corporate (not to say personal) guilt in institutionalized racism and then claim that God, the primal source of all societal relationships, remains utterly innocent of all that transpires?
Mainline Protestantism often assumes as gospel the liberal cliché that to understand all things is to forgive all things. Sin and guilt melt sway in a consideration of the environmental or hereditary factors that lay behind human wantonness. Many ordinary people sense in this thinking, in the case of criminal acts, a callously intellectualized disregard for the victim of crime. The victim’s cry of outrage is trivialized by such deterministic’ reductionism. Absolutized, it becomes obscene.
However, in so far as there is truth in the contention that our brutal, heartless acts are the result of conditioning, it simply underscores God’s primal responsibility in creating such a situation. The more our liberal, social-scientific thinking excuses human culpability, the more it points the finger at God, the primal source of our ambiguous existences.
To see that even victimizers are in some sense victims of the forces that drive them to victimize must shape our under-standing of Christ’s cross. If God is creator, then God reigns over the death of every sensate being that ever moved on earth — to say nothing of his special responsibility for the bloody sins of those beings he has made in his image. Our sense of the inevitability of suffering compels us to affirm dimensions in the cross of Jesus that Paul might not have found. But this should not censor the witness that we as people of our time with fear and trembling must make. God has offered himself in blood not just for our sins but for the suffering he compels upon the world in its progress to eternal glory through the caldron of finite oblivion.