Friday, April 6, 2012

C S Lewis’ View of the Atonement: Picturing What We Cannot Fully Understand

My Facebook friend, C S Lewis scholar and author Will Vaus, today posted a link to an interesting article in Christianity Today, which challenged my thinking about the Atonement Christ accomplished for us on the cross. (See He's Calling For Elijah! Why We Still Mishear Jesus by Al Hsu.)
A common interpretation of the crucifixion is that the Son of God was forsaken by the Father in order for Christ to suffer the wrath of God in our place. Hsu argues that Christ was not forsaken, and that His words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” from the cross would have reminded the Jewish audience of Psalm 22. Hsu believes the entire context of the Psalm, which ends in triumph, must be kept in mind when interpreting Jesus’ words. Certainly the psalmist was not forsaken by God when he penned those words, but was expressing how he felt. Hsu points to verse 24 as proof Christ was not actually forsaken: “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” [NIV]
Jesus is not saying that God has forsaken him. He's declaring the opposite. He's saying that God is with him, even in this time of seeming abandonment, and that God will vindicate him by raising him from the dead.
From the comments left, it seems the Christianity Today article has raised quite a stir. Some of the respondents are assuming Hsu has rejected the common “substitutionary atonement” theory (Christ received God’s wrath so we don’t have to.), although this is not specifically addressed.
When I replied to Will Vaus’ post, he suggested I read the chapter “The Perfect Penitent” in Mere Christianity by C S Lewis. Lewis sums up his thoughts about “substitutionary atonement” on the first page of the chapter.
Now before I became a Christian I was under the impression that the first thing Christians had to believe was one particular theory as to what the point of this dying was. According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem to me quite so immoral and so silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make. What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor any other is Christianity. The central Christian belief is that Christ's death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work.
Lewis says that any theory about how the Atonement works is just an attempt to picture what it looks like, much as a scientist will use an illustration or picture of an atom to convey what it is like.
But then they warn you that this picture is not what the scientists actually believe. What the scientists believe is a mathematical formula. The pictures are there only to help you to understand the formula. They are not really true in the way the formula is; they do not give you the real thing but only something more or less like it. They are only meant to help, and if they do not help you can drop them. The thing itself cannot be pictured, it can only be expressed mathematically.
No matter what explanations or illustrations we may come up with, they are at best imperfect, feeble attempts to explain the unexplainable.
I will not try to attempt to explain Lewis’ picture of the Atonement. You can read it for yourself. (An online version of the chapter can be found here: 4. The Perfect Penitent. I am not yet convinced that it has helped me, and, as he says, “if it does not help you, drop it.” But if it helps you...
What has helped me is the idea that theories about the Atonement are not the same as the Atonement itself. It works—it is effective on our behalf—not because we understand it, but because it works. We like to have everything packaged up nicely so we can examine it, but that’s not what God has done. Our insistence that we understand everything is often where we go astray.
It’s called “faith” for a reason.
On this Good Friday, don’t spend the day trying to understand or (probably worse) explain what Christ did for us on the cross. Just believe it and enjoy the results.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Dancing with the Stars

The February and March sky this year has been amazing for stargazers. The conjunction of Venus and Jupiter has even been noticed by those who normally don't keep their eye on the night sky. February 26 saw a crescent moon involved with them in the evening sky, and I took the picture which you see at the right. Mars, bright due to its nearness to the earth, has also been a sight to behold as it makes its appearance in the east after sunset. I was moved enough to write this poem.
Dancing with the stars—
Venus, Jupiter, and Mars.
The Lady and Jove
As if they're in love.
Alone the god of wars.

In chapter four of Prince Caspian, Cornelius gives the prince an astronomy lessen as they view a conjunction in the night sky. Caspian asks if the heavenly bodies are going to collide. The Doctor replies,
The great lords of the upper sky know the steps of their dance too well for that. Look well upon them. Their meeting is fortunate and means some great good for the sad realm of Narnia. Tarva, the Lord of Victory, salutes Alambil, the Lady of Peace. They are just coming to their nearest.
As Michael Ward reminds us (See my Review of Michael Ward's "Planet Narnia".), Lewis was fascinated by the medieval view of the heavens, which placed great significance upon the stars and especially the position of the planets. The importance of the heavenly bodies above Narnia is again emphasized in the conversation between Romandu and Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
"In our world," said Eustace, "a star is a huge ball of flaming gas."
"Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of."
In our world, and in our time, we have scientific evidence of what stars and planets are made of, but do we understand what they are? Do we understand their purpose?

Long before science had given us the answer to what heavenly bodies are made of, an ancient Hebrew poet explained why God created them.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth. [Psalm 19 NIV]

The psalmist isn't giving a science lesson, but he does, in poetic metaphor, describe how the heavens speak to us about God's glory and purpose. This portion of scripture was not designed to speak to us with left-brain logic, but to connect with our right-brain creativity. It's not that we are to leave the left side of our brain at the door, but to recognize that there is more to existence than empirical knowledge.

I came across an interesting quote the other day.
In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way. — Carl Sagan

Sagan has a point. There are "people of faith" who seem to limit God in that way. However, this does not have to be. With a little searching, I came across an article at which quotes Sagan and gives this response.
And so while some fight conservative battles to maintain traditional doctrines - and at the same time keep their gods small - others of us look at science convinced that it is providing us with a great deal of accurate, useful and important information that must be not only incorporated into our thinking about God, but allowed to shape and transform our thinking about God. And we do so confident that whoever and whatever is truly transcendent and ultimate not only can withstand such scrutiny, but that discovering more about the universe is an aid to eliminating false gods and idols and replacing them with a more accurate sense of the divine.
Can science help us understand God? Certainly. The concept of the universe to those in medieval times—and earlier—was certainly not as accurate as what we have today, but God still used their limited knowledge to speak to them. He even somehow used the concept of the heavens in the minds of ancient stargazers (magi) to lead them to the Christ-child.

We may have more knowledge than the ancients, but I certainly hope we don't the have hubris to think we know everything. If this world goes on for a few thousand more years, I'm sure scientists will look back at our concept of the universe and laugh at how ignorant we are. But I also hope they will have the humility to use their knowledge to expand their concept of how great God is instead of using it as an excuse to reject Him.


Dusting Off the Old Blog

It's time to dust off the old blog. "I Have An Inkling" has sat dormant since July of 2011 while I have been pursuing other activities. Much of my "free" time has been spent contributing to I maintain blogs there about Narnia and the upcoming Hobbit movies, as well as editing for the Books category and Andrew Townsend's "Hobbit... Whole" series of articles on JRR Tolkien's children's classic. I also write movie and television reviews from time to time. For a complete listing of my articles, click here.

My intention is to begin contributing to this blog site again from time to time. I am currently working on an article about the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, and how it relates to science and spirituality – rationality and intuition – left brain and right brain. Well, it probably won't be quite as deep as I may be implying. Look for it later today.