I’ve got to the chapter in my new book The Romance of Religion about the death of Christ. I didn’t at first know how to handle it. I have to admit that all the theological theories about the death of Christ have always left me cold. “Jesus died to save you from your sins.” and “You are saved by the precious blood of the Lamb.” or “Jesus died so that you don’t have to” or “Jesus paid the price of death which is caused by sin.” All these theories I understand are rooted in Scripture and the teaching of the church. The atonement theories are all, up to a point, valid and true, but they have simply never meant anything to me intellectually. I have always sympathized with the honest questioner who says, “Explain this to me: I’m trying to get my head around this. You’re telling me that the execution of a political criminal two thousand years ago buys me a ticket to heaven?” I’ve understood people who’ve said, “Help me out. I’m trying to figure out how the blood of this crucified rabbi somehow guarantees me life after death.”
To say I have had a problem with the theological theories is not to say that I have disbelieved in the atonement. I’ve simply had to re-assess in what way I believe in it. Then it dawned on me that my book title The Romance of Religion actually held the key. The theme of my book is that religion is not some great theory, nor is it a list of regulations, nor is it primarily a code of practice or a liturgical set of do’s and don’ts nor is it a list of dogmas to which one gives intellectual assent. All these things are necessary accoutrements of religion, but the religion itself is a romance, and if it is a romance it is a relationship, and if it is a relationship then it is a risk.
The cross of Christ is an existential reality. It is a claim that must be acknowledged, a letter that must be answered, a question that demands a verdict. We must face the death of Christ and the identity of Christ and the subsequent resurrection of Christ (for these three cannot be separated) and decide. He says from the cross what he says throughout the ages, “Are you with me or against me?” There is no gray area.
Once we say, “I am with you.” then we understand in the acceptance the theories of the atonement. Then the language which was so mysterious and strange–the language about satisfaction of a cosmic debt, the death of one being for the death of many, the blood being shed, the life being given, the second Adam and the price of sin–all that is a friable and fragile description of an existential truth and an individual yet universal experience. Useful up to a point, but then the language slips and slides away. It goes so far, but cannot go further.
That is why the theological theories for the atonement are so limited–because they are intellectual descriptions of love, and what good are intellectual descriptions of a transaction of love? Instead the language of poetry and prophecy is the language of love. The language of beauty and contemplation and silence are the language of love. The lover gazes on the beloved and writes a poem. The theologian offers a meager description. The mystic takes us to the heart of silence and the heart of light.
Therefore in the face of such things I am inclined to resort to poetry and the prophets and the charming and enchanting language of romance to discuss the cross for this language lifts the heart and turns the soul and brings us closer to a heart knowledge of the cross which is where the sacred heart is broken and opened and my old, cold heart of stone is taken out and I a given a heart of flesh.
Here is one I which echoes the Old Testament reading of the water from the rock at Meribah: If you sing it softly and sweetly. You’ll see what I mean.
Rock of ages, cleft for me
Let me hide myself in thee.
Let the water and the blood
From thy riven side which flowed,
Be for sin the double cure
Cleanse me from it’s guilt and power.
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