09 September 2008

Subjective vs Objective Reality in Atonement Theology

[[Sister Laurel, I think I understand what you have said, but could you please clarify what you mean by subjective and objective changes which are caused by Jesus' death?]]

Yes, good question because the distinction between these two is important in theology in many areas and especially in moral theology. It is also especially important in a somewhat different way in theologies of atonement. In the last posts I used "subjective reality" to refer to the reality within the subject himself, his inner perceptions and reality; "objective reality" refers to all that is objectively real outside the subject himself and includes the subject's objective, or externally verifiable  reality).

When I speak of changes in reality effected by the cross and look at Anselm's theology vs Paul's theology one basic difference is that Anselm's theology is rooted in the idea that there is some subjective change in God effected through the process of reconciliation. (That is, Anselm saw that God's inner life and attitudes rather than creation outside of him was the object of reconciliation; it posited a subjective change in God's attitudes towards his creation.) In particular Anselm sees Jesus' death as putting an end to some antipathy (offended state) that exists on God's part because God's honor has been infinitely wounded by mankind.

In Paul's theology however, there is an objective change in the world itself, not in God's attitude towards us. Further God is the subject of the process, the one carrying out the process of reconciliation. In this process of reconciliation, not only do sin and death which were formerly "godless" places or realities become God's new dwelling places where we may meet God face to face, but we ourselves are also changed and our hearts are remade in Christ. Meanwhile, as Paul puts the matter, God acts towards us with an unconditional mercy and love "while we were yet sinners"  and does this always and everywhere. In Paul there is no shift in God's (subjective) attitude towards us, no appeasing of anger, no quieting of his wrath, no reconciling of God. Instead it is is the world which is brought back (reconciled) to God (the subject undertaking this action). Wrath is seen to refer to the consequences of sin, not to a subjective anger on God's part; thus this reconciliation is God's own redemptive work in bringing justice (right order) to the world (the object of God's action).

Again then, too often Paul has been read as though he is speaking of Jesus' passion effecting a change in God's attitude towards us rather than effecting an actual change in the world pervaded and dominated by sin and sinful death (a reality which includes ourselves and our own domination by sin and death). It is seen as reconciling God instead or reconciling the world to God. But what we are actually looking at in Paul's theology is a God who enters into our world by becoming one of us and who transforms that world in an act of guerilla warfare; we are looking at the combating and defeat of sin and sinful death from within by the presence of the God of Life and Love! "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself" (2 Cor 5:19) Again, this is an objective change in reality, not a subjective change in God's attitude toward that reality.

I hope this helps. If I was TOO unclear on other things please get back to me.