Tag Archives: Richard Rohr

Jesus our substitute: Receive the grace for Lent

UC Riverside, where I got my B.A. in history and met my lovely wife, is just down the hill from Arrowhead Springs, now the former headquarters of Campus Crusade for Christ. So our college campus was crusaded quite a bit by young men, primarily. They dutifully delivered the Four Spiritual Laws from their holy mountain.

Cru people in their Four Laws T-shirts.

One of my roommates had just become a Christian in a rather random, personal way when he was accosted on campus by these Evangelicals. They were talking about Jesus, so he thought he should talk to them, since he was now a Christian. Then he couldn’t figure out how to get away from them as they made their pitch, going through their boiled down, mass-produced elevator speech about  substitutionary atonement. When he got back to the dorm, he was furious with me. “This is what you got me into?” I think he waved the booklet in front of my face.

I don’t think I had a lot of answers for him. But since he was smart and mad, I listened to his critique. And then we all got into a study of the booklet which is still making an impact on me, and which leads me to this fourth exploration of atonement explanations for Lent.

What do Gospel charts teach?

The Four Spiritual Laws tract starts with: “Just as there are physical laws that govern the physical universe, so there are spiritual laws that govern your relationship with God.” We thought:

  • Laws? We’d already picked up on Paul’s disdain for law.
  • Laws that govern? We weren’t sure that God was not governing the universe personally and couldn’t figure out if we needed laws to govern our relationship with God if Jesus wasn’t doing that himself.

When we got to the page above, we were not immediately confused because we trusted Jesus to be the way to eternal life. But the chart just did not sit quite right.

  • We already knew there were other ways to describe what Jesus did in the Bible.
  • We weren’t sure there was a gulf that needed a bridge, since we lived in Creation.
  • And even then, “pay the penalty for our sins” just seemed strangely violent if God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our life, yet is also obliged to roast us in hell if we don’t find it and follow it.

But, honestly, I think the biggest problem we had was when we got to the train. The train made me feel, in particular, like I was getting the wool pulled over my eyes.

  • We definitely did not think we could accept a Christianity supposedly based on fact. Even as undergrads we knew that facts are rather squishy; even we debated the relative meanings of words all day. And none of us could really think of the Bible as “fact” that did not need a second opinion from God and others.
  • We tried having each car at the front of the train. Faith probably got the most votes. But we also thought “God is love” was more connected to feeling, so maybe the caboose should be first.
  • But then we thought a train going somewhere was too linear and that was our problem to begin with. So we put the train cars on a circular track and that made the most sense. At one time or another, they each took the lead.

The problem with penance

As far as the various explanations of the atonement, the one which might be best attested in the Bible is substitution. Paul did not turn it into a graphic, but he describes it well. Before Anselm, the explanation had a more personal, metaphorical feel to it, something like a parable Jesus might teach. Then the Reformers get a hold of it in the 15-1600’s.

The Protestant Reformers refine Anselm’s “satisfaction  theory,” which also has a substitutionary feel to it, and focus it on justice. The gist is: There are laws God needs to follow to be authentically just. And one of them is that sin must be punished. Plus there is a more personal “law:” humans need to feel sorry for breaking the law, not just do penance and think that takes care of their sin.

Penance might be a word you can’t even define now, but it was a big deal then. Martin Luther got a protest going against the corrupt Church of his time when he could no longer stomach the “penance” system. You’ll see a theme start growing here: penance, penalty, penal substitution. “Penal” means: “relating to, used for, or prescribing the punishment of offenders under the legal system.” The gospel of the reformers who win the Reformation wars is, “Humankind is on the wrong side of the law. Jesus stands in for them and receives their punishment. He endures God’s wrath. Just be sorry and stop sinning.”

Luther was a  33-year-old theology professor at Wittenberg University on October 31, 1517 when he walked over to the main church and nailed a paper of 95 theses to the door, hoping to spark an academic discussion about their contents. He had said more provocative things in a lecture earlier, but this posting became a key event that ignited the Reformation. The first thesis of his 95 was about penance.

The penance system Luther experienced got started because the early church was trying to figure out what to do with people who were baptized into Christ and then sinned. Tertullian (c.155-c.220 AD) decided they were forgiven for original sin and saved, but they needed to satisfy the debts they incurred subsequently. The church was an alternative community, so they basically came up with their own “penitentiary.” What should a person pay to get back into the good graces of the Church and be restored to fellowship after they have sinned? They work out a major application of “step three” in Matthew 18: “If that person refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.”

There were (and still are) three main steps to penance: confess to the priest, be absolved in the named of Jesus and the Church, do something to demonstrate you’re seriously sorry and intend not to sin. Sometimes this was just, “Say this prayer,” or “Give alms.” But sometimes it was like a court sentence where you were out of the church and brought back in incrementally. At some point you can stand in the back of the meeting. Then you able to sit in the audience. Finally, you get the OK to take communion again. You can see that this was mainly “doing penance,” not necessarily feeling penitent. By the time of Luther, the church was offering indulgences for donations to shorten time in purgatory where dead people with built up sin had to stay before they’d worked it off and achieved heaven. (I was just surprised by a recent Netflix movie about this). I think this felt like drive-through forgiveness to Luther. Plus the whole process was administered by a faceless institution that ran like the Roman Empire.

The reformers were trying to make things work better according to the Bible and not according to some development fund manager in Rome. Their movement unwittingly rode the wave of the communication revolution the printing press brought in (Luther might have had tons of Instagram followers). I also think they were the flower of the individualism tree that was planted when Aristotle became the continent’s favorite philosopher.

Penal substitution wins at Dort

100 years after Luther went public, Calvinists are becoming the premier interpreters of the Reformation. John Calvin was trained as a lawyer and it shows in his theology and ministry — and even more in his descendants. Calvin turns justification by faith into the legal argument it remains. Mary Lane Potter says, “Calvin’s theology may be accurately described as a lifelong meditation on the law of God.” His successors take obedience to the law to a new extreme. I think their behavior points out why I think penal substitution is not adequate to stand on its own or to be made into a reductionistic booklet.

You’ve probably never heard of the Synod of Dort in 1618-19 (short for Dortrecht, in the Netherlands). It is a meeting called by the Dutch Protestant Church for  Calvinist leaders from across Europe to affirm the famous five points that undergird orthodox Calvinism. You can summarize the five articles in their statement with TULIP if you mix up the original order:

  • Total Depravity – “Man” (not trying to fix the sexist language for them) is completely touched/affected by sin in all that he is (in nature he is completely fallen), but is not as bad as he could be (in action, i.e., not all people murder, etc.). Furthermore, this total depravity means that the unregenerate will not, of their own free will, choose to receive Christ.
  • Unconditional Election – God elects a person based upon nothing in that person because there is nothing in him that would make him worthy of being chosen; rather, God’s election is based on what is in God. God chose us because he decided to bestow his love and grace upon us, not because we are worthy, in and of ourselves, of being saved.
  • Limited Atonement – Christ bore the sin only of the elect, not everyone who ever lived. Christ’s blood was sufficient for all, but not all sin was imputed to Christ. Christ’s blood is sufficient to cover all people. But the sufficiency relates to his divine value which is different than our legal debt. Sin is a debt since it is breaking the Law of God. In limited atonement, Calvinists are saying that there was a limit to whose sins were imputed to Christ in a legal sense.
  • Irresistible Grace – The term suggests a mechanical and coercive force upon an unwilling subject, but this is not the case. Instead, it is the act of God making the person willing to receive him. It does not mean that a person cannot resist God’s will.  It means that when God moves to save/regenerate a person, the sinner cannot thwart God’s movement and he will be regenerated
  • Perseverance of the Saints – We are so secure in Christ, that we cannot fall away.

The other advantage of the TULIP acronym is that it arranges the five points of Calvinism logically and progressively and gives a read out of substitutinary atonement, with each point contingent on the other, as follows. If humans are totally depraved, then they are unable to make an initial response to God. God must call people to salvation through unconditional election. God must also provide the way of salvation by the death of Jesus Christ. He makes salvation secure by the effectual call of the Holy Spirit. He keeps his saved ones secure so they will inherit the eternal life he has promised them.

The Synod of Dort sounds like a theological study group. But it is also (and, I think, primarily), a legal, political meeting. With the synod, the Calvinists anathemize the Arminians who rose up to protest the increasing legalism and politicization of the Calvinists. Arminius was a Dutch Reformed theologian whose followers published Remonstrance in 1610, which is the opposite of TULIP.

A portrait of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt by Michiel Jansz van Miereveld

The acts of the Synod were tied to political intrigues that arose during the Twelve Years’ Truce, a pause in the Dutch war with Spain. The Arminians were accused of propagating false doctrine AND perceived as ready to compromise with the Spanish. The Dutch Calvinists were not ready to deal. So Arminianism was considered by some to be not only theologically unsound but also political treason. The synod concludes with exile for theological opponents and execution for traitors — another episode in the ongoing Wars of Religion in Europe.

After the Synod rejected the teachings of the Remonstrants as falling outside the bounds of the Reformed confessions, a political condemnation of the statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt followed. He was a high official and had been the protector of the Remonstrants. For the crime of general perturbation in the state of the nation, both in Church and State (treason), he was beheaded on May 13, 1619, only four days after the final meeting of the Synod. With this process, the Dutch Reformed Church rid itself of Arminianism, but the ideas escaped to England where they were embedded in the budding movement called Methodism.

The fact that the application of the synod’s findings were implemented by judges and resulted in execution exemplifies my problem with today’s prevailing doctrine of penal substitution. It continues to be exclusive and interested in not only God’s sovereignty but its own. The teaching of it continues to be like an ongoing legal argument, as most people who have argued about predestination in a Bible study will attest. I see the Calvinists as the descendants of Constantine, who conquered in the name of the cross, the symbol of power over the powerless.

Give us a plan for our dialogue, Lord

The fiercely argued ascendancy of substitutionary atonement as the premier explanation of the gospel remains. Richard Rohr shows that Arminians vs. Calvinists is not a new argument in the church. Augustine and his followers fought with the “pelagians” (like John Cassian), and Dominicans argued with Franciscans (Rohr).

We need to keep having loving dialogue because we are not all built the same way and differing views need to be integrated in the peace of Christ, not allowed to become red or blue talking points. I connect the players in the Synod of Dort with Jeffrey Russell’s helpful distinction of the movements of “prophecy” and “order” in the medieval church, the Arminians being more on the “prophecy” side. I think the Calvinists are part of the general takeover of Eurocentric thinking in the 1600’s and onward by the “scientific” left brain; but the left brain is necessary to the whole, just should not rule.

The church has always had a helpful dialogue about the many, deep meanings of the atonement, which describe the grace of God — a grace which speaks to individuals and people groups in all ages and all places. The work of Jesus is bigger than our understanding and perfectly obvious to our needy hearts. The idea of “substitutionary atonement” is in the Bible and in the dialogue of the Church from earliest history [atonement explanations]. I’m not a fan of the corrupted version made in the image of Eurocentric thinking from the 1600’s. But I accept the grace of God in Jesus who bears my sins and sets me free from guilt.

So let’s end with a meditation on the death of Jesus for us, a song that came out in 1609, a decade before Dort. Maybe it unites us all — it has quite a diverse background. The tune is by the German Protestant composer, Hans Leo Hassler. The words we sing are a rewrite by a 26 year old Presbyterian minister in 1830. The original lyrics were attributed to the warrior mystic Bernard of Clairvaux, but are now attributed of Arnulf of Lueven (ca 1250), Lueven being a town just a couple of hours south of Dortrecht in Belgium. The original poem is long and includes all sorts of body parts, but the head is what became most vivid and lasting.

Here is the second verse for your prayer:

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered
Was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
‘Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor,
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

Do not be afraid: Your container will be filled with content

I am surrounded by twenty and thirtysomethings. It is a blessing. Serving these people has been the joy of most of my life. I think the spiritual life that follows adolescence and precedes the second half of life might be the most interesting but also the most frustrating and dangerous time of life. So I often feel like I am in the thick of it. We often think of babies as the most vulnerable of creatures. Twenty and thirtysomethings spend a great deal of their energy creating a container in which these dear little beings can survive.  But what about the parents? They are vulnerable, too, and quite often their true selves die before they even get recognized!

maslow's hierarchy of needs five stage pyramid
Clearly what will be called personality problems depends on who is doing the calling. The slave owner? The dictator? The patriarchal father? The husband who wants his wife to remain a child? It seems quite clear that personality problems may sometimes be loud protests against the crushing of one’s psychological bones, of one’s true inner nature. — Maslow, 1956

Build a container for content

The noble actions of first-half adults are focused on finding one’s place in the world, often as a mate, a parent, an income supplier and a social system builder. The whole era of first half development is a crucial time for growing into our fullness as humans and as spiritual people. But a big danger comes with our development. Our container building can become the only thing we know how to do and we never move on to receive the content to fill up the container! Success, security, some sense of power – looking good to ourselves and others, can almost be our only considerations. We can become containers with little content.

As we often say, U.S. society promotes such emptiness, since our rulers are preoccupied with adolescent pursuits. For instance, they are obsessed with security needs, among other things. Neither Republicans nor Democrats seriously question the enormously high military budget. But that budget is all about the container. The developmentally-arrested president wants to build a wall to contain the whole country and protect it from “shithole” nations!  At the same time, appropriations that reflect needs that are deeper than Maslow’s first two stages on the hierarchy of needs are neglected: education, health care for the poor and everyone else, community-building and the arts. The leaders neglect the need for content in the container. Is often the first cut in the budget, if it is considered at all.

The U.S. is basically an adolescent society and our religious expressions look like it, too. Liberals criticize the church if it is not preoccupied with food and housing [Maslow’s first level]. Conservatives criticize the church if it is not filled with certainty [second level, isn’t it?]. Circle of Hope can get it from both sides as people come to Jesus and his people looking for the basic needs they lost when their lives fractured in this fracturing world. We help them build a container. It is tempting to stay stuck in it and miss the content for which it is intended.

Richard Rohr says, “We all want and need various certitudes, constants, and insurance policies at every stage of life. But we have to be careful, or they totally take over and become all-controlling needs, keeping us from further growth.” Receiving the content of resurrection life takes faith and trust, which are not that useful if one is anxiously maintaining a container. Thus the most common one-liner in the Bible (365 times) is “Do not be afraid.” We we need to move beyond our early motivations of personal security, reproduction and identity. But it is scary to do so.

Do you think we commiserate more with what people fear than we help them not be afraid? How many people are driven from your cell because they can’t compute life beyond their container-building religious ideas? Consider how often you don’t help them figure out how to move deeper. Maybe your cell is stuck at the third step up Maslow’s pyramid up above and does not have an eternal outlook.

Be afraid of the right thing

Being preoccupied with morality, control, safety, pleasure and certitude comes to a bad end. A high percentage of people never get to the content of their own lives! Sometimes you can see the trouble creeping up on us. Areas of our leadership team silo off and don’t talk to other teams. Whole congregations get a sense of their “otherness.” People demand that we make policies about identities. We have to keep saying, “Human life is about more than building boundaries, protecting identities, creating tribes and teaching impulse control.”

Like Jesus said in Luke 12, “Why do you ask, what am I to eat? What am I to wear?” He asks the container-builders who ask such questions, “Is life not so much more than food? Is life not so much more than clothing?” Repeatedly he asks, “What will it profit you if you gain the whole world, and lose your very soul?” (Matthew 16:26). And I add, what will happen to your children if all you teach them is fear and practical faithlessness? What will happen to the church if you persist in never getting the content you need to share? What will happen to the world when your adolescent faith burns up in the heat of adulthood?

A thirty-year-old in our church was 13 when the 9/11 attack turned the country even more into a security state. When they were 19 the Great Recession hit and fear and anger skyrocketed. Since the 80’s, a philosophy-shift resulted in the top 20% of the population securing 76% of the wealth. Now, Oxfam says, worldwide, 8 men own as much wealth as the 3.6 billion who make up the poorest people in the world! Everyday life has encouraged a whole generation to be anxious and fearful. Now Trump is president and each day looks like the foundations in society are being upended. It is no wonder we try to build a wall around ourselves . But our vessels of clay are meant to to hold glory.

Take heart, you were made for this

 

Window by Douglas Strachan in the church of St Andrew’s and St George’s in Edinburgh.

Jesus tells us to “Take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). It is hard to hear him when we are feverishly trying to keep ahead of the eroding foundations under our feet, as if that were top priority. Jesus was less concerned about his impending death (!), about his life-container, than he was about the content of his life. He was less interested in the consequences of his actions than he was interested in revealing to his fearful, controlling, unfaithful followers what a container is for. Life is more than finding one’s own bliss or balance, disciplining and making the most of one’s time, and fighting for one’s rights — all that is for beginners! The bulk of an eternal life is lived in trust and hope. Dying to mere self-awareness, self-aggrandizement, and self-centeredness is the first task of gaining content for the container.

Barack Obama displayed some of this wisdom when he was shown talking to David Letterman the other night. He said, “One of the things that Michelle figured out, in some ways faster than I did—was part of your ability to lead the country doesn’t have to do with legislation, doesn’t have to do with regulations [making a container], it has to do with shaping attitudes, shaping culture, increasing awareness [being and receiving content].” He is a hopeful guy and he inspires me to be the same, even when I feel I am in the thick of it. Our containers (egos, churches, and what not)  have holes in them, so we need Jesus to overcome our world and keep filling us with eternal life. But as  long as we are co-workers with the Lord instead of container protectors, we have a chance to become the kind of content that makes the world take heart.

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“Yes, and” about technology in honor of one of the originals

1% discussing the fruit of their war technologyLast night I was in a rush to get home and enjoy my yearly viewing of Brother Sun, Sister Moon.  Still great. This year I was especially moved by how well it points out the sins of the one percent of the year 1200. Pietro di Bernadone (Francis’ father) looks suspiciously like Donald Trump, telling his son to pillage a particular relic when he attacks Perugia in order to save them a “fortune in indulgences” and picking up heirlooms “for almost nothing” in the postwar turmoil. Most years I miss that theme because I am so preoccupied with watching each of Francis’ circle of friends wake up to their longing for faith in a world gone wrong.

My technology delayed me

Ironically, I was in a rush to get home to watch a movie about my simplicity-adopting hero because my technology delayed me. First, my credit union mobile app would not process a particular check I wanted to deposit — the error message said it could not read the numbers, then it said I had already deposited the check and couldn’t do it again! I spent a while arguing with my phone. I called the bank and was sent to a number that did not answer. Then I went to an ATM only to realize I did not remember the right pin code (since I was retrained to use the mobile app). I finally got home and could not immediately figure out how to use the DVD player because I have been retrained for Roku.

When I sat down for my anticipated reverie, I was a bit exhausted — a bit tempted to give up and scroll through some screens while catching up on cable news, the next episode of the strange and prophetic Mr. Robot, or something numbing like that. Instead, I pressed on and enjoyed watching Francis throw his father’s belongings out the window. In the movie version of his life, Francis is propelled toward his conversion to radical Christianity by a visit to the sweatshop in the family basement he had thus far ignored. His father almost beats him to death after he takes the workers into the sun for an afternoon in which “no one did a lick of work.” I noticed the parallels.

Our dialogue set me up

I was set up for frustration with my commitment/subjugation to various forms of technology by our discussion last Monday of our theology of technology. We bravely waded in to the huge subject and ended up with a rather large summary doc that we have stored in Google awaiting some time when we have enough energy to wade in again. I think we are getting to some good thinking. For instance, we took a few of Circle of Hope’s proverbs and pointed them at technology. Here’s a sample:

  • Our deliberate attempts to make disciples are “incarnational,” friend to friend, so we accept that what we do will almost never be instant.  — Being an organism, being incarnational may not be efficient; reducing processes down to efficiency is not automatically best.
  • People should be skeptical if our message does not originate from a community that demonstrates the love of Christ. — Depersonalizing data collection and screen usage could be antithetical to what we are going for.
  • Life in Christ is one whole cloth. As we participate in and love “the world,” we bring redemption from the Kingdom of God to our society. Jesus is Lord of all, so we have repented of separating “sacred” and “secular.” — Technology is not intrinsically wrong; it is a means to God’s ends in our hands.
  • We are “world Christians,” members of the transnational body of Christ; concerned with every person we can touch with truth and love. — Communication technology is amazing, we need to learn how to speak the language and touch the hearts of those submerged in it.
  • The church is not a “thing” that does things; it is not a building. We are the church and we support one another as Jesus expresses himself through us. — In a digitized, mechanized, roboticized economy, it will be a struggle to be personal.
  • Those among us from “traditional” Christian backgrounds are dying to our precious memories of “church” in order to bring the gospel into the present with great flexibility. — Like it or not, the future is rapidly coming upon us. It is not OK to say nothing about what technology is making us.

Francis’ simple joy sets me straight

 Today, on Francis Day, I intend to keep it simple. But I do not see my example from the 1200’s as a simpleton. He imagined a worldwide mission of peace and community in Christ. He even went to Egypt and got an interview with the sultan who was warring against European crusaders in Palestine (again, a strangely familiar situation). I think we will end up with some good theology to offer a world beset by virtual bigots, techno terrorists and corporate home invaders because we have the perennial sensibilities of Francis and of anyone who simply wants to follow Jesus simply. As Richard Rohr describes him in one of last year’s best books Eager to Love in the chapter “An Alternative Orthodoxy:”

Francis’ starting place was human suffering instead of human sinfulness, and God’s identification with that suffering in Jesus…In general, Francis preferred ego poverty to private perfection, because Jesus “became poor for our sake, so that we might become rich out of his poverty” (2 Cor. 8:9)…

Francis’ was a radically Christi-centric worldview, but one that nonetheless recognized the Church as the primary arena in which this good news could be protected and disseminated. He was a non-dual thinker….[He saw] the living Body of Christ, first of all, everywhere, and then the organized Church was where the “hidden Mystery,” could most easily be recognized, talked about, developed, and praised. Most of us come at it from the other side, “My church is better than your church,” and never get to the real universal message. We substitute the container for the actual contents, and often substitute our church structure for the gospel or the kingdom of God. Francis was an extraordinary “yes, and” kind of man, which kept him from all negativity toward structures or other groups (p. 84).

I think I can nurture a “yes, and” kind of approach to technology (at least the part I don’t throw out of the window). Today, that means becoming poor in spirit and poor with others so we can be rich in Jesus, It means less stress about the containers and more attention to the contents. It means straining out the gnat of goodness and not swallowing every camel the sophisticating salespeople flash before my eyes. It means wading in and trusting Jesus to save me, again.