- When we are innocent children the world is magical, and death doesn’t exist.
- As we grow up, we learn from experience that the world is a difficult place. We must compete with others to succeed. Evil, sickness and death enter our story about life.
- Then, a different form of transforming innocence may enter our life. The Holy Spirit leads us to discover that God is on our side and death holds no fears. In On Being Liked, James Alison describes this process of encountering and learning a mature form of innocence with finding a fresh, transforming story about God.
Many Christians have a story about God that emphasizes our sinfulness. This story arises from the church’s explanation for why Jesus had to die for us. He had to “atone” to God for our sinfulness. For example, the Catholic Catechism defines atonement in this statement: “Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men.” [Article 1992]. This description creates an image of God as a Judge who requires a victim (His Son) to offer his life to make up for the sins of his creatures. In this story, God is merciful but also just and there must be retribution for man’s sinfulness. In his mercy, God substitutes Jesus and we don’t have to pay the price for our transgressions.
Atonement puts sin at the center of our story about God. Alison creates another story about God’s motivation and Jesus’ passion. Jesus’ apparent “losing to death, was not done so as to ‘please the Father’ but rather to get through to us.” Death has no power in God’s reality and we need to get beyond our ideas about death created by our experiences in the world that stand in the way of our becoming His sons and daughters. “God has nothing to do with death and humans need not either.” Jesus become man to show us how to ‘play the game of life’ as God wants us to.
Alison uses the metaphor of how a loving parent teaches a child to play tennis to illustrate how Jesus teaches us. The parent could obviously win every game but chooses not to and loses artfully, pushing the child to learn how to play. Jesus played the ‘game of life’ and by giving himself up to death, apparently ‘losing to death.’ By doing this he showed us how to “live as if death were not.” Jesus lived in a world filled with the threat of death but he took no notice and lived freely and lovingly.
If we look at the ‘100,000 foot view’ of Jesus’ life, one theme becomes obvious: forgiveness. It was why he was sent and it characterized his life and death.
- “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” [John 3:17]
- (to the woman accused of adultery) “‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir’ she said. ”Then neither do I condemn you.’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave you life of sin.'” [John 8-11]
- (from the cross) “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” [Luke 23:34]
So, playing the game of life as Jesus did involves learning what such forgiveness entails. Alison illustrates that our normal way of thinking about forgiveness falls far short of what Jesus means.
- Forgiveness is “losing the human need to survive-by-creating-human-victims”
- Forgiveness is “moving toward someone who I am like in such a way that they will be free from death with me so that together we can become a new ‘we'”
- Through forgiveness “As we forgive and are forgiven we come to see what really is.”
The expansive, inclusive and creative meaning that Jesus gives forgiveness is not something we learn like all other subjects. It is a transformation that we undergo, probably for our entire life. It means viewing worldly failure and death as God does, as things that are not real! “We gradually learn to live as if death (and failure) are not by, in a variety of ways, undergoing death beforehand so that it loses all power over us and we start to be able to live free of its compulsions.” Paul talked of this as ‘dying to self’ and Jesus told the parable of the seed needing to die in order to yield fruit.
We must give ourselves permission to question the usual story about atonement (and the teachings of our church) in order to potentially find a new ‘transformational story’ about God’s intentions in sending His Son and allowing His death. A fresh story about Jesus and a potential new image for God can change everything in our lives. Yet, we also sense that commiting to a new story about Jesus is a very serious business. The danger is that we might set ourself up as the ultimate authority for our beliefs about God. We might commit the sin of pride and throw out all the learning of wise and good Christians over 2000 years. Nonetheless, we also sense that, to be fully human, we must prayerfully ask questions about the Atonement and not simply swallow our church’s story whole. Ultimately, we need to share what we find with other Christians, and study what the church and Bible says, before we finally commit ourselves to a new story about Jesus’ way of playing the game of life. Such conversations are precisely why we need to be in a community of Christians: to find a way to reach the truth through honest conversation about such provocative questions.