Thursday, July 19, 2012

What does the cross mean?

Chaplain Timothy Stover of the United Campus Ministry of Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, writes:


That “accessory” that hangs around your neck is called a cross.  What meaning does that symbol hold for you at this point in your life?


Dear Tim,
I wear a cross when I am lecturing or functioning liturgically.  I feel quite incomplete without it.  It represents, not a habit, but a conscious decision to claim this ancient symbol for my understanding of Christianity.  It has nothing to do with the all but universal mantra that comes out of Protestant Christianity, which proclaims that “Jesus died for my sins.”  Nor am I enamored of that Catholic mantra that describes the Eucharist as “the sacrifice of the Mass.”  I do not see the crucifixion of Jesus as the moment when salvation came by having Jesus pay the debt for my sinfulness.  I regard that as little more than a guilt-producing expression of a bankrupt theology of atonement.  The sooner we can abandon atonement theology, I believe, the better and healthier Christianity will be.  This atonement theology turns God into an unforgiving monster; it turns Jesus into a chronic, perhaps even a masochistic, victim, and it turns Christians like you and me into being guilt-filled Christ killers.  Besides that it is based on an assessment of human origins that no longer has credibility in scientific or academic circles.
By that I mean that we know now that there was no original perfection from which human life has fallen.  That is an incorrect religious attempt to account for the presence of evil. There is instead an ongoing and unfinished evolutionary process of becoming.  If there was no original perfection, there could not have been a fall from that perfection, so the old concept of “original sin” becomes inoperative and must be jettisoned.
If there was no fall into sin from our original perfection, there is no need to be “saved” from our sinfulness, redeemed from our fall or to be rescued from our lostness.  So the traditional way we tell the Jesus story becomes inoperative.  The cross is not the moment when the price of our sins was paid by Jesus and the idea that “Jesus died for my sins” becomes nonsensical.  To the degree that the cross is a symbol of this theology, it would be a symbol I would not want to use.  That, however, is not my conclusion.  Instead of abandoning the symbol of the cross, I choose to abandon the traditional theology that focused on a particular interpretation of the cross.
I see in Jesus one whose humanity transcended the survival mentality that not only defines our humanity, but also opens this Jesus into being a channel for that quality that we have tended to use the word “divine” to describe.  It is in his ability to love beyond the limits of his definitive boundaries and in his ability to live into a new dimension of what it means to be human that we come to discern that which we call God in him.  It was in his ability to give his life away, to love those who abused him that I see his divinity.  That is what the cross means to me.  Jesus is not a sacrifice that God required to enable God to forgive and restore me to oneness with God.  That idea is repulsive to me.  Jesus is the life so whole, so full and so free that he could give himself away and in that free giving I now see the presence of God.  So the cross is for me a symbol of the fullness of humanity in which the meaning of God can be and is met and experienced.  I want to claim the cross for this understanding and to rescue it from the barbarity to which atonement theology has reduced it.  I cannot do this by allowing the cross to be claimed for that previous understanding.  So I choose to wear the cross because it is for me a symbol of what life can become.  I hope that is helpful for you.
~John Shelby Spong

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