Because Easter fell rather late this year, the commemoration of the theologian Anselm of Canterbury on April 21st falls within the first week of Easter. Maybe it’s because these events are so close this year … Maybe it’s because I spent Lent reading Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of Sorrows … Maybe it’s because of yet another Easter with more people in church than on a typical Sunday … I don’t know. However, it seems to me that, since we have so many people present on Easter Sunday – the day to tell the Church’s best story in the most beautiful ways we can find – and yet those people do not return the following week or any other weeks (aside from maybe Mother’s Day or Christmas Eve), maybe we’re telling it wrong … and Anselm may be a part of it.
Anselm was Bishop of Canterbury in the first century of the second millennium, dying on this date in 1109. He is most remembered even to this day for his theological writings. Philosophy students may still read his proofs for the existence of God. Theology students still read his explanation of what is called the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement. For the average American Christian, this is likely the most familiar theory of atonement (how human beings are made right with God through the death and resurrection of Christ). The briefest popular summary of this theory might be “He [meaning Jesus] paid a debt he did not owe because we owed a debt we could not pay.”
It is a rather concise statement of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (or Why the God-Man). Anselm’s argument works within the feudal system of his time. The local lord was sovereign and the serfs were beholden to and completely dependent upon their lord. (If you weren’t the former, you were unquestionably the latter.) In a similar way to that of serfs toward their lord, people owe God the Creator every thought of their minds, every work of their body, and every inclination of their hearts. Failure to do this incurs a debt to God. And since people owe God everything they have to begin with, they have nothing extra with which they might make up such a debt. As a human being, Jesus also owed all to God as any other human being does … and because he lived perfectly, he did not incur any debts of his own. Furthermore, through his generosity and divine right (being also fully God as well as fully human), he extends this perfection as payment of debts to Christians.
Within the feudal context of Anselm’s time, this makes a great deal of sense. But when it becomes unmoored from its context, this theory can become distorted and even damaging. The closest we in America have ever experienced to the feudal system of medieval Europe was the plantation system in the time of slavery. Do we really want to use that as the basis for an example of how things should work?
Detached from the context in which it arose, Anselm’s theory has been distorted to the point of perversion. Much has been made of the blood of Jesus being shed to wash away sins … of God’s wrath at human sinfulness being poured out on the innocent Jesus on the cross … as if the only thing God can do with anger is vent on someone. Feminist theologians aren’t the only one making the point that this comes across as divine child abuse.
Truth be told, the Christian faith has never settled on a single theory of atonement. There have been several prominent ones in the history of theology, each with some valid points. But none has ever been hailed as the definitive statement. Even in Anselm’s own era, there were critics of his theory. Most notable among them was Peter Abelard who asked, if the problem were one of justice – that a debt owed must be paid, then how is the greatest injustice the world has known – the execution of a truly innocent man as a criminal – a just solution?
Abelard’s own theory was based on love … that Christ’s death and resurrection was an act of great (and even divine) love intended to motivate Christians to be more loving. Of course, this also begs the question: Then why aren’t we more loving? Why are we so often unloving and judgmental?
Abelard may not have had the definitive answer either. But we need a better explanation than the current formula of Anselm run amok. Any explanation of what Jesus Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection that even hints at divine child abuse is simply not going to work in our modern context – nor should it. Although this isn’t exactly what Anselm was describing in his theory, it is how the theory has devolved in our modern context.
Easter is the big day in the Church. Yeah, a lot of people think it’s Christmas. But as John Irving wrote in A Prayer for Owen Meany: Anyone can be sentimental about the Nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas. But Easter is the main event; if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you’re not a believer.” Easter is the main event – and people do turn out for it.
Yes, it’s possible they show up for the trappings and the pageantry … the pastels and the hats, the flowers and the joy, the egg hunts and kids in cute clothes. It’s entirely possible these elements are the draw. But for whatever reason, people are in the pews and it is the congregation’s biggest chance to really tell the biggest and the best of all stories. Is that what we’re really doing? And if we are, just what story are we telling?
Do we tell the devolved American version of Anselm’s satisfaction theory? If not (and there are plenty of reasons not to!), then what do we tell? Do we try to keep it as benign and inoffensive as possible so as not to upset anyone there, especially the visitors or occasional attenders? Just what does resurrection mean for the crucified Jesus – and for us who profess to be followers of this crucified and risen Jesus today?
Like I said earlier, I spent Lent reading The Book of Sorrows by Walter Wangerin, Jr. It’s a sequel to his best-selling and National Book Award Winning beast fable The Book of the Dun Cow. However, as the title might suggest, the sequel is more difficult to read than the original. The second book is more painful and sad; it’s darker in tone and more disturbing. But perhaps for that very reason, it is also more profound. Both books are beast fables. Like those of Aesop or Chaucer (in some of his Canterbury Tales), they are morality tales … what is right and good? … what is wrong and evil? … how does one know? … how is one to choose? … what ought we do? These aren’t really parables and certainly not allegories. But the fantastical setting makes it possible to look at our world and its ways from a different angle, thus seeing things we might have missed before.
Although the evil Wyrm was defeated in his bid for freedom and contained once again at the close of the first book, the second book opens with Wyrm attempting a new strategy to defeat the animals who are his Keepers so he can run loose throughout the cosmos. Rather than a direct attack as before, he tries something more subtle. By allowing himself to be killed, he decays into a myriad of tiny worms. Eventually Wyrm succeeds in luring Chauntecleer, the rooster who leads the community of Keepers, to his rotting corpse. Chauntecleer is content to remain in the depths and eventually die beside the bones of the beloved companion who defeated Wyrm at the conclusion of the first book. However, Chauntecleer is moved to leave this abyss by the antics of one of his most loyal followers, a Weasel. As Chauntecleer pursues the Weasel, he lashes the Stag he is riding with a spur, sending the Stag into a frenzy … and in his frenzy, the Stag tramples an animal mother and one of her babies.
Thus Chauntecleer returns to his community, infected with the little worms who persuade him to refuse the love of his friends and even his wife, persuading him that their words are false … that the only truth in life is that all who are cut then cut back – at least as much, if not more. The tragedies and broken relationships escalate, until finally the bereaved animal father comes to Chauntecleer. The Rooster expects this other ,whom he wronged so horrifically, to strike back at him and even attacks this poor father in order to provoke the counter attack.
But none comes. Instead, the sorrowful father absorbs the Rooster’s blows. Rather than striking back, he acknowledges the ways he failed his family. He tells Chauntecleer that he forgives him and offers a message from the Dun Cow (identified in the first book as a messenger from God to help and comfort the animal Keepers). The message is one of love, of understanding, and forgiveness. In the face of such unbreakable love, Chauntecleer is finally freed from the influence of the remnants of Wyrm and does what he must to root out the evil from himself, purging it from the community.
Perhaps this points toward the real truth of what the crucifixion and resurrection mean. Love is stronger than hate and anger. God does not require the anger to be vented in order to let it go; God can simply let go of the anger. God can – and does – choose love and rejects anger (understandable and justifiable though such anger might be). There is no requirement that a debt be paid or wrongs be righted or anger be assuaged somehow. God simply chooses love in the face of hate, chooses life in the face of death because God can.
Back in seminary, in the second semester of systematic theology, in which we focused on Jesus Christ and the second article of the creed, we often pondered the question “What got Jesus killed?” There are actually a number of answers, but one of the most provocative is because that’s what sin does – it kills things. Perhaps literally in some ways, perhaps more figuratively in many others, those acts we might regard as sin, as missing the actual intention, as being not quite what we wanted to do or be in a situation, as falling short of what we (or others) expected us to be and to do … these kinds of things do real damage to others, to relationships, to ourselves. That’s what sin does; it kills things. And since Jesus came into the world to deal with the problem of sin, then, sooner or later, sin would kill Jesus.
Of course, where there is some form of killing or damage, there is some form of death (even if not in the most concrete, literal, actual sense). The resurrection then is the negation of death. Death is undone. God’s decree is that life shall be the final word, not death. Forgiveness is the choice not to repay in kind the wrong done, to allow the possibility of restored relationship. Anger isn’t undone through venting; anger is undone by love.
This is good news – that life can be different, that we can be different … that death need not have the final word because God has the final word and that final word is life. By offering love instead of hate or anger, by undoing death itself, Jesus shows a different way of life … and calls any who will to follow and do likewise.