Blake has a relatively new paper up on his site called “Atonement in Mormon Thought (a Response to Deidre Green Regarding the Compassion Theory of Atonement)”. As the title indicates, it is largely a response to a paper critiquing his compassion theory of atonement.†
Before making his response to Deidre Green, Blake does a quick survey of uniquely Mormon theories of atonement and offers some critiques of his own. He did me the honor of offering a short critique of my Dialogue paper The Divine-Infusion Theory: Rethinking the Atonement (which is now available online, thanks Kristine and Dialogue!). When I read what Blake had to say it got me thinking about how it came about and I wanted to make a short response here.
When I started researching for my paper (ha!) I was actually doing nothing of the sort. I was trying to make sense of what the atonement was supposed to mean. I was frustrated, not by how incomprehensible it was, but by how comprehensibly wrong certain aspects of the atonement seemed to me. I framed my paper as a response to Dennis Potter’s paper because my journey with atonement theory really began when I stumbled onto his paper. (As it turns out, I stumbled onto it because I was looking up Blake’s paper Mormonism and Determinism and it was in the same issue of Dialogue.) It blew the door right off the hinges for me. Substitution theories felt like a tight and constricting box, but I had never been able to think outside that box. Potter’s paper was a revelation and I accepted his rejection of penal-substitution almost immediately because penal-substitution was what I had been trying to reject for years without realizing it.
With a blanker canvas than I had ever worked with before, I started re-reading all the scriptures on the atonement from the Book of Mormon. I read Lehi and Amulek and Alma over and over and over again in an effort to figure out what they were trying to convey without the preconceived ideas I had previously brought to those texts. I wanted to know if the Book of Mormon had something interesting to say about the atonement or not. As it turned out, I started to realize that foundational ideas behind the atonement as portrayed in the Book of Mormon were not at all like what I had previously understood them to be.
What I began to realize was that the foundational concepts of justice, forgiveness, and the fall were the problem. Most theories of atonement derail before they leave the station because they are built on inadequate or unacceptable notions of justice, forgiveness, or the fall. I spent many lunch hours discussing justice with my genius brother, debating various hypothetical scenarios like the ones philosophers come up with to tease apart intuitive notions of various concepts. (Hypotheticals about torture during this time gave rise much later to a post here about how I would torture Saddam Hussein.) As demolition on penal-substitution and its oversimplified version of justice made progress, I had to start rebuilding.
I started to piece together my own understanding of what the atonement was all about, largely from reading Lehi and Amulek and Alma. The key for me was that the atonement had to be built on better foundational concepts than I had been given growing up in the church. I started to get an opinion about how I would reformulate those foundational elements on which the atonement is based.
At some point, I started to write, which for me is a process by which I find out if I have anything to say, and if so, what it is. During the years this was going on, I moved into a my first house, tore up my yard, put in sprinklers, planted trees, built a retaining wall, and put in a brick walkway. I remember digging trenches with a pickaxe for hours in the hot sun while I pondering all this stuff about the atonement and trying to fit things together. At night, I would stay up late trying to capture all my thoughts and put some organization to them.
I never got to a point of thinking I had it all figured out, or anything approaching that. The idea of the atonement still poses problems for me that I don’t know how to solve. But when I compared my new notions of the atonement, repentance, and forgiveness to the ones I was replacing, I grew more and more convinced that this was important, that I was on the right track. I had read everything I could find on the atonement in Mormon thought and it all seemed to be infected with screwed up notions of justice and the fall. I wondered if anyone else could be helped by the ideas that unlocked new meaning from the atonement for me.
Eventually, I had a version of my thoughts down on paper (although at that time it was three times the length of the published paper). It was the product of isolated thinking; I had no idea how anyone else would respond. The bloggernacle was just being created during this time and I had never heard of it anyway. I passed it around to whoever I thought I could get to give me feedback. A CES instructor in my ward stared back blankly when I handed him a 60 page paper on the atonement I was looking for feedback on. I sent it to my family. I wished more than ever that I knew some of the people who wrote the articles and books I read so I could ask them what they thought and if I was off in the weeds. I rued the fact that Truman Madsen was not my stake president.
It was during this time that it occurred to me (I can’t remember when or how) that I could submit my paper to Dialogue. After all, it was a Dialogue paper that got me started on the topic in the first place, right? I liked my idea better than the Empathy Theory so maybe someone else would too. Somehow I mustered the hubris and audacity to take that idea seriously and I started working on a version I could submit. (I am still surprised by that.) I trimmed it down some and reworked it with a new audience in mind. Eventually I looked up the instructions on how to submit a paper and hit send.
All of this might give you a sense for how blown away I am five years later to show up in a paper by Blake Ostler on the atonement. I mean, sure, he says my theory is not really a theory of atonement at all, but I’m not greedy.
Overall, I feel like Blake was very kind in his critique. He goes out of his way to say that he agrees with my paper as far as it goes. He even tips his hat a bit later in his paper when he uses my term “super-fallen” to describe the state we would have been in if there had been no atonement.‡ Blake’s complaints are four in number:
1. That I claim there are two kinds of laws of justice when there is in reality only one law of justice.
Even though Blake calls this critique “merely a small correction,” it is the most disappointing one to me because it means I didn’t communicate my thoughts on justice very well.
In my paper I never suggest that there are two different kinds of justice. I do say that there are two common notions of justice which are sometimes in conflict and which we wrestle with as we try to figure out the best way to deal with reformed criminals. I point out that both notions of justice appear in the scriptures. Over at Mormon Mentality, I recently explained the importance of these two concepts of justice vis-à-vis Alma 42.
Anyway, without going through the whole analysis, the point of that section of my paper was to argue that justice is ultimately and fundamentally the law of the harvest. The reason this is critically important is that the penal-substitution theory incorrectly assumes that justice is fundamentally punitive in nature. I recently called this “one of the most damaging ideas in theology.” As I said in my paper at the conclusion of my discussion of justice:
This conclusion undermines our usual explanation of the atonement by suggesting that there is no need for suffering (vicarious or otherwise) once we have reformed from our sinful ways. It also provides its own answer to the question of what justice demands: We must learn to live the celestial law before we can be saved in the celestial kingdom.
So imagine my surprise when I read this in Blake’s paper:
According to Morgan, the demands of justice spoken of in the Book of Mormon are the demands for punishment of punitive justice.
It’s not quite as bad as that quote makes it seem. Despite this statement above which made me wonder if the central point of my comments on justice was misunderstood (and despite twice referring to “deserts punishment” instead of “deserts justice”), the rest of Blake’s summary of my position on justice was pretty close. However, Blake’s summary of my position on justice raised enough questions for me that I am simply not sure that his “small correction” to my position is meaningful. Blake and I agree that justice is fundamentally not punitive but deserts based. Over on the Mormon Mentality thread Blake agreed with my analysis of Alma 42.
So, my best guess is that Blake and I are actually in close agreement on the nature of justice and all of this confusion above is evidence that I did a terrible job explaining myself in my paper.
2. That “it is clear that Jesus does not need to suffer in order for his light to be in and through all things”
Blake’s reason for saying it is clear is that, as he says, the light of Christ “was in and through all things before he suffered.” The problem is that, as I quote in my paper, the scriptures say that:
“Jesus Christ. . . descended below all things, . . . that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth; . . . the light of Christ” (D&C 88:5-7; emphasis mine)
Given that the scriptures explicitly disagree with what Blake finds clear, I think it is worth considering that it is not so clear as he suggests. This argument skirts the difficult issue of how the atonement was in effect before Gethsemane and the cross given that the scriptures emphasize the suffering during the Passion as being synonymous with the atonement (e.g. when Amulek describes the atonement as the “great and last sacrifice” to end animal sacrifice). I know that the scriptures refer to Christ as the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,” but I don’t know what that means exactly. The issue of the atonement’s temporality is one I still struggle with.
I find Blake’s critique to be fascinating when compared to statements Blake makes a bit later about his own theory of atonement. When critiquing my theory he says that it is clear Jesus does not have to suffer to be in and through all things, but then in response to Green he says of his own theory that,
[Christ] shares with us the very pain of our sins because whatever energy it is that causes that pain in us is transferred to him in union of our life’s light to be transformed and “quickened” by his light.
That sounds to me like an explanation of why Christ’s union with us (his light being in and through all things) necessarily entails the sharing of our pain. Elsewhere in his paper, Blake says:
The Compassion Theory posits that when the darkness of our sins is mingled with the perfect light of Christ we are enlightened, but the darkness that is in us causes him to experience momentary but excruciating pain.
Again, it appears to me that Blake’s theory is very much aligned with the scripture in D&C 88 whch I base my explanation on. In my paper, after discussing the idea that Christ’s suffering was necessary to infuse the light of Christ through all things, I make this concession:
I readily concede, however, that the theory does not explain why suffering was required to accomplish this infusion. I simply accept that it does on the authority of scripture.
Blake’s theory seems to pick up the same idea and attempt to fill in this gaping hole in my theory with a plausible explanation for why being in and through all things unavoidably requires suffering on Christ’s part. I think that’s great. I tried to be upfront and explicit about this significant hole in my own theory and I am thrilled that Blake’s theory turns out to line up so well with my own so that his ideas here can supplement my thinking so perfectly. Keep in mind that I Blake’s theory had not been published when I wrote my paper (had it been, I am sure I would not have submitted my paper to Dialogue, or even written it for that matter). I wrote my paper because everything I read on the atonement seemed to be based on such wrongheaded foundations. I find it simply remarkable that when I read Blake’s theory we use so many of the exact same scriptures to make the exact same points. We set up, in large measure, the same framework for understanding justice, mercy, and the fall. It still blows me away.
When I first got Blake’s second book (shortly after my paper was published) I started reading his chapters on atonement and I told my wife I was glad my paper got published first because otherwise people would think I had obviously copied big chunks of Blake’s book and tried to pass it off as my own. I know Blake sees a lot of differences between my theory and his own, but when compared with every other theory I have read on the atonement the two are virtually identical. The differences arise primarily because Blake’s theory goes much farther and gets into a level of detail I was not prepared to address. All of that is just as it should be since I am an untrained lay person and he is a scholar, philosopher, and theologian.
Despite Blake’s criticism here, I continue to see his theory as being very much in line with mine on the exact point he criticises. Of course, I welcome his correction.
3. That I don’t mention Gethsemane, the cross, or why Jesus suffered or how he bears our sins.
Actually, when I was writing the paper, every time I talked about “the atonement” I had in mind the suffering of the Passion and the effects of that suffering. It was not until I read Blake’s and Mark D’s theories that I first considered the idea that “the atonement” might refer principally to an ongoing process throughout history. So, although I never mention Gethsemane or the cross they are not really missing from the paper. As to the last part about how Jesus bears our sins, I’ll address that in the next section.
4. That by virtue of the failings above (especially 3) my theory is not a theory of atonement at all.
While I appreciate the temptation to denigrate other theories of atonement when discussing one’s own, were I to make this complaint I would rephrase it from saying my theory “just isn’t a theory of atonement” to saying it “just isn’t a complete theory of atonement.” If it was phrased this way I would have no rejoinder. As it stands, I think Blake is making one of the classic blunders of taking a single missing piece and magnifying it as though this missing piece is actually the central point of atonement theory. As it turns out, I have already responded to this critique specifically with an entire post: Some thoughts on atonement theory.
Let’s put things in perspective. The Ransom Theory does not explain how Christ bears our sins. Is it a real theory of atonement? The moral-influence theories do not explain how Christ bears our sins. Are they real theories of atonement? The Satisfaction theory does not explain how Christ bears our sins. Is it a real theory of atonement? Of course all these are really theories of atonement despite their shortcomings. I explicitly called attention to the biggest hole in my theory in the main text of my paper. This hole certainly makes my theory incomplete, but I see no validity in the claim that it is not really a theory of atonement because of some unexplained piece of the puzzle. Blake says what I have offered is a theory of prevenient grace. Yes, it is that, but it is much more as well. I guess people can decide for themselves.
Blake concludes by saying that he thinks my theory is correct as far as it goes. I’ll take that. It is a better verdict than I could have possibly imagined back when I was sitting at home wondering what a Truman Madsen or a Blake Ostler would think of my reformulation of the atonement. Thanks for the review Blake.
† Frankly, I think the discussion we had with Blake back in 2006 here at NCT was as insightful and in-depth a discussion of his atonement theory as you are likely to find anywhere. Sadly, due to the excessive length of that thread and the structureless nature of online conversations it is not much use to anyone. Still, some of Green’s critiques seem less well aimed than the best shots taken there, imho.
‡ Of course, my discussion of the super-fallen state described in the Book of Mormon does have a footnote to Blake’s paper The Development of the Mormon Concept of Grace in which he makes a very similar point about the Book of Mormon and calls this were-it-not-for-the-atonement state theoretical original sin.