During Lent the Bread Line Columns will be ideas from
“A Practical Christianity” by Jane Shaw
The doctrine of atonement raises fundamental questions about God’s love for many people. This is a huge topic.
Christ has saved us: that is a distinctive expression of the Christian
faith. But how does salvation occur and what is its nature? There is a version of Christian theology that rests on a particular kind of certainty about the death of Jesus as a supreme sacrifice to make amends for the sins of the world. I suggested that certainty of this sort essentially negates the vulnerable cry of Jesus on the cross. It also takes away the experience
of being swept up into the life of God with others. In short, life in God is something we experience, not something we have to get right: it is a practice rather than a doctrine.
This is not to negate sin, but it is to declare that God’s love is greater than human sin. The vital question here is this: is our starting point human sin or the love of God? The former narrative of the atonement always begins with human sin. But for me, the starting point is always God’s
unconditional love for us just as we are, with all our failures as well as our hopes. We begin with—and return again and again to—the exploration o faith from the experience of God’s love.
To open ourselves to God’s expansive and unconditional love is quite alien in our society. We live in a culture of self-help books, self-reliance, and enormous loneliness—both real and existential. We are rarely encouraged to turn to others for help. Most of us feel that we have to cope with, mop up, bear our pain quite by ourselves, hide away the things that are apparently bad about ourselves, all the time conforming ourselves to a particular self we think we ought to be.
Self-will, and an abiding belief in our willpower, maybe two cardinal sins of our age, for they trick us into believing that we can totally control and cope with every aspect of our lives, our emotions, our pain. They prevent us from experiencing faith as the transformation of our lives, and make us think that faith is about getting it right. I am suggesting that opening ourselves to God’s mercy and love, praying for God’s help in seemingly impossible circumstances, takes us into a realm beyond that of our own making into the realm of grace. And we often receive and
experience grace in very ordinary ways: the listening ear of a friend; the realization that we have someone who can do the shopping when we are too ill to do it ourselves; asking another for help and discovering their sheer joy at giving it; being vulnerable with a friend and having them respond by sharing something they could never before speak out loud.
But if the love of God is the starting point, then God is at the very center and we as human beings are God’s creatures, always already loved by God. Now we can set out on the open-ended adventure of a Christian life. Faith becomes not the attempt to conform to a particular theory or doctrine, a particularly morality, a particular group mentality, a particular
scheme, but rather an adventure in which we are constantly surprised by grace, and open to that surprise. Think of the disciples on the Emmaus road. The last thing they expected was to have a chat, to eat a meal, with the risen Lord. It is on the journey that we grow in relationship with Jesus and find ourselves redeemed.