Is there room for a minority view?

When I was a child I asked, “Why did Jesus need to die for us?” And “Why couldn’t God just forgive us?” I saw Jesus portrayed as beaten, ridiculed, betrayed and crucified on a cross. I also saw him as innocent, kind, lovely, tender, and compassionate. The cruelty and injustice didn’t make sense to my 12-year-old self. 

A few decades later, as an adult convert, I read Alma chapter 42 and finally ‘got it’.  God demanded justice and Jesus was the only one who could satisfy justice and in so doing extend mercy to the rest of us.   I gladly accepted this explanation and regularly thanked Jesus for doing this on my behalf. 

Fast forward three more decades and I don’t know anymore.  The concept of a God that demands blood and death in order to accept its own creation troubles me.  I’ve been reading about Atonement Theories and found an evolution of thought bringing us to our doctrine. 

The Ransom Theory  posited that a debt was paid to Satan or paid to God who paid it to Satan.  Later came the Satisfaction theory, which led to the Penal Substitution theory. This is commonly known to us via BKP’s Mediator talk from April 1977. 

To my surprise I discovered a Nonviolent Atonement theory originating with St. Francis of Assisi (13th Century). In this theory Jesus’ purpose is not to change God’s mind about humankind (via a ransom or substitute), but to change humankind’s mind about God.  Jesus death is not to satisfy any debt. His life had a transformational purpose rather than a transactional purpose. 

Jesus was the original plan, not the “if you sin, I will send a Savior plan.”  

In the 13th Century religious leaders met to discuss/debate theology and doctrine. A dominant Atonement Theory was adopted yet a minority view was allowed.  The Nonviolent Atonement was the minority view held by the Franciscans. They were not excommunicated for holding a different view. They continued to teach this in their seminaries and religious practice, within the larger institution of Catholicism. The Franciscans had many unique ideas including the understanding that the Incarnation began with the Big Bang and continues through our day.  Jesus of Nazareth is part of the Incarnation, but not the entire part. We are all part of it, along with Brother Sun and Sister Moon. St. Francis saw God in all things and excluded no one and nothing from this view. It is fascinating to me. D&C 88 comes to mind.

 There is an expression, “We create God in our own image.”  Is this what happened as these theories developed and gained doctrinal legitimacy?  Does the evolution of the theories reflect an evolution of our humanity?   

Until recently, I had totally accepted the BKP version of the atonement without question.  But now I find myself back at the same question my 12-year-old self asked. Why did Jesus have to die?  Why couldn’t God just forgive us?  I don’t know which theory is correct, but I no longer feel the need to know absolutely.  I’m okay pondering it all. 

I wonder if there is room for an Alternative or Minority View opinion within our church without being considered a heretic? I am reminded of Paul and Peter disagreeing about doctrinal issues in the first century?  Where would we be if Paul was excommunicated for heresy because he disagreed with the Apostles?

In reality, many of us hold minority views about any number of topics/issues within our faith community and world in general.  Not being able to honestly discuss doctrine has led to the development of other avenues outside the eyes and ears of the thought police. 

My purpose in writing this post is not to debate the atonement theories.  By stating the obvious — that we have different ideas, thoughts, and experiences — my hope is that we can develop a healthy spiritual venue to discuss doctrine, even if we disagree with the dominant theory.  Can we have a diversity of thought within our community? Maybe we are too young as an institution. We haven’t weathered our growing pains to come out more open and accepting on the other side of maturation.

Allemande Left

Allemande Left lives in the eastern US with her guitar-strumming husband. Allemande Left refers to the beginning steps in a square dance. Dancers turn to their corner partner, clasp left hands as they glide past each other, then clasp right hands with the next person as they weave through the square of dancers--half going clockwise and half counterclockwise. It is a way to loosen up and meet the other dancers. As the caller sings, "Allemande Left and Away We Go."

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8 Responses

  1. Violadiva says:

    I Have always, since a young child, found the concept of atonement to be so ruthlessly unfair rather than a merciful gift I was grateful for. I was almost always ashamed of it. For any drops of blood he spilt for me kind of thing. It didn’t help that CES teachers would encourage that kind of contemplation for Christ’s suffering for our sins, and the only way to make him suffer less was to sin less. I thought “but he already suffered! Before I was born!”
    It still doesn’t make much *sense* to me and I’ve struggled with various blood atonement theories as an adult ever since. Thanks for bringing this up.

  2. Shawn says:

    Fantastic points. I wish we had more tolerance for minority views also; I hadn’t heard about the room Franciscans have carved out for other views. I think Jesus is more of an example than a demigod and not a sacrificial offering. I feel like I’m responsible for my own actions and consequences, and more like karma in terms of how we affect the universe, that love and forgiveness and the true commandments.

  3. Nancy Pace says:

    I love this piece. I can think of nothing more important to God than our honesty with Him. Well– maybe our love for Him and his creation, but whatever. I can’t see lying to Him about our doubts and our questions, whatever they may be. And everyone has some! I think this blog is very supportive of all who have their doubts but keep seeking truth, even as they live the wonderful values of their faith, and give and gain its many benefits as well. Please keep writing! and thank you!

  4. Elisa says:

    I love this and have been through a similar journey in my understanding of the atonement. I love what Richard Rohr has to say on this. And I know there’s now an LDS book (the Christ Who Heals by the Givens) that’s on this topic but I haven’t read it yet so am not sure how far it goes (but from what I’ve heard, it sounds good and might give some ways to talk about the non-violent version in church settings without alienating people).

    I think it would probably not be well-received in an official church meeting to openly and explicitly dispute the Alma 42 / BKP version. But what I try to do is emphasize and only talk about the non-violent version and there is plenty of support for that view.

  5. mrskandmrsa says:

    Like you, Allemande Left, I have questioned the need for atonement and the nature of a God who would demand it. I hear the phrase “God is love” which seems to contradict the notion of an eye-for-an-eye kind of God. I believe our understanding of God has evolved. So many doctrines of my youth seem ridiculous now–original sin and the need for atonement being two. Almost always, institutions, including churches, lag the thinking of the members–but unfortunately, not the thinking of the “leaders.”

  6. Ziff says:

    I really like you suggestion about the possibility of allowing minority views in the Church without requiring people to shut up or be booted out (whether formally or informally). I think it’s interesting that in Brigham Young’s time, he squabbled with the other GAs over stuff like Adam-God, and apparently he threatened some of them at times to get them in line. But it seems like he ultimately lost on some points (again, Adam-God) so clearly whatever he was doing, he wasn’t keeping the doctrine pure (in his view), or his ideas would have been perpetuated after his death.

    I wonder if size and communication speed affect how easy it is to squash doctrinal differences. Bigger churches have a harder time, and churches that communicate slowly (i.e., churches in the past) have a harder time. The LDS Church of today is still not big by Catholic standards, but if communication weren’t virtually instantaneous, I think for sure we would get some more interesting doctrinal innovations. But then, I’m not sure how to account for Brigham Young’s experience versus the Church today, where GAs don’t typically openly disagree about doctrine, and thus don’t set an example for members to disagree about doctrine.

    Sorry this isn’t very clear. I’m just thinking out loud. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  7. Allemande Left says:

    Thank you all for your comments. We can have authentic personal spiritual experiences that bring us to a different understanding of doctrines.
    I haven’t read any of the Givens’ books but have heard a few podcast interviews. I’m a fan of Rohr.
    I assume there is disagreement within the higher quorums in our church today, just as there was in the early Christian church, through the reformation and early days of LDS church.
    I am drawn to the history of Christianity from the early few centuries to present. There was so much going on during the “Dark Ages”.
    There were brilliant enlightened people discussing deep theology.
    There you can witness the disagreements between thought leaders and the punishment and occasional inclusion of alternative orthodoxy.

  8. EmilyB says:

    Thank you for asking these questions. Teaching children that a loving god was wise to slaughter his children in the OT during the flood or play trickster with Abrahamic sacrifice is, I think, irresponsible parenting that grooms kids to accept abuse and or become abusers themselves. And the genocidal god of the Book of Mormon who had to slaughter his people before Christ could visit was no better. I prefer to teach children a healthier perspective of love, kindness, and non-murder thanks. I dont trust my children to authors who base their theology and worship on gore and slaughter

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