Book Review by Joe O’Leary: Catherine Cornille, ed. Atonement and Comparative Theology: The Cross in Dialogue with Other Religions. New York: Fordham University Press, 2021.

Reviewed by Joseph S. O’Leary, The Japan Mission Journal 77 (1983):139-44.

This book brings a wholesome enlargement of perspective on discussion of the Atonement, engaging with Islam, Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism, Judaism, and African religions. The questions the Atonement raises seem to drop into this dialogue as if from outer space: ‘Why did Jesus have to die? What is the evil that is conquered by his death? How does his death and resurrection effect the salvation of all?’ (Cornille, 1). The answers even within Christian tradition imply different conceptions of ‘God, evil, salvation, human agency, and the relative importance of the divine and human natures in Christ’ (1). Formal theological objections to certain versions of the Atonement today also imply a variety of presuppositions: ‘The penal substitution theories of atonement have been generally rejected in contemporary theology as based on an outdated feudal understanding of retribution. Feminist and other liberation theologians have taken theories of vicarious suffering to task for their tendency to glorify suffering and surrogacy’ (1).

The first four essays address the question ‘Why Atonement?’ Islam, as Daniel Madigan, SJ, relates, gives no saving role to the Cross, and indeed denies the need of salvation altogether. ‘Falā, or the positive achievement in space and time of the divine will, is the Islamic counterpart of Christian “deliverance” and “redemption”’ (Isma’il Raji al-Furuki, quoted, 12). Al-Faruki urges that Christian ‘peccatism’ and ‘saviorism’ undercut human autonomy and dignity (as God’s khalīfa or vice-gerent on earth). Fr Madigan pleads for a more sympathetic interpretation of the Christian discourse of sin and Original Sin, and draws heavily on Karl Rahner to provide this. But could a Muslim be expected to know Rahner’s rather counter-intuitive claim that ‘original sin in the Christian sense in no way implies that the original, personal act of freedom of the first person or persons is transmitted to us as our moral quality’ (quoted, 20). Surely that is what St Augustine claimed and what Catholic parents, quite recently, used to think when having their children baptized. It looks as if Islam corrected Augustine long before modern Jesuits got around to it: ‘no soul will bear another’s burden’ (Q 17:15, quoted, 21). Yet ‘the Qur’ãn unmistakably depicts the origins of human history as marked by disobedience to God’ (23), and teaches that ‘the driving, the urging of the soul or self (nafs) toward evil’ (24).

Even so, since the Merciful one forgives freely and immediately, why is atonement, especially at the cost of an innocent life, required? Fr Madigan responds with standard critiques of Anselm, and of ‘understandings of sola fide and sola gratia that lead to what has been called “grace-ism”’ (33), thanking Muslims for identifying weak points in Christian theology. I was unable to see how this alleged grace-ism differs from the teaching of St Paul and Martin Luther, or indeed from the immediate forgiveness Islam celebrates. Bonhoeffer’s unwise and nauseatingly repeated phrase ‘cheap grace’ is invoked to prove that ‘Christians do have a case to answer when it comes to taking seriously the moral task of the believer and the relationship of ethical action to salvation’ (34). But the case is mostly represented by what Fr Madigan agrees are caricatures, and his recourse to a synergism of ethics and grace as the basis of salvation is quite vulnerable to the powerful critique from the Augustinian tradition, which he himself caricatures as involving ‘facile notions’ of original sin and ‘salvation as a fait accompli that absolves humanity from any further ethical struggle’ (34-5). Interreligious dialogue should present the deepest theology on both sides; shadow-boxing between caricatures is counter-productive, as Fr Madigan himself insists. It would have been better to proceed in that key from the start.

Thierry-Marie Courau, OP, turns to Buddhist accounts of craving (tṛṣṇā), which leads us to build ‘a fantasy world based on our longing for and grasping of seductive objects’ (49). These objects are fetishized or reified as existing in and of themselves rather than in their interdependency with subjective factors in the web of dependent origination. The trio of craving, grasping (upādāna), existence (bhava) within the twelvefold chain of dependent origination ‘are engines (actualizers) for creating new existences (actualized), which all are duhkha’ (51). Taking pity on those enchained in this cycle, the bodhisattvas ‘show that there is nothing to grasp or obtain, that the thirst to “take, keep, or reject” must dry up in order to stop chasing after what does not exist’ (52). Shining this Buddhist lamp on Genesis 2-3 ‘we see more clearly in Genesis that which has always been there.’ Misperception of the forbidden fruit as ‘an object in and of itself’ aroused ‘the craving to appropriate it.’ As a result of this mental confusion and illusion, ‘the human is self-reduced: He was the receiver-of-the-whole-garden; he is now only a prehensile eye and hand, a grasper-after-objects, implicating the second individual in the same confusion’ (53). Christ’s non-grasping at equality with God (cf. Phil 2:5-9) reverses Adam’s confusion and greed, and ‘reveals the non-existence-in-itself of evil, the illusory existence that evil can possess for a time’ (55). If one replaces the ‘garden’ with our threatened planet in this meditation, the shared wisdom of the Buddhist and Christian sources emerges luminously.

Klaus von Stosch looks to a Qu’rān verse: ‘Christ, the son of Mary, was no more than a messenger…. His mother was a woman of truth. They had both to eat their (daily) food’ (Q 5:75, quoted, 71). This is directed at mainstream ‘Byzantine theologians who claimed that Jesus did not need to eat’ (72). ‘In the logic of this theory of atonement, it is very important that Jesus Christ shares our human condition in all its ambiguity and that he also shares our libertarian free will’ (74). I am not sure what this adds to the best Patristic Christology or why it is necessary to learn it from Islam.

Bede Benjamin Bidlack seeks light in Daoism on the meaning and practice of penance. He takes up Elizabeth Johnson’s suggestion that ‘Jesus’s passion and death were never for the sake of satisfaction’ but rather enact ‘divine accompaniment with a suffering world’ (79). This scarcely matches Jesus’s self-description as ‘a ransom (lutron) for many’ (Mk 10:45; Mt 20:28), or his identification as a means by which sins are forgiven in Rom 3:25 (hilastērion), Heb 2:17 (hilaskesthai); 1 Jn 2:2 (hilasmos). Daoism can ‘fill the void left by Johnson’s accompaniment interpretation of the cross’ (79). In syncretistic ‘Numinous Treasure Daoism’ ‘universal salvation is the notion that ritual behavior can relieve the suffering of other beings, and bodhisattvas are agents devoted to this end,’ with salvation meaning ‘to ferry across illusions, changes, and the distresses of this world and the next’ (83). In one ritual, ‘the so-called penitents… are taking upon themselves the suffering of those in hell’ (87) in a communal intercession. ‘Atonement means bringing the cosmos, oneself, and the society into harmony with the Dao’ (92). This chimes with an integral Christian notion of penance as what ‘leads to atonement, which is a reconciliation, a healing, a re-conformity with the divine will’ (97).

The second batch of essays examines interreligious perspectives on the Cross. Indian resistance to the doctrine of the atonement would previously have been dismissed as just ‘the heathen in his blindness.’ But as revisited by Francis X. Clooney, SJ, it turns out that the critiques of Ram Mohun Roy (1772-1833) and Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) chime with current intra-Christian objections. A Hindu convert to Catholicism, Brahmobandhab Upadhyay (1861-1907), argued that Hindu reformers were ‘infatuated with the notion of self-salvation and self-divinization’ (110) and noted that ‘other religions too, and particularly in India, knew the fact and value of vicarious suffering’ (111). The Hindu world was unpersuaded, an impasse that shows us ‘the limits of moral exemplarity (Christ’s selflessness) and even loving intervention (his suffering all for the sake of humans), if such are perceived also as rebukes’ to their traditions (111). Clooney seeks another route, in ‘the aesthetic, contemplative power of gazing upon the crucified’ (105).

The Mughal emperor Jahangir (1569-1627) was impressed by Jesuit adoration of the suffering Christ. Vedānta Deśika (1267-1369) offered a traditional Indian basis for this in his account of how Vishnu ‘experienced suffering, grief, and fear during his divine descents’ (116). According to Vīrarāghavācārya (1897-1983), the divine sufferings of Rāma are ‘as real as the most effective performances on stage,’ and affected pious audiences for centuries ‘as God most compellingly demonstrates his commitment to his people’ (117). Hindu spiritual leaders such as Keshab Chunder Sen (1838-1884)—who cried: ‘Jesus, thou art atonement incarnate’ (118)—and Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) reached an affective locus where ‘Hindu and Christian insights can begin to cohere in contemplation of the holy person who suffers’ (118).

Michelle Voss Roberts complains about (mostly African American) students who sing hymns on the Blood of Christ: ‘I know the students are aware of how the logic of “blood shed for me” can reinforce unhealthy ideals of sacrifice and suffering for women and racialized persons’ (130). It ‘feels like a rebuke, a rude gesture, directed at faculty like me’ (131). But for many Christians it is deeply liberating to sing, ‘Me immundum, munda tua sanguine’ (Aquinas); ‘Blood of my Savior, bathe me in Thy tide’ (Ignatius Loyola/Frederick Faber), ‘Just as I am, without one plea/ Save that Thy Blood was shed for me’ (Charlotte Elliott), or Archbishop Welby’s favorite: ‘And can it be that I should gain/ An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?’ (Charles Wesley). Should these be canceled? Should we balk at the New Testament glorification of the Blood (Mk 14: 23; Mt 26:27-8; Lk 22:20; Jn 6:53-56; 19:34-7; Acts 20:28; Rom 3:25; 5:9; 1 Cor 10:16; Col 1:20; Eph 1:7; Heb 9:12-26; 10:19; 1 Pt 1:19; 1 Jn 1:7; Rev 1;5; 5:9; 7:14; 12:11)?

When she turns to contemplating a Bhāgavata Purāa maṇḍala of the eight phases of love however, Roberts embraces visceral Indian imagery, such as a hymn involving ‘a “rosary of hands and heads,” entrails, and a blood-stained elephant hide’ (137). She favors Julian of Norwich, whose visions are at the bloodier end of the spectrum of representations of the Passion: ‘the bleeding head of Christ… the flowing blood of Christ,’ though they present atonement ‘not as punishment for sin, but as union with God in love’ (140). The caricature of atonement as God’s cruel punishment for sin has too much purchase in current theology; in standard Christian piety it signifies precisely the loving union enabled by forgiveness of sin.

In the last quartet of essays, on ‘rethinking redemption,’ Marianne Moyaert, in dialogue with Jews, notes that ‘since the Shoah, the idea that suffering may somehow be redemptive has come under tremendous pressure’ (190). But might one not say that the Shoah puts every article of faith under tremendous pressure? Joshua Ralston engages in dialogue with Muslims who ‘have challenged the historicity of Jesus’s death, rejected its salvific meaning, mocked its metaphysical implications, and questioned the propriety of its ubiquitous presence in churches, liturgy, and ritual’ (214). Again, such a critique seems too all-enveloping to be illuminating on the precise topic of atonement. A reply to it would involve revival of the anti-docetic polemic of early theologians such as Tertullian, reinforced by modern scriptural scholarship.

Leo D. Lefebure reads ‘atonement’ as ‘being at one’ and sees notions of atoning sacrifice as secondary. Like other contributors he talks of the biblical doctrine as if it were merely an interpreted choice: ‘Often Christian theologians have interpreted the death of Jesus on the cross as an atoning sacrifice that was in some way necessary for salvation’ (240). He quotes D. T. Suzuki’s Mysticism Christian and Buddhist (London: Unwin, 1988): ‘The crucified Christ is a terrible sight and I cannot help associating it with the sadistic impulse of a physically affected brain’; ‘What is needed in Buddhism is enlightenment, neither crucifixion nor resurrection’ (240). This is matched with some feminist theologians who ‘accuse traditional theologies of atonement of holding up child abuse as an ideal’ (242). Surely we have had enough hand-wringing over such sweeping critiques?

Shinran radicalized the Buddhist teaching of the Three Poisons: ‘we are full of ignorance and blind passion. Our desires are countless, and anger, wrath, jealousy, and envy are overwhelming, arising without pause’ (quoted, 243). Our egocentric calculative thinking (hakarai) poisons even religious acts. Lefebure asks: ‘To what degree do Christian actions and reflections in relation to atonement move within the orbit of what Shinran calls hakarai?’ (244). St Anselm corrected cruder calculations about the atonement in terms of buying off the devil but introduced a subtler hakarai by his focus on the debt we owe to divine honor. ‘Only humans owe the debt, but only God can pay it; thus a God-human is necessary’ (245).

Shinran preached a turn-around by which one abandons calculation and the very idea of a substantial ego to entrust oneself totally to the compassion of Amida Buddha. Such a dynamic of love and grace is also the very heart of the Atonement as understood by Paul and John, and modern critics of the doctrine generally give it insufficient attention. Shinran’s own tradition fell into the deviations of hakarai in its ‘turmoil over religious acts’ at the end of the 18th century. ‘One prominent leader, Chido (1736-1805), was arrested, carried to trial in a cage, condemned as a heterodox’ (251). These feuds demand to be overcome in ‘mature, integrated practice’ in which ‘both the teleological dichotomy between this world and the Pure Land and the interpersonal dichotomy between self and Amida Buddha are “in some sense overcome, though not eliminated”’ (251, citing Dennis Hirota). Shinran teaches: ‘Other Power is the Buddha’s power that has become one’s own as shinjin. It is the power of the heart and mind of the person in whom self-power falls away and disappears as oneness with the Buddha’s mind is realized’ (251-2). Christian union with Christ may be ontologically different from the kind of fusion this suggests, but it lies in a similar realm of mystical insight. Devotion to the cross of Christ massively stresses the believer’s trusting identification with Christ, or Christ’s gracious identification with the believer. Criticism of the atonement that misses this fundamental tone of mystical identification is misguided. Buddhism challenges Christians to retrieve and deepen their traditions in the key of enlightenment, in a way that goes deeper into the power of Christ’s adoption of the role of sacrificial Lamb rather than distorting or diluting it.

S. Mark Heim discusses ‘generous Buddhist readings of the cross and their emphasis on a dimension of nondual realization in it’ (259). He resists a common Buddhist perception that ‘Jesus’s life and, above all, his death, plainly lacks the marks of the highest levels of spiritual attainment,’ because of ‘Christ’s disjunctive relationship with God’ (260). Heim believes that ‘we can be instructed by Buddhist teaching to formulate the realization dimension in the cross,’ with special reference to ‘the three Christian “registers” of non-duality: apophaticism, immanence, and communion’ (263). The first of these he associates with emptiness and no-self, the second with buddha nature. The cross is ‘emptiness embodied’ (263), and is seen less as a historical event than as ‘a meditative achievement’ (261). It symbolizes something perennially true, and is critiqued in terms of its adequacy to that function. ‘Suffer with Jesus Christ’ is a mantra for dealing with physical pain; in taking the focus away from self it generates many of the effects of Buddhist meditation. Heim links the more positive teaching of an immanence of buddha nature in all sentient beings with the Eastern Orthodox language of divinization, and with ‘a mode of God’s presence in and to the world’ with which one can commune ‘as a form of “bare awareness,” which is always available underneath the business of communicative consciousness’ (268). This is ‘an at-one-ment, a human identification with a divine presence that is always the case’ (270). When Heim turns to the third aspect of ‘Christian nonduality,’ namely ‘communion,’ he says, ‘Jesus’s death is about change in what Buddhism regards as a world of convention and projection, but what Christians regard as part and parcel of the kingdom of God’ (274). Jesus is unique ‘in his eschatological role as creating saving communion among humans and with God…. This is not an ontological condition, but a relational achievement’ (276).

Perhaps the lesson of all these interreligious encounters is that Christian theologians need first to sort out what they mean by Atonement before a firm platform of dialogue can be constructed.

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  1. Sean O'Conaill says:

    “Al-Faruki urges that Christian ‘peccatism’ and ‘saviorism’ undercut human autonomy and dignity (as God’s khalīfa or vice-gerent on earth).”

    This Islamic defence of ‘human autonomy’ was surely an opportunity to introduce René Girard’s critique of the Enlightenment’s belief in ‘human autonomy’ – the origin of western secularism’s disdain for all talk of ‘sin’? Surely no survey of the inter-Christian discussion of Atonement could be complete today if it ignores the impact of Girard’s theory of mimetic desire upon discussion of the whole spectrum of high-level questions, from Original Sin to Redemption and Atonement?

    Contemplation of the cross has indeed liberated many in the Christian tradition from ‘worldly’ desires – such as the desire for wealth, power and status. This is obvious from the record (e.g. Francis of Assisi). With every day that passes the need for a more general liberation from these desires becomes more stark, if our species is to survive – and yet the cult of ‘autonomy’ resists all talk of ‘repentance’.

    Offering as it does a re-interpretation of Jesus’s claim to have ‘overcome the world’ as a claim to have resisted the tendency of the human culture in which we are all enmeshed to mislead our desires, Girardian analysis updates for Christianity the meaning of an ‘imitation of Christ’ – as well as of the ‘ransom’ Jesus himself referred to. No survey of the global discussion of Atonement is complete if it ignores this school of thought.

    This is not a criticism of Joe O’Leary’s review, only of the work he is reviewing – if it is as incomplete in its survey of the inter-Christian landscape as his review suggests.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    Sean, Girard is mentioned in Catherine’s intro, but not in the interreligious discussions as far as I recall (I’ll check tomorrow).

    “Surely no survey of the inter-Christian discussion of Atonement could be complete today if it ignores the impact of Girard’s theory of mimetic desire upon discussion of the whole spectrum of high-level questions, from Original Sin to Redemption and Atonement?” Alas, Girard seems to have been shunted to the margins among theologians, as happened with Liberation Theology.

    I had a chat with Girard in 1978 (having visited Illiers, Proust’s Combray, during the day; he confirmed my sense that visiting that spot ruined the novel). On the topic of his just published Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde our conversation did not get very far. I just said that the good points he was making did not require abandoning the vocabulary of sacrifice. Later on, Girard became less virulently antisacrificial.

    The value of Girard’s ideas best appears when they are reintegrated into the wider anthropological debate on sacrifice, as represented by such works as Burkert’s Homo Necans.

    Some interesting essays here: (If you would like to send me an essay on why Girard is so important, it will appear in the next issue of the JMJ alongside a piece on Liberation Theology.)-

  3. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Thanks, Joe. Have sent you a trial essay, hoping it doesn’t get lost in the email deluge!

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