Saturday, March 20, 2010

Jesus, the Atonement, and Particularity

Jesus' death and resurrection can be viewed simultaneously as flesh and blood events as well as a metaphor of God's grace and reconciliation.

"The more abstract the truth you wish to teach us, the more you must entice our senses into learning it"- Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche's aphorism may be interpreted as dismissing the idea of abstract truth altogether, but I believe that it contains an important insight that has bearing on our discussion of the Atonement. The idea of Atonement, of God's forgiveness of human sins and invitation to moral and spiritual transformation through Jesus Christ, is easily an abstract concept. Simply reading a statement such as "God, through his grace, has enabled humans to transcend the destructive limitations and tendencies they have developed to participate in the divine self-giving love of the Trinity" probably raises more questions than it answers. How do you define "self-giving love?" or "grace" and what kind of mechanism could this possibly have been achieved through?

It is difficult for human minds to wrap their heads around "big" concepts, whether they be spiritual or otherwise. Richard Dawkins makes an observation similar to Nietzsche's when he comments on why we find it so difficult to understand the findings of modern physics in The Blind Watchmaker:
Our brains were designed to understand hunting and gathering, mating and child-rearing: a world of medium-sized objects moving in three dimensions at moderate speeds. We are ill-equipped to comprehend the very small and the very large; things whose duration is measured in picoseconds or gigayears; particles that don't have position; forces and fields that we cannot see or touch, which we know of only because they affect things that we can see or touch. (link)

Thus, sometimes to learn difficult concepts we must break things down from the abstract to the particular. Anyone who has ever asked "can you give me an example of that?" when faced with a new concept that is hard to understand has realized the power that examples and particular situations, rather than abstract generalizations, have.

If we start to think along these lines, we can begin to see how Jesus' death and the Atonement might fit together. What we confront in addition to the flesh and blood death and resurrection of Jesus is also a metaphor, a metaphor of God's grace, transforming power, and new creation. Through the particularity of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, we are better able to see the more "abstract" truth of God's redemptive work. It isn't that the Atonement logically required the crucifixion of the God-Man Jesus in such and such a manner as that God reached out to a particular situation and provided a means of showing His love and forgiveness that could be understood. Presumably God could have chosen a different time and a different way to make this same truth known, so we should avoid making the mistake of confusing cause and effect by assuming that simply Jesus' death and resurrection in first century Palestine was atoning that the former necessarily (in the logical sense) entails the latter. We should avoid the mistake of thinking that simply because certain events are not connected to certain outcomes with iron-clad necessity that they are devoid of meaning.

Our own physical limitations lead to conceptual limitations, and because of this something as significant and far-reaching as the Atonement is difficult to capture verbally and conceptualize mentally. Indeed, in several places Paul alludes to Jesus' resurrection as being intimately connected with the renewal of the whole cosmos. However, in the same way that we can better grasp difficult concepts through particular examples that in effect "break it down" for us, I think there is much value in seeing the Atonement through this lens, rather than trying to force it into a straitjacket of logical causal necessity.

No comments: