A few years ago, Rose and I were visiting some friends for dinner. After the plates had been cleared and we were finishing our dessert, my friend said “I’m starting to believe that I don’t need a Jesus to have existed to believe in a Christ.”
The look on his wife’s face shocked me much more than his statement. They had long ago moved away from their conservative, reformed childhood background. But for her, he had crossed a bridge too far.
I had given up on the primacy of historicity years before. Hearing him speculate, not on Jesus precisely, but on the matter of his faith in Jesus was like music to my ears. And being inclined toward radical theology, I am much more prone to be interested in the dance of experience and of actuality than I am of requiring my belief be predicated on certainty.
What I don’t buy
In the Jesus event, we deal with two sets of time: the historical time in which a human named Jesus walked the earth and the time before and since in which the Word of GOD was a present and active participant in the GOD event.
That’s why I don’t buy that GOD is a father that kills his son. Jesus isn’t a pawn. GOD isn’t an accountant with a checkbook that needs to be balanced. And I certainly don’t buy that GOD is all powerful enough to create such an intricate and delicate world, only to come up with the dumbest possible problem requiring an even dumber solution.
In fact, I don’t buy the atonement at all. Well, not the way we usually deal with it, anyway.
Ask the average person about the nature of GOD and you get a variety of personal responses.
Ask them about the power of GOD and you start to get different answers.
Those answers start to deal, not with people, or the relationship between GOD and the people, but with metaphysical moments described in Scripture.
Moments like Creation, the Deluge, and the Exodus.
Moments like miraculous births, the healings, and the exorcisms.
But when we start talking about Jesus, and specifically the purpose of the cross, we leave belief, reason, history, Scripture, and even metaphysics and enter into the realm of cosmic speculation. I love theology as much as the next guy. Actually probably way more. But there is a reason there has been so little consistency and uniformity of belief about this one theological concept. It is different. Much less certainty and much more speculation. Much less Scripture and much more theological writings. Much less Hebrew tradition and much more Greek philosophy.
And lastly, there is one Scriptural reason I don’t buy any of the visions of atonement: Abraham didn’t kill Isaac.
Jesus dying as revolutionary
In the historical Jesus, we have the pursuit of the most likely and accurate information about the actuality of Jesus as possible.
There is a certain fear, even among those that are into the historical Jesus that it will uncover something bad. Something scary. Perhaps that we’ll find Jesus’s bones, therefore disproving his bodily resurrection. Or perhaps we’ll discover that The DaVinci Code was true and that Jesus actually did have sex. (The horror!) More likely it is that when we parse Scripture, we find some of our favorite bits may not have happened. And we are left to deal with the idea that their power comes in the form of a story, rather than a history. Like confusing Lincoln for its source material.
There is another truth, however. That in reading Borg & Crossan’s The Last Week, we get an image of a revolutionary Jesus, executed by the state for insurrection. That Jesus was an historical man that was necessarily killed, not to fulfill a godly quota, or by a humanity corrupted by sin, but by a human empire that was bent on humiliating and decimating its enemies. Parading them nakedly against their religious laws like prisoners at Abu Ghraib. If you follow the historical Jesus movement to its logical conclusion, we can find that Jesus wasn’t killed for or by GOD or to do anything for our sins. He was killed because he preached good news about a GOD that wants us to love as GOD loves, rather than kill as empires do. Just looking at our last century, we have plenty of proof that today’s Romes kill today’s Jesuses.
But that doesn’t change a thing about what Jesus was doing or is doing.
That is why the incarnation is so valuable. It isn’t some modernist proof so that enlightenment thinkers and the new atheists can suddenly go “Oh! I get it now!” but acts as a small leap. Not only for us, but for GOD. A leap from a history of a people that long ago tried to distance themselves from GOD. Yet GOD persisted, to the point of sharing in a human experience and was changed by it.
In this way, the cross, and the meaning of the crucifixion are the remnants of a human age in which we neither feared GOD, nor loved GOD, for we could not believe that GOD is with us.
We can leave the cross in the ground, for it is not the symbol of GOD’s way, but the rejection of the human way. It is not a divine symbol of retribution, or the symbol of GOD’s power, but the mocking of Empire’s power. The physicality of the symbol is clearly a totem. And yet we’ve allowed it to be twisted into a Roman desire for power, infusing this potent symbol of rejection with the very agency that produced the original torture device. Making the cross today the very symbol of Constantine’s empire.
And even in the midst of this confusion brought by the power of our Romes, the presence of the incarnate Word, in a one-time event and in the persistent event that spans two thousand years still breaks through. Jesus is here. Jesus is among us. In us. Incarnate. Still.