I am speaking this week in Mississippi, in a place where Orthodoxy is thriving, but not a place where you would expect to find it. The parish (a former Presbyterian facility) has a sign with variable letters, where a changing “message” can be displayed. It reads something like, “Father Stephen Freeman speaking Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on Salvation, Heaven and Hell.” Those are indeed the topics, but the sign fits so well in the culture of Mississippi that it brought a smile to my face.
I spoke this evening on “Saving the Atonement.” I was not discussing how to fix a doctrine, but rather how to speak to a culture that increasingly doesn’t care about the Scriptures or even know them. I suggested that we are more like St. Paul in ancient Athens than St Paul in Jerusalem. The arguments that spoke well several generations back fall empty today.
And it may seem strange to think of Orthodoxy in such a context – a world that has become a stranger to the gospel encountering the Church that wrote the gospels. But that is precisely where I think we are. My experience of Orthodoxy has not been with a new way of arguing the same old things (though it is possible to force it into such a position). Rather, reading and praying the fathers has been a path back to something prior to all of the arguments.
I used passages from St. Athanasius to guide my thoughts tonight – and was struck particularly by something he said in On the Incarnation of the Word: “Man was in danger of disappearing.”
He was describing the existential position of the human race after the fall. Refusing communion with the only truly existing God, we began to fall back towards the nothing from which we were created. Either we are sustained by grace and flourish, or we increasingly cease to exist.
I can see that human life is almost always in such a danger. I have lived all of my life under the shadow of complete, planetary destruction. Mine was the first generation to live with such a possibility. The end of the world has never just been a cosmic theory. It has always been a clear and present danger. I have also lived during a time when Western culture has been rushing headlong towards a changing future that appears less “human” somehow, such that “man” in a primary sense is in danger of disappearing. C.S. Lewis described this as “men without chests” (an image that never quite made sense to me).
But these and other forms of disappearance have felt palpable and real for me. And as I age, the same disappearance becomes quite personal. I can see rather clearly a personal end that I once only imagined. It is not frightening nor morbid, but sobering and concrete. The existence which matters for me cannot be those things that once mattered to a younger man: my job, my family, my place in the community, my writing. And now I’ve learned that my ego itself is not so precious and that if something of me is to exist it is not the “me” I prize so deeply.
Crucified with Christ, a different me now lives, and if I am to live at all I must find that me and unite myself to Him, or disappear completely. Though I suspect that the finding of that “me” comes in finally disappearing. “For it does not yet appear what we shall be…”
And so I’ve been speaking on “saving the atonement,” finding a way to understand our reconciliation with God that is not the same set of arguments (wrath, debt, justice, etc.), working from the same set of tired, misused Bible verses. What has God done in order for us to not disappear? What does it mean to disappear? What would it mean that we should appear?
And to all of these things Orthodoxy bears a rich witness. And the richness of that witness is beautiful. For, as Pavel Florensky rightly wrote, “Beauty is the criterion of truth.” For the first tell-tale signs of disappearing come in the forms of ugliness. For our existence, from the beginning, came in the form of the image of God, the truly good and beautiful.
God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, who took upon Himself our ugliness that we should take upon ourselves His beauty. It is a tell-tale sign of my sinfulness that I would be satisfied (I lie) with an existence that is mere appearance – that I should merely not disappear. But God will not be satisfied (and this is the true satisfaction theory) with anything less than my appearance in beauty and truth, for to exist in anything less than beauty is to begin to disappear.
And knowing this is part of “saving” the atonement. For hearts everywhere cry for beauty even as they pursue something less. Something less always has the nature of idolatry (which is why the icons are not idols). Though the culture shifts and forgets its original roots in a Christian view of the world, man himself does not shift. He abides (God is merciful). And the disappearing man knows and fears that he is disappearing even as he rushes headlong towards it.
His knowledge and his fear are gifts from God, echoes and memories of paradise. Saving the atonement is changing idols into icons. Just as Christ the Pantokrator saved Zeus, and the Theotokos saved a thousand variations of the Mother with her child.
It is the greatest irony that God made Him to be sin who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of Christ. And richer irony that even the shape of our sin never completely obscures Christ Himself for He Himself has entered sin that He might reshape us. Strange wonder, the Atonement saving the atonement.