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One Event, Multiple Meanings:
Rediscovering Life, Hope and Love in Theologies of the Cross
By: Emily Garcia
I am four years old. I am seven years old. I am nine years old. It makes no difference; it is always the same story. I lie awake in bed. I hear the quiet murmur of my parents talking and the background noise of the television. I find this somewhat comforting, but still, I am terrified. I think about God and “lukewarm” people, about burning pits and leering, twisted faces. The preacher tells us that it is not enough to go through the motions, you must truly believe, in your heart. “I do believe, I do believe, I do believe,” I whisper to myself, but it doesn’t feel right. I think I am probably one of the lukewarm people; I don’t believe, not really, not in my heart. God will see this right away, and I will go to the burning pit. I only want to stay with people who are good and kind and warm. I want to be good myself. I want to be safe and loved. But my feelings are all wrong, my thoughts are all wrong. Finally, I call out to my brother. “I’m afraid.” I dare not say what I am thinking deep down: I am afraid of God. I think he is mean and scary. “Of eternity,” I say instead. “I know. Me too,” my brother answers.
Twenty years later I am again sitting in the pews of my childhood church. It is Christmas Eve, and my husband and I are spending the holiday with my parents. The children of the church are called to the altar, where they open a gift; inside is a tiny, ceramic baby Jesus, “the first Christmas present.” “Look kids, IT’S JESUS!” Although this is somewhat amusing, I feel ill at ease. I become more disturbed as the pastor pulls out a gift card he received from the congregation. He proceeds to explain that Jesus is just like that gift card; our job is simply to cash him in. “If you don’t use it, who’s the loser- YOU’RE THE LOSER!” I have not felt this angry in a long time. There is an irrational, wild part of me that wants to make a scene. I want to grab the brass candleholder from the altar and smash in the headlights of every luxury car parked outside, dismantle the coat closet, ruin the evening for everyone. I hold back tears, because I feel that something true and beautiful is being degraded. My husband squeezes my hand, and I realize he knows exactly what I am thinking. I sit quietly and hold my inarticulate rage. I will say later that this scenario encapsulates everything that is wrong with Protestant spirituality in America, but my family rolls their eyes, laughs at me, and wonders aloud who I am getting all these crazy ideas from, why I must always be so difficult. I feel angry with them, and I hate that. Because they are good people, they love me, and it is a holiday.
I chose to begin my project by sharing these personal stories so the reader may better understand where I am speaking from. I grew up in a church that has become completely dominated by a hybrid of the penal substitution and satisfaction theories of atonement. I refer to the belief that Jesus died to pay the price for our sin, making us acceptable to God and bridging the gap between God and humanity; when we profess faith in Jesus Christ, our sin is forgiven and we are saved. This particular way of conceptualizing and explaining the saving work of Jesus has become absolutized to the point of defining, for many believers, what it means to be Christian. I struggled with this for most of my life. When understood as the single, definitive truth, I found that I simply could not accept this dominant soteriological model. I felt myself pushed into a corner, where my only option was to reject the tradition and faith I was raised in. Rather than bringing the good news of life, freedom, and healing, I found the teaching of salvation, understood as forgiveness of sins through belief in Jesus Christ, to be restrictive and oppressing. Yet there was some power in the images, the stories, and the person of Jesus, which never allowed me to completely turn my back on them.
When I later was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study religion, I discovered that the penal substitution/satisfaction theory of atonement is simply one, among many, ways of speaking about the Jesus event. This experience liberated me. I was no longer forced to see the world as a saved/damned binary, a model that crumbled into confusion when faced with the reality and ambiguity of life. For the first time, I felt myself free to engage the tradition, open myself to all the ways God works in the world, and approach scripture with an eager heart.
In this project, I hope to broaden our understanding of how God works on behalf of humanity–more particularly, how God saves us through Jesus. Christian theology affirms that a man named Jesus actually lived in history, and was a vessel of God in a unique and complete way; he lived and died in an exceptional manner, as testified to in the Scripture. However, all the meanings and models we assign to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are relative. We all share, however distantly, in the experience of an event, yet we interpret that event in different ways. Historically there have been many ways of talking about the Jesus event including Christ the Sacrifice, Christus Victor, satisfaction, penal substitution, the moral influence model, the mysticism of suffering and the Crucified God. Today theologians from many different contexts continue to explore the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
By broadening the language, models, and theories used to articulate the truth of salvation found in Jesus, we are freed to truly approach God, in Christ. We will recognize that certain models may conflict with one another, offending logic and reason. Yet we will hold and value these incongruencies when we remind ourselves that we are dealing with a mystery. In the journey of faith, we will continue to judge, critique, and transform the tradition that has been passed down to us, while still remaining deeply rooted in that tradition. We will find some ideas relevant and helpful, and we may judge others to be irrelevant, or even harmful. Yet we will keep the ideas that do not immediately speak to us on our horizon, recognizing that they have spoken to others and may one day speak to us as well. We will not be threatened by those who understand things differently, but will instead wonder what we can learn from them.
In accepting that there are many different ways to talk about the saving work of God in Christ, one naturally assumes a position of humility. We passionately embrace the truth that has been given to us, while remaining ever cognizant of the fact that we can never claim to have everything all figured out. The possibility of humility becomes accessible when one accepts the relativity of one’s own life, thought, experience, and even faith. Understanding the breadth and variety of the Christian tradition relativizes one’s own experience of that tradition. We then live our faith from a position of humility. Theology becomes the process by which we grow in our faith, rather than the answer that explains it.
In Part I, I briefly introduce the reader to the traditional soteriological models, including the satisfaction/penal substitution model. I situate the models in their historic context and attempt to highlight what is life-giving in each model. This survey provides the reader with the necessary background information, and broadens our understanding of how Jesus saves us, while remaining faithful to the Christian tradition.
I then explore critiques of the satisfaction/penal substitution model, and alternatives offered, by both feminist and Latin American liberation theologies. I have chosen to focus on the feminist and liberation perspectives because these voices offer the necessary corrective and prophetic call to conversion desperately needed in my own context, which has been shaped by consumerism, individualism, and privilege. In Part II, I look at the theologies of Rita Nakashima Brock and Wendy Farley. Brock is a leading scholar in the fields of religion and women’s studies and has written and lectured extensively on soteriology and understandings of salvation. Her 1988 book, Journeys By Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, is widely celebrated as a landmark work in feminist theology. Farley is a Professor of Religion and Ethics at Emory University and author of several books including The Wounding and Healing of Desire, a reflection on suffering and transformation. I chose to focus on these two theologians because they both offer important insights. Brock articulates the feminist critique of the dominant soteriological model clearly and forcefully, and emphasizes the importance of working for our own salvation through relationships of love, respect, and mutuality. Farley offers a convincing and detailed analysis of the human psyche, brokenness, and healing.
In Part III, I focus on Latin American liberation theology through the work of Jon Sobrino. Sobrino is a Jesuit priest and a highly-respected theologian. He spent most of his adult life in El Salvador and served as theological advisor to the late Archbishop Oscar Romero. I chose to focus on his work not only because he is one of the leading Latin American liberation theologians, but also because he boldly and explicitly addresses issues of poverty, injustice, and oppression in his soteriology.
Finally, drawing upon the insights and strengths found in these theologies, I propose my own soteriological model in Part IV, which I believe can speak to the ambiguity, pain, and sin of Christians in the privileged First World. I’m not suggesting that this soteriological model is superior to others or that it is all-encompassing, but rather that it offers a needed perspective. In constructing my own model, I sought to articulate a soteriology that is life-giving and remains deeply rooted in Christian tradition.
Part I: Jesus Saves
Traditional Models and Historical Background
one event, multiple meanings (3) (the entire 95 page document)