Q & R: The Propitiation Question

Here’s the Q (with replies inserted):

I have read your books, cover to cover, filled them with notes and highlighted much of the text. I think your message is so important that I order copies for my “friends” to read. I put “friends” in quotes since many or these folks are my Christian “friends” who have not taken too kindly to my theological journey and are, essentially, not very friendly. I am having lunch with a couple of old “friends” in a few days and I have to admit, I am not sure how the conversation will go.
There are many of topics that divide Christians and you have done an amazing job addressing them. I didn’t find you or your books until I had slogged through my own “quagmire of theology” I found myself in simply by asking what Jesus really meant by loving the Lord our God and loving our neighbors. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that one question would change my entire life and although I am “wiser” for the journey, it was long and painful and full of loss. …I wake up some mornings wondering if I wouldn’t have been better off staying an ignorant fundamentalist full of my own self-righteous proclamations of “truth.” But then I don’t think I was created to march in the futile circles of an ant mill and as much as it costs me I am grateful for roads I have traveled.

The one topic that seems to me the most divisive is the question of propitiation. Did Christ die on the cross for my “sins” or didn’t He? Am I born a sinner in need of a “Savior” or not? I came face-to-face with this question a few years ago after reading about the debate over the interpretation of the Bible between Augustine and Pelagius. In a nutshell, Augustine was in favor of “original sin” and Pelagius in favor of “original blessing” and Augustine just seems to have won the debate. And as a result, both Catholic and Protestant Christianity (and all Evangelical flavors) stem from this presupposition. But there is no “fact” of original sin, it’s just an interpretation and just one of many possible interpretations.

— As you know, I grapple with this in A New Kind of Christianity, but indirectly, under the Narrative Question. What happened in the aftermath of Augustine (some of my friends think he is to blame, others don’t – I don’t really care about assigning blame), I think, is that we shifted from a rich, multi-dimensional narrative of creation, liberation, and reconciliation to a rather flat, linear narrative of perfection/fall/condemnation/atonement/heaven or hell. What you call ‘the propitiation question” below only really makes sense in that flat “six-line” narrative. When you move into other narrative space, the question simply doesn’t arise – at least not in the same way.

I can talk to my Christian friends about “The God question” or “The Jesus Question” or “The Church Question” but “The Propitiation Question” is the one question that stops the conversation cold in its tracks. It is the one question that seems so unforgivingly black and white…. Once I’d “crossed over” I couldn’t go back to what I was before and my [I have experienced a lot of rejection as a result]. So it was no small loss my naive questions cost me. And so I find myself on this “side of the river” unable to bridge the “propitiation gap.” It seems to me there are so many more important issues pressing Christians and so much MORE Christians can do in the name of Christ that at times “The Propitiation Question” seems almost trivial and yet I find myself grappling with issues surrounding this question every day. I couldn’t find the “middle way” between “original sin” and “original blessing” and now I am faced with the same duality every day when I meet with my Christian “friends.” I am either one of “them” or I am “not” and no theological gymnastics seem to get me around this blockade. This question is not just some pie-in-the-sky theological or philosophical issue – it destroys marriages, alienates “friends” and separates us in a very real and visceral way and it seems to me like the one question you and other “emergent” pastors sidestep.

— It’s not that we’re sidestepping the question, but rather that we’ve discovered what you have: that the question itself is problematic because it rests on assumptions about God and God’s nature that need to be examined. Many of us saw that – to use your terms – there is original blessing in the Bible, and there is the reality of sin – and it doesn’t make sense to minimize one to magnify the other. That made a lot of us look for a deeper question – and for me, that question is, “What is the biblical narrative really about?” If it’s about “sin management” – dealing with the “problem” of sin as a legal problem, we’ll read the Bible in one way. If it’s about creation, liberation, reconciliation (and, I might add, incarnation) … we’ll read the Bible differently.

So what is your straight, non-sidestepping, no-holds-barred take on “The Propitiation Question?”

The best way I can reply, since I think the category of propitiation is often defined within an unhelpful and other-than-biblical narrative, is in the form of some questions:
1. Who was the primary audience for the suffering and death of Jesus? Was it intended to bring about a change in God, or in us? Since I don’t think God needs to change, but rather we do, I’d vote for the latter.
2. Where do we centrally locate God the Father on good Friday – in and with the political and religious leaders, condemning and torturing Jesus? Or in Jesus, suffering injustice with and for us? Again, I’d vote the latter.
3. Does Jesus, in some mysterious way, absorb/redirect the hostility of God towards us, or the hostility of us towards God? Again, I’d vote for the latter. (I think this is what C. S. Lewis was after in his idea of “the perfect penitent.”)
In each case, perhaps a case could be made for the former; there are ways we could say there is truth in the former. But I think the weight of meaning is found in the latter option. Many people see everything from within the conventional narrative and so they can’t even imagine Jesus being important apart from it, and that’s a major reason why, I think, they are so adamant in defending it. I’m sorry you have suffered so much rejection for raising honest questions … my heart goes out to you. My hope is that you will be able to avoid what Paul called “fruitless quarrels,” and by your questioning, challenge people to deeper and higher perspectives. It’s not easy, I know, but it is important. You’re in my prayers today.