Atonement – contuning the conversation 4, and maybe the end for now

Is the Eucharist, and thereby the transubstantiation of blood, necessary to complete the work of incarnation?
I know no other place to start than by asserting that blood as symbol of the divine gift of life cannot be avoided; there is just too much of it in scripture not to be taken seriously.  But that is not to say that blood is in itself the divine gift of life, and since my tradition does not use the word transubstantiation, and denies the medieval terms by which it was defined as a sort of alchemy, I find it difficult to understand arguments in which it is used.  However, the main issue is whether the Eucharist is necessary to complete the work of incarnation.  I don’t think it is.  Rather, it is a participation in the work of incarnation by Jesus’ own invitation and command.  By that I mean that the ministry of the generosity of grace that you have illuminated in your exposition on Luke 7 is to be continued by “the body of Christ”, which is the Church.  The Eucharist is, at its heart, the mystical participation with Jesus in the moment of the Last Supper, receiving with those who were there the bread and wine in which Christ is truly present as holy food and drink for the the work that lies ahead.  In it we, in a sense, take the place of that woman who was a sinner (Luke 7) and both give thanks for and receive the outpouring of God’s generous grace in no less an intimate and physical way than did she.
Having said that, I also have to admit that few persons presenting themselves at the altar to receive Holy Communion actually think about it in that way.
As for your heretical take on incarnation as meaning made flesh, on free will, on prevenient grace, and on gratuitous generosity, I think you have nailed it quite well, and if that is heresy we’ll both hang together. 
You raised the question about the relation of power (dunamis) of the Spirit as over against the power of blood to provide meaning.
My take is that blood has no symbolic meaning without the power of the Spirit.  It is only the power of the Spirit that gives any sense to it at all.  From the blood of sheep as a symbol of the divine gift of life, to the annunciation of new life in Mary’s womb, to the wine declared as Christ’s blood, to the blood of the cross, it is all driven by the power of the Spirit of God.
In your penultimate statement you said: “Here is my struggle: Is blood so powerful that it has to be transubstantiated to have the promise of meaning fulfilled?  Or may the promise of meaning be fulfilled as our bodies inflect each other out of gratuitous generosity?  If the latter takes place, the former is not necessary.”
An evangelical and many mainline Protestants would agree, at least so far as the Eucharist is concerned.  Although, for some reason strange to me, while they would never be caught with a crucifix anywhere in sight, they tend to wallow in the idea of blood sacrifice.  As a catholic, or small ‘o’ orthodox Christian, gratuitous generosity that is authentically holy can only flow through me by power of the same intimacy and touch received by the woman who was a sinner.  Even at that, as I leave the table, just as she did, to return to the world in which I live and am known as the sinner I am, I find that outflowing of gratuitous generosity draining away through the many cracks and holes in my being.  That is why I return to the table time and again, each time as if for the first time.

A Public Conversation

Dear Readers,
What you have been experiencing these last few days is a long conversation about the meaning of atonement mostly between my friend Tom and me.  It’s a first.  We often have conversations such as this one, but never before worked out in public on a blog site.  I imagine we will be done in another few days.  In the meantime, your reflections are always welcome. 
CP

Atonement – contuning the conversation 3

Does the incarnation require the cross and then resurrection?
I keep trying to back away from words such as require and necessary in favor of inevitable.  To be a requirement one would have to argue that the precondition of fulfillment through incarnation was crucifixion and resurrection.  I know it sounds like splitting hairs, but it seems to me that legal execution by some means was inevitable but not a requirement.  At the same time, resurrection is not inevitable, but it is a requirement in order for the work of incarnation to be completed.   
I guess the difference between requirement and inevitability has to do with freedom.  Something that is required does not permit freedom to operate.  Something that is inevitable recognizes that under given conditions, human freedom will inevitably take certain turns.  Highways around here are posted at 60mph.  It is inevitable that human freedom will result in average speeds closer to 65mph, but that is not a requirement. It is inevitable that some who go faster will get tickets because troopers are required to issue them.
Is incarnation a blood event?
I suppose it is in the sense that Jesus is both the subject and object of the story, but I’m unwilling to suggest any connection to the doctrine of transubstantiation, and wonder where you see that connection.  As for Mel Gibson and fellow travelers, I just don’t get their obsession with what you call the “bloody miracle.”  It seems to me that even the most vivid of New Testament biblical witnesses (Heb. 9:22: Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins) is firmly rooted in the symbolic meaning of blood as found in the Hebrew scriptures rather than in the fundamentalist demand for a bloody substitutionary sacrificial punishment.  
How deep is quid pro quo thinking?
All that aside, I believe that a great deal of ordinary Christian teaching moves in the direction of a quid pro quo, not because it reflects anything of Jesus, but because it is human to live so deeply into an exchange economy that anything other seems irrational.    The Old Testament is filled with the language of reciprocity in which humans constantly demand of God that he live up to the contract of exchange the way a proper god should.      I do not believe that such language justifies a theology of exchange or reciprocity as coming from God. The story of Job puts the lie to all of that, which is no doubt why it is such a hard book to comprehend.  To be sure there is only a slight difference between a divine covenant and a negotiated contract, but it is an important one.  As Krister Stendahl was fond of pointing out, the divine covenant is never negotiated, it is imposed.  However, it is not imposed by coercion after the manner of a conquering emperor.  It is imposed by God as nonnegotiable with the single condition that it be accepted of one’s own free will.  God’s continual renewal of his covenants constantly drive in the direction of the divine outpouring of generosity not based on exchange that was only fully revealed in Jesus Christ, and from which we immediately began to retreat as soon as Jesus was safely out of sight.
Is Incarnation about blood or spirit?
Why not both.  Consider the two annunciation stories.  The child in Mary’s womb was proclaimed to be of the Holy Spirit.  It is, on the one hand, a rejection of the Greek idea of the separation of spirit and flesh, and, on the other, a dramatic amendment to the Hebrew idea of an embodied soul.  If there is something that comes from God that inspires all life, whether in breath or blood, then the child in Mary’s womb is, in a sense, self inspired because he is not the recipient of the gift of life from God but the very source itself.  I think that is what John was trying to get at in his prologue.  As a small ‘o’ orthodox Christian, I have no problem with the virgin birth, but neither do I believe that it is necessary for the Christ to be, as John says, the Word of God made flesh.  Nor do I understand the gross manipulations the Roman Catholics have gone through to assert the freedom of Jesus from original sin by way of the immaculate conception of Mary.  To me that is just pure theological silliness.
Is there a relationship between human evil and the human body?
Christian theology has been struggling with that for two thousand years.  Again, I suspect it is the heritage of too much Greek thinking.  Augustine’s concupiscence is what we are stuck with, and while I know very little about the early Church fathers, my guess is that he inherited it from them.  It flies in the face of the incarnation, however you understand that.  In whatever way Jesus was the visible presence of the invisible God, he was so in the flesh and all of this works were works of the flesh in which restoration to wholeness illuminated the Genesis language declaring that what God created was very good.  The way I see it, what gives life to human evil is free will.  Out of that will we empower ourselves to bodily do things that are destructive, corrosive, evil.  That certainly engages the body in evil, but I don’t see how bodily existence itself can be held accountable.  
Is the victory of the cross the outpouring from Jesus of nonreciprocal generosity in the face of God’s apparent abandonment?  
Yes, I think that is a huge part of what is meant by the victory of the cross.  You said it best when you wrote: “Forgiveness out of love on the cross radically transformed its meaning: the presence of terror became the promise that love overcomes: that the fulness of what life can mean follows from God’s generosity even here in this most horrific of public deaths; even this is for love.”
So why go on to insist on the literal resurrection of the body?
In part because it is attested to by those who were there, but more because it is the definitive symbol that there is no separation between spirit and flesh.   The restoration to wholeness includes the material and the spiritual in mutuality.  That restoration to wholeness answers the problem of sin and the problem of finitude, each in its own way.  Does that make it a “failure of nerve” and a “fall back on the sealing of a [reciprocal] deal?”  It shouldn’t, but I do think that it gets expressed that way in far too much, perhaps most, Christian preaching and teaching.  

Atonement Part 2

For readers who are interested, the following is a continuation of a conversation begun in the previous post.  It will not make much sense unless you read that post and the comments in response to it.   The questions below come from them and my responses are not definitive answers but a continuation of the conversation.
The question is; “Is the victory of the cross the victory of God’s grace over human evil rather than in relation to the human body?”
I believe the issue is not either/or but both/and.  Moreover, I’m not convinced that the cross makes much sense unless it is bracketed by the incarnation and resurrection.  That said, the cross is the victory over human evil, or sin if you will, not that it is erased from the human condition, but that it is demonstrated to have no ultimate power over one’s relationship with God that we call righteousness.  And, it is also the victory over human finitude so that the fullness of life’s meaning is not determined by the few short years between birth and death.  If this sounds familiar, it is true that I have been heavily influenced in my thinking by Niebuhr.   
The question is; “How can you reconcile your emphasis on the generosity of love that has the grace to forgive from the cross when it becomes the ‘bloody miracle’ of the agony of the cross that itself promises forgiveness IF I just say yes to all that spilled blood – a quid pro quo?”
I am grateful to Anselm for continuing the exploration of the meaning of atonement, but I fail to see why we should be stuck in a thousand year old doctrine that has been twisted into macabre shapes by 18th, 19th and 20th century fundamentalists who delight in featuring an outraged God demanding punishment for sin in exchange for life.  I admit that it appeals to a great many people who cannot conceive of a superabundant forgiving grace that demands no exchange, especially one calculated in terms of human lust for vengeance.  That kind of thinking is fed not only by Mel Gibson’s atrocious theology, but also by most every action movie plot out there, which makes it hard to get away from. 
Those of us who worship out of the Catholic tradition are also faced with Eucharistic language peppered with blood language that seldom gets explained, or at least explained the way I think it should be.  It goes back to the early Jewish understanding that blood is a divine gift that gives life to all creatures.  With that in mind, the blood of Christ is not simply a symbol of that gift but the very source of life itself.  In using the word symbol I mean it to be understood both as representative of and participating in.  In that light, the blood of the cross is symbolically an attempt by evil, in whatever form, to extinguish the source of life itself: the victory of death over life at its most basic and universal meaning.  I do not see that as necessary but as inevitable, and not as a calculated scheme of the devil, but simply on the grounds that, sooner or later, the Romans and Sadducees would have to get rid of Jesus for ordinary political reasons, but political reasons that symbolize the original sin that is the human desire to be in control of all things, including destiny.
The resurrection is the symbol, in the way I mean symbol, that the very source of life and the superabundance of God’s grace cannot be overcome.  Forgiveness comes not through bloody sacrifice but through grace, and human finitude is given meaning through the resurrection. 
Obviously this needs some work, but it’s as far as I can go right now.