The Crap Circle
Controversy around the nature of the atonement continues to bubble beneath the surface in some corners of the Canadian MB Conference. Specifically, some have problems with a book by MBBS professor Mark Baker and Joel Green that questions the primacy of penal substitution and seeks to recover other important biblical metaphors that address what the cross accomplishes and why and how. Some think Baker’s understanding of the atonement ignores (or at least minimizes) God’s wrath and denies the fact that Jesus died as a substitute for our sins. There have been charges of heresy, and plenty of misunderstanding and miscommunication throughout the discussion.
I think that Baker is very often misunderstood, and that his understanding of the cross not only squarely falls within the bounds of orthodoxy but is also a fundamentally generous, winsome, and hopeful understanding of how it is that God works through the cross. But I’m not going to talk about that here. I’ve discussed my views of our tribe’s atonement debate elsewhere (here, here and here, for example) and see no need to restate them here.
What I would like to address is a question that comes up from time to time around theological debates like this one, namely, the “so what?” question. Why does it matter how the cross of Christ saves? Why worry about technical trivialities like which atonement metaphor (or combination of metaphors) is the right one? Isn’t it enough to just say that Jesus saves without fighting about the details? I’ve heard questions like these from pastors and laypeople alike. And I’m somewhat sympathetic to their questions. Heaven knows that enough ink (and sometimes blood, if we look back on history!) has been spilled over arcane and abstruse points of theological doctrine. Why get worked up about stuff like this? Why major on the minors? Why can’t we all just say “Jesus saves” and leave it at that?
Well, I think that how we think about the atonement is important (although not as important as how we live out the implications of the atonement), not least because it gets at our fundamental conception of who God is. I have had people in my office whose understanding of who God is and how he works is severely distorted and is psychologically crippling based on a conception of God as primarily a wrathful deity who must be placated. This is not just abstract theology. How we understand the cross’s role in God’s salvation plan touches down in real life. We all need to have a conception of a good God that is worthy of our love and our trust and our worship.
Well, over the last year or two, I have adopted a highly technical, precise, and theologically nuanced model for explaining the atonement to people. It’s called “The Crap Circle.” When I am talking with someone about the atonement, I often pull out a piece of paper and draw something like the diagram below. I realize this is a very complicated chart, but I will try to explain. 🙂
The circle represents all of the crap in the world. “Crap” is basically anything that does not contribute to the shalom that God intended for his world—all of the sin and evil and waste and decay and violence and destruction that has ever been a part of the world we inhabit. We don’t like crap. Crap hurts us and prevents us from flourishing as we were intended to. Crap doesn’t belong.
But there is more than one kind of crap! Indeed, there are probably many more than three kinds of crap, but I usually start with these.
- Crap I’m Responsible For: This is the crap I contribute to “The Crap Circle.” These are the sins that I willfully commit, the wrong that I do even though I know I shouldn’t. This is my impatience, greed, selfishness, insensitivity, anger, malice, sloth, etc. This is the crap for which I am responsible—the crap that I am guilty for. This is the crap for which a righteous and holy God will justly judge me.
- Crap I’m a Victim Of: This is the crap that affects me—often in deep and painful ways. This is the kind of crap we do not ask for—these are the patterns of dysfunction and abuse that we are born into, the evil others inflict upon us, the societal structures that we born into but are resistant to change, the sociobiological hand we are dealt that we do not choose, but which nonetheless affects (not determines) the people we are and the people we are becoming. I am not guilty for this crap, but this crap affects me deeply.
- Metaphysical Crap: This is quite likely just a variation of Crap #2 only on a broader level. This is the crap that is simply part of the way the world is. However we might think of “original sin,” it would fall into this category. This is Romans 8 crap—this is creation groaning, this is earthquakes in Haiti, this is the systemic evil that has characterized our planet and our experience as human beings since the beginning. This is the biggest crap we can imagine—crap that can leave us speechless and helpless.
Now, of course the math in the diagram above is not meant to be precise! I do not mean to suggest that you or I contribute exactly 25% of the crap in the crap circle or that “Metaphysical Crap” is only 50% or anything like that. Far from it! There is obviously a lot of crap overlap and some crap might resist easy categorization. The diagram is simply meant to acknowledge the variety and complexity of the crap in our world.
And the good news—the really, really good news of the gospel!—is that Jesus takes care of all of the crap in “The Crap Circle!” Not just the crap I’m responsible for. Not just the crap that is done to me. Not just the really big crap. All of it. I am not simply a forensic entity that needs to be declared “not guilty,” nor am I simply a victim who needs to be healed and restored, nor am I simply an incidental, insignificant part of a cosmos evolving toward wholeness. Jesus is God Incarnate, coming to judge and forgive and heal and restore and be victimized by and, ultimately, paradoxically, to defeat all of the crap in the circle.
A lot more could be said, but I’ve gone on long enough. It has been gratifying to hear a few “a-ha’s” on the occasions when I have used “The Crap Circle” to describe the work of Christ to people. I think it is liberating for people to hear that they are more than just guilty sinners. I think it it is attractive for them (and vitally necessary!) to see the cross presented in terms that go beyond individual acquittal. It is compelling for them to see the cross (and the earthly life, resurrection, glorification, and reign) of Christ in the context of the bigger picture of God reconciling all things to himself and leading his world to a crap-free future.
This is a good God. This is good news.
Ryan, this is brilliant. I remember you hashing out the diagram earlier, and I think it needs to be submitted to a magazine. Hey, maybe even a book! What does your ol’ prof. Stackhouse make of it?!
Thank you Dave. I’m not sure what Stackhouse would make of this—probably not quite what he would have been looking for in essays/exams :).
cRapture Theology by Ryan Dueck.
Brilliant, but also very true. Thanks Ryan.
Re: “I think it is liberating for people to hear that they are more than just guilty sinners.”
Liberating is the key word. It liberates us from guilt feelings and assures us that we are not responsible for the bad stuff.
Re: “I think it it is attractive for them (and vitally necessary!) to see the cross presented in terms that go beyond individual acquittal. ”
In the Torah the day of the atonement ritual was for the community. Individualism did not yet exist. But in our day, we are individuals and not a tribe.
Re: “It is compelling for them to see the cross (and the earthly life, resurrection, glorification, and reign) of Christ in the context of the bigger picture of God reconciling all things to himself and leading his world to a crap-free future.”
And this is the problem: there is no evidence that this is occurring or ever will.
The ancient world had ways of explaining and dealing with the bad stuff that we don’t have. The day of atonement was liberating in the ancient world. Believing that Jesus died as atonement was a way of dealing with the dashed hopes of the early Christians. Believing that the Babylonian exile was the wrath of God was liberating – the people knew how to deal with that. Believing that Israel was being punished liberated the people from the loss of hope that they would continue as a blessed people and one day have their kingdom restored.
Ultimately, in modernity we have lost confidence in atonement. We no longer believe it. And that change in belief is connected with our loss of hope, as much as it is with our liberation. Guilt is replaced by nihilism.
Re: “We all need to have a conception of a good God that is worthy of our love and our trust and our worship.”
This is what we don’t have. And, I don’t think we need it. I would chose atonement over this “conception.” I think most of us would. What we need is Purim. That is what our spiritual ancestors understood that we do not.
Re: “And this is the problem: there is no evidence that this is occurring or ever will.”
On what basis do you make that claim? I think it’s inaccurate. I think there is evidence that Christ reigns and reconciles.
I am referring to the ongoing suffering and evil and death – the things Ryan considers excrement: “all of the sin and evil and waste and decay and violence and destruction that has ever been a part of the world we inhabit.” (And still is.)
I’m still not sure what the basis is of your earlier claim that there “is no evidence that this [God reconciling all things] is occurring.” In my view, the fact that suffering and evil and death remain does n0t necessarily mean that there is “no evidence” of God’s reconciling work. I think there is evidence.
J, I don’t know what else I can offer. Maybe my reply to Ryan’s below will add clarity.
I just thought it was a rather bold claim to say that there was no evidence of reconciliation occurring. It seemed to me that you were stating it as a fact, and I wanted to know what some of the thinking was behind that claim.
What do you mean by atonement? Why is it more important to you than being able to conceive of God in the terms I used? Why could/would atonement not be reconcilable with a good God?
Obviously not all of us have lost confidence in atonement in modernity. Some, undoubtedly have. But not all. Some choose to expand/recover how atonement is/ought to be understood (e.g., challenging individualistic interpretations, as you say).
I mean atonement in the way it is used in the Torah. It has the effect of making life better.
If God is good, then what is the source of the bad stuff in your chart?
The Torah is full of a lot guilt language around atonement, both personal and corporate. It’s not just about making life better (although it certainly includes that). Is this the sense in which you use the word? If so, why would we have to choose between atonement and conceiving of God as good, trustworthy, etc?
What does Torah say?
The Leviticus passage about the day of atonement refers to iniquities. Atonement restored the relationship with God from whom good and bad things came. This did not involve guilt in the way we think of guilt, but instead holiness and uncleanness. It is in this context that I primarily place the word “atonement.”
In this passage and in many other passages, the Bible attributes the bad stuff, as well as the good, to God, even when the reasons could not be understood – e.g., it rains on the land of the good and wicked alike.
I don’t think we need to choose between the idea that God is good and the idea of atonement. But I don’t think we need to connect them either. Atonement connects better with the idea of holiness than with the modern idea of goodness.
How do I account for the bad stuff? I don’t know. It is certainly bad. I guess it comes from God, or else it is just part of the workings of an emergent Godless universe. I don’t practice theodicy – I don’t defend God to man.
How do you account for the bad stuff? Free will? Sin? Illusion? Something else? Why do you defend God?
I’m familiar with the holiness/uncleanness dimension to atonement in Leviticus. But I think you would be hard pressed to say that atonement in the Torah had nothing to do with guilt for offenses committed—even guilt as we think of it. To me, Scripture speaks of atonement in both the sense of holiness and goodness. I see no need to choose when both are there.
I don’t really think of myself as defending God. God has no need of my defense. I also have no groundbreaking insight into the origin of evil. Free will… sin…. illusion… something else? Yes, all of those. To whatever extent, I practice theodicy it is of a different kind than defending God’s ways. I have always been partial to Susan Nieman’s view of theodicy as any attempt (theistic or not) to fit evil into a coherent conceptual structure that accounts both for its existence in the world and the pervasive human intuition that it does not belong.
I think you are defending God when you say that God is good in spite of the bad stuff and when you attribute evil to free will, sin or illusion and not to God. Do you attribute any evil to God? Or, even any wrath?
If theodicy is “any attempt (theistic or not) to fit evil into a coherent conceptual structure that accounts both for its existence in the world and the pervasive human intuition that it does not belong,” then do you see how Darwin’s Origin of the Species is itself this kind of theodicy? (Unintentional theodicy, of course, that makes God as irrelevant to evil as to creation and makes evil only a matter of perspective.)
If suppose that in this sense, everyone who believes simultaneously that God is good and that there is moral meaning in the universe is a “defender of God.” I don’t think I am terribly unique in affirming God’s goodness in a world that contains a good deal of evil—that’s been a pretty consistent theme throughout the Judeo-Christian story.
Do I attribute evil to God? That’s a tough one. I suppose I would say that God is responsible at the very least for creating the potential of evil, if not its actuality. And as for wrath? There is far too much in Scripture for me to deny that God’s wrath is a reality. Unfortunately, too many people define it and explain it and distribute it in ways that are horribly damaging to people. Too many people use the wrath of God as a way of condemning the people/sins that happen to annoy/offend them in a particular way. But I’m happy to affirm that God is our judge, and that he judges justly.
I would certainly see The Origin of Species as a kind of theodicy. This is, in effect, what I argued in my masters thesis—any worldview that attempts to make moral meaning of the universe is a kind of theodicy. It is a very broad definition of the term, I know—almost anything could fit in, it seems. At least I can say that the idea is not unique to me :).
Re: I don’t think I am terribly unique in affirming God’s goodness in a world that contains a good deal of evil—that’s been a pretty consistent theme throughout the Judeo-Christian story.
I agree. At the same time, I think that theme fights with scripture, to some extent, and fights with the fact of life, as you put it, “the systemic evil that has characterized our planet and our experience as human beings since the beginning.”
We both come from Christian backgrounds and we are not far apart in our theological views. I still sense that we are somehow different in our affirmation of the goodness of God.
I think of God as more holy than moral – at least as we understand morality in our day. I think evil does come from God. At the same time, I think of his mercy as the ultimate expression of his holiness. I don’t affirm God’s goodness as much as I hope for his mercy.
My own Christian background did not include much belief, or any belief, in the wrath of God. Christians who believed in God’s wrath were considered fundamentalists, stupid and mean – “hell/fire damnatists” they were called. That is, of course, an ugly prejudice of liberal protestant churches. Even while my own approach to theology remains liberal, I no longer feel that prejudice. Perhaps it is that you have been around people who beat on each other in the name of the wrath of God, and I have been around other people, pastors and others in liberal churches, who beat on evangelicals and other conservative Christians with an unacknowledged but still cruel wrath of God.
In my own experience, when a person has been abused by parents or others in the name of God’s wrath, there is little one can say in terms of affirming the goodness of God that helps. The fear is permanent, and disbelief is mercy.
As for the atonement, the liberal in me seldom thinks about it. The Catholic in me thinks of it in connection with the Eucharist – a beautiful, merciful sacrament, not far from the atonement in Leviticus, although, thankfully, not involving the death of an animal.
You may be right about where our views differ, although I resonate very much with your statement:
Your words about how wrath is refashioned and reused on both sides of the liberal/conservative divide are wise and welcome ones indeed.
I find your model helpful, Ryan, though given my age with its particular sensitivities to language I would prefer calling it a “crop circle” 🙂 Seriously, it strikes me that in developing this — in moving, as you say, from abstract theology and “touching down in real life” — because of real people in your real office — you are motivated by “mission.” This missional motivation is what many miss, I think, in Baker’s life and work. Anyways, good stuff, and keep at it.
Thanks Dorah. I agree with your assessment of Baker and his missional motivation.
(You’re free to call it a crop circle, if you like :))
I started reading this book but put it down for some reason. You’ve nudged my interesting in trying it again.
The only problem I see in the Crap Circle is that the language is such that I can’t use the phrase in a sermon in worship. Hmm… I might be able to get away with saying Jesus has a gigantic “Pooper Scooper” that he uses to clean up the mess… the mess we create ourselves, the mess that happens to us, and the metaphysical mess. That might work in a message.
Anyway, I like your post. Thanks!
“Pooper Scooper” theology, eh? I would like to hear that sermon!