A friend recently told me he doesn’t believe in God anymore. At least, he no longer believes in a Christian God.
“Why?” I asked.
“I can’t believe the Creator of the Universe got angry at humans for eating an apple, and to get even, he sent his son to die and make things right. The Christian God seems mean and petty. You’re telling me he used his son to clean up our messes—to ‘atone’ for our shortcomings with a bloodstained sacrifice? That kind of God makes me feel guilty and ashamed.”
My friend’s doubts are similar to those raised by many others throughout history. During the first millennium, Christians struggled with related questions. Why did God send Jesus, and how come he had to die on the cross?
St. Anselm and John Duns Scotus proposed two answers.
St. Anselm claimed Jesus died to pay a debt for our sins. He contended Jesus was a human sacrifice consistent with the Jewish practice of offering sacrificial lambs to atone for wrongdoings. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we were reconciled with God.
Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus offered a different theory. He maintained that Jesus’ death on the cross was God’s self-revelation of infinite, unconditional love. Scotus believed that even if humans had not sinned, God still would’ve sent his son to demonstrate how much he loves us and to invite us to embody that love through our lives.
According to Scotus, it was as if God said, “I’m going to become human to let you know you are good. And you can do anything to me, even spit at me, crown my head with thorns, and kill me, and I’ll still love you—unconditionally. I’ll even go one step further by placing my Spirit of love and wisdom into each person’s heart.”
Anselm’s atonement theory became the doctrine adopted by a majority of Christians. Scotus’ unconditional love theory was not rejected, but instead referred to as the minority or alternative doctrine.
I grew up with Anselm’s theory. The good nuns at my grade school taught that God so loved the world he sent his only son that we might have eternal life. Those words comforted me. They brought about a sense of gratitude and humility. I was awed by Jesus’ willingness to save me by his life and death.
But, my humility soon morphed into guilt when I was told I was flawed, broken, and unworthy. I felt I could never measure up to what God expected. I developed a shadow self, believing God was always disappointed in me.
As I grew older, however, a wise teacher introduced me to Scotus’ view of unconditional love.
My understanding of God expanded. I enjoyed the freedom to let God love me as I am, where I am. I opened my heart to God’s unconditional love, allowing Divine Compassion to embrace and shape me so I could become a vessel of love flowing in and through me, teaching me how to love unconditionally like Jesus did.
Over time, I dumped some of my guilt. My concept of God as an angry judge shifted to that of God as a loving father.
I suppose we can debate whose theory—Anselm or Scotus’—was right. But, that debate only sends us into our heads for an intellectual battle. It doesn’t help deepen our relationship with God.
I wonder if, instead of endless debates, we took the best of Anselm and Scotus’ theories and reconciled them with the three simple truths they point to:
Humility. Humans need Divine Presence to be complete. God’s willingness to place his son on earth is a sign and symbol of the intersection between Divine and human hearts. And when we mess up, God’s there, willing to help us grow—if we reach out to him.
Unconditional Love. God reveals his true nature as that of unconditional love through Jesus’ life. We need not fear or run from God. He loves us no matter what, because that’s who God is—love.
Sacred Vessels. We are created to receive and embody Christ’s love—to be the sacred vessels through which God infuses the world with creative love. As we open our hearts to Divine Compassion, we co-create with God. Human and Divine become One.
While healthy remorse for our shortcomings is an important part of humility, an overemphasis on guilt rubs our noses in shame and leads us to walk away in fear.
What if we dropped the guilt, embraced our humble need for God’s Divine Presence in our lives, saw God as he is—unconditional love—and allowed him to mold and shape us into the sacred vessels we are?
Maybe it’s time we dump the guilt, and live in love as God intended.
—brian j plachta