Atonement Print
By Richard John Neuhaus   
Friday, 29 March 2013

Only he can bring us home who comes from home, who comes from God. Coming from the very heart of God, he is God. And so we say that God became man. It is the longest journey, long beyond our ability to imagine. God became man. We say it trembling, we say it puzzling, but more often we say it rotely, counting on routine to buffer what we cannot bear. . .

“Atonement.” It is a fine, solid, twelfth-century Middle English word, the kind of word one is inclined to trust. Think of at-one-ment: What was separated is now at one.  But after such a separation there can he no easy reunion. . . .

Atonement is not an  accountant’s trick. It is not a kindly overlooking; it is not a not counting of what must count if anything in heaven or on earth is to matter. God could not simply decide not to count without declaring that we do not count. But someone might say that, if God is God, he could do anything. Very well, then, God would not decide not to count, because he would not declare that we do not count. And yet God’s “would” implicates and limits his “could.” The God of whom we speak is not, in the words of Pascal, the God of the philosophers but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is the God of unbounded freedom who willed to be bound by love.

. . . Forgive and forget, they say, but that is surely wrong. What is forgotten need not, indeed cannot, be forgiven. Love does not say to the beloved that it does not matter, for the beloved matters. Spare me the sentimental love that tells me what I do and what I am does not matter. Forgiveness costs. Forgiveness costs dearly. Some theories of atonement say that Christ paid the price. His death appeased Gods wrath and satisfied Gods justice. . . .

Yet for many in the past and at present that way of speaking poses great problems. The subtlety of the theory is overwhelmed by the cartoon picture of an angry Father who demands the death of his Son, maybe even kills his Son, in order to appease his own wrath. In its vulgar form – which means the form most common – it is a matter of settling scores, a drama vengeful and vindictive, more worthy of The Godfather than of the Father of whom it is said, “God is love.”

           Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns by Lucas Cranach, the Elder, c. 1510

. . .In the world, in our own lives, something has gone dreadfully wrong, and it must be set right. Recall when you were a little child and somebody – maybe you – did  something very bad. Maybe a lie was told, some money was stolen or the cookie jar lay shattered on the kitchen floor. The bad thing has been found out, and now something must happen, something must be done about it. The fear of punishment is terrible, but not as terrible as the thought that nothing will happen, that bad things don't matter. If bad things don't matter, then good things don’t matter, and then nothing matters and the meaning of everything lies shattered like the cookie jar on the kitchen floor. Trust that child’s intuition. “Unless you become as little children,” Jesus said, “you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Unless we are stripped of our habits of forgetting, of our skillful making of excuses, of our jaded acceptance of a world in which bad things happen and it doesn't matter.  . . .

Things are out of whack. It is not all our fault, but it is our fault too. We cannot blame our distant parents for that fateful afternoon in the garden, for we were there. We, too, reached for the forbidden fruit – the forbidden fruit by which we not only know good and evil, but, much more fatefully, presume to name good and evil.  . . .

The fatal step was not in knowing the difference between good and evil. Before what we call “the fall” they knew the good in the fullest way of knowing, which is to say that they did the good, they lived the good. They knew the good honestly, straightforwardly, simply, uncomplicatedly, without shame. Some thinkers have argued that “the fall” was really a fall up rather than a fall down. By the fall our first parents were raised, it is said, to a higher level of consciousness in the knowing of good and evil. . . .This, however, is but another  conceit of our fallen nature. . . .The conceit is that our complicated way of knowing is superior because it is ours.

. . . Atonement. At-one-ment. What was separated by an abyss of wrong has been reconciled by the deed of perfect love. What the first Adam destroyed the second Adam has restored. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We knew not what we did when we reached for the right to name good and evil. We knew not what we did when we grabbed what we could and went off to a distant country. We knew not what we did when, in the madness of excusing ourselves, we declared God guilty. But today we have come to our senses. Today, here at the cross, our eyes are fixed on the dying derelict who is the Lord of life. We look at the One who is everything that we are and everything that we are not, the One who is true man and true God. In him we, God and man, are perfectly one. At-one-ment. Here, through the cross, we have come home, home to the truth about ourselves, home to the truth about what God has done about what we have done. And now we know, or begin to know, why this awful, awe-filled Friday is called good.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus was one of Americas leading Catholic writers and thinkers. He was the founder of First Things magazine and the author of numerous books, including The Naked Public Square and Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus on the Cross, from which this column is excerpted.

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