The Shape of Progressive Theology, Part 3--Rejecting the Salvation Industrial Complex

I am going to vary up the order a little bit, since we find ourselves in Holy Week, making this topic especially relevant.  And, I am going to approach this topic from something of a round-about direction.

In the March 30th episode of the Inglorious Pasterds podcast, Michael, Brad, and Matt had a long and excellent conversation about "manliness" and the overwrought and toxic versions of manliness that is endemic in both our secular culture and in much of our Christian religious culture.  It is an outstanding conversation that covers a wide range of issues--parenting, Trump, psychology, gender roles--and I would highly encourage everyone to check it out.

At one point in the conversation, the guys were talking about listening to another dude complain that his wife wasn't having sex with him as much as this guy would have liked.  "I don't get it," the no-sex dude recounted, "I do these things for her, and she still won't put out."  "Maybe that's because this is not a f****** transaction," was the conclusion from the Pasterds, rightly.  But then Michael made a point that stuck with me, "but that's how they view God, too."

Here is the core problem--a transactional relationship and a loving relationship are fundamentally incompatible forms of relationship.  If you view God as someone with whom you enter into a transaction with, and who relates to you only through that transactional relationship, then you and God do not love each other.  You may be business partners, or servant/master, or employer/employee, but you do not love each other.  A loving relationship doesn't require a transaction, because love is defined in terms of voluntary gift of the self.  I don't do things for the one I love because I am obligated to do so; I do things for my beloved because doing things for my beloved is the fruit of my love--I want them to succeed and flourish, and I am willing to sacrifice myself for that end.  The moment our relationship is formed along transactional lines, I am not longer able to truly make a fully voluntary gift of the self, as it is no longer really voluntary.  The more a relationship is transaction, the less loving, by definition, it is.  As a result, if we believe that God is love and that God relates to us in love, then we cannot conceive that relationship in transactional terms without undermining our commitment to the notion of God as love.

A transactional understanding of our relationship with God, thus, is a critical theological problem.  And yet, as the Pasterds notes, it is pervasive in Christian culture.  So much of the discussion revolves around variations of "if you do X, God will do A; if you do Y, then God will do B."  God becomes like a divine version of Amazon--we order up some product (say, healing or fortitude or some other boon) from God's massive catalog, and we get it shipped to our home so long as we agree to the Terms of Service and pay them our money.  That's OK so far as it goes; I mean, I use Amazon quite a bit and like it very much.  But I don't love Amazon, and expressing my relationship with Amazon in terms of "love" seems bizarre and nonsensical.  And I can't really love a god that works basically in the same manner as Amazon.  (Especially where, to be perfectly honest, Amazon's record of delivering the stuff I order is better than God's track record of answering my prayers.  So, it's not just that God is like Amazon, but that God is like an unreliable Amazon).

If we are serious about this idea that God is love, and that our relationship to God is defined in terms of love, we need an understanding of the mechanism of that relationship that conforms to the contours of a loving relationship.  And no place does the rubber meet the road more clearly than when we start to talk about the atonement.  The dominant model of atonement in the West, the substitutionary understanding, is pervasively and irredeemably transactional.  The core problem is not what Christ is doing, but what God is doing (or not doing).  If our sins (or, worse, the sins of Adam and Eve that we inherit in some manner) will not be forgiven by God unilaterally, such that God needs a substitute in the form of Jesus, then the statement "God loves us" is either a lie or meaningless.  A God that would hold us to our debts, even at the cost of "eternal conscious torment," is not a loving God.  A divine collections agent or hanging judge, perhaps, but not someone we love.  (And if God somehow can't forgive us, then the question becomes "why not?  Isn't God all-powerful?"  Who is the boss of God that tells God that God cannot just unilaterally forgive us?)

This question of the atonement, then, is not principally about the technical question of the mechanics of Jesus's sacrifice on the Cross, but about whether we are serious about believing in a loving God.  The claim of the people who reject substitutionary atonement (which include, it should be noted, the entirety of the eastern Orthodox tradition, as well as the medieval Franciscan tradition of Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, etc.) is that substitutionary atonement poisons your vision of who God is and how God relates to us.  Whatever it is we are doing when tomorrow we go to Good Friday services, it cannot be that we are giving thanks that Jesus took a bullet meant for us from a fundamentally unloving God who was otherwise perfectly willing to enforce a unilateral contract against us.  Good Friday is in no way "Good" if the Crucifixion proves that God doesn't really love the people God created.  It can't mean that.

Once you accept the foundational premise that God loves us and that Jesus's sacrifice on the Cross is an expression of that love, there are a multitude of ways to understand what is going on at the Crucifixion.  As I have mentioned before, I understand it primarily through the lens of the work of Rene Girard--the Cross exposes our violence, which allows us to move beyond it.  Girard's understanding is in a way a more focused version of medieval theologian Peter Abelard's "moral exemplar" theory.  But there are many others--Irenaeus's recapitulation understanding, Christus Victor, Moltmann's Solidarity with victims, and others.  Often, it seems to me, many of these concepts are different ways of approach the same difficult-or-impossible-to-articulate idea.  But the point is that all of them absolutely share the conviction that the Crucifixion is an act of pure self-sacrifice and love from a God that is in no way "out to get us," as James Alison says.  They do not poison the well of how we see God in the way the substitutionary theories do, and have.

As a result, there is a broad consensus among many of the folks that describe themselves as progressive theologians that this transactional vision of our relationship to God must be purged from Christianity and Christian thought, and that a key place to attack this problem is the atonement.  But there is another pole to this magnet.  Atonement, after all, is proffered as the solution to the underlying problem, which is that God either wants to, or is at least willing to, consign the majority of the people that God created and purportedly loves to “eternal conscious torment.”  The engine that drives the question of the atonement is the question of hell, and the two of them together form what you might call the “Salvation Industrial Complex”—the church convinces people that they have an existential problem, and then provides them a solution to the problem.

Rob Bell’s book Love Wins was hardly the first book to challenge the concept of hell as eternal conscious torment—Gregory of Nyssa basically said all of the same stuff Bell said in the late 300s.  You might wonder, as I did (and, judging from interviews, as Bell did), why people freaked out so much about the book.  Sure, evangelicals are probably not reading much Gregory of Nyssa, so many of these concepts were new to them.  But I don’t think that its newness or perceived newness fully explains the reaction.  I think the issue with Love Wins was the way it struck to the heart of the Salvation Industrial Complex.

To be clear, Bell does not say that there is no such thing as hell, nor is he a Universalist in an absolute sense (i.e. that everyone will get to heaven or achieve salvation regardless of their desires or actions).  But the theme that consistently runs through Love Wins is that God is constantly and actively working with us and for us for our salvation, with no qualifications or provisos.  If God is constantly by our side, if God is not going to ever abandon us or cut us off against our will, then we don’t need the product that the church has traditionally tried to sell us.  Because, at the end of the day, the product the church has tried to sell us is protection from a God that does not in fact love us, but instead relates to us via some formal arrangement—“God insurance,” if you will.  And if we don’t need the product that the church has been in the business of selling us for 1000 years in the West, then what is the church for then?  That, whether they recognize it or not, is why Bell’s book was so threatening to so many people.  A church that embraces the ideas contained in Love Wins, must, by definition, be a different kind of church, because it is forgoing the primary reason that justified its own existence.

By the way, lest you think I am picking on evangelicals, the same thing is absolutely true in the Catholic context as well, and perhaps moreso.  One of the truly remarkable, and yet almost completely undiscussed, phenomena of the last 50 years is the complete collapse of the “Purgatorial economy” that was so central and so pervasive to Catholic life.  If you ever take a look at popular Catholic devotional books from up to the 50s, they are filled with notations regarding the indulgence value attached to a particular devotion—crudely expressed as “say this prayer to get X months off of your time in Purgatory.”  That simply disappears in the late 60s and early 70s, to the point where to someone like me (who experienced Catholicism only from the 80s onward) those old devotionals seem bizarre and medieval.  Couple that with the fact that even conservatives like Pope John Paul II started to speculate that hell might be empty (and thus really only a theological construct) and you have basically an abandonment of a core lynchpin of the structure of the Catholic Church.  Especially since one of the key parts of this Purgatorial economy was that the Catholic Church was an absolutely essential intermediary in every one of these divine transactions.  God may be the divine creditor keeping strict books, but the Catholic Church was the bank that processed all of your payments; if God is no longer keeping the accounts, why do you need to go to the bank?

In a way, post-Vatican II Catholicism (at least in its lived form) might serve as a cautionary tale for conservative evangelicals worried about Bell and his attacks on the evangelical version of the Salvation Industrial Complex.  If you tear down the machine, then you have to re-justify your own existence, something that in a number of ways Catholicism has struggled to do in the last 50 years.  Rather than engage in that project, it is much easier to simply shoot the messenger and his fashion-forward haircut.

In doing so, however, you are committing yourself to a God that is purely transactional, a God that never truly loves us, no matter how much we might throw that word around.  There’s a reason why Bell’s book is called Love Wins—in the Salvation Industrial Complex model, love doesn’t actually win the day or drive the story, so an assertion that love will win is a challenge to that model.  Either we have a God of love or a God of transactions.   And, as the Pasterds note, if you think your relationship with God is a transaction, then pretty soon everything is a transaction.  And that's not Good News.


Carl said…
I think I agree with you. (Typing on phone, fyi.)

Here's an example I have been and still am thinking through that I think is relevant.

Giving/tithing is a thing. But it's hard to understand if we approach it transactionally. If I tithe or whatever, what doea it mean for God to "bless" me? The whole Malachi 3:10 thing.

So when Jesus says to keep your giving secret (Matt 6:2), he isn't saying, "If you keep it secret, I will give you more money; otherwise, your reward will be bragging."

Dave Ramsey says that giving makes us more like God because God is a giver.

Jesus on the cross is an example of what God is like. Ultimate sacrifice and love.

Giving/tithing is not transactional. But it does help us move closer to God if we have the "right" motivation.

Similarily, Christ on the cross isn't about "God hates me but Jesus loves me." It's about "Here's what God is like."

The danger here is slipping to a place where we think we can be more like God under our own power, something I reject.

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