“Where’s the Energy?”

This is a favorite question of one of my spiritual direction instructors. She encourages us to look to those areas of our lives and ministries that hold energy for us, that are exciting and spark passion.

sunset-691204_1280This language makes total sense to me, because I have seen firsthand that good, interesting, useful work can come out of people doing work that excites and energizes them, and cultivating awareness around that can, I think, lead to an exciting and energizing life.

I also think that one of the most valuable tools for identifying areas of energy is something known as the Ignatian Examen, one of the spiritual exercised developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. The Examen, traditionally, consists of a number of steps (five, generally, but different people divide them in different ways):

  • Acknowledge that you are in the presence of the living God.
  • Look back on your day with gratitude for God’s gifts.
  • Ask the Spirit to guide you in your reflection.
  • Reflect on the major experiences of your day, noting your feelings and responses, and considering which events brought you closer to and which brought you farther from God.
  • Pray about these events, asking forgiveness and giving thanks where appropriate.
  • Look forward to the following day, considering what can be learned from your review of the previous day, and looking ahead to and asking God’s presence in anything you anticipate in the coming day.

There is much valuable material in the long history of the Examen, but the important part is not getting all the steps right and rightly ordered. In fact, I think even a heavily abbreviated and adapted variation can be incredibly helpful in learning to spot patterns of energy and deadness in our lives. In fact, I learned just such an abbreviated Examen when I first encountered it, as a spiritual practice introduced when I studied at the Oregon Extension. That abbreviated version, similar to what I still use today, went a little like this:

Reflect on the last day. When, in the last 24 hours or so, did you feel closest to God? When did you feel the most alive and energized? When did you feel most like yourself? When, in that same time, did you feel farthest from God? When did you feel dead or exhausted? When did you feel least like yourself?

This doesn’t take long. It’s the sort of thing you can do as you’re falling asleep (or, if you prefer, over your coffee, though the Examen was designed as an end-of-day practice). You might find it helpful to use a journal, but it’s not necessary. You might find it helpful to do more research and practice the Examen more closely to the Ignatian model, but it’s not necessary.

The key is, as you begin to become aware of those things that make you feel most truly alive, to move nearer and nearer those things, to consciously integrate them into your life, while working to avoid or reframe the things that deplete that energy. In this way, day by day, inch my inch, you are living into the abundant life God dreams for you.

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Do any others out there practice some form of the Examen? What is that experience like for you? Can you think of some things right now that bring you life and energy? How do you try to include those things in your everyday life?

Abundant Fruits

harvestIt’s (one of) the most wonderful time(s) of the year: fall. The leaves are turning, the nights are getting cooler, and even though I’m in the middle of Manhattan, I can imagine myself at a bonfire or—one of my personal favorites—at an apple orchard.

I have always lived in a place where autumn is harvest season, where back-to-school time and the gradual ramping up towards winter holidays coincides with harvest bounty—white-gold wheat, juicy apples, fat pumpkins (and, of course, all manner of decorative gourds). Thinking about abundance and fruits got me thinking about the fruits of the Spirit, and it made me wonder—how would it look to really have those fruits in abundance?

An abundance of love might look like a decision to “do no harm,” even when you don’t feel loving towards someone. It might look like telling yourself you love him/her, that there is only love there—and acting that way until maybe, just maybe, your feelings catch up.

An abundance of joy might look like practicing gratitude even when you’re having a hard time finding things for which to be grateful. It might mean finding the little places of energy and excitement and hope in your life, and trying to cultivate more and more of those places until they start to outnumber the bleak moments.

An abundance of peace might look like understanding that at the end of the day, God is in control. It might mean knowing you are a whole person held and loved by God even when your world seems to be going to pieces and everything around you is chaos.

An abundance of patience might look like the ability to take the long view on life. It might look like continuing to hope when everyone around you seems to be getting what you’re hoping for, while you’re left in the dust, continuing to hope even when God’s time really doesn’t match up with your timing.

An abundance of kindness might look like choosing to act in a caring way when you would rather snap at someone. It might mean treating others in a way that builds them up, makes them whole, and sets them free, without expecting anything in return, without expecting to be appreciated, or even liked.

An abundance of goodness might look like look like evaluating decisions and choosing the best decision, the decision most likely to bring you life and wholeness, and most likely to bring others life and wholeness. It might look like being a tiny mirror reflecting a bit of God to the world.

An abundance of faithfulness might look like relationships built on trust. It might look like working on relationships, even when they are, well, work. And it might refer to your relationship with God, but also with your relationship with everyone you meet from day to day.

An abundance of gentleness might look like choosing to forgive others. It might look like calling out inappropriate behavior with a kindness that is void of any self-righteous edge.

An abundance of self-control might look like remembering that what you have is enough, and not making impulse buys that you will later regret, or emotionally binge-eating cookies (not that I have ever done either of these things).

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I want to hear from you! Where do you see these fruits in your life? Which do you experience in abundance? Are there any that you could afford to cultivate a bit more abundantly?

 

“How have you been praying about this?”

praying-614374_960_720A good portion of my seminary coursework has been in the area of spiritual direction. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to take practicum classes amid more heady intellectual work, and I really enjoy having the chance to talk with people about God and their experience of God. A common question in spiritual direction is, “How have you been praying about this?” Sometimes this is an easy question to answer, but often it isn’t. In fact, I’ve talked to plenty of people who just aren’t that keen on prayer.

When someone tells me they don’t really pray, or that prayer is boring, my first instinct is to ask how they pray. While kneeling at the bedside running through a checklist of thanks and intercessions has a long and venerable history, the truth is that it just doesn’t work for everyone. It’s also possible that a prayer practice that worked well at one point ceases to be helpful at another, or vice versa (this happened to me when I began studying at seminary). If your prayer life feels dry or even nonexistent, you may simply be thirsty for new ways to pray—or, very probably, you are praying already but haven’t recognized or named it as such.

In case this describes you, I’d like to mention a couple of ways of praying you might not have tried—a couple tried-and-true, a couple a bit more off-the-wall. Also, each one of these could be its own post; I’m only giving the tiniest of tastes. If something sounds good, I encourage you to seek more info.

Jesus Prayer
This one goes way back, to about the fifth century. It is based on the idea that by invoking God’s name, we invite God’s presence. The words are simple, with common variations like “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” or simply “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” It is designed to be used repetitively, sometimes combined with physical practices (e.g. breath). This prayer is a good way to invite the presence of God and to pray actively when we don’t have other words.

Mindfulness/Meditation
Mindfulness is having a moment right now—in fact, it just might get its own post. Simply put, it’s the process of bringing one’s attention to the present moment, emphasizing awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensation, and the surrounding environment. Mindfulness has a strong correlation with well-being and perceived health. Meditation is a common way to develop mindfulness, but not the only way.

mandalaMandalas
Mandalas are rooted in Indian religions, and are often used now to refer to any diagram, chart, or patter that represents the cosmos. They’re often used as an aid to meditation, and are very helpful for those of us who are easily distracted. You can create your own mandalas from scratch, but there are also many printable images or coloring books available. Mandalas can represent stability and unity with God and the cosmos—and, according to Jung, can teach us about ourselves.

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-8-15-05-amWalking/Labyrinths
Moving your body can be a great way to get out and pray, especially if you find you’re too distracted in your usual indoor spaces. You don’t need anything special for this (except maybe comfortable shoes), but if you happen to know of a labyrinth near you, that can be a good way to use an ancient practice to make your walk more intentional and meditative.

Cooking
Really another way of being mindful (sensing a theme here?), but bringing mindfulness to cooking can be a great way of connecting to God—being thankful for the food and for the fellowship it may bring, wondering at the magnificence of creation, or simply enjoying the process of preparing a meal. Brother Lawrence tells us that even the most mundane of tasks—even washing the dishes after cooking!—can bring us closer to God.

Writing
A writing practice can be another way of praying—whatever form it might take. A journal or particular type of journal (e.g. a gratitude journal) can be a way of becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings, and over time can show us how God has been at work in our lives, even if we didn’t notice in the moment. Journaling isn’t the only way to pray through writing, though—working on a spiritual memoir, a poem, or even a piece of creative fiction can be a way of drawing near to God.

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How are you praying? What ways of praying bring you close to God? What works for you? Are there any practices that just don’t work for you?

The Road Back to You

If you wander in the right church-y circles (or not), chances are you’ve heard of the Enneagram. How you feel about the Enneagram is another matter entirely. I love personality tests as a tool for introspection and self-learning, but while Myers-Briggs makes lots of sense to me (INFJs for life!), I’ve never really been able to get my hands around the Enneagram.

trbtyWell, that hasn’t really changed, but I do feel one step closer to understanding after reading Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile’s The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery,* coming out next month.

I’ve liked and followed Ian Morgan Cron for a while, now—since my friend Allison introduced me to him and I read his memoir, Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me. Just listen to him talk; you will like him, too.

The best part of The Road Back to You, I think, is the abundance of stories and anecdotes. These stories make the book fun and enjoyable to read, yes, but I think they actually make the types easier to understand. Sometimes reading the general type descriptions is just completely unhelpful for me—but tell me a story of “an eight” or “a four” in action, and it all makes sense.

In line with this, each type description includes a section on what the type was like as a child, with the idea that as children we are less guarded and less likely to have developed personae that mask our types. These sections, like the stories, were particularly telling and descriptive for me.

So, even though I still have not been able to identify my type (if anyone out there reading knows me, is already familiar with the Enneagram, and has some insight to offer, I’ll take it), would I recommend the book? Absolutely. Though, as a strangely specific and practical point, I would suggest getting the book in hard copy. My review copy was a PDF document, and I found myself often wanting to flip back and forth between sections—not the easiest thing to do with a PDF on an iPad.

The Road Back to You is, at the least, an enjoyable read. But it is also much more than that. Learning about how others around you operate just might make you more understanding and compassionate. And—especially if you’re able to do a better job than I did at identifying your type—reading this book just might help you transform yourself. Or, rather, become more fully yourself.

Towards the end of the book, Ian quotes Thomas Merton: “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” I think a big component of any spiritual journey is becoming more and more one’s true self. As Martin Buber relays the Hasidic tale, “Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” God isn’t comparing us to others—we do that all on our own. What God wants for us is for us to realize our unique gifts and weaknesses and callings, and the only path to this realization is a path of self-discovery.

*I received an early copy of the book with the expectation that I would blog about/publicize the book before its release.

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Have any of you used the Enneagram? What’s your number? How did it help you?

 

Back Again, Again

How many times have I announced on this blog that “I’m back”? Half a dozen, at least. Perhaps more.

Even so, I persist: I’m back. Again.

I’ve committed to writing (at least) 10 blog posts, on a weekly basis (so check back on Fridays), connected to an independent study course that I’m completing this semester.

The class will explore “spiritual writing and spiritual guidance,” and I’m still not completely sure it isn’t just a vehicle for me to get academic credit for reading all the religion and spirituality books I’ve been wanting to read the last few years and haven’t had a chance to get to.

At the root of this, though, is the fact that spiritual writing has the power to speak to us on a very deep level. A month or so ago, when I was preparing my proposal for this class, I asked my Facebook circle to name those authors or books that had influenced their faith/spirituality/idea of God, and I got so many amazing, varied responses. Words really do have the power to shape our spiritualities.

Even though I plan to read some great spiritual literature, my blogging practice is going to be more about themes that are important to me. I’m going to be blogging about things like abundance, creativity, self-care, spiritual practices, and more. If any of those interest you, I encourage you to come along for the ride!

#Atonement: Theology for Today

Well, it’s finally finished: that Atonement paper I’ve been promising you all for months now. It’s rather long (you can blame my professor for that)—far too long for a blog post, really. If you’re at a computer, read this formatted version for a more reader-friendly experience.

If you’re reading this on a small screen, though, and still want to hear what I have to say (bless you), I’m including the full text below.

This is a work in progress. Please let me know what you think, what you like, what you don’t, what resonated with you, what you though was stupid, etc. Because part of my grade depends on your responses, yes, but also because I’m really, truly interested in what you have to say, and comments are always very meaningful for me.

Thank you for reading!


DSCF1170

I don’t know a lot of people who like studying systematic theology.

Well, no. That’s not entirely true. I actually know a fair number of people who like it. A few even like it so much they decided to make a career of it.

I don’t necessarily dislike studying systematic theology. I obviously like it enough to have made it almost 2/3 of the way through seminary. And ultimately, theology is about people trying to answer the big life questions that really matter. The problem is that theology is complicated, and perhaps as a result of that, an awful lot of the books on theology are about as light and accessible as a block of lead, and given the option I would choose Hunger Games over Heidegger any day.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this opinion. While the payoff of encountering these groundbreaking theological ideas is great, I’m not always convinced it’s worth the effort required to parse them out. Theology is complicated, and complicated ideas sometimes require complicated language, but I think that on the whole, we as a church could afford to do a better job of communicating theology in clear, engaging, and applicable ways. Many people really are interested in theology, but don’t realize it because the theology they’ve approached has been so inaccessible. Perhaps some have also had experiences where the theology they were taught was considered infallible and not open to question. I would like to see a systematic theology that is lively, engaging, and open to dialogue. I would like to see a theology that is flexible and practical, but still smart and thorough.

Is that what I’m doing here? Perhaps. I am certainly taking a crack at it. I can’t say how successful I’ll be, but maybe that’s part of the point. I am starting a conversation. I’m starting from a deficit, because even a shy introvert like me knows that “Hey, let’s chat about the theology of Atonement!” is a pretty effective conversation killer.

Nevertheless, I want to try. I want to try to explore Atonement theology in a way that is fresh and accessible. I want to look at how this theology, almost as old as Christianity itself, functions in the 21st century.

I’m going to do this the best way I know how—by talking about what is familiar to me. When I started blogging, I wrote a lot about the church and the Millennial generation. I did this because a lot of other people were writing about the church and Millennials, and I thought some things were right and some were pretty off-base. I am smack-dab in the middle of the Millennial generation. I’m not exactly a “typical” Millennial—but honestly, no one is. Broad generalizations can only go so far. At the same time, I don’t entirely write off generation theory, because I think there are certain things that a lot of people my age share. 9/11 was a defining moment in our lives and probably shapes our view on the world to some extent. We’re more diverse than earlier generations in the US. We’re more educated. We’re less likely to be married, or at least to marry young. More of us live in metropolitan areas. We’re less likely to be religious or regularly attend religious services (though not much less likely to be “spiritual” or believe in a higher power). We’re also the largest generation yet, so the way we act as a group is likely to have more and more influence.

Of course, I could write an entire section on clauses and disclaimers. In some ways, my descriptions of Millennials are most applicable to white, middle-class, well-educated Millennials, both because this is largely the population referred to in others’ writings about Millennials, and probably because I am biased to seeing things that seem to apply to me. I am also cutting out a number of age groups. My intention in focusing on Millennials is not to alienate non-Millennials by default, though I know I’m doing that to some extent.

I think, though, that what I am saying, while it is focused on a rather particular demographic, has a larger application. Many non-Millennials I know relate to certain characteristics of the Millennial generation—and many Millennials I know don’t. However, a lot of the ideas I’m talking about are basic human ideas and needs, framed in the context of a particular group. I hope that what I say can be useful whether you identify with this demographic or not. And I hope that if you do disagree with something I say about Millennials, or if you have something to add, or some nuance to contribute, you will do so. I may have put some work into formatting this paper, but it is still a working draft, a jumping-off point.

What is Atonement?

So, what exactly is Atonement (in a theological sense), anyway? Maybe you’re reading this and already have a well-established and thought-through theology of Atonement—I know this is true for at least six of my readers (if they’re reading and don’t have better things to do like graduating from seminary), because I spent the semester in class with them. Maybe you have absolutely no idea what Atonement entails in a theological sense. Maybe you’re somewhere in the middle. And maybe you’re all over the place, like I was. Say “Atonement” to me, and my brain would pull out any manner of things, some more relevant than others:

  • A violent, bloody death that Jesus had to die because God was mad at us and needed somebody to suffer;
  • A really great storyline about this kid who’s kind of a jerk to his siblings in this fantasy world they discover together, and who ends up getting in real trouble and is slated to have his young life cut short until a magical talking lion steps in to save the day with the “old magic”;
  • At(one)ment (pronounced at-WON-ment): An etymologically accurate but rather cutesy Christianese way of talking about reconciliation to God;
  • A story about the choices we make and the power of story that was made into a hauntingly beautiful movie (alternately: a book that I own but haven’t read.

None of these are necessarily wrong (well, I have some opinions about the first one), but jumbled together like this they don’t exactly offer the most cohesive view of Atonement theology.

To really explore my own ideas about the usefulness of Atonement theology today, I think a little bit of background is necessary. This may not be the most exciting thing in the world, so I’m asking you to bear with me. We can get through this together.

First, a really basic working definition: Atonement is the work of Christ on earth.

That’s a really broad statement. As you can probably imagine, then, there are about as many more detailed definitions of Atonement as there are people who try to define it. Answering the question of why Christ came to earth is important, but also complicated. There is no one right answer and there is no full grasp on the truth. I think certain parts of the answer have a lot to say to us today, and some are perhaps less applicable but no less important. Before I talk about the particular aspects of Atonement theology that I think are important to consider in contemporary context, I want to offer a bit of a broad view.

There are (more or less) four umbrella theories of Atonement. I blogged about them before, but want to include them here to help give some perspective on the bigger picture.

Ransom Theory (aka Christus Victor)

The Ransom Theory basically holds that original sin (Adam & Eve) placed humankind under subjugation to Satan, and that Christ’s death was a ransom paid to Satan. In this scenario, Christ’s death was God’s victory over the powers of evil and death—hence the “Christus Victor” designation, a name drawn from Gustaf Aulén’s 1931 revisitation of Atonement theories. Ransom Theory was the dominant theology of Atonement for the first millennium of Christianity, until Anshelm’s Satisfaction Theory emerged in the 11th century. This view is often associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church today.

Satisfaction Theory

Anshelm thought it was absurd for the devil to be on par with God in such a way that a ransom could be made, so he rejected the Ransom Theory for giving too much power and agency to Satan. However, he maintained, humans did sin, and could only be reconciled to God (make satisfaction) by an act of God. Anshelm’s solution? The Incarnation. God became human to satisfy the outcome of our sin. This is the view espoused by the Catholic Church today.

Moral Influence Theory

Peter Abelard thought it was bad theology and cruel to demand blood sacrifice, and felt there should be no precondition for God’s forgiveness—God can do anything God wants, so why should God have to become incarnate and/or go to the cross to save us? In addition to this question, Abelard notes that Jesus was already forgiving people before he went to the cross. The conclusion: that the main purpose of Christ is love, and when we are not practicing love, we fall into negative ways of being. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this view tends to be popular among liberal Protestants.

Penal Substitution Theory

This is a legacy of the Reformation, and (probably unsurprisingly) is the theory I was brought up with. The Reformers saw a need for law and order in a turbulent society, and as such theorized that Christ brought order our of anarchy. Penal substitution is a very legal understanding that there must be some sort of retribution for the chaos (sin) caused by humans, and the inflexibility of God’s law in this view supported the Reformed tenet of salvation by faith alone. In the perspective of Penal Subsitutionary Atonement, Jesus takes the guilty verdict on himself to spare creation so that we God’s people might learn to be not guilty and to practice something beyond chaos and disorder.

Even given how brief those descriptions are, you might find yourself resonating more with one theory than another—sheltering more under one particular umbrella. Or perhaps you’ve made it this far in and you’re still confused about what you’re reading and why you’re reading it. If that’s the case, thanks for hanging on; I promise it only gets more interesting from here.

For my class assignment, I was asked to choose a theory of Atonement and stick with it—but I found I couldn’t. At first I felt most drawn to the moral influence theory, because I’m big on love (who isn’t?). In fact, in my view “love” is probably the best one-word definition of Christianity. I was also reacting against the penal substitutionary view, because I think out of all the theories, it’s the one most likely to be interpreted in a way that is actually harmful. Abuse is never good, Christian, or loving, and penal substitution can come off as awfully violent and abusive.

Despite these early inclinations, though, I’m not sticking with one particular theology because I think the composite picture is important. These theories of Atonement reflect centuries of theologies, changing perspectives, and rich heritage. I don’t think any one theology of Atonement is perfect, and I think there are things all of them get wrong. I think the fullest picture comes by considering all these perspectives together and trusting that something true and workable can rise above the contradictions and errors.

I trust that this is the case, and I trust that Atonement theology is as valid and relevant today as it was 500 or 1,000 years ago. Before I talk about why I think this is the case, let’s talk a little about Millennials.

The Millennials

The Millennial generation is the name applied to the generational cohort following Generation X. The PEW Foundation delineates Millennials as those born between 1981 and 1997, which are roughly the same dates as those used by other sources. I was born just before the median of these dates, centering me solidly within the Millennial generation. Millennials are my peers, and I know Millennial joys and struggles because I live them.

My caveat again: I think there’s a lot of truth in generational theory, but categorizing entire groups of people—particularly groups as large and diverse as an entire generation—always, always falls short. The conclusions I draw I base somewhat on the observations of others (e.g. the Pew Research Center does some interesting generational work) and somewhat on my own experience and observations. As such, my conclusions are subjective, limited, and almost certainly flawed in a myriad of ways.

Even knowing this, though, I persist in using the generational model and my own subjective position because I think there is some value to be had there, with that particular structure and my own unique view. What follows is my window on my generation.

Millennials carry a great deal of passion—and a great deal of uncertainty.

In fact, these two traits are very likely connected. Many US Millennials entered the workforce just before, during, or just after a severe economic downturn, and also maintain the highest amount of educational (and other) debt—a great worry for many. With many Millennials unemployed or underemployed, the link between career and identity weakened, and a “passion economy” developed—“geeking out” on a particular passion (or passions) has become a new way to establish identity. The commitment to and excitement about passions strikes me as a great potential strength, but it is a strength that cannot reach its full potential in the face of constant uncertainty and worry about the future.

Millennials care deeply about relationships and community.

Relationships and community, family both of birth and choice, are of utmost importance to Millennials—but they sometimes look different than they once did. Due to the uncertainty mentioned above, Millennials are delaying life events like marriage, home ownership, and starting a family. Community is created through relationships with friends and peers. Community can also be developed online, through social media platforms and communities of interest. Sometimes these digital interactions serve to strengthen face-to-face relationships, and sometimes they lead to or entirely take the place of these relationships. While Internet-based communities and relationships might look and feel different in some ways, they nevertheless meet many social needs.

Millennials value stories and narrative, along with all the specificity and subjectivity that entails.

I will tell anyone who listens that the way to win an argument is not with data and logic but with relationship and story. Everyone loves stories, but Millennials in particular love a good narrative—to the extent that stories are the best form of marketing products to Millennials. The thing about stories is that they are subjective and specific; they have unique and individual details. This is not a problem, though, in part because of the legacy of Postmodernism that proclaims the death of the grand narrative and the reign of subjective truths, but also because of that magic of stories that leads them through specificity to touch something deep within all of us. Anyone who has been moved by a novel knows this to be true. Millennials take this knowledge and expand it to all parts of their lives. A good social media presence should have a narrative. A product should have a backstory. A brand should have plot.

Millennials are uneasy with organized religion, but still open to spiritual ideas.

While many Millennial traits resonate with me, there are plenty of ways in which I don’t fit the mold—for instance, while many of my Christian-college peers married before me, I still managed to get hitched before the current average age of first marriage for women (27). Resistance to organized religion is another instance where I clearly don’t fit the mold: I’m training to become a priest. I participate in some form of organized religion almost daily. (To be fair, though, I do fit the mold in the equivalent political sphere: I’m a registered Independent, something that prevented me from voting in the New York primaries since I didn’t get it changed early enough.)

Terms like the “nones” (no religious affiliation) or SBNR (spiritual but not religious) have arisen largely in response to this trend. A resistance to organized religion doesn’t necessarily mean a rejection of spiritual, or atheism per se—Millennials may be less religious than previous generations, but they are just as spiritual. Insofar as spirituality refers to that nebulous “something more” that makes us human (not necessitating belief in a higher power), Millennials are right on par with other generations, with about the same percentage who say they “feel a sense of wonder about the universe,” “feel a sense of gratitude or thankfulness,” and “think about the meaning and purpose of life” once per week or more.

Millenials and Atonement

So, I’ve talked about Atonement and I’ve talked about Millennials. How do they fit together?

In my opinion, quite well. Here’s why:

Atonement is, at its core, all about relationship.

What was the work of Christ on earth? It was to bring life and reconciliation to all God’s children. It was—and is—about God’s relationship with humans. This act, in turn, teaches us about relationship and reconciliation. Human relationships are marked by all manner of tension and separation. That’s why breakups, divorces, arguments, political battles, and wars mark every day of human existence. But God, through Jesus, offers us a better, more perfect, potential-filled way to love. God offers a relationship stronger than death, a love that can break down all boundaries. 

Atonement tells a great story.

Atonement is about good vs. evil. The early conceptions of Atonement theology in particular carry a strong sense of this: Jesus is good, the powers of darkness and death (a.k.a. Satan) are evil, and in the moment of crucifixion the cosmic battle between these forces is won for the good. Perhaps the defining literature of the Millennial generation is Harry Potter—we grew up with Harry—and what made page after page of witches and wizards so compelling was the messy, difficult battle between good and evil. Of course, Harry is not alone in this fight; the battle between good and evil is a key plot. Many of the stories where this battle is clearly laid out have seen great popularity in recent decades: The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, reboots of Star Wars and Star Trek, Marvel and DC’s run of superhero movies. Epic stories are compelling.

Not only that, but epic stories inspire us to tell better stories about ourselves—the Atonement inspires us to tell a better story. With the love and the passion of Jesus, we can live stories of love without fear.

Atonement is specific and indelibly rooted in the person of Jesus.

At first, this might seem like a drawback: Atonement theology is decidedly, inescapably Christian. Without acceding to the narrative of the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, it doesn’t really work. The specificity is limiting—but Jesus is part of the story. Jesus’ story is specific, but it also speaks to something deeply human, and speaks deeply to the human condition—and to the Millennial generation.

Jesus has the power to incite passion—something Millennials exhibit in spades—and passion modeled after Jesus’ example has the power to change the world. Jesus also saw people as individuals, not as their society made them out to be. This points back to my discomfort with generational labels. It doesn’t matter that every Millennial is different, because Jesus sees all of us that way.

Finally, I think it is also important to note that accepting Atonement doesn’t necessitate a rejection of other paths to salvation, nor is it definitely linked to institutional religious practice. The narrative truth of Atonement theology functions very well in the context of Christianity, but it also overflows those bounds.

Atonement is about living abundantly.

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” These are Jesus’ words; this is Jesus’ description of what he came to do on earth. I also think this is the very heart of Atonement theology. This is the outcome of the epic battle, the great story, the perfect love, the ultimate reconciliation. The victory won for us is abundant life, life rich with experience and community, life filled with love and void of fear, life brimming with passion and heavy with fulfillment. This is life that feeds the spirit, life that is truly alive, and it is God’s gift to us in Jesus. All we have to do is accept it and live our way into it.

Conclusion

The Atonement is not simple. It is not straightforward and easy to grasp. There is not one right theological approach. However, the potential for life, love, and reconciliation brought about by the work of Jesus in the world is vast. There is power in living into a life reconciled with God. Atonement theology is not always front and center, but it is at the heart of Christianity. Perhaps we ignore it because it is complicated, or it makes us uncomfortable, and we have trouble separating the problematic bits from what is good and useful. Perhaps, though, the risk and passion of the Atonement is precisely what we need in the Church and the world today, as we strive for full and abundant life.

 

Reading List

For those of you who are interested in what’s been discussed and want to delve deeper, I’m providing a sort of annotated bibliography of the books used in my class (which have largely formed the basis of my thinking about Atonement) and what I thought of them:

René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning

Girard’s perspective on the Atonement fits very much in with the idea of an epic story and a turning point to new life, but he is also a philosopher and this is a dense and difficult book to read.

Adam Johnson, Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed

This was the book we started with, and was at least in part what inspired me to buck the assignment and not align myself with a particular theory of Atonement. It’s not an especially easy read, but it’s a relatively comprehensive one.

Adam Kotsko, The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation

This book’s perspective on the Atonement as a social and political theology draw on pre-Modern thought, but fits remarkably well in a Postmodern setting, and really goes a great distance in making Atonement theology applicable and relevant—if you have the fortitude for a heady academic tome.

Jens Soering, The Convict Christ

This is a slim volume written by a man serving a life sentence in prison that challenges the reader to consider Christ’s position as prisoner and stance towards those who are considered least and worst among us—by far the most readable text of the semester and both challenging and inspiring.

Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key

One of the most Christocentric theologies I’ve ever read, and interesting and compelling for that, but again very dense.

Atonement and abundance

growth!

Atonement is the work of Christ on earth. Atonement is the reconciliation of God and humankind through Jesus Christ. Atonement is reparation for wrong or injury, for sin.

I believe the primary work of Christ on earth was to bring good news to the poor and set the captives free. To take humankind out of the narrow, limited, fear-filled lives of sin into abundant freedom and wild joy.

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

I believe that reparation for sin is reconciliation with God, with life, with our truest selves, and I believe that reconciliation with God is the ultimate experience of love—the opposite of fear.

“Do not worry about your life.” “Do not be afraid.”

The hardest part of this project for my Atonement class has been, for me, choosing an issue to be my focus. We were given a laundry list of possibilities (“Divorce Rate, Muslim/Christian/Jew, Racial Profiling, Abortion, Death Penalty, Reparation for African American Slavery, Same Sex Marriage, Occupy Movement, Sexual Misconduct in Roman Catholic Church, etc.”), all of which have plenty of potential. I even have positions on most of them, but nothing jumped out at me as an area of passion that I could pursue and consider for an entire semester.

Well, there’s only a week or two left for this project, so it’s do-or-die time. And…I still don’t have a nice, neat issue. What I do want to consider with you (over the next few days, you know, since we’re short on time) is fear.

Specifically, because I can’t cover the whole grand concept of “fear” in the next week, I want to talk about a couple of manifestations of fear—one public and one private.

I want to talk about the culture of fear that has laid the foundation for the, er, giant mess that is the 2016 election season,

AND

I want to talk about the fear that leads us as individuals to live lives from a position of scarcity rather than abundance.

Now that’s a lot to talk about. I’m not totally sure yet how I’m going to pull it all together. But I think everything I’ve brought up in this post is interrelated, and I think an insight about one part of the puzzle can shed light on another. I also don’t have the answers. I’m writing my way into this.

So I need your help. I need to know what you think. I need to know your questions, what resonates with you, what you think is wrong. Tell me in comments. Tell me on Facebook. Tell me in person. Email, message, text, or tweet me. Let’s start a conversation!