Yesterday we discussed different topics on Facebook, as we do frequently, this time in the group “Luteranie w Polsce” (Lutherans in Poland). On the margin of discussion about Islam, there emerged the question of the meaning of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, question whose significance for the Christian faith can hardly be overestimated. That is why we return today to this topic also on the blog, in a broader and more systematic way than can be done in a Facebook discussion. We used a fragment of the Rev. Dr. Jay Emerson Johnson’s book Dancing with God. Anglican Christianity and the Practice of Hope (you can read extensive fragments on the book on Google Books). The author compares various aspects of Anglican Christianity to dance moves. Hence the references to dancing in his text. The Rev. Emerson Johnson has served a variety of Episcopal parishes and taught at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.
For some of Jesus disciples, salvation meant overthrowing the Roman Empire and restoring the Davidic kingdom of ancient Israel (Acts 1:6). For some of the Christians in Thessalonica, to whom Paul wrote at least two letters, salvation meant that human beings would no longer die (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Irenaeus, a third-century theologian, imagined salvation as a stealth rescue mission for Gods creation, which had been taken captive by Satan. Still others understood salvation as divine forgiveness but offered various views of how that forgiveness is accomplished.
The hope for salvation continues to energize Christian communities even when we are not precisely sure from what and for what we need to be saved. The various approaches to this issue in the Bible and in subsequent centuries of reflection all have at least this much in common: The hope of salvation is a way to speak about the human longing to thrive with abundant life. In Johns gospel, Jesus described his ministry with that hope clearly in view, that all might have life “and have it abundantly” (10:10). Rather than just one thing, there are many things that can make us stumble on that journey into human thriving. Human beings appear to share some of those stumbling blocks in common, while others are historically and culturally specific and even unique to particular individuals. Whatever prevents us from thriving, Christian faith offers the hope that God continually invites us into the dance of abundant life and will provide us with the means to dance better after we stumble. Because even more than we do, God longs to see us thrive.
Christians hear this divine invitation to thrive whenever we gather around the eucharistic table to share a simple meal. At that table, the particular [historical] Jesus and the portable Jesus [as understood in theological reflection in many different cultures througout the ages] come together in the eucharistic Jesus, in the gestures, the postures, the bread and the wine, and the words we prayerfully remember: “This is my body; this is my blood.” Performing this act together recalls the many occasions in which the historical Jesus shared meals, including the final meal he shared with his friends on the night he was betrayed. Our common prayer around that table also recalls the many centuries of theological reflection on what this eucharistic meal means, what it can tell us about God-in-Christ, the particular ways it inspires us to live, and how it invites us to see our lives and the world as essentially and fundamentally a gift. That’s what the Greek word eucharist means—thanksgiving.
Just as there are many types of dancing, there are various ways to describe the hope of salvation inspired by the eucharistic Jesus. As the Book of Common Prayer has evolved in the national provinces of the Anglican Communion, Anglican Christians today pray with various versions of that one book, and each of them contains more than one eucharistic prayer. While each of these prayers follows the same basic pattern and rhythm, the text of each prayer varies in terms of metaphor, symbol, and emphasis. In the American Prayer Book alone the four distinct eucharistic prayers (or six, including the two rendered in more traditional language) offer images of cosmic restoration, atoning sacrifice, rescue from evil, freedom for prisoners, good news for the poor, and the way of peace and reconciliation, to name just a few. In this sense, the development of the Prayer Book mirrors the development of Christian scripture and the development of Christology. Just as there is more than one gospel in the Bible, there is more than one eucharistic prayer in the Prayer Book. The mystery of God-in-Christ cannot be contained in a single biblical text any more than the mystery of salvation can be contained and spoken in a single prayer.
The breadth of reflection on the eucharistic Jesus is often obscured or narrowed by the assumptions ingrained in so many of us, either from the religious education of our childhood or from the images pervading popular culture. This has certainly been the case among the visitors I talk with in my congregation, where we experiment with a variety of liturgical forms and with ways to speak about the good news of God-in-Christ. Regardless of the texts we use or the freshness of the language we offer, visitors (and probably more than a few longtime members) almost always hear what they expect to hear: Jesus died for my sins so I can go to heaven. There are certainly some good reasons for hearing Christian faith in that way, which has been a recurring theme in the way Christian traditions have been presented and disseminated in modern Western societies. That theme is reinforced by the fact that every eucharistic liturgy commemorates the betrayal, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But that’s not the only thing those liturgies commemorate. By restricting the idea and the hope of salvation to the mechanisms of violent sacrifice, we risk missing the rich and deeply textured invitation God extends to us in Christ. We risk missing the invitation to dance if we mistake the music of the Incarnation for a funeral dirge.
The relative freedom from any one doctrinal system in Anglican theologies offers an opportunity to recover a broader view of salvation and the practice of hope such views inspire. By turning to the Incarnation just as frequently as to the crucifixion, Anglican theologies reflect on the purpose of human life and not merely the remedy for its failures. By celebrating the birth in Bethlehem with as much devotion as remembering the death in Jerusalem, Anglicans avoid reducing Christian faith to a morbid obsession with pain and suffering. This approach does not in any way mitigate the significance of the crucifixion; to the contrary, it actually broadens its significance by detaching it from its typically exclusive link to systems of sacrificial atonement.
Understanding the death of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice for the sake of salvation resonates with some but certainly not all biblical writers. The notion of atonement appears explicitly in the letter to the Hebrews, where the writer turns to images of animal sacrifice in ancient Israelite religion for his reflections. For that writer, those images of sacrifice provide the best way to describe the death of Jesus as atoning, as the mechanism, so to speak, of divine forgiveness. On the other hand, this interpretation of Jesus death as an atoning sacrifice doesn’t fit very well with some of the gospel stories. The gospel writers would seem to question the necessity of crucifixion for forgiveness when they show Jesus forgiving sins before his death (Matthew 9:2; Mark 2:10; Luke 7:47).
In addition to a few biblical texts, the concept of salvation with which many Christians live today derives mostly from the twelfth-century theology of Anselm, whose work articulated a particular aspect of Christian thought that had been percolating for some time. Anselm’s theory of salvation, usually referred to as “substitutionary atonement,” relied heavily on the cultural and political realities of medieval Europe. The configurations of a feudal society, together with the legacy of Roman jurisprudence, rooted Anselm’s approach in a particular kind of legal system in which violations of the law demanded appropriate satisfaction. Borrowing from these cultural developments, Anselm understood the death of Jesus as the satisfaction of divine justice. The death of Jesus, in other words, paid the price for our sins, for our violations of divine law, which we ourselves could not pay.
While this Anselmian theme has permeated Western Christian theology— so much so that many Christians today likely adopt some version of it without ever having heard of Anselm—this view by no means represents the full range of reflection on the hope of salvation, either from ancient sources or from Anselm’s own contemporaries. Greek or Eastern approaches, for example, which developed apart from the more heavily juridical context of Western Europe, usually place greater emphasis on the Incarnation. Rather than the satisfaction of a debt owed to divine justice, the Incarnation points to a much broader commitment to the project of human thriving. According to these views, the hope of salvation comes from God s own willingness to enter the human dance and lead us into the fullness of human life that God intended from the beginning.
Even in these Eastern theological views, the stress on an incarnational hope does not simply erase human sinfulness. The human condition is still clearly riddled with what Christian traditions call sin, as anyone can see today just by reading a daily newspaper. The worldwide human family struggles every day with any number of roadblocks to human thriving, whether in violent conflict and war, or economic deprivation, or institutional tyranny and oppression. The execution of Jesus, even though he was innocent of both the religious and the political charges brought against him, simply bears witness to the sinful condition from which humanity must be saved. The hope for salvation, however, must surely inspire more than relief from guilt or the forbearance of an otherwise angry God. We are no doubt in desperate need of forgiveness for any number of things, from both God and other human beings, but we clearly need more than that.
The fear human beings harbor over mistakes and shortcomings is surely not the only fear from which we must be saved. The experience of guilt taps into a more fundamental anxiety—the fear that humanity itself is deeply flawed, that just being human is itself a profound “mistake.” This, Christian traditions seem to say, is the fear from which each of us needs to be saved. A broader view of salvation inspires us to embrace human existence as fundamentally good and to live with the hope of breaking through the many roadblocks to human thriving so each and every one can dance to the divine music of abundant life.
Anglican theologians encourage this broader view of Christian hope by refusing to choose between the manger and the cross as the primary mechanism of divine salvation. Anglicans do not celebrate Christmas as merely the historical preface to Good Friday. The hope of salvation is too rich and deep to confine it in any one moment of Jesus’ life or even in our own lives. Drawing on biblical insights and subsequent theological traditions, Anglican Christianity imagines salvation extending over the whole course of Jesus’ life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection, and beyond the empty tomb into the energizing presence of the Spirit and in the life and ministry of Christian communities.
In all its many forms, the hope of salvation provides a shorthand way of speaking about the entire story of dancing with God. That story begins with Gods own desire for communion in creation, the divine embrace of Israel as God’s own beloved, the extension of that embrace to the whole human family in Jesus, and the hope of living into a genuine and authentic humanity, which Christians put into practice as the body of Christ. This is the far- reaching, wide-embracing story we hear from the eucharistic Jesus every Sunday morning. To reduce this story of salvation to that which is accomplished by the suffering and death of Jesus tragically misses the point; it says far too little about the dance. Or to recall Rowan Williams’s insight about “heresy,” we should not worry about saying too much but about not saying enough when we speak of salvation.
Meanwhile, the Western juridical model of salvation, epitomized by Anselm, continues to inform the minds and hearts of many Christians today. For some, it’s the only salvific music they can hear. This kind of music shapes how people dance with the eucharistic Jesus in some profound ways, mostly by distorting the relationship between salvation and ethics. Narrowing the focus of salvation to the need of forgiveness quickly turns ethics into a system of rules and God looks mostly like a lawmaker.
If, on the other hand, salvation is viewed more broadly, as God’s invitation to abundant life and to authentic human thriving, ethics suddenly expands onto a much wider dance floor and takes on a more urgent rhythm. As we gather around the eucharistic table on Sunday morning, we start to fret less about which of the Ten Commandments each of us may have broken during the week and worry more about the welfare mother, one paycheck away from homelessness; or about the potential change in zoning laws that would transform a regional park into a shopping mall; or the number of children who die every day from preventable diseases; or the disparity between corporate salaries and the wages we pay the teachers of our children; or the resources Western nations spend on their militaries compared to the money spent on global hunger.
Refocusing ethics toward these cultural and political concerns does not mean abandoning any reflection on the Ten Commandments. It does mean recognizing the social ramifications of our life choices rather than obsessing over our individual faults and shortcomings. It does mean adjusting our concept of Divine Reality from that of rule maker to choreographer, one who yearns to see everyone join in the dance of abundant life. Rather than approaching ethics as a series of hoops to jump through, God-in-Christ invites us to pick up those hoops and dance with them. Holy hoop dancing doesn’t make Christian ethics any easier; it actually becomes more difficult, as it requires the practiced agility and focused bodily attention of a hula dancer.
Understanding Christian ethics as primarily a communal endeavor deepens our life with God well beyond the level of individual scrupulosity. Learning to dance to the music of Jesus means sorting through, analyzing, and evaluating the interweaving layers of politics, social policy, economic systems, and cultural paradigms, and all for the sake of both discerning and embracing the kind of genuinely authentic human life God intends. This is precisely the point made by John L. Kater Jr., an Episcopal priest and moral theologian, reflecting on his experiences in Latin America, especially concerning the economic relationships between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. “The healing of the world,” Kater writes, “requires more than individual conversion. This task gives ample opportunity for us all—individuals and congregations alike—to act on behalf of the fullness of life God wills for us. Some of our actions will be directed to immediate or short-term solutions, but we must never allow ourselves to forget that in the end it is the fundamental structures of our life together that must be rebuilt.”
Hearing the eucharistic Jesus invite us to dance, Gods own passion for life seizes our imaginations, compelling us to work more intentionally for that abundant life God intends for all. This is the work of salvation, the great incarnate dance of life into which God-in-Christ invites us. William Temple pointedly described this incarnational approach to Christian faith by noting that Christianity “is the most materialistic of the worlds religions.” With this comment, Temple wished to stretch our imaginations to see the far- reaching implications of the Incarnation for every aspect of our lives, personally, socially, and ecologically.
The diversity of approaches to Christology in the Bible and the many ways Christian communities have tried to speak about the Incarnation caution against trying to find just one formula or image for the good news of God-in-Christ. Embracing multiple views and listening to various perspectives can fuel faithful imaginations as we try to discern how God is inviting us to dance. Anglican Christians do this kind of theological work by sustaining genuine conversation and fostering ongoing conversion whenever we gather to share a simple meal of bread and wine. Taking Temple s comment to heart in those eucharistic moments invites us to imagine an intimate union between Earth and heaven, between spirit and flesh, between human and divine. Only faithful imaginations will suffice for putting that kind of hope into practice in the many material ways human beings culturally, politically, and economically interact with each other.
In short, God s great dance of life does not lead us off the stage of this earthly dance floor. To the contrary, the eucharistic Jesus—in all his wild, undomesticated, and earthly rhythms—invites each of us to dance with our feet firmly planted on the particular and concrete dance floors of human life and culture. This is the truly exotic dance of the body of Christ, and its peculiar steps will vary depending on the particular cultural contexts in which the hope of that dance is practiced. As the Apostle Paul noted so long ago, learning those steps leads us rather quickly into that mysterious and seductive energy Christian traditions have called the Holy Spirit.