A Compelling Story for Life in the World Today
During the week from Palm Sunday to Easter, Christians remember the tragic conclusion of Jesus’ ministry of teaching, healing, and transformation of economic and political systems. Part of the process of remembering is interpreting the meaning of those events. Why did they happen the way they did? How was God involved? What do they mean for us today?
In the technical language of the church, two doctrines are intertwined: incarnation, which is the effort to describe how Jesus of Nazareth and the One Eternal God are related; and atonement, which explains how the death of Jesus leads to a new mode of reconciliation between God and all humanity, including all of us who are asking the questions.
My struggle with these issues was partially resolved early in my ministry when I first read God Was in Christ, a book by Scottish theologian D. M. Baillie. In 2010, I reread this book and wrote a review essay, which can be accessed on this blog in the department entitled “Writings on Religion.” The conclusion to the paper is printed below.
“The intertwining doctrines of incarnation and atonement are the plot for a coherent story of reality, a story that has for two thousand years nurtured the life of Christians. The questions that many Christians are asking today, especially in traditionally liberal churches, is whether this story still makes sense and, if it does, how should it enter into the worship, ministry, and mission of their churches. My answers are based on five observations about the experience of people today.
“First, we often fail to live up to our own standards for the good life. While these failures are our own fault, we recognize that the causes also extend beyond ourselves. A network of destructive influences and powers exists in the world over which we have no control and which often incorporates us in actions that we seem unable to resist. Furthermore, our own actions become part of that network and even without our knowing it they may contribute to the downfall of others.
“Second, no matter hard we try, we can never do a complete makeover of our own lives. Even if we could fix our own misdoing, we cannot undo the negative effects our actions have upon others.
“Third, our sense of well being depends upon the deeply engrained conviction that at its core the world—and our life within it—is fundamentally good, that the evil surrounding us finally is the lesser of the powers and will disappear in the face of the fundamental goodness of reality.
“Fourth, this conviction defies the empirical evidence given by history and science. It can only be described in the aesthetic language of story, a story like the one that Christians tell about the God who comes to us in the humble Nazarene, the archetypal human being who willingly went to his death because he was the friend of people like ourselves, and who by the power that comes from above overcomes all the power of evil, especially death.
“Fifth, in order to live a good life—a life marked by a proper sense of our own moral weakness and the confidence that despite this weakness we are part of that which is fundamentally good—we need to live in community with others who share this dual sense of life and who keep this story alive.
“These five observations lead (as readers might expect) to the conclusion that the central Christian story continues to provide a compelling narrative for life in traditionally liberal churches. It is a story to be proclaimed from pulpits, sung when people of faith come together, portrayed in the rituals that comprise their life together and inspire them to live in a similar way in the world.
“The conclusion that this central narrative makes sense for people today does not mean that all aspects of the surrounding structure of story, song, morality, and doctrine deserve that same respect. Theological discernment and aesthetic sensitivity need to be exercised in order to separate extraneous detail and contradictory elements. When we understand that this story transcends historical patterns of speech, we may well conclude that even some of the peripheral elements can stay in place.
“While the Christian story that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own self is not the only compelling master narrative that people of our time can affirm, it properly continues to claim the allegiance of thoughtful, conscientious people of the modern world.” Read the entire essay. . . Rereading Baillie