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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Saved from what?

I started reading Cur Deus Homo, this week, St. Anselm of Canterbury's famous work on salvation.  I bought a kindle copy for less than $2, and am reading it on my iPhone's kindle app.  Reading an 11th century British monk on an iPhone strikes me as kind of bizarre, but it works for me.  I hope to blog my way through it.

Cur Deus Homo (which has the clunky sounding, Why the God-man? in English) marked a pivotal moment in the history of Christian thought in the West, and remains controversial to this day.  As a philosopher and theologian, Anselm found traditional (at his time) expressions of how Christians are saved, for what, and from what, lacking in clarity and rigor.  His own thought is meant to correct this problem.  How much blame or credit Anselm can receive for what later emerged as answers among many Christians to these pivotal questions of salvation is a matter for debate.  That his work is pivotal is not debated.

I confess that for most of my adult life, I have ascribed blame to Anselm for what I consider some awful theology getting taught in Christian churches, including Mennonite churches, theology that I have called blasphemous, heretical, and even pagan over the years.  In this theology, Christians are saved from guilt and an enraged God eager to punish us for our guilt.  We are saved for eternal life.  The common thread this theology has with more traditional understandings of salvation is that Jesus saves us.

Many of us (most of us?) were taught some version of this forensic view of salvation.  Human beings are sinners, deserving of God's punishment and wrath which is eternal death (in this view, hell serves God's purposes of punishment).  As sinful human beings, we are incapable of making things right with God, since God requires a sinless sacrifice.  So Jesus, who is without sin sacrifices himself (or God sacrifices him), as an atonement for our sin, satisfying God's demand for a human to punish, thereby appeasing God's wrath, and saving those of us who believe in Jesus from it.

I find this horrific, and not remotely Christian.  And when I hear some version of this view espoused as normative Christian thought I wince in pain.  Not only is it not normative it, at the very least, flirts with heresy, smacks of pagan practices of human sacrifice, fails to adequately celebrate the resurrection, paints a picture of God that can only be described as grotesque, implies that Satan is God's ally against humanity, and does not begin to take seriously the real enemies in classical Christian thought, injustice, violence, sin, suffering, and, especially death.

Classical Christian teaching emphasized Jesus' triumph of Satan, sin, and death.  Eastern orthodox traditions retain this emphasis, and are disturbed by the emphasis on a punitive God they see in the West.  Roman Catholicism remains more nuanced than the view of salvation I describe above.  But certain streams of Protestantism have embraced this view fully, and been quite effective at popularizing it.

J.R.R. Tolkein in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia, both deeply thoughtful Christians, express a much more classic view of Christian theology in these works of fantasy.  In the former, the gates of Mordor collapse, and Sauron's apparatus of torture is destroyed.  The enemy is vanquished.  Gandalf and Aragorn do not form a tacit agreement with Sauron to keep the dungeons of Mount Doom going as a place of torment for Gondor's lawbreakers to be sent.  Victory over death is complete.  In Lewis's work, Aslan is a ransom to the White Witch (ala classic Christian theology) for the return of Edmund. Only the White Witch learns of deeper magic when Aslan rises from the dead after she kills him.  It is the latter classical Christian narrative structure which Anselm found problematic.

There you have my introduction to "blogging my way through" Anselm's Cur Deus Homo.