I graduated from my Catholic girls high school in 1973 as an avowed agnostic. Having rejected Catholicism and all of Christianity for that matter, I had no idea that I was part of a tidal wave of change sweeping American Christianity. I felt alone in my decision, completely unaware that there were so many others making the choice to leave the church of their birth. As Diana Butler Bass documents in her influential book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, the last 50 years have been hard on church membership in the US. All churches from mainline Protestant to Roman Catholic to Evangelical and the once wildly successful nondenominational mega-churches are showing declining membership. A poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life made headlines in October by reporting that one fifth of the US public, including a third of adults under 30, are religiously unaffiliated, the highest percentage ever. These are the now famous “nones” who many joke to be the one category of religious identity that is growing in the US. It seems undeniable that we are in the midst of a profound shift, for as Butler Bass says, “What was is no longer. And, as a result, discontent, doubt, disillusionment, and for some, despair, are the themes of the day.” I would add nostalgia to that list, leading to angry moralism and a fundamentalism that tries in ever increasing futility to grasp hold of the old forms as they crumble away.
Why are people leaving the church? Butler Bass gives many reasons, among them a loosening of familial bonds of Christian identity. No longer do you attend the church of your parents or have your children baptized as a matter of course. With greater mobility and freedom of choice, church is less an obligation than an option, one among many more attractive options on a Sunday morning. My own reasons for becoming a “none” (instead of the nun I aspired to be in third grade!) are a bit different than that, though I believe once again I am part of a tidal wave and not a solo phenomenon. Certainly, I’ve been hearing my reasons echoed at the Forgiving Victim retreats we’ve been conducting around the country this month, but more on that a minute.
I left Christianity for one simple reason: I couldn’t buy into the idea that God required Jesus to die on the cross. I had no idea that this idea was called “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” or that it developed between the 12th and 16th centuries; I had received a non-academic understanding of what happened on the cross from my grade school religion classes filtered through my child-brain. What I was left with was something I couldn’t live with as an adult. Here’s a quick summary of the doctrine: “Penal substitutionary atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.”
That was basically how I understood it and here’s what seemed so wrong about it: how could God’s forgiveness depend upon someone suffering a most brutal and public execution? That sounds a bit too much like what humans do to one another – we constantly demand punishment and retribution for those who wrong us. We withhold forgiveness until we see evidence of repentance – proper groveling will do quite well, thank you very much. It seemed way too convenient that God was just like us, giving us too easy a justification for our own wounded honor, wrath and self-righteousness. I left Christianity because I became convinced that for God to be God and not just a reflection of humanity at its worst, God’s forgiveness couldn’t be so contingent, so human.I have had the privilege of finding my way back into the Christian faith with the help of amazing preachers, teachers and theologians. Chief among them is the Catholic theologian James Alison. Over the past 3 ½ years I have been working with James to produce his video curriculum for adults called The Forgiving Victim: An Induction into Christian Vulnerability. At a recent retreat to learn about the course in Pennsylvania, one of the participants, a Lutheran pastor, was describing why he thought people were leaving the church, young people in particular. He said, “Folks look around and see a violent world; they don’t want to spend their Sundays worshipping a violent God. They want to be part of a movement for peace, healing and reconciliation and they just don’t see the Christian God or Christian churches as part of that movement.” To return to Butler Bass’s idea that we are witnessing the end of something, I think it’s possible that the something that is ending is the notion of a violent God who can be used by humans to endorse our violence against each another. We may be witnessing the end of an exclusive Christianity that feels free to pronounce condemnation against whole groups of people in order to build a community of the saved. As Brian McLaren says in his new book, what is fading away is a Christianity built around hostility and what is emerging is a New Kind of Christianity. In other words, or more precisely to borrow from James Alison, what is fading away is a Christianity that creates victims to one that receives its identity from the non-contingent, all embracing forgiveness offered by the victim in our midst, the crucified and risen Christ. That’s the beginning of a new understanding of Atonement, one that James offers in this course and why I can embrace and be embraced by Christianity today.
Yet the newness of James’ understanding of Atonement is as old as the Bible, new only in the sense that is an alternative to persistent patterns of human violence, hostility and over against identities. James Alison’s course is so faithfully orthodox that it captures the eye-popping, mind-blowing, world shaking revelatory power of Jesus’ impact on his contemporaries, making it available once again in our time and place. If you have been gripped by discontent, doubt, despair or nostalgia by the changes currently rippling through Christianity, I encourage you to relax and, as the angels love to say, fear not. We live in a time of uncertainty because though the old is fading the shape of the new has not yet taken form, and that requires us all to live in a space of not-knowing. But what’s coming is something fresh and life-renewing, something triggered by the advent of God entering into Creation two thousand years ago. So please take heart and join the Forgiving Victim community – visit the website and Like us on Facebook. The curriculum launches officially in spring 2013 so stay in touch, spread the word and don’t drop out like I did after high school. Be part of the movement that is giving shape to what is yet to be.