A Progressive Christian Minister Reconsiders Atonement

Sometimes I attend services in an Episcopal Church. Before people share the bread and wine known as communion, the priest makes a dramatic gesture.  Holding the circular bread-wafer so that all can see, the priest exclaims: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.”  In unison, the response comes from the people: “Let us keep the feast.”

The image, Christ as the Passover, is biblical in origin. Paul, writing to the ancient community in the Greek city of Corinth (see 1Corinthians chapter 5) draws a parallel image between the lamb slaughtered in the Passover Seder meal and the death of Jesus on the cross.  In the account from the Hebrew Bible, the book of Exodus, lamb’s blood painted above the door as the sign to the angel of death to pass that house and go to the next. Similarly, Paul writes that the spilling of Jesus’ blood on the cross is the sign of his followers passing over from death to life.  While I find this image powerful and rich in meaning, there has been a troubling evolution in Christian theology around the interpretation of the death of Jesus.

As a Progressive Christian, I believe that the message of Jesus, both his way of life and his teachings, are an example for me to follow as a guide to living life fully.  Their essence conveys truth about living in ways that are grace-filled, loving, and rich in compassion.  The message of Jesus was controversial.  In fact, it upset the religious leaders of his day to such a degree that they plotted to kill him.  As astute politicians, they found a way to have him labeled as an enemy of state, a subversive bent on overthrowing the government.  The penalty was capital punishment.  And so it was that Jesus was crucified.  But even facing death, he remained true to his message and continued to demonstrate love and compassion toward others.

From this perspective, I understand the redemptive ministry of Jesus to be the way he taught by word and example.  His life and death embodied how people can reach beyond horrible circumstances so that they become  life-giving: sharing love and compassion with others.  His way was about transforming horrible events to become possibilities; his truth was that loving-kindness was always available for us to share; his life demonstrated how to give of one’s own life for others.

Christ is our Passover not because he was slaughtered like a scapegoat. In ancient cultures, once a year, as a way to overcome the sins of the community, people would gather around a goat and touch it — placing their sins on the goat.  The goat was either let out in the wild to die or slaughtered.  A scapegoat represents a kind of sympathetic magic:  ritualizing something to make it happen.  Jesus was not a scapegoat.  Instead, he was a prophetic teacher who was killed because he threatened the status quo of organized religion.

Some Christian theologies have made Jesus into a scapegoat.  In particular, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement states that God requires payment for every sin we’ve ever committed. In this context, the suffering and death of Jesus was the payment for every sin committed by human beings.  This makes Jesus into a magical scapegoat and God into a bookkeeper who wants debts paid.  I find that the concept of substitutionary atonement is incompatible with the God revealed by Jesus whom John, the beloved disciple, called love.  A deity that requires the death of another to atone for grievances is simply cruel and barbaric. This concept, which developed and came to the forefront among 17th Century writers, is in many ways a contradiction of the teachings of Jesus and makes no sense to many people today.

The death of Jesus was politically orchestrated by devious religious leaders.  But the way Jesus recognized and embraced the false accusations and victimization as an enemy of the state turned this death-dealing act into something inspiring and life-giving.  He forgave those who accused him, beat him, and killed him because he recognized their frailty and saw them with compassion. In doing so, he showed us the way from death to life.

For my part, I appreciate the image of Christ, the Passover that was sacrificed.  It conveys to me that the good news of Jesus was so good that even people in his day found it too unsettling to accept.  Jesus taught that the last will be first and the first will be last and what is done for others is done for him. Such teachings went before the prevailing culture of his day just as they are contrary to the values of our culture today.  When we keep the feast, we are invited to follow in his way.


Photo credit: Corey Holms via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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What Is a Spiritual Person?

I’ve spoken with many people who wonder what spirituality is all about.  What leads one person to say, “I’m a spiritual person,” while another isn’t so sure.

I believe that to be a spiritual person means to live in a way that recognizes that there is more to life than meets the eye.  The spiritual dimension of life opens us to look and to see beyond the surface of day to day events and discover something of depth, of fullness, of richness.  To be a spiritual person is to recognize that this moment is an opportunity to experience fulfillment and contentment in life.  Fundamentally, fulfillment in life is not an absolute.  There’s no maximum quality to fulfillment.  Instead, each moment is an opportunity to choose to experience something of meaning for ourselves that has the potential to evoke depth and richness of life.

While my last paragraph may sound philosophical and almost poetic, I’m attempting to convey something that we know from our experience as true.  Consider for a moment what brings you joy?  Or perhaps, where do you find peace in life?  If we’re honest with ourselves, these experiences are deeply personal and unique.  What brings you joy in life may be far different from me or some other person.  That doesn’t mean the experience or description of joy is wrong in some way.  Instead, qualities in life like joy, peace, happiness, or contentment are real and rooted in each person’s experience.

What are things like joy, peace, happiness, or contentment based on?  While neuropsychologists can explain what is happening within the brains of individuals who experience these things, it’s clear that joy, peace, happiness, or contentment is more than just what’s happening in our brains. There’s no formula or recipe to assure that one person or another will experience these things.  Instead, the experience is much more complex.

It’s from this perspective that I contend that a spiritual person recognizes that there’s more happening in life experience than just what can be identified in some measurable way.  In a sense, there’s an added depth to our experience.  That’s the realm of spirituality.

A spiritual person is simply a person who recognizes that there’s something more in their experience than what can be readily identified.  Such a person understands that at any given moment, happiness, joy, or peace is available to them.  It’s these experiences which lead us to create a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives.

Is meaning or purpose real?  Or are they illusions?  Perhaps they are both real and illusory.  They are illusory in that meaning or purpose can change and are very dependent on a person’s context in life.  At the same time, I could not claim that a parent who stays up all night to care for a sick child does so without a sense of purpose.  I’d further suggest that being a good parent provides very real meaning to the lives of many people.

In the end, I would suggest that the spiritual person is the individual who understands that there is more to life than just going through our day to day routines or living for the next day off.  The spiritual person finds something more that is life giving and life sustaining.

Photo credit: Foter.com

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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The Tapestry of Life and Death

As I scroll through the postings made by friends on Facebook, I see familiar kinds of postings — status updates, as they are called.  One may comment about a parent’s death, another on the passing of a cousin, another on the anniversary of a loved one’s home-going.  While people often joke about the preponderance of cat videos on social media, it’s rarely acknowledged that social media is also a place to memorialize the loss of loved ones.

While some people go for decades without experiencing the loss of loved ones, many of us have experienced the passing of family members and friends far too often.  In time, there may come a point in life when it seems as though we’ve lost more intimate companions than we have left.  No matter how many years it may be since a loved one has died, we carry tender places within us for those who have passed from our lives.

The process of bereavement is more than just accepting that someone has died.  After several months, we generally grasp the reality that once someone was here and now they are not.  What’s more complicated is the loss of the companionship shared with those who were part of the fabric of our lives.  These relationships are never replaced.  Instead, they leave a hole that’s never quite filled.

When the companion who passed from this life is very significant to us, we carry vivid memories of the loved one twenty, thirty, or forty years after their passing.  Perhaps in a dream we can hear the person’s laugh or in an old song hear the person’s voice.  We find ourselves telling stories about the time we did this thing or the other with our loved one.  It’s truly a perplexing experience when remembering a companion brings happiness for what we shared with them and deep sadness that they have passed from this life.

Counselors, therapists, and social workers often talk about grief recovery.  Let’s be honest: there is no real recovery.  Instead, we reorganize our lives without our companion.  We carry on with our own lives. Simultaneously, we hold within us the feelings of loss which become something of a memorial of those so important to us.  The importance of companions who have passed from our lives remains with us and memories of our connections to them remain very much alive.

As the spring season unfolds, I find myself reflecting on my yard and garden while remembering people who helped to make my life what it is.  Remnants of dead leaves and brown grass remain from autumn. At the same time, shoots of new grass sprout and flowers bud.  The new growth pushes away the foliage which has died.  How similar this is to the loss of people I have loved.  While I am aware that they have died, something life-giving about what was shared with them springs up within me as I remember them.  They remain very much a part of me.  I experience their presence and at some deep level feel them with me.  From beyond the grave, I am aware of their love and care for me.

Life and death are surely mysteries.  While we act as though they are separate things that unfold in linear time, in fact life and death are both present with us as one interwoven experience.  As Einstein noted, our sequential experience of time is an illusion. All things are present in the now.  That’s indeed how I experience my loved ones who have died:  yes, they are gone, but they remain with me and remain part of my life.  I am thankful that my beloved companions remain with me. Perhaps you experience this mystery as well.

As I read status up-dates on Facebook about the passing of loved ones, I extend condolences and offer prayers of support.  I also recognize that people are creating virtual memorials of their companions by making the postings.  In time, they are likely to discover living memorials for loved ones as memories and emotions continue to weave the presence of their loved ones through the fabric of their lives.  In time, experiences of life and death weave a rich tapestry within us.


Photo credit: Wonderlane via Foter.com / CC BY

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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