_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 3 – Introducing Atonement
Posted by joespencer on June 14, 2012
In my last post, I said a few things about the dilemma Robinson sets up in his first chapter. I noted there that he never gets to the business of atonement there (though he pleads with his reader to continue long enough to get to the good news). It’s the second chapter that finally introduces the atonement, as well as goes on to say a few things about its nature. I want to look in this post just at the way the chapter introduces the atonement. My focus, then, will be on pages 8-17. I’ll take up the remainder of the chapter in my next post.
The chapter opens with a nice little formula that provides the book with its title. Here’s the relevant passage:
Unfortunately, there are many members of the Church who … naively hold on to mutually contradictory propositions without even realizing the nature of the contradiction. For example, they may believe that the Church is true, that Jesus is the Christ, and that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, while at the same time refusing to accept the possibility of their own complete forgiveness and eventual exaltation in the kingdom of God. They believe in Christ, but they do not believe Christ. He says, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. I can make you pure and worthy and celestial,” and they answer back, “No, you can’t. The gospel only works for other people; it won’t work for me.” (pp. 8-9)
They believe in Christ; they don’t believe Christ. The task, then, is to begin believing Christ—the title of the book for good reason. It’s a nice formula, and I couldn’t agree more that this is a real problem in Mormonism. A host of historical and sociological factors combine to make Latter-day Saints lay heavier emphasis on knowing confidently that the gospel is true than on humbly knowing Christ. This problem, as Terryl Givens helped us all to see a few years ago, is deeply at work in our relation to scripture (see his By the Hand of Mormon). We treat the Book of Mormon more as sacred signifier (it signifies the truth of the Church) than as sacred signified (nothing in particular points us to the task of seriously reading its pages). Because it’s sociologically important for Latter-day Saints to know that the Book of Mormon is true, we seldom get very far beyond that to the work of coming to know the Book of Mormon. We’re plenty content just to have read the required passages (or perhaps the whole book once or twice through) and prayed for a divine sign that the largest church embracing the book is the “right” institution to join. Frankly, our knowledge of the Book of Mormon, as a people, is pathetic.
Robinson is saying something similar regarding the nature of the atonement. We know that there’s an atonement, but we have a hard time giving ourselves to it. “But,” as Robinson says, “believing in Jesus’ identity as the Christ is only the first half of it. The other half is believing in his ability, in his power to cleanse and to save—to make unworthy sons and daughters worthy” (pp. 9-10). From static identity to transformative ability. That’s the transition Robinson calls for. And he’s more than right to call for it. Way more than right.
Robinson follows this up with a bit of “when I was a bishop” stories. But, following the tone established from the preface, he does an excellent job not coming across in a condescending way. Rather than giving us a single, supposedly illustrative example in which he, wise bishop, instructs a flippantly unchaste young woman, we get variations on a theme of doubt. “One individual might say,” and “another might say,” and “someone else once said” (p. 10). The anonymity of these voices is instructive. We hear our own complaints in them, and we don’t spend much time pretending we’re not thinking about exactly what the young woman in the usual stories really did the night before her visit with the wise bishop.
Even better, Robinson brings the series of voices to an end with this beautiful little story:
My favorite example of this kind of thinking was a man who once said to me, “Look, bishop, I’m just not celestial material.” I guess I finally lost my patience and responded by saying, “So what’s your point? Of course you’re not celestial material. Neither am I, neither is any of us. That’s why we need the atonement of Christ, which can make us celestial. John, why don’t you just admit your real problem—that you don’t have any faith in Christ.?” Well, he got a little angry at that, for he had been a Protestant before he became a Latter-day Saint, and both as a Protestant and as a Latter-day Saint, he had believed in Jesus Christ. He shot back with, “How dare you say that to me? I know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” “Yes,” I relied, “you believe in Christ, you just don’t believe Christ. He says he can make you celestial material, and you have the audacity to sit there and say, ‘No, he can’t.’ You believe all right—you believe Christ makes promises he can’t keep.” (p. 11)
Why does this story work so well? Because the first time we get a concrete story about Robinson as bishop, we see him lose his patience, get snippy with someone who seems to be genuinely seeking help, and frustratedly condemn his congregant in an argumentative spirit. We don’t get the wise but the struggling bishop, the one who desperately wants to help people but who is beginning to see that most of their pleas for help are—as I tried to point out in my last post—actually ways of pretending that the problem is God’s lack of love or ability. Here, here if anywhere, Robinson nails grace. His “You believe all right—you believe Christ makes promises he can’t keep!” works so well because grace is the halo around those words. At the core of all sinfulness is self-deception, rejection of grace, and so much playacting. Grace isn’t the answer to a dilemma; it’s what we prefer the imaginary dilemma to.
Robinson explains this beautifully:
If you were to ask these people what their spiritual problems were, they would insist on X, Y, or Z—some unique or special problem encountered down the road some distance on their spiritual journey. But their actual problem is not X, Y, or Z, nor is it unique, nor is it down the road any distance at all. Their real problem is with A number 1—the very first step. (p. 11)
The problem isn’t that we’re in a dilemma and need the good news; the problem is that we’re in an imaginary dilemma because they don’t like the good news. Our problem, in other words, is that we transform believing into believing in in order to put the good news at a distance, to set up a long road of a spiritual journey that we’ll have to travel down forever before we can be happy. We want to be miserable. We love our misery. We feed on it. We can’t get enough of our self-pity. Scared to death that happiness might overtake us, we do everything we can to lock it out. The real problem is the first step because there’s no journey to be made; the problem, in other words, isn’t that we haven’t taken the first step of the journey to perfection, but that we’ve taken the first step of our obsessive journey away from the Perfect One.
Right at this point, Robinson begins to muddy the waters a bit, though. Having said some of his most beautiful words, he begins to address “the demand for perfection.” I think we can agree with him that “in order to receive a celestial glory, we must become perfect” (p. 13), and I especially think we can agree with him that “the great secret is this: Jesus Christ will share his perfection, his sinlessness, his righteousness, his merits with us” (p. 14). All that is quite right. If we’re to be perfect, it isn’t our own perfection with which we’re to be perfect, but Christ’s. Moroni 10:32 is quite explicit about this: we’re to be perfect in Christ, not in ourselves. But then this problem crops up, this concession to perfection’s supposed demand when Robinson distinguishes between “the short run” and “the long run”:
In the short run we are considered perfect, accepted as perfect, by becoming one with a perfect Christ. In the long run, this makes it possible for us actually to become perfect in our own right at some future time, but that time is long after the Judgment and long after we have already inherited the kingdom of God through the merit, mercy, and perfection of Jesus Christ. (p. 14)
Here the old problem, which Robinson has just so carefully solved, sneaks back in. With the short run/long run distinction, Robinson implies all over again that there is a long road with an end, an end that consists of our finally becoming in some sense independent of Christ, perfect “in our own right.” I can’t buy this. If there is a road, it never ends. The aim isn’t, as in the business world, a kind of independence. The aim is, as Benjamin emphasizes, to be sealed to Christ as His sons and daughters. We’re not using Christ to get to the end of the road, nor is Christ just kindly helping us until we can help ourselves. The message of Christ’s grace is in part that nothing can be done alone, that every good thing is done together. There’s a reason that exaltation is a business of sealing, of families, of being together. I very much doubt that the being-together is just the reward for our independent ability. Rather, I very much suspect that being-together is simply a way of being that can be made eternal for those who embrace it here, for those who refuse the egotistic appeal of achieving independence.
Perhaps still more troubling about the short run/long run distinction is that it pretends all over again that the great dilemma of the first chapter isn’t imaginary. It makes grace, yet again, a response to a more primordial dilemma, undoing Paul’s claim that the dilemma is our way of getting out of grace, our way of distancing ourselves from God so that we can get to work on our projects for a while. If we buy the idea that grace is just the way to get off the ground in the short run, but that it’s a means to the long-run end of radical independence, then we’ll find ourselves always wondering whether we’re strong enough to be without Christ.
We’ve got to come back to the very givenness, the unconditionality of grace. It’s not something that comes in response to our humility; we have to humble ourselves because we’ve proudly rejected the grace that has already been given. Grace isn’t a response to humility and repentance; pride and sin are a response to grace. Independence of Christ, in the short run or the long run, is pride and sin, and we can only desire that or even think it desirable if we demand that Christ’s grace function on our own terms—terms that sound a bit more scriptural than what we usually demand, but our own terms nonetheless.
But let’s ignore Robinson’s “long run” for the moment. If we do so, we find that he seems to get everything right. And he certainly gets things right in the last few pages I wanted to deal with in this post. Here he tells the story of his wife’s burnout. I said a few things in my first post about this problem. Notice that Robinson doesn’t come to it until this point. Burnout isn’t his focus, but it nicely illustrates the problems associated with belief in independent perfection—in the short run, but just as well, in my opinion, in the long run.
The story, I think, is probably familiar enough. It’s very instructive to set this version of the story side by side with the other two versions to be found in the BYU devotional and the Ensign article. Robinson does a much better job here. Where in the previous versions he too easily comes across as the wise and knowing husband, he’s fixed the problems of tone and the story is powerful in this final version. As he tells the story, their conversation after his wife’s collapse began when he “made her made with [his] nagging” (p. 15). And the conversation takes a turn for the better only when the following little thing happens:
Finally, it occurred to me what the problem was, and frankly, I was astounded. Here I was supposed to be a “doctor” in the field of religion, and I couldn’t see Mt. Everest right in front of my nose. What I realized finally was that Janet did not completely understand the core of the gospel—the atonement of Christ. She knew the demands, but not the good news. (p. 17)
This works beautifully. Robinson isn’t the wise and knowing husband who instructs his struggling wife. He’s the clueless doctor of religion who, exactly like his wife, doesn’t see the problem. They’re clueless together. My apologies if I keep coming back to the tone, but I think it’s crucial to see why this works so well. What we’re seeing put on display is a bunch of people who are being forced, over and over again, to see that they refuse to see what’s right in front of them—that they refuse to see the gracefulness of grace. What we’re seeing put on display is ourselves. We’re seeing our own marriages, our own conversations, our own clueless groping through our self-deceptions to a moment of transformative clarity. Janet “tr[ies] not to yell at the kids,” but “can’t seem to help it” (p. 16); Steve “didn’t notice or appreciate how much pressure [his wife] was under until something blew” (p. 15). They’re clueless humans, but they come, eventually, to see what they’re doing.
We’re in the same boat, short run and long run. We haven’t much of an idea what we’re up to, how desperately we’re fighting to keep God out of the story, why we’re so deeply miserable. We’re all blindly staring at Mt. Everest, too focused on picturing the framed certificates hanging on the wall of the study to recognize the grace before us.