Tuesday, April 7, 2009


This Lent season has sent me down some strange paths. One that I think is particularly appropriate for Holy Week are the words Atonement and Salvation. As the weeks have gone by, I have found myself reflecting more and more on those two central pieces of Christian theology and what they really mean.

Here in the Ozarks, the importance of salvation is stressed to the extreme. I can not count the number of times I have been asked, "Are you saved?" The old hymn, "Are You Washed In the Blood of the Lamb" is still an old standard in the churches I used to attend. In the tradition I grew up in, the "salvation experience" is something that must be obtained. You need to be on your hands and knees asking for God's forgiveness. It has now become the primary focus of many churches here, and it is the Holy Grail of Fundangelical Ideology. For many years I thought this was the normal in Christian faith. I have since learned that this is not the case, and in fact the "salvation experience" may not be what it claims. That has lead me to the question, "What is attonement? What does it mean to be 'Saved?'"

The Catholic Encyclopedia states that the word atonement is one of the few words in Christian theology of completely English origin. Since this is so, it is safe to break it down into its primary parts: At-One-Ment. Quite simply, to be made one with God.   Atonement is about more than just reconciling us to the Father. Much ado has been made over the years in the Crucifixion story of the Temple Veil being torn when Jesus died. The barier between God and Mankind was sundered at that point.

If there is now no barrier between us and God, what is this need for "being saved"? What does it mean to be "born again?" I think it goes much deeper that the Salvation Experience. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to belittle anyone's experience.  Heck, I've even had the experience a few times.  But being "born again" is more than a feeling.  Salvation is about more than just getting a "get out of Hell free" card.  When churches preach this, they are belittling the mystery of what really happened 2000+ years ago this week.  And quite a few realize this.

What tends to happen, at least in my own personal experience, is that the "salvation experience" happens and suddenly there is this sense of pure ecstacy.  You feel like you are one with God and everything is rosey.  What happened with me many times was taht  the demands of what I thought God wanted of me, based in no small part on what the Church was teaching me, didn't make sense with what I saw in the "secular world".  I could not reconcile the two.  So where many people become isolationists of sorts and move into what they call being "in the world but not of it", I simply lost my faith...again... and went right back to where I was before.

But both reactions were wrong.  In each instance I was not listening.  The inconsistencies weren't "the World" trying to pull me away from God.  I believe it was the other way around.  God was trying to show me that there is a whole world out there beyond the walls of the Church.  That world is starved for love, and instead I was trying to give them a rigid morality code. The question is raised in Luke 11:11-12  when Jesus asks, "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?"  

Atonement is about more than just remission of sins.  The word repent goes beyond just asking for forgiveness.  It is moving on the path from Exile to the Promised Land.  Atonement is not just about me becoming one with God but also about bringing the World into that same light.   Reflect on these words for a moment, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!"  Right here and right now, the Kingdom is here.  Our job is to help bring it into being, to make the world we live in and the Kingdom of God one.  That is atonement.  But the Kingdom of God is not the Kingdom of the Pharasees either where we all must call Christ by the same name and believe the exact same thing.  It is a world where we love one another as Christ loves us.  When we set aside our petty restrictions on who can and can't be a part of God's Kingdom and realize that we all are a part of it whether we acknowledge it or not.  That is At-one-ment.  Only when we realize this can we find true salvation.


Lauralew said...

Wonderful piece. I've been musing about atonement lately--probably for the first time in my life! The word and theology of it are coming at me from all angles. Guess I should do some reading about it.

I like your idea of "at-one-ment." Much food for thought here.

Arkansas Hillbilly said...

I have to admit, it's not totally my idea. A retired theology professor introduced me to the idea, though we don't agree on much else. He and I agree that sacrificial atonement is bad theology. But since it's what I grew up with, I am left trying to sort out exactly what it all means.