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    1. (P.S., Dan if you are checking these comments, I just wanted to let you know that you don’t have an option to subscribe to receive email updates for new comments. Can you try to enable that so people don’t have to manually check for new comments?)

  1. Thanks to everyone who is willing to take this 3 hour dive! I’ll write a comment here to stoke some conversation.

    Broadly, I see three perspectives. In a traditional Christian perspective, sin is big and it is bad. It combs through our nature in a big way as an explanation of why we do bad stuff, but also why even the good stuff we do is tainted because we do it for bad reasons. In this traditional approach, the analogy I’ve heard is that the fall was like jumping off a cliff — once set in motion, everything is in free fall and eventually through gravity you’ll inevitably hit your untimely demise once you hit the ground. You cannot save yourself once you’ve jumped off — you can’t fly away or avoid being crushed when you hit the ground. So you need an external party who has the power to save you. Whatever the theory one uses, this is essentially the Atonement.

    I contrast this with some varieties of Mormonism (but I wouldn’t say it’s held by all Mormons.) Here, there is this idea that the fall wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but required. As a result, this changes everything. Sin nature isn’t this huge thing systematically plaguing us. We didn’t jump off a cliff. But, perhaps we are at the base of a mountain, and we’re trying to climb it, and sometimes, we get off track, put our footing in the wrong place. We may make mistakes, and then atonement is required to some extent to help us move forward with mistakes, but really, there’s a lot more emphasis on agency and choice.

    Predictably, I see this is why lots of traditional Christians side eye Mormon theology. If the fall is like falling off a cliff, denying the reality of this (or telling a rather different story about growth and progression) seems irresponsible.

    But then there’s a third broad perspective. For many formerly religious folks (especially former Mormons, but it’s common with a lot of vocal atheists and agnostics I think), sin is a problem invented by religion to sell the solution that it wants to sell. This isn’t to say that atheists and agnostics think there’s no such thing as immorality, but to the contrary, they would say that religious morality is arbitrary, misses the mark, and produces so much guilt and shame for harmless things, and that therefore, sin/atonement is not a valuable way of ordering morality.

    Each side attempts to recognize flaws in the others, but each side also presents different ideas about human motivation and psychology.

    And so, I’m just wondering — for you personally, what does sin mean? What does Atonement mean? How do you think it explains yourself psychologically, if you find a particular model reasonable? Or, if you don’t like the concepts, what do you think the flaws are?

    This has been a long intro, but in this podcast we dive into a lot of ideas.

    I will say I have ONE huge regret — we really didn’t have someone to represent traditional Christian theology, so that concept gets mostly beaten up without much of a defense. (I made some feeble attempts, but they were feeble.) So, I really would like to hear as well from traditional Christian friends about what appeals to you psychologically about your theology. (I’m more interested in the subjective aspect of it. So I’m not necessarily interested in a debate over what is more historically true or about proving out the logic or any particular system).

    When you listen to these podcasts, you’ll hear us discuss different models or theories of the atonement and how satisfying they feel in terms of giving human purpose and a “solution” to some “problem”. But I think the thing that’s bothering me — my regret about not having anyone represent traditional Christian theology — is that I don’t think the distinction between “traditional” and “not traditional” is any particular theory of atonement. That is, it seems you can have a traditionalist Christian who nevertheless believes in, say, the moral influence theory.

    I think the divide gets more into how bad sin is. I think there is a “So, now what” for every Christian that involves a change of heart and a change of behavior. So, I think that any discussion that pits it as if one theory has that and other theories don’t is not working right. But for traditional Christians, there is the sense, per my metaphor, that you have to be saved from the gravity of jumping off the cliff *first*.

    So then…I think that what is more core to the disagreement is how deeply the change of heart must be (because of how off the mark human nature is), etc., And I also think that because all of us on the panel mostly don’t buy into the traditionalist God, it was very difficult to try to present the case for that God. But obviously, traditional believers don’t think that their theology makes their God into a monster…

    1. I guess sin, in my understanding now, doesn’t have to do with outward acts or behavior. Because ANYTHING could be deemed a ‘sin’ if this is the case because I can create a law that forbids whatever I want. So in that sense, that kind of sin, is relative to the laws created. This is why the apostle Paul tells us that the wages of sin are death. And this is why ‘the laws and the prophets’ hang on these tw0 commandments. The laws created by man (often ascribed to God, but still created by man), create sin.

      So if I redefine sin, it is simply missing the mark, it is a state of misunderstanding or a state of a mind that thinks in black or white, binary ways. The opposite of sin therefore, is NOT thinking in black vs white, but accepting all that exists, or a state of grace.

      And for this reason, it takes off the table, any things we associate with sin, like, word of wisdom issues, sexuality issues, civil law issues, sabbath day observance issues, and on and on. These behaviors MIGHT change, once our mind no longer thinks in black or white terms. But these things MAY NOT change either. I might still drink a cup of coffee, which according to Mormonism, is a sin. But remove the W of Wisdom, and, is it still a sin?

      1. Jared,

        While I definitely see the argument that a lot of what we typically see talked about as sin seems arbitrary and man-made, aren’t there things that are Just Wrong? And can’t some of these things be “Outward Acts”?

    2. Andrew,

      As I listen to the conversation between you and Dan after I left, I empathize with your regret. It’s obviously a very big topic.

      One thing that I have observed: each person’s path is different. Why do some people resonate with atonement as we have described and others don’t? A different path. It doesn’t mean that some people are “elect” and others not; in my impression, it’s more where someone feels called.

      It’s painfully clear to me that my path and opinions aren’t for everyone. Sometimes I wonder if they’re for anyone. But does make one path more valid than another?

      I remember in the 90s engaging on alt/soc.religion.mormon, that there was a very calvinist participant always engaging with us mormons. For most of us, this guy seemed like a troll, but in reality, he was as sincere as anyone can be. I learned a lot from him in engaging with him. I can sincerely say that at some point, I realized that his calvinist path works for him very well, and brings him to a better place. For me, however, I cannot accept a god that elects some and leaves others as totally depraved. Life is not so simple for me. So for me, calvinism is not my path — it doesn’t resonate — it doesn’t bring me to god.

      As for whether free will versus determinism is valid — Dan and I said we tend toward free will; but there is something important that can/should be explained. Personally, i recognize that free will operates within our world, allowing us to make choices that can lead to positive or negative outcomes. But I do not embrace free will as a means to solve the theodicy — the problem of evil.

      As I see it, the problem of evil poses a fundamental, perhaps even fatal problem to the prevailing definition of God (“gawd”). I do not accept the idea that free will gives a pass to an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God who somehow allows evil to happen to those who have made no choice. A tsunami, bone cancer, I don’t know — so many things “God” could solve, but somehow doesn’t. The prevailing definition of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good god who allowed the holocaust, slavery, racism, and so much evil, drives me to hard atheism: The existence of God as defined in creeds and in our current correlated orthodoxy cannot exist, for he is a logical impossibility.

      To me, well did Joseph Smith condemn the creeds as an abomination. For the very basis of the creeds was to define God as logically impossible. That said, I embrace trinity as a valid theological concept from a figurative/symbolic point of view, to recognize our own divine nature (God the Father), the LIght of Christ, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as our constant companion. From a symbolic, and even psychological point of view, trinity makes sense to me. But that’s not the topic.

      The creeds, following Plato and Plotinus, defined God as the platonic Form of the Good. The idea of “fallen mankind” plays right into this concept that an eternal, perfect, god cannot abide the presence of imperfect beings, thus creates this world as a cave in which we unenlightened souls may reside. A few realize the illusion, but most do not. These few will return to the form of the Good and become heavenly beings.

      We don’t have to believe this. The ontological structure of neoplatonism leads to a god who creates evil. Or, as the Gnostics believed, that a evil demiurge created this world as a torture chamber and through our gnosis/secret knowledge of the light outside the cave, we can be enlightened, saved, and return to the true god.

      Mormonism proposes a very different ontology, yet never quite develops it, leaving us with an absurdly inconsistent definition of god. Once we embrace the speculative theology that “as man is god once was”, then we realize that god *progressed* to the status of being god — whatever that means; and I don’t think mormonism defines what that means at all. Yet because it is undefined, then alternative ontologies are possible: such as process theology or daoist ontology. Yet for chapel mormons, such ideas are so foreign, they cannot embrace them, we cannot teach them. Orson Pratt speculated toward a daoist ontology, but then distinctly literalized it in terms of the physicality of individual gods. Brigham Young totally literalized it in Adam God. Yet all these are trying to solve what Joseph Smith introduced in King Follett, but without any coherent ontological framework.

      Process Theology provides a coherent ontological framework — about which Dan knows much much more than me. I accept that, and yet, I respect the ideas that Whitehead laid out. My perspective is daoist: that the Way is the principle of ultimate concern, and any god is subordinate to the Way. Prior to my embracing a daoist ontology, I framed a personal theology quite similar to process theology as i understood it at the time. In both cases, whether process or daoist ontology, a short response does no justice to the depth of these ideas. Suffice it to say that there are other solutions to evil, to atonement, provided we set aside the creedal definition of god (“Gawd”).

      So back to your question. Can anyone have a change of heart? Yes, I believe that anyone, everyone can. But what it looks like is extraordinarily different from person to person, from faith to faith, from culture to culture. That said, there are some diseases of the ego that cannot be cured. And while I do feel the call to compassion to anyone, there are just some that I’m going to love from a distance…perhaps a very large distance.

      1. Mark,

        Thanks for checking out the rest of the podcast. haha, I didn’t intend to talk so much after you left, but I guess we did.

        One thing that I have observed: each person’s path is different. Why do some people resonate with atonement as we have described and others don’t? A different path. It doesn’t mean that some people are “elect” and others not; in my impression, it’s more where someone feels called.

        It’s painfully clear to me that my path and opinions aren’t for everyone. Sometimes I wonder if they’re for anyone. But does make one path more valid than another?

        The basic issue is that traditionalists do think there is one path that is universal. So, I get that you and Dan don’t agree, but that’s the thing: lots of people do. They don’t just think their path is their own individually, but that the goal is to try to find the “right” path, where rightness is objective and independent of subjectivity.

        Let me try to address this indirectly by addressing some other things you talked about:

        So to me, the major benefit of “gawd” is a metaphysical argument, rather than primarily a moral point. It is that “gawd” is a force with the right qualities to explain the existence of the universe. (I’m devil’s advocating hard now, but) I think that there’s something to say about questioning how contingent material beings in a contingent material universe could come to be. “Gawd” is the logical response for that (with all the Greek philosophical trappings that adds to it). So, I see the “Gawd” concept as being a philosophical “plug figure” — that is, to explain a contingent material universe that seems to have begun rather than existing eternally, you need some being with certain qualities, and that’s “Gawd”. The problem is this sort of Gawd doesn’t mesh well with the moral traits of our universe. If Gawd has the sorts of traits to be logically necessary, etc., then the problem of evil comes into play and the traditionalist answer doesn’t seem very satisfying.

        Mormonism’s God avoids those sorts of criticism, but that’s also because it doesn’t have the necessary traits. But by removing these necessary traits, we also fail to address the philosophical issues that people were trying to address — why anything is even here at all. I think Mormons just don’t think critically enough about metaphysics, but to the extent that Mormons do, Mormonism rejects non-eternal universe that therefore necessitates the need for a “necessary” creator. But then there’s logical questions on that, as well as the empirical question that it seems that our universe did have a beginning. So, instead of the Gawd of the creeds being a logical impossibility, I think Gawd has a lot better logical case metaphysically, but requires a very different moral system to work out that way.

        I think that we are still presenting a very negative case for the traditionalist approach even in terms of morality, even though we don’t agree with it. That’s what gets me. Even though the traditionalist approach doesn’t appeal to us, this doesn’t explain why it appeals to MOST religious folks (thinking about most Christians, most Muslims, etc., where the traditional notion of “Gawd” definitely is the dominant.) The explanations we had discussed on podcast (and now, off in these comments) do not seem satisfying.

        1. Andrew,

          Please help me here.

          You use the term “does not seem satisfying” twice in the above reply.

          In the first case, I agree with you, the traditionalist answers to the problem of evil do not satisfy me either, whether they be the free-will explanation or the Calvinist concept of limited atonement to the elect.

          In your last line, I’m puzzled what you mean, “The explanations we had discussed on podcast (and now, off in these comments) do not seem satisfying.” What is lacking? What are we trying to satisfy here, but aren’t?

          I think we discussed how the atonement can address our personal and corporate sin, not in the way that excuses it, justifies it, or explains sin, per se, but rather, how atonement motivates us to act upon sin by mending the relational fabric that touches us, either our relationship with ourselves, our relationship with god, and most especially, our relationship with others and the world as we interact with it.

          I don’t have an explanation for why sin happens. I probably am more “daoist” in my orientation, and the answer in that framework is pretty much: poop (sin) happens. We didn’t discuss this, but in my view, errors and mutations are the natural way that things evolve; such that “sin” represents the necessary counterpoint to achieve progress and evolution. We don’t learn without a healthy understanding and handling of mistakes, and we don’t progress unless we have a healthy understanding and handling of sin.

          Yet not all evil is due to sin. other poop happens, such as tsunamis or just random acts of destruction. No Jew did enough sin to justify the holocaust, and no African suffered enough to justify slavery. No amount of free will can relinquish Gawd’s culpability in these matters, and to suggest that Gawd predestines people to their conditions is to make Gawd a monster.

          Why do traditional approaches appeal to MOST religious folks? Yeah, because these approaches seem to explain that poop happens for a reason, and that in the eternal perspective, justice will have its due.

          But I can only guess what you meant here — so please help me — what do you find not satisfying?

          Thanks, my friend — this is really getting me thinking….

          1. In the first case, I agree with you, the traditionalist answers to the problem of evil do not satisfy me either, whether they be the free-will explanation or the Calvinist concept of limited atonement to the elect.

            In your last line, I’m puzzled what you mean, “The explanations we had discussed on podcast (and now, off in these comments) do not seem satisfying.” What is lacking? What are we trying to satisfy here, but aren’t?

            I think these are connected. That is to say, the traditionalist answers do not satisfy *us*, but they obviously satisfy *most people*. So, trying to point out flaws in the traditionalist answers seems like we are more likely tearing down a strawman rather than actually addressing the critical core aspect that is appealing to traditionalists.

            It’s kinda like if/when exmormons (or exbelievers of any religion) come up with overly reductive answers for why the believers still believe — these answers are too easy, so they aren’t really great for explaining why the religion(s) still persists in the way that it does.

            I will say that in other conversations online about the Atonement (totally unrelated to this one), there are things mentioned that just don’t fit into the framework of what we talked about. Here’s an example of some things people said in a completely different discussion:

            Personal experience: I have suffered from migraines since I was 10 or 11 years old. I could never function when I had a migraine — if I got one during work, I’d leave and go home and consume copious amounts of Dr. Pepper and Excedrin (or, perhaps, Ibuprofen).

            Then, one day, I was walking with my son, when he was only a few months old, in the stroller. We were about 1/2 a mile from home when I suddenly got an “aura”. I decided to say a prayer (silently to myself), something to the effect of “Lord, I don’t know how to deal with migraines. Please help me deal with migraines”. And, something “clicked” in my mind. It was like I’d “won” over the migraine, finally. The pain hit after the aura, but I was at peace and knew that I could handle it now. Migraines have been annoying since then, but they no longer take me out for a whole day like they used to.

            So, this sort of story about “using” the Atonement is entirely orthogonal to anything about moral influence. It doesn’t necessarily speak to any of the theories, BUT it does suggest something metaphysical (although we could then talk about the problems of interventionist deities…e.g., what about people whose prayers are not answered?) And yet, pointing out those flaws doesn’t account that this IS this person’s experience of the Atonement.

          2. Andrew,

            I am still puzzled. Is the purpose of atonement — the net effect — that god somehow answers prayer as a result of the atonement?

            A person has a tendency toward migraine headaches, and at some point prays that he might be relieved of the symptoms, and voila! he finds a way to be relieved.

            Ok. I accept the story. It’s pretty much similar to what we hear with homeopathic medicine as well. The power of belief heals people. but this has nothing to do with whether there is an actual god out there that healed the migraine, or whether is a single molecule of pathogen in the homeopathic medicine after it has been diluted to 1 part in 10 to the 30th power.

            I think that the late R.C. Sproul represents the Calvinist position well. To him, God is a sovereign who chooses who is elect and who is not, and for purposes we do not understand. Our role in this is to either worship god, if we are elect, or to simply be part of the discardable noise if we aren’t; for according to Sproul, “god abhors the wicked”. I’m not sure if I care if many people adopt such a belief: I find such belief reprehensible.

            I have found my way into my Bishop’s office for suggesting that “in the beginning, man created god in his own image, in the image of man created he him, father and son created he them.” It was too bad that the mormon apologist who quoted me in the Strengthening Church Members Committee report neglected to quote what I said thereafter: that this is to say that mankind creates a definition of god that derives from a very limited human understanding.

            Somehow, the vast majority of Christian belief regarding god (Gawd) derives from the platonic Form of the Good, and that we are fallen creatures within a flawed, depraved world. This majority opinion of what motivated Christ’s atonement is everywhere: but does the majority opinion make it right? There is a tendency toward a “tyranny of the majority” in any culture — and we are seeing it today; but we are under no constraint to buy into such.

            I remain puzzled by what is dissatisfying about the idea that if we can step back from Gawd, what is dissatisfying about our discussion of Atonement? Is it simply the point that to step back from an omni-Gawd isn’t a position many are willing to take?

          3. Andrew,

            More ponderings and confusion — and the inability, on this medium, to edit my prior message…

            As we have bounced back and forth previously on this topic: to reject the idea of “Gawd” — the all powerful, all knowing, all benevolent divine being who allows evil, the unchanging Gawd from everlasting to everlasting who somehow was once like man and is now god, the Gawd who is everywhere and manifest in all things, yet is inseparably incorporeal and thus cannot dwell in our hearts — To reject this being, does that mean we have to reject “god”?

            This gets to the very core of atonement in my mind. A sovereign Gawd, who is flawless, omni-whatever, all those things…. Maybe this being is sufficiently narcissistic so as to require justice and purity to approach His presence. So to those who believe in the Sovereignty of Gawd as a necessary, uncontingent being and all else is contingent…yeah — to *satisfy* such a being, if such is indeed possible, we would the sacrifice of someone infinite.

            But it utterly doesn’t work. At the end of the day, such a Gawd is a pathological narcissist, and the religions that espouse Him (invariably male), are simply promulgating institutional narcissism. The belief in such a Gawd is pathological, for it prevents us from embracing truth as it is evidently manifest in creation. And in denying truth, we can embrace patently bigoted ideas: racism, sexism, elitism in all of its forms, because we have embraced a god who somehow is justified in totally condemning those who don’t conform to the Ideal: the white, male, heteronormative Form of the Good.

            If I am in a minority for saying that the Gawd emperor has no clothes, then so be it.

            In contrast, whether by the science of evolution, process theology, or some other means, we come to realize that divinity is found not in the ideal other, but in the emergence of the Good, then we can seek to take responsibility for what is our part in becoming “One”, that is to say, integral and whole, rather than divided and elitist/partial. In my Way of thinking, there is an eternal set of ‘laws’, nature, but this does not easily turn into a natural basis of moral law. Instead, the Way is manifest in creation, but is not defined by creation; such that our understanding of divinity — and in this I mean the cosmic sense of the Way, the Truth, and the Life — is necessarily contingent on our observation of the effect of the Way on things as they are and as they change.

            This is fundamentally relational: our existence — our being here and now (“dasein” heidegger, “Being there”) — is entirely dependent upon the relationship of the increasing complexity of the relationship of the other being-ness that makes up who we are. A “thing”, as it is in reality, is not as much a creation, but rather, an emergent set of relationships: the whole of thingy-ness is made up of parts working together in relationship to make up the whole. As we dig deeper within ourselves, we find that we are made up of civilizations of other beings, more than half of which do not share our DNA, but many do — and in fact, each cell in our human makeup includes the entire essence of self — of the whole — yet within a defined role, for now, in a specific part of me.

            But why do we stop at the body? We ourselves are not independent of our environment, but integrally part of everything around us — such that in the same way our cells, and the companion bacteria, make up the whole of who we are, we also, in our unity and diversity, make up the whole of all that is. Wen Tzu stated, “The space between heaven and earth is the body of a single being.”

            When we view being in this Way, we don’t see a Sovereign as a necessary part of what is, of “dasein”. Sure, there are structures that tend toward hierarchy, but such structures are as often man-made as anything. Even Simba, the lion, at the top of the food chain, ultimately becomes food for the bottom of the food chain. The Way is found in all of it, without hierarchy, and without Gawd.

            Does this mean that there is no god? no atonement? No! It means that god emerges from atonement, and atonement is the relationship glue that brings all what is into being. “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there I AM in their midst.” And what is that name? YHWH. Being. Dasein. The identity — ontology — of god is being itself; and life/being emerges from our unity with the Way. The *process* of becoming one is found in the *process of becoming* — and this is what atonement is for me.

          4. Mark,

            haha, we ran out of comment nestings, but…

            I am still puzzled. Is the purpose of atonement — the net effect — that god somehow answers prayer as a result of the atonement?

            It seems to me that people view the world as being full of all sorts of ills, and the Atonement is seen as trying to provide a balm, comfort, strength, whatever, for all of these things.

            While we can be incredulous of particular stories, it seems to me that *more* Christians view the Atonement as covering these sorts of things than do not.

            I am not saying — as you get at later in your comment — that majority opinion makes something right. But I also think that there’s something problematic by dismissing entire generations of thinkers and theologians who all thought there was something to this idea. There’s something problematic with dismissing entire generations of people in their experiences who all experience something to this idea.

            I remain puzzled by what is dissatisfying about the idea that if we can step back from Gawd, what is dissatisfying about our discussion of Atonement? Is it simply the point that to step back from an omni-Gawd isn’t a position many are willing to take?

            By stepping away from Gawd, we miss crucial parts of what traditional believers get from Atonement. So, rather than resurrecting Atonement, we create something very different that isn’t going to actually appeal to many. It’s not just that stepping away from an omni-God isn’t a position many are willing to take — it’s the theological hubris of the act.

            To reject [Gawd], does that mean we have to reject “god”?

            To traditionalists, the answer is resoundingly, “Yes”. Again, this doesn’t *necessarily* mean that they are right. Just that I think it’s prudent to understand WHY that is the case. Why it’s seen as so heretical and why Gawd is orthodox. It seems our explanation is just something of, “People want a dictator to tell them how to think and feel” and that’s not very charitable.

            Maybe this being is sufficiently narcissistic so as to require justice and purity to approach His presence. So to those who believe in the Sovereignty of Gawd as a necessary, uncontingent being and all else is contingent…yeah — to *satisfy* such a being, if such is indeed possible, we would the sacrifice of someone infinite.

            But this is exactly my issue — this explanation of “narcissism” is precisely disconnected with how traditionalist believers would actually see their God. So, if the only thing we can say about traditionalist models is that it is narcissist; it is pathological, etc., then I’m 100000% sure that we are attacking a strawman.

            You wanna talk about theologies that promulgate racism, sexism, homophobia? Talk about the contingent Mormon God who is literally descended from a man and who has a heavenly wife and who has a body (and therefore could have sex organs and a race.) I’m not saying that traditionalist Christians in practice are necessarily better at avoiding these horrible beliefs, BUT I can recognize that an immaterial God sidesteps the issue of gender — God’s gender is metaphorical, not literal (although the incarnation in Jesus adds a wrinkle). But in Mormonism, this is built in. No wonder Mormons continue to struggle with heteronormativity and racism! Mormonism’s God is material, so by bringing God to our level, OF COURSE people will speculate about gender and sexuality.

            You talk about God being Being Itself. This requires God to be immaterial. If God is *a* man (or three men, or two men and a spirit), then you can’t go there. *That’s* Mormonism’s big logical issue. It can’t take on the lofty philosophical concepts of Being and whatnot, because material contingent being*s* (plural) are not Being Itself.

          5. Andrew,

            You said, “You talk about God being Being Itself. This requires God to be immaterial.

            Actually, no. Tillich and many liberal Christian theologians go there, but I do not. Like I said, my ontology derives from daoism, not from Christianity. To me, god is a being who is One with the Way, and Gawd does not exist because he is a logical impossibility.

            There is more than just a semantic distinction here: What Tillich described as the Ground of Being may seem quite a bit like the Way, but we cannot avoid the influence of the Form of the Good in any aspect of Christianity. Gawd as an immaterial essence (oussia) of being still possesses consciousness, will, personhood. The Way does not. In fact the Way is not a “being” any more than gravity is a “being”. Yet without gravity, being may not be possible in this universe. Gravity does not have will, gravity is not conscious, gravity is not a person.

            We say “God is Love”. Yet Love is not a person, has no consciousness, cannot express will. Is it purely a metaphor?

            So, then, what is god? or a god? Particularly in a mormon context, a god and Gawd are too often conflated, or deeply literalized. This creates a confusion, certainly, and while we may say that the trinity is coherent and mormonism is not — and i agree with you here — the problem is that in the mormon incoherent spectrum, I see a possibility of solving theodicy and a number of problems with Gawd.

            As I have said previously, in my view, “god is a being who is one with the Way”. Thus, god no longer is necessarily supernatural, nor is god Gawd in the sense of being a non-contingent being. God is very much contingent on being in harmony with the Way.

            The Way, not Gawd, is the ultimate concern.

            But sure, this doesn’t relate to Christianity, because Gawd is the ultimate concern in Christianity.

            But this is where, in my humble opinion, the majority — the vast majority so as to be nearly a consensus — goes awry.

            The moment we propose that there is a supernatural being who is beyond our comprehension, yet we must defer to that being’s authority without question or doubt, then we are propping up an inherent narcissism. By very definition: the Gawd we have created is entirely narcissistic, saving only those he deems as “his”, and rejects all others to an interminable hell. He wants absolute obedience and worship so as to be worthy of his grace, which he selectively doles out according to his will and pleasure.

            If this is Gawd’s love, then Gawd’s love is abusive.

            If this is what atonement means, to be reconciled to this narcissist, then we are enabling an abusive system.

            And this same Gawd provides the pattern for abusive, narcissistic kings and presidents.

            No, Andrew, I don’t think this is benign. I think our entire system of adulation towards a narcissistic Gawd is the root of society’s evils. It is the pattern of tyranny, and works against all progress and liberty.

            Yeah, I feel very strongly about it.

          6. Mark,

            Actually, no. Tillich and many liberal Christian theologians go there, but I do not. Like I said, my ontology derives from daoism, not from Christianity. To me, god is a being who is One with the Way, and Gawd does not exist because he is a logical impossibility.

            I’d modify my point to recognize — as you do here — that your ontology isn’t Christian. Like…doesn’t that tell you anything??? I’d go further to say that it’s not just Tillich and many liberal Christians — rather, God’s immateriality has been a critical part of Christian orthodoxy (in the small-o sense, not just the Orthodox church) for millennia. So, when you knock Gawd, essentially, you’re saying, “Christian ontology is a logical impossibility.”

            And again, I don’t necessarily expect Mormons (or you) to buy into orthodox theology. But dismissing two millennia of orthodox Christian philosophy as a “logical impossibility” seems just too hubristic of a move. My discomfort is the fact that I cannot be so sure that I’m smarter or that I’ve somehow got things more figured out than *all* of the orthodox thinkers of Christianity’s past. (Not saying I’m convinced by their arguments either…just that it doesn’t feel right to me to dismiss them all as having made an obvious mistake.)

            I get the distinction you’re trying to make in your own ontology — I won’t comment much there except to say that it is of course heretical. This probably doesn’t bother you, but the point I’m trying to ultimately express is that your jettisoning of certain concepts being heretical means that you’re missing fundamental parts of what billions of Christians see as integral aspects of Christianity. That is, your failure to acknowledge the aspects of Gawd (at best), or your rejection of these aspects as logically impossible, is a failure to acknowledge Christianity itself. In some sense, you acknowledge this by saying you have a Daoist ontology. But I’m saying: then how the hell can we even pretend to understand how the Atonement works in Christian lives? How can we even claim to have that conversation?

            And I also get your comments about differentiating Gawd and Mormonism’s God, and then situating Mormonism’s God within your own Daoist ontology, because I agree that Mormonism *also* is heretical and therefore isn’t talking about Gawd (and therefore not talking about Christianity.) I agree that Mormonism’s god can entirely fit your definition of “a being who isk one with the way” — and also note that this very compatibility is one of the primary reasons why orthodox Christians don’t see Mormons as Christian in the first place. So, it’s not that I don’t understand what you’re trying to say. Rather, I’m saying that in talking about your differences of theology, you’re only highlighting how much you’re talking about something very different than Christianity. Which then makes it extremely problematic when we’re trying to resurrect the Atonement. AND ALSO, I’d point out that the confusion of Mormonism’s ontology and God, how it seems to borrow concepts from “Gawd”, means that my critiques above also partially apply to Mormonism. That is, Mormons partially want Gawd too. Mormons partially rely upon Gawd theology too!

            But I want to get at this:

            We say “God is Love”. Yet Love is not a person, has no consciousness, cannot express will. Is it purely a metaphor?

            NO. The Orthodox Christian message is that Love is *precisely* personal (tri-personal, even!), conscious, and possesses will. This isn’t a metaphor. (In contrast; God’s gender is a metaphor. And yet, Mormonism reverses both of these) That being said, maybe for liberal Christians, it’s more metaphorical. But for conservative/orthodox Christians, that’s not so.

            Reading your comments made me think something that I think is at the core of your disagreement. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that ultimately, you have a problem with God being equivalent to his attributes (as is the case in Christianity). If this is the case, then (as you have noted too), God is the ultimate concern, God is Love, etc., And yet, for you, this seems to imply narcissism, abusive relationality, etc., It seems to me that you separate God from the Way as a way of trying to resolve this. Would you agree with that so far?

            But my issue is that the problem doesn’t escape if God is separate from the Ultimate Concern. You’re just exporting the things you don’t like onto an impersonal universe. (which, if you think about it, is more of an atheist move than anything.)

            Really, if we have a problem with laws, if you have a problem with commandments, if you have a problem with the Way, then these problems persist regardless of if the Way is separate from God or identified with God.

            If you don’t have a problem with the Way as an impersonal force (or with God as a being at one with the Way), then I don’t see why there would be a problem if you established that same system, but equated God with the Way.

          7. Andrew,

            There is so much here to discuss.

            I think you’re capturing most of what I’m saying, and responding with some very thoughtful questions/challenges. I hope I’m giving fair response to your challenging replies.

            Let me start by saying that I do reject Gawd as defined in Christianity, not only because of my Mormonism, or my perspective on Daoism, but because the orthodox definition of God is both a logical impossibility as well as toxic to human progress. As for whether this is hubris, I’ll leave that to a value judgment you can hold, but this is not a position that I casually came up with — but rather, very much how I see the history of Christianity, and particularly, how orthodoxy is used today to regress to a nostalgic “Ideal” that never existed, whether it be the concept of a family, the ideal of purity in our purity culture, or the total resistance to scientific education. Indeed, orthodox christianity has been the justification for much of what I see as the ills of the West.

            And the punitive model of Atonement is at the heart of this discussion.

            To be fair, we need to make sure we agree on what is the orthodox Christian god, whom we have been referring to as “Gawd”, based upon how the very pronunciation of the word invokes a certain gravitas. Gawd has attributes:

            1. The “Omni”s: Gawd is:
            a. Omnipotent – all powerful – having all power that can be had.
            b. Omniscient – all knowing – has all knowledge, past, present, and future.
            c. Omnibenevolent – all good – is entirely loving, merciful and just.

            2. Gawd is a *being*: Gawd is
            a. conscious – has awareness of all that is
            b. intentional – has will
            c. personal – is a person who can be approached in prayer and respond in person

            3. Gawd is unchanging from everlasting to everlasting. Gawd is
            a. Outside of creation. Gawd is not a creature, but the creator of all that is.
            b. Has always been Gawd and ever shall be Gawd, perfect and whole without progression
            c. Cannot change

            I’m happy to be corrected on any aspect of the above — I have no intention of creating a strawman of the Christian definition of God, and my/our use of “Gawd” is simply to refer to “the orthodox definition of God”.

            My position is that the above definition is both logically impossible and toxic to human progress, and that the very definition of atonement as penal substitution drives behavior and policies that harm relationality.

            The logical impossibility of Gawd is based upon three principles:
            1. The theodicy. The existence of random evil denies the Omni attributes of Gawd. I find no satisfactory answer to the theodicy. It is a paradox that is as logically unsolvable as the statement “I am lying”.

            2. Complexity/Chaos. An omniscient Gawd has sufficient mental processing and memory to record all historical events from the smallest subatomic particle to the entire universe, and can accurately predict exactly what will happen in the future. This means that the data and processing power of Gawd’s mind would exceed the infinity of the universe itself.

            But even if Gawd’s mind is somehow that capacious, any random element might have catastrophic effect in time: the idea of a butterfly flapping it’s wings in Brazil ultimately can cause a tornado in Texas. The predictability of the effect of randomness makes omniscience logically impossible. Is Shroedinger’s Cat dead or alive? Not even Gawd knows, because no-one CAN know.

            3. Plato’s ideal versus emergence/evolution. Gawd is based upon Plato’s Ideal — the Form of the Good, an a-priori, self-existent being outside of creation who creates in the material world that which is inferior/fallen from this ideal. Whatever attribute Gawd has, perfection, love, mercy, justice… all represent the ideal form of that attribute. Gawd is perfection, and the creation is subordinate and necessarily inferior to the Ideal.

            Penal Substitutionary Atonement becomes necessary, because “Sin” — the very inferiority of this World — prevents us from being Ideal.

            The logical problem here is that a proposition that the creature cannot be greater than the creator. Yet every aspect of this world — or more specifically, the Way this world operates — the attributes that give it life, depend upon exactly the opposite proposition: that life is emergent/evolutionary and not a bad copy of the ideal. Can a being create a more intelligent being than itself? The orthodox answer is “no” but the evidence is distinctly YES. In natural selection, intelligence, awareness, consciousness, intention, even “love” as we know it are emergent qualities, not a-priori ideals.

            The toxicity of the orthodox Gawd thus arises from the idea that the Ideal Gawd is pure and perfect, and any human progress or innovation that departs from the orthodox definition of Gawd is both heresy and to be burned at the stake. Any deviation from the Ideal as defined by orthodoxy is thus “Sin”, even if such deviation is progress.

            If I say that Man was created in the Image of Gawd, and thus the Ideal Form of the Good is Male and White, Pure, etc., then what does this say about women, non-whites, etc.? We are “less than Ideal”. We are fallen. We are in Sin. Sure, you can say that gender and race are metaphorical vis-a-vis God’s orthodoxy, and of course, Mormonism literalizes this. But my point isn’t that we CAN find metaphor in the definition of Gawd, it is that the definition encourages conservativism and resists any innovation or progress, whether it be in politics or religion.

            The idea that Gawd is Omni and intentional, personal and aware, has led people for two thousand years to consider that the artifacts of Gawd’s word, whether Bible or Priesthood, are somehow intentional and correct: infallible and inerrant. For, if Gawd is Ideal/Perfect and intentional, then how could he provide an uncertain sound to the trumpet? Thus, in conservative orthodoxy, by very definition, the Word is Gawd’s Word/Logos and thus cannot be wrong. If the Word condones slavery, then Gawd condones slavery. If the Word, according to Jeff Sessions, requires obedience to Government Laws, then Gawd requires obedience to laws including separation of children at borders. If Gawd is an all-powerful King, and Gawd ordains people to be Kings, then democratically-elected leaders can be set aside in favor of a King or President who embodies Gawd’s laws by divine right.

            And to break any law under such a divinely appointed Order, is to merit extreme punishment. The very notion of Penal Substitutionary Atonement encourages such brutality in the name of Gawd. Mankind, totally depraved, women, totally evil by virtue of partaking of the forbidden fruit, blacks condemned to slavery because of the acts of Cain (and this didn’t originate in Mormonism, but rather as an apologia for slavery)… The toxicity of Gawd and Penal Substitutionary Atonement are highly evident.

            So, yeah. I reject Gawd. Entirely. Completely. And yes, I do think that from a Mormon perspective, the LDS church has created a concept of Gawd that incorporates Joseph and Brigham’s theological speculations that make the Mormon Gawd even more logically impossible. But please do not think that I reject the Christian Gawd because I confuse it with the mormon Gawd. I reject both, independently, for a lot of reasons.

            The irony here, I note, is that both of us are pretty much atheist with respect to Gawd. I think you see merit in the orthodox Gawd, but I do not. Therein lies the difference. Am I wrong in this? Happy to be corrected here. The reason I point this out is that this discussion is not specifically about what is or is not the orthodox Gawd, but rather, how we can make Atonement a workable premise for our listeners and audience, rather than a toxic source of guilt, shame, and punishment. Our goal is to resurrect the atonement from this awful hell of penal substitution — am I correct here? I really don’t want to presume that you agree, but I think you do? maybe a little?

            At the core, here, is a divergence in ontological premise. You correctly note that I place an impersonal Way as the ontological Ultimate Concern. The Way is not in any way Gawd, or even a god — again you noticed that. I do believe that Tillich and others more or less have defined Gawd as equivalent to the Way — a ground of being, but have not been clear about intention, consciousness, and personhood of Gawd-as-ground-of-being. I think they equivocate in their systematic theology.

            God, in liberal theology, has become a term of art. If I defined God (and I”m dropping Gawd here intentionally, because i believe that Tillich and others are heretical to orthodoxy in material ways) as being more-or-less the same as the Way, then God becomes less logically impossible and more reasonable — even if there are limits to such reason. But Tillich, Whitehead, and others all had to live within the Christian orthodoxy; thus i do not think they were able to fully divorce Gawd from what they were defining as God. In spite of this context of orthodoxy, I do believe that Tillich and Whitehead step back from literalized orthodoxy, and can point to ideas we can work on to discuss a more relevant model of atonement, based upon a more tangibly real definition of what is of Ultimate Concern, who is God, and why that matters.

            Let me ask a question here – a choice between two propositions.

            Who are we? Are we:

            a. Fallen, created beings who through grace and repentance can return to the Ideal who is God?
            b. Emergent beings who are progressing to become God?

            This raises a question as to who is God. Is god:

            a. A self-existent, immaterial, personal, intentional, conscious being who is all-powerful, all knowing, and all good, unchanging from everlasting to everlasting?
            b. An emergent being who has progressed to become god?

            In orthodoxy, such questions are not possible, or at least they become absurd. You correctly note that I have separated Way from God in the ontology of God which of course diverges from orthodoxy. To me, it’s the only logical conclusion, and it is what I believe Tillich was getting at by defining God as “Ground of Being”, and how Whitehead defines his process theology. Since I am no expert like Dan is on this, I am happy to be corrected. I don’t think either of them actually did separate Gawd from the impersonal ground of being, because “personhood” is an orthodox attribute of Gawd, and no-one would dare suggest that Gawd is not personal.

            But the questions I lay out above are materially important to resurrecting atonement. When we embrace the idea that we are [divine] emergent beings in the process of progressing toward godhood, when we embrace the idea that god or a god is an emergent (divine) being who is [perhaps] further in the process of progressing, then “atonement” is the very process itself: it’s learning from our mistakes and becoming more whole, better, progressed, more like “god”. Divinity is the very process of emergence, and atonement is the act of emerging.

            I cannot emphasize this enough: the concept of emergence cannot be reconciled with the orthodox Gawd. Orthodoxy, by very definition, rejects emergence. This is perhaps why evolution is such a problem for Christian orthodoxy: it negates the idea of a creator god who is a-priori omnipotent, omniscient, and intentionally creates this fallen world.

            So here we are, hopefully, trying to resurrect atonement by virtue of setting aside the fundamental basis of Christian (and Mormon) orthodoxy: Gawd.

            If my goal is to somehow be reconciled to an immaterial form of the Good Gawd, I’m screwed before I start. Sure, penal substitution makes sense in that model; but I’m still screwed. And in being screwed, it empowers me to screw others as well, for they are, after all, totally depraved and fallen, worthless creatures who merit punishment because they are sinful.

            However, if I view myself, others, and god, as wayfaring Friends in a journey along the Way, emergent beings in the process of becoming, then Atonement is that very process of becoming. It changes everything for me. It means that I must take risks, make mistakes, learn, and forgive, grow and evolve, emerge.

            Is this hubris?

            I hope not.

          8. Mark,

            I wouldn’t disagree with the attributes you’ve attributed to Gawd, except to point out that even to say “Gawd is a being,” you have to acknowledge that “Being” in the context of Gawd is not the same use of the term as being in the sense of anything else. This is important, because some of your criticisms rely upon this misunderstanding.

            So, getting into your criticisms:

            1) Theodicy. Your not being satisfied with any answers to theodicy doesn’t mean that Gawd is logically impossible. Again, I’m not saying necessarily that I *am* satisfied; just that there are entirely other explanations for the lack of satisfaction than “it’s logically impossible.”

            2) Complexity/chaos. This is not a problem. Because the universe is not infinite; only Gawd is. You run into this problem by thinking of Gawd in the same terms you’d apply to contingent material beings. You act as if randomness is objective and intrinsic, rather than simply apparent from our vantage point.

            3) Plato. I’m actually going to state that I think this is a place where traditional Christianity gets misunderstood. Yes, Gawd is the Ideal. BUT here’s the thing: the idea of the material world as evil is a gnostic heresy that orthodox Christians are actually *opposed*. To the contrary, the creation (with its materiality) was/is good. It is true that there is a chasm between Creature and Creator that cannot be bridged. The Creator is infinite and Creatures are contingent and finite. But to say something is limited does not necessarily imply its evilness. So, when you say:

            Penal Substitutionary Atonement becomes necessary, because “Sin” — the very inferiority of this World — prevents us from being Ideal.

            This misses the mark in several ways:

            Firstly, as we discussed on the podcast, penal substitutionary atonement is not the only orthodox atonement theory — so while it may illuminate certain concepts, this idea about “necessity” is too strong. In fact, we can say the explanation of the atonement is something more like a divine mystery where we speak in terms of analogy — but each analogy has its weaknesses.

            Secondly, the reason we can’t become Ideal with capital I is because of the creator/creature distinction. Something that is finite simply cannot be infinite. So it’s not that sin prevents us from being Ideal. (This actually will be a common critique between ideas. You say we are evolving to godhood. I agree this is anathema for orthodox Christianity, NOT because we can’t progress to try to become better, but because we cannot be uncreated, infinite, etc., It’s a categorical distinction.) However, we can talk about how sin prevents us from meeting the purposes of our creation (and again, our purpose or meaning as creatures can be DIFFERENT than Gawd’s, but that doesn’t make our purpose wretched), and then we can talk about what the different atonement models address in light of this. But if we mischaracterize what traditional Christians even see as the problem, then we aren’t going to be able to address anything but a strawman of the solutions. Again, I’m not necessarily saying traditional Christian theology is correct — just that it seems to me that it’s incredibly more likely to me that we misunderstand it than that we are speaking to fatal flaws in it.

            You’ve got a lot of stuff going on with emergence and evolution here that’s really interesting and a hard zag where I expected a zig. I would say that yes, orthodox Christianity would hold that a creator cannot exceed the creator, and that evolution cannot “evolve” a more ideal being than the creator. However, I would also say that it’s incorrect to say that evolution/natural selection must inevitably be leading away from the ideal purpose of creaturely existence. It is entirely possible to say, for example, “Evolution/natural selection are employed by Gawd, and thus part of his good creation.” It is also possible to say, however, that when sin came into the world, it affected everything — including evolutionary processes. So, again, it’s not that the material world inherently and intrinsically is sinful simply because it is different, finite, contingent. But from a traditional POV, it’s also undeniable that the world has fallen.

            So, the idea that the attributes that give the world life (all the good things you mention) are necessarily emergent is again a question of appearances — your hypothesis is just an atheistic take on things. By presuming the lack of God’s involvement, you conclude that these traits “emerge” on their own and independent of God. And, not saying you’re necessarily wrong, just that you can’t presuppose atheistic naturalism and then conclude, “Well, that’s just the Way things are so orthodox theology is logically impossible.” Again, the entire problem is we have an apparent world that we try to understand, but orthodox Christians infuse the apparent world with purpose, meaning, and direction. The “apparent” world seems random, purposeless, emergent, and chaotic. But that doesn’t mean that those things are actually inherent attributes of the world. Remember my earlier comment though: I think that the traits of Gawd were made precisely to account for the logical (and increasingly empirical) difficulties of a contingent, material universe. To reduce God to something that is emergent and evolved along with the rest of the universe means that *you no longer have a good source for where the universe came from to begin with*.

            If I say that Man was created in the Image of Gawd, and thus the Ideal Form of the Good is Male and White, Pure, etc., then what does this say about women, non-whites, etc.?

            Again, this happens because you have a bullshit Mormon anthropomorphic view of God. Gawd is not male nor white because Gawd is not material. Again, this question you have is a question for any view that would make God into another creature (like Mormonism does). I’m not disputing that orthodox Christians haven’t sinned by grafting racism, homophobia, sexism, into their theology. I’m just saying it’s a lot easier to point out those things as erroneous in an orthodox concept than in Mormonism, where we really do have to wonder about the implications of God *actually* being a man.

            But my point isn’t that we CAN find metaphor in the definition of Gawd, it is that the definition encourages conservativism and resists any innovation or progress, whether it be in politics or religion.

            No, I disagree. This is kinda like the idea of Christianity causing the “dark ages”. Which, again, this is really great if you adopt a secular/atheist narrative (ugh why do i have to be the devil’s advocate here???) but it’s not an unchallenged narrative. No, the Christian narrative is that Christians have been motivated for millennia out of a view of an orderly, divinely inspired universe to seek more information about that universe. It is only relatively recent (Enlightenment era) when scientific advance was separated from religious precepts, and it’s not entirely clear how well that’s working out for us.

            The difference is that, believing the universe has an order, there can still be limits. I’m thinking of the Jurassic park quote: “You were so preoccupied with whether or not you could, you didn’t stop to think if you should.” But Christians, because they believe in purpose and order, do think about should. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be exploration and innovation, but that you have to start with baseline principles.

            If the Word, according to Jeff Sessions, requires obedience to Government Laws, then Gawd requires obedience to laws including separation of children at borders.

            But this is a BIG IF. It’s still entirely possible (likely) that people misinterpret scripture. Whether it’s Jeff Sessions or slaveholders. You’re undercutting your own position — if Gawd is Ideal and the material world is not, then we would expect humans to continue to distort the message. Which, although I disagree w/ your thinking that the orthodox message is that materiality is inherently evil, there is something to say that the orthodox message is that God’s good creation *has* fallen and therefore we distort everything good and find ways to twist it up.

            So you say: The toxicity of Gawd and Penal Substitutionary Atonement are highly evident.

            But to me, the real answer is: the depravity of humanity to distort God’s good creation is highly evident. And why shouldn’t God be displeased about this? Like, you’re pointing to the reality of sin as this pervasive force in the world and then saying, “Well, God’s order is to blame. This only happened because when you think of Gawd in this monstrous way, then that’s what happens.” And i’m saying: no, humans mess things up no matter what.

            The irony here, I note, is that both of us are pretty much atheist with respect to Gawd. I think you see merit in the orthodox Gawd, but I do not. Therein lies the difference. Am I wrong in this? Happy to be corrected here. The reason I point this out is that this discussion is not specifically about what is or is not the orthodox Gawd, but rather, how we can make Atonement a workable premise for our listeners and audience, rather than a toxic source of guilt, shame, and punishment. Our goal is to resurrect the atonement from this awful hell of penal substitution — am I correct here? I really don’t want to presume that you agree, but I think you do? maybe a little?

            To me, I think that Atonement can be a source of guilt, shame, and punishment whether you have penal substitution or not, so exchanging theories doesn’t fix the problem. The thing is, PLENTY of Christians still find the Atonement liberating even with a penal substitutionary view — this is why I think we’re missing the mark. We’re proposing an answer that doesn’t even account for the data.

            And what I’m suggesting is that I think discussion of Atonement theories always gets back to discussion about how the world is, how we are, and how God is. That’s why we’ve been drug back to this seemingly arcane discussion about Gawd vs. God. So, I don’t think these are separate discussions.

            When I see people talking about what they get from the Atonement, continually it gets back to mystical concepts that can be explained if God is mystical, but that a low Christology (and our discussion of moral influence) cannot seem to account for. Like, there is a sense (as we even discussed on the podcast) that some people do experience brokenness, and a model of an infinite God helps them move past this. There is a sense that some people experience pain and heartache and a model of an infinite God helps them work through this. These are not areas where moral influence seems to be a perfect fit.

          9. Andrew,

            I am becoming distressed that this is starting to look like an argument over what is the Christian model of atonement. I could address your post, point by point, but what would be the point?

            I value our relationship too much to keep going down this route. I’m looking back over what I have written, and I think I have addressed my views sufficiently.

            Yet you remain dissatisfied. I’m sorry about that. I don’t know what to say. For me, the Christian models of god’s ontology, based as they are in variants of plato and neoplatonism, leave me profoundly dissatisfied, and from this perspective, I see the profound harm these models have done. That is my perspective.

            As I spent years in the East, I have seen a distinct model, where the ontology of god is subordinate to the laws of the universe. This is obviously the opposite of orthodox Christian theology and ontology, but certainly fits both science and evolution much better than the philosophical frameworks developed by Christian theologians, no matter how rigorous they may seem, and no matter how satisfying those models are to believers.

            Certainly liberal Christian thinkers have been able to transcend the limitations of a Plato’s ontological framework, but in the end, the Gawd proposition always ends up being a proposition based upon dogmatic first principles that cannot be abrogated. Even Whitehead gave an exception to God as being outside of the process of change.

            I sense that you reject what I’m trying to propose based upon the idea that it isn’t Christian, or that it is too influenced by mormonism, or that it’s simply heretic. You speak of a “low christology” throughout what I wrote, but that was never my intent: that I see atonement in terms of practical embracing of the unity of what is, does not limit it’s scope to low christology, nor does it demystify the atonement. In my impression, it does quite the opposite: I seek a mystical union through god in common with the mystical traditions through the religions: and in these mystical traditions, the use of myth and metaphor can be very powerful. But the mystic does not need to seek to promote a specific dogma as being foundational.

            I had understood, from the workup to the podcast, that you were interested in the psychological aspects of sin and atonement. I thought then, and continue to think that this may be more important than any other aspect. Yet psychology, properly embraced, must step back from dogma if it is to be effective. Where we to embrace biblical dogma as we try to understand the psyche, we might as well think that epilepsy and depression are the results of demonic possession and not treat them for what they are: medical conditions.

            At core, and I’m repeating myself, is the fundamental premise of Gawd versus god: the Gawd who is the unchanging Ideal, or the god that emerges in the process of life.

            The Gawd looks backward towards a nostalgiac ideal and views repentance as attempting to fix the broken pottery back to its pristine form; with a savior who can patch over anything with pitch (in the jewish sense of atonement) or gold (in the japanese pottery). Justice, to be served here, must have a retributive element, so as to make sure everyone is punished according to their sins. No unclean thing can enter into god’s kingdom: purity is the nature of God’s plan.

            The emergent god worldview looks forward as to what needs to happen and change based upon the condition of sin wherein we find ourselves. This is both restorative as well as reparative. Does removing punishment diminish the role of Savior? Does not having to pay for sin by the Savior within some sort of god’s justice ledger constitute a low christology?

            I just think that misses the point.

            When confronted with a sinner who was condemned to death by judgment of the law, Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn thee, go and sin no more.” Jesus did not judge (being essentially the same word as condemn/separate krineo). He did not get stoned in her place. While this part of John may not be authentic to the rest of the work, it illustrates a very different atonement model: one that makes right and liberates toward a better Way.

            Does the fact that Jesus “did not condemn” the adultress diminish his divinity or role as savior? Absolutely not. in my view, it increases it.

            So in the end, I’m trying to seek a more useful model of atonement, one based upon “getting better” in relationship, rather than the inherent purity model associated with Mormon and Christian atonement approaches.

            To me, god is found in the very process of becoming. and for us to become as well, we need atonement, the relationship with god, christ, ourselves, and others that make us One.

  2. So, I have listened to this podcast, having recorded it with Andrew and Dan.

    I really loved this conversation. To me, atonement as a principle (lowercase), independent of “The Atonement” (with initial caps), can be very powerful.

    Here is something I wrote in response on Facebook:

    As I understand LDS doctrine of “The Atonement”, it is the idea that if we are worthy, obey all the commandments as presented by our leaders, make and keep sacred Covenants, and receive all required sacred ordinances administered exclusively by LDS Priesthood authority, THEN, and only then, we will be forgiven of sins because Jesus paid the penalty for them required by God’s justice.

    Here is the first sentence from the official LDS description of The Atonement:

    “What is The Atonement? As used in the scriptures, to atone is to suffer the penalty for sins, thereby removing the effects of sin from the repentant sinner and allowing him or her to be reconciled to God. “

    Actually, this is patently false.

    We teach for doctrine the commandments of men, and have redefined “The Atonement” as a shame-driven tool to force obedience to the Church and its leaders as the only way we can be forgiven of our shame.

    What Jesus taught about atonement (the principle) was quite distinct from this, so as to be nearly the opposite of what we teach.

    The Hebrew word for atonement “kaphar” does not mean “payment” at all. It means to repair a broken vessel with pitch, making it “whole” again. It focuses on the repair rather than the retribution.

    Jesus was a Jew, and to Jews, atonement is the most important act of the holiest day in Judaism: Yom Kippur/the Day of Kaphar/atonement.

    The practice of Jewish high holy days is relevant. On Rosh Hashanah, 10 days before Yom Kippur, the Book of Life is opened, and the disciple enters a period of contemplation, considering his/her deeds over the prior year. In what ways have my acts been inconsistent with the spirit of the Torah? Where have I been selfish? Where have I fallen short of my promises?”

    This contemplation comes to completion on Yom Kippur, when the disciple fasts the entire day plus an hour (25 hours), as the accounting of personal life is reconciled into the book of life. In a sacred prayer of Kol Nidre (“All Vows”), the disciple resets all broken vows and sets him/herself back on the path of Life.

    To the Jewish mind, heart, and culture, atonement was the act of renewing one’s relationship with God by virtue of renewing one’s relationship and commitment to and with others. It was and is both intra-personal as well as interpersonal. The disciple draws close to his family and friends in deep love as a/he considers the integrity (wholeness) of his/her relationships.

    Atonement’s purpose and scope was to get us back onto the Way in love and integrity. It’s about becoming One in relationships.

    As early Christians understood atonement, Jesus Christ was the symbolic embodiment of the Way: they considered themselves not as Christians, but rather, as “Followers of the Way”. The oneness of their communities, the need to be reconciled in Love was the essence of the moral influence of Christ.

    Thus the role of Jesus Christ was as the exemplar of HOW we become whole. He said: “This is my Commandment, that ye love one another as I have loved you. Greater love hath no one than this: that one gives their life for their friends. Ye are my friends. By this men shall know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

    Atonement is not about paying for sins. Atonement is not about cleansing us. Atonement is not about satisfying the demands of justice.

    We need to resurrect the atonement from the false and damning doctrines based upon mankind’s bloodthirst for revenge and retribution. We must set aside any notion that god is so narrow as to demand punishment for each and every mistake we make.

    Atonement is about becoming One in relationship with God, ourselves, and others.

    This is what Jesus taught. This is what Jesus prayed for. This is what Jesus died for:


    And in that Love, we become One.

    1. Given what you say about the Atonement and the LDS teaching about it, what was the purpose of the crucifixion and what occurred in the Garden? I’m in total agreement with what you say but LDS theology places so much importance on these two events, wonder how they fit in the over all scheme of things. Was Christ’s death just a way to protect his disciples from persecution and was His prayer in the garden just that and no more? Thanks.

      1. GBSMITH,

        1. “What occurred in the Garden?”

        Joseph Smith describes Jesus’ suffering: “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent, but if they would not repent, they must suffer even as I; which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit…”
        (D&C 19:16-18)

        If I stop at this point, we might deduce that the suffering in the garden of gethsemane was for our sins, and we certainly teach that for doctrine. But if we continue, we can see that the garden suffering was not the payment, but rather, something else. Note what follows at the end of 18, and into verse 19: “…and would that I might not drink the bitter cup and shrink — Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished the preparations unto the children of men.”

        Taken in context, D&C 19 describes Jesus suffering in *anticipation* of drinking the bitter cup, and this anticipation was in *preparation* unto the children of men. There is something going on here in Jesus’ mind that is causing extreme suffering.

        In a penal substitutionary model, Jesus is about to be punished for the sins of all mankind. In a moral influence model, what is the *example* to be found in Jesus suffering? I think the evidence in John chapters 11-17 shows that Jesus defined the atonement in terms of “godly love”/agape, and not penal substitution.

        So what was going on in the Garden? Godly love. In our LDS scripture, we are called to divine love by Alma at the Waters of Mormon: the willingness to bear one another’s burdens that they may be light, to mourn with those who mourn, to comfort those who stand in need of comfort. As I see it, the suffering in the Garden is the ultimate act of Empathy: mourning with those who mourn, laid down by the burden of their sins and transgressions. Jesus is feeling our pain. The example of Christ is to walk with those who suffer, not eject them or excommunicate them — to suffer with them, to truly open our own hearts to theirs and feel their pain. This the moral influence — the divine example — demonstrated by Gethsemane.

        2. “What was the purpose of the crucifixion?”

        Jesus explained this at the last supper:
        “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends)
        (John 15:13)

        “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.”
        (John 16:7)

        Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Of course Nicodemus kept taking Jesus literally. But to be “born again” requires that we *die* to our former life. Symbolically, the Atonement becomes most real in the Cross, because it represents the nexus between heaven and earth, between life and death, and life again. The Cross symbolizes the door, the mystical moment that all becomes One.

        Marcus Borg explains the cross in terms of the victory it demonstrates. Jesus transcended life, and in so doing, set the pattern for us to spiritually transcend mortality into eternal life.

        Yet Christ’s death is not just mystical, but indeed had a functional and practical purpose. Notice the jockeying for power the Disciples conveyed at the last supper: who would be greatest in the Kingdom of God? You’re not going to wash my feet…etc. As long as Jesus was there with them, they were not empowered to function in the spirit on their own — they deferred to Christ for everything. This is why, in John 16:7, Jesus explains that if he doesn’t leave them, the Comforter — the spirit they must seek individually and collectively as Apostles — will not come.

        And this is what Jesus prayed: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do….And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.”

        This is the entire meaning of the Atonement. We use the term “at-one-ment” in English because it derives from this very verse — that we might be One, as God is with Christ and Christ is with God. Atonement is entirely about sacred relationship, and by being crucified, Jesus caused his disciples to seek the Comforter that would bind them together in love.

        His “new” and “last” commandment to them was the key: “And this is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you.” If Jesus had so much love as to fully suffer with those who suffer, and to die for his friends, so also do we manifest Godly love in our willingness to lift one another’s burdens that they may be light, to mourn with those who mourn, and to comfort those standing in need of comfort. Somehow, the very idea that “comfort” is part of Alma’s charge at the Waters of Mormon, demonstrates that we must embrace a relational kind of atonement if we are to truly be the disciples of Christ.

        1. Mark (and Dan and Andrew),

          First, let me say I loved the conversation. I was one of those pushing back against the “concept of sin” article a couple weeks back that you mentioned in your intro. My position was I’m not sure if the idea of sin is entirely useless, but that it seemed to me to cause more harm than good in the way it is currently taught, but that there could be a healthier way of understanding sin.

          I think your discussion about the moral influence model and atonement helping us more towards being at peace with ourselves and acting with love towards others is a healthier model. The idea of sin, or missing the mark, can still be used, but in a less condemning way.

          In any case, GBSMITH asked the one question I had which was whether or not you still believe in an event that we call “the atonement” or whether you think that Christ’s life and death is a model for us of atonement. I really liked your response and it seems like you would lean towards the latter, but correct me if I’m wrong.

          The one thing I would push back against is your particular use of D&C 19. Whether it was intended or just due to bad grammar, I agree that the “would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink” statement seems to refer to something that hadn’t happened yet when Christ suffered enough to bleed at every pore. However, I think that’s relying on a loophole where the context is pretty clear. In v15, we are commended to “repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.”. And are told that the only way to avoid that suffering is to repent because he suffered them for us. That’s a pretty darn clear explanation of the penal substitution model in my opinion. I think the contemporaneous mormon way to interpret the grammar in v18 (and maybe where this doctrinal idea originated), is to split the atonement in two parts: started in the garden, completed on the cross. I don’t know if it originated with him, but Neil Maxwell is the first person I remember teaching this and I would say it is the current “mormon doctrine” regarding the timeline of the atonement.

          All that being said, I agree with your conclusions, I just don’t think you can use D&C 19 as evidence. Personally, I just state that I don’t believe the punitive/satisfaction theories and that, if anything (shamelessly stealing this from you), the experience in the garden (or wherever, if it’s even necessary or happened at all) was about experiencing pain/sorrow/loss, etc. to enable empathy. I think that leads to a much healthier view of self and God and our relationship.

          Thanks again for your great discussion, it helped solidify some things in my mind.

  3. Thank you, Mark, Andrew and Dan. This helped remind me of some important things today that have been “transformative.” I also enjoyed the back and forth. It was nice to have Andrew there “to keep everyone honest.” 😊. I agree that we need to try to help move us away from the penal substitution and sin-centric models. I found it interesting that you pointed out examples of each model in the BoM. Well, that’s how some of the more harmful models have been justified, of course. And I will say, that at the time they were my prime models, they didn’t seem harmful. I grew and benefitted in those models and appreciated them, but a “mighty change of heart” brought me to see that Christ’s prime model is based on LOVE and that Christ patterned atonement, beckoning us all to participate, providing the loving strength to help us do so. So now when I go back and read the language that on the surface is the language of the other models, rather than reading a disjointed theology of various models inconsistently showing up here and there, the language all takes on new meaning, to all fit into “the Love” model. When not read in the light of love, the language seems to be pointing to a petty, or vindictive, or cold and distant God, etc., but when LOVE is the known assumption, then the words mean something else and aren’t actually saying what they would appear to say.

    1. Tiani!

      Thank you for joining in the conversation here, and for your terrific comment. Really terrific. Thanks for sharing at the personal level you have here.

      All my best!

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