Atonement: why do Irish clergy avoid this issue?
Recently on this site, under the heading ‘Religion shouldn’t make people miserable‘ one anonymous poster responded by reflecting on the horror of the Jesus’ suffering on the cross, and then asked the question: “Why did he do this?”
The anonymous ‘Brendan’ immediately provided his own answer: “He did this to atone for our sins. Yes, our sins offend God, so much so, that only a sacrifice of His Humanity and Divinity could atone for them.”
Any good dictionary of theology will summarise the varied ways in which theologians, down through the centuries, have set out to explain how exactly we are ‘redeemed’ (i.e. liberated) by the Crucifixion, and how this event is supposed to accomplish ‘atonement’ or reconciliation between ourselves and God. The theory summarised above, St Anselm’s ‘satisfaction’ theory, was arrived at only in the 11th century, long after the church had accommodated itself to the medieval social pyramid. St Anselm hypothesised that the Father, being far superior to any medieval King, must take even greater offence at any breach of his laws, and that this offence must require greater ‘satisfaction’ than can be provided by the suffering brought by sin to the sinner himself.
In the early church it was argued instead that we are redeemed and reconciled with God simply through the entirely loving and self-giving life of Jesus, culminating in Jesus’ gift of himself. That is to say that Jesus, by his goodness, had raised all humanity to a new level of moral achievement. It did not occur to the early church fathers to attribute to God the human weakness of ‘taking offence’, or to imply that some act of human violence against his Son would be required to propitiate the Father.
What’s fundamentally wrong with the Anselmian satisfaction theory is that it implicitly attributes to God the mentality of a medieval human king, for whom violence was a necessary and just response to a breach of his ‘honour’ by a subject. That’s why so many later theologians have reverted to the earlier ‘moral influence’ theory: Jesus embodied the Father’s aspiration for all of us – his wish for us to be guided by love alone. René Girard’s view of God as entirely non-violent and as bent on freeing us from the source of all violence (mimetic desire or covetousness) – is a recent variation on that early church theme.
Why is it that we absolutely never hear this issue broached by our Catholic clergy in Ireland? The anonymous Brendan’s presentation of the medieval satisfaction theory did not provoke a single clerical response here, even though it does far more to distance us from God than to bring us closer to Him. Is this issue never discussed by our clergy even among themselves?
“Didn’t God the Father want his son to be killed?” This angry question came at me once from a Derry Catholic woman in her eighties. That was the basic theology she had absorbed from a lifetime of devotion: it troubled her deeply. Had it been questioned even once from the ambo in her hearing she would surely have remembered that. (Might that have been the inadequate theology that the young Seamus Heaney received also, in roughly the same neck of the woods?)
And now, when one poster offers the same incomprehensible God-diminishing theology on this site, not a single ordained theologian demurs. Can someone explain that? Is this issue never addressed in the seminary in Ireland? Or are clergy advised that this whole issue is far too difficult to raise with us mere lay people? If so, as the anonymous Brendan’s response shows, that fear is a truly serious mistake.