on 28 April 2017
Chapter 1 sets out why this is a rational enquiry. As I find this a rational thing to do, it is a little difficult for me to gets to grips with this chapter. I got the feeling Gunton had particular people in mind when he wrote this.
Chapter 2 explains how metaphor works, and why it is useful. This is a sensible rebuttal against literalism. It is, however, written in deeply technical language, and I wondered how many (or rather, how few) people who would understand this technical approach still don’t get how metaphor works.
Chapter 3 looks at Gustav Aulen’s “Christus Victor” in detail, Gunton is broadly supportive with a few qualifications, before looking as the concept of ‘demon’ in detail, concluding that they are metaphors for behaviour that defies rational explanation. This is, of course, upset the Charismatics and Evangelicals. For those of us that can’t cope with this, one might suggest S Baron-Cohen’s “Zero Degrees of Empathy” as a starting point for the current research into the biological, social, and emotional bases of anti-social behaviour, with a conclusion that is tentatively supportive of religion as a way of solving these issues.
Chapter 4 looks at issues of justice, which are not as cut and dried, black and white, as some would like to make them. St Anselm’s ‘satisfaction’ theory of the Atonement is looked at in detail here, and Gunton points out how mis-interpreted it has been over the years (pp88-89): feudal lords were there to uphold justice, not mete out punishments for transgressions, and St Anselm’s original (how many have actually read that ?) is more about how one solves the problems than redressing the (im)balance (p96). At the end are two current interpretations: Forsyth’s and Barth’s, of which Forsyth’s panentheistic, immanent, economic God actively helping us to sort out the mess appeals much more to me.
Chapter 5 analyses ‘sacrifice’ as a metaphor. This is where the books really picks up for me. Gunton is very supportive of E Irving’s deep criticisms of modern presentations of sacrifice, re-presenting it 1) in terms of the whole of Jesus’ life, up to the ascension and beyond, 2) as a deeply human event in terms of the Incarnation as the join between both realms, as an exemplar of a life well lived, 3) as a necessarily complicated metaphor for re-ordering a dis-ordered universe, ie two disparate ideas are joined together to make a stimulating third.
It seems odd to me to put the Trinity after the cross, as Trinity came first and (trust me) things make much more sense when the cross is seen in the light of Trinity and Christology (and some atonement theories can be justifiably binned as unworkable) rather than vv, which seems to inevitably end up with a temper-problem God demanding someone dies. We have in this chapter, a sense of a Creation in the constant process of becoming: Gunton refutes the good v evil battles (p147), and evil becomes ‘hindering’ rather than ‘helping’ the process of becoming (p152). There are similarities here with Rohr’s “The Divine Dance”: Trinity as a relational being wanting to be in a creative relationship with us, and not in a Parent / naughty Child way.
Hidden away on p155 is a very significant point that might have been better as a sub-headed section or in bold: traditional ways of looking at the cross have become too narrow to be useful or to do it justice. To which I add a rhetorical questions for the Charismatics and Evangelicals: are the rest of us really to be cast into the eternal pits of Hell because we find Charismatic / Evangelical spirituality not on our wavelength, are we really condemned because we find the penal substitution misinterpretation of St Anselm’s metaphorical use of secular feudalism off-putting and vile ? Or can there now be some recognition of this as an aberration of but one of the many ways of looking at the cross and that others have and equal, if not greater, validity ?
Chapter 7 is the “where do we go from here ?” or “Now go away and do it !” chapter. This is the weakest one for me as it inevitably promotes left-wing politics, which is cold comfort to those of us temperamentally, and in some cases biologically (ie autistics don’t do change), conservative. Wesley said Christianity was for all, and that’s going to necessarily include those who are introvert, homophilic, sensory, etc and function best in a familiar environment that we naturally gravitate towards.
A final note. This is a ‘print on demand’ book, and the quality is lousy. I don’t mind too much as I’ve scribbled lots of pencil notes over it, but others might be disappointed in it’s ‘old photocopier’ level of quality.
Overall, a deep, profound book that is well worth investigating for some well-researched, well-argued, and well-formulated, justifiable criticisms of the paucity of contemporary theories of the atonement, with some very intriguing and interesting alternatives just begging to be tried out in people’s spiritualities, personal and corporate theologies, art, lives, etc.