Analogizing the Atonement

I can’t compete with polyamory and uncontrollable sexual impulses! But perhaps I can use our fabulous LDS guilt system to cause you to read and comment on a post about the Atonement.

Joseph Smith declared that “things which pertain to our religion are only appendages” to the Atonement, and yet it seems to me that we understand the appendages a great deal more than we understand the Atonement itself. By this I mean that we have no real notion of what the Atonement entailed, how Christ did whatever he did for us, and how it is able to work in our lives. John Taylor expressed what I’m getting at: “In a manner to us incomprehensible and inexplicable, He bore the weight of the sins of the whole world…” In other words, we have no idea what happened in Gethsemane and on the cross.

We can only approach the Atonement through analogy, and flawed analogy at that. Dennis Potter’s now-famous paper has already made the rounds; ideas of substitution vs. compassion have circulated on LDS-Phil and elsewhere; and inside the Church and out, people have looked to the scriptures to try and isolate the mechanisms by which our sins are forgiven. Ultimately, I don’t believe that these analogies are truly fruitful, in the sense that none are definitive. Worse, some are maudlin and lead to cruel conclusions about the nature of God (anyone remember the story, “The Bridge”?).

What is the effect on the believer, then, that cannot understand in full her belief? When you repent of your sins, what are you doing? What is Christ doing? You approach your repentance through analogy and story. You may think of Christ’s last days, or of some of the parables, or of Old Testament stories of sacrifices, to help you visualize some painting of the Atonement. Is that enough?

My question is, if we are only able to approach the Atonement through symbol and analogy, what does that mean about our faith and our ability to apply the Atonement in our lives? If our symbols are flawed, how does that affect our “at-one-ment”?

Perhaps I’m on the wrong track. Clearly we don’t need to understand the Atonement perfectly in order to apply it in our lives (let’s hope so!). If you think I’m off-base and see our symbolic approaches to the Atonement as irrelevant, as an alternative to my question I suggest posting the analogies you find most helpful in understanding what Christ has done for us.

51 comments for “Analogizing the Atonement

  1. Adam Greenwood
    April 22, 2004 at 1:12 pm

    This post may turn into another illustration of my dictum that the best posts excite the fewest comments, because they ask hard questions that no one has an answer to.

    Here’s my answer: I tend to think of Christ’s deed as a black box. It accomplishes things that would otherwise seem impossible (how can I not be responsible for something I did fully witting and in full conscious of its iniquity?) but I’m not disturbed because I an blissfully ignorant about how Christ worked it.

  2. April 22, 2004 at 1:13 pm

    Steve: This is a hard set of questions. My tendency is to think that the absence of good theories is not such a large problem so long as we have processes that work in some sense.

    I am also a bit skeptical about the whole idea that the our reliance on narrative and metaphor is a problem when we cannot state things in terms of logically consistent abstractions. Don’t get me wrong. I find it intellectually puzzling and problematic. On the other hand, I suspect that analogies and stories have more staying power over the long run. Their language is more universalizable and the openness to competing interpretations may actually be a virtue. The irony (ie multiple meanings) of stories allows us to creat unity in the midst of theological pluralism without supressing the pluralism.

  3. April 22, 2004 at 1:19 pm

    Are we the only Christian sect that attempts to understand how it is that Jesus paid for our sins? Does everyone else just use it without knowing how it works? (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t understand how microwaves work, but I know how to use them just fine.)

    The Catholics seem to have philosophized about everything else. Surely they must have worked out some way of comprehending the atonement. Does anyone know what Augustine and Aquinas and all them boys worked out? Is it steal-able?

  4. Cal
    April 22, 2004 at 1:24 pm

    I tend to think intellectualizing every aspect of the gospel, while not bad in and of itself, misses what is most important–the inner spiritual state. We seem to think that knowing the ‘what’ and ‘why’ behind the atonement will somehow give us the Faith to apply it.

    Without going into details, I think we can see why that might not necessarily be the case. In my view, what needs to be understood is not the in’s and out’s of everything, but rather the simple principles that determine our inner spiritual states. If I know that before God I’m in the wrong and also accountable, then inspite of all my actions I cannot rectify that truth without giving myself over to someone that can. If I don’t have that notion in one way or another embedded in my mind when trying to apply the atonement, it won’t matter how smart I am, how many analogies I come up with, or how many languages I use to dissect the word atonement.

    I guess what I’m saying then,is that symbols and analogy aren’t really that limiting. What’s limiting is our imperfect and prideful notions that determine the connections we draw from symbols and analogy.

  5. Gary Cooper
    April 22, 2004 at 1:28 pm

    A while back on an earlier post on this same subject (Atonement), I shared this analogy, which I here simply have cut and pasted:

    “I agree that the spiritual suffering for sins in Gethsemane was, techincially speaking, more important than the physical suffering there (more on that below) and at Golgotha, but I think it’s a moot point, like arguing that partaking of the water in the Sacrament is more important than the bread. The nature of At-One-Ment is that Christ had to become one with Man as well as one with God, and that meant, as I believe the BoM makes clear, that not only did He have to take upon Him our sins and trangressions, but also ALL of our suffering, temptations, and experiences as well. I hope I can explain this adequately, but my understanding of the Atonement in Gethsemane is that, in some way unfathomable to us and our limited understanding of time, space, etc., Christ was able to KNOW each one of individually in the garden, learning not only of all the pain and sorrow and anguish each of us had or would experience (so no one can say, “Jesus, you just don’t understand how it feels to have my cancer”), but also understanding each of our strngths, weaknesses, and whatever emotional and physical baggage God would put on us in mortality or we would bring upon ourselves. It is, I believe as if Christ came to stand beside each one of us at our birth, experiencing everything, but running ahead of us to the inevitable damnation and Hell that awaited all of us if there were no Atonement. He suffered there the full measure, spiritually, physically, emotionally, and now is able to walk back to where each of us is now and say, “Gary, I know you. I know what your family life was like as a child. I’ve felt the embarassment when other kids laughed at you. I know the temptations that you’ve felt. I know the pain you’ve experienced. But I’ve gone further ahead, and I’ve seen the Hell that awaits you if you do not repent. I’ve felt and endured everything that awaits you there. Please stop. You don’t want to go any further. Turn around and walk with me, back to the Father.” Pardon the dramatization, but I see the Atonement as Christ gaining the saving KNOWLEDGE that only He was able to obtain, so that He would know how to help and strengthen each one of us in mortality so that each one of us could take up OUR cross and be able to endure to the end. In this since, yes, the Atonement was a process, culminated by Gethsemane/Golgotha/the empty tomb.”

    This analogy, the idea of Christ’s spanning time and space to KNOW each of us and to ATONE for each of us, is one that helps me a great deal. It certainly involves a great deal of speculation, but to me it matches up all the inferences of the Scriptures, in a way that makes my love for the Savior stronger, my desire to emulate Him greater, and my ability to deal with adversity and temptation more enduring.

  6. April 22, 2004 at 1:34 pm

    Payne: There has been a TON of theology written about the atonement. You have a couple of theories:

    1. When we sin Satan gets power over us. He agrees to release us in return for the ability to torture Christ. This has been the least popular approach — despite its presence in the scriptures. It is just a bit too Manichean. I believe that Augustine spilled a fair amount of ink attacking it.

    2. The penal susbstitution theory says that when we sin, we offend God’s honor and he must punish someone. Christ agrees to take our knocks for us. This has probably been the most influential approach. It first got articulated by St. Anselm in his book Cur Deus Homo. It does make God seem a little vindictive. I have read philosophers dismiss the theory as simply being an unacceptable theologizing of feudal legal relationships. Interestingly, I have also read legal historians argue that the causation flows in the opposite direction — the penal substitution theory gave rise to the feudal legal institutions.

    3. Then you have the theory that says that Christ suffered so as to draw our attention to our sins, his mercy, and the need to repent. The atonement on this theory is less matter of somehow reshuffling the metaphysical balancesheet of guilt and justice and more a matter of pyschology. If I remember right, this was Abelard’s position.

    Interstingly, Mormon theology has created its own theory of the atonement, which I believe is unique. We posit that God is metaphysically constrained, and there is some supra-divine law that (1) requires some level of punishment for the sinner; and, (2) allows Christ to bear this punishment on their behalf. This looks a bit like Anselm’s penal substitution theory, but I think it is fundamentally different. It is the metaphysical constraints on God, rather than God himself that requires the punishment. Of course, if you believe in a completely absolute God then this theory makes no sense. It is only possible because of Mormon finitism. It does require that one have a tragic view of existence, since there are some things that seem like better solutions (ie God forgiving us without having Christ suffer) which are simply not possible. Also, there are scriptures that suggest that (2) above is wrong.

  7. April 22, 2004 at 1:38 pm

    Gary’s post brings up another rather “scandalous” Mormon theory of the atonement, namely that it cures an imperfection in God’s knowledge.

  8. Grasshopper
    April 22, 2004 at 1:57 pm

    Steve asked,

    “If we are only able to approach the Atonement through symbol and analogy, what does that mean about our faith and our ability to apply the Atonement in our lives? If our symbols are flawed, how does that affect our ‘at-one-ment’?”

    We are only able to understand *everything* through symbol and analogy. Atoms and molecules are understood through symbols and analogy. Computers are understood through symbols and analogy. That’s just how understanding works. Is it a limiting factor? Sure; every symbol and every analogy is limited. But it is a crippling factor? It seems obvious to me that it is not. We are able to understand computers sufficiently to do such marvelous things as blog, atoms and molecules sufficiently to do such marvelous things as medicine, and the atonement sufficiently to do such marvelous things as repent.

    As we refine our models of understanding through reason and experience, we find ourselves able to do more and more: eternal progression. We also discover flaws in our earlier models (there is always risk). It seems to me that underlying Steve’s question is something like this:

    How much do we need to understand the atonement in order to be saved? And I guess I would answer that we need to understand relatively little in intellectual terms and as much as possible in experiential terms.

    A similar point can be made about agency. In his blog, Clark has written a fair bit about approaching an intellectual understanding of agency. There are ongoing discussions on LDS-PHIL about it. It is one of the primary philosophical topics of the day. But, as with John David Payne’s microwave, we use it every day, despite its mystery.

  9. Gary Cooper
    April 22, 2004 at 1:59 pm


    It wasn’t my intention to bring up that “scandalous” theory, especially since I don’t agree with it. Christ had to gain the knowledge that He did, but I don’t think He had to atone in order for the FATHER to have the same knowledge. My analogy centers around the Father ordaining Christ to step in an atone, for Christ to gain saving knowledge so that Christ could act as intercessor. Blake Ostler’s theories are something altogether different, even if they do make use of some of the same themes. In any case, you are correct that LDS theology, if we can even use that expression, is unique, particularly with regard to divine finitism. Another aspect of this that interests me is the way the the BoM describes punishment as being “affixed”, and gives the impression that punishment PRECEDES commandments. In other words, we think of punishments as God inflicting soemthing bad on us for disobeying. Instead, the BoM seems to be implying that waht we call “punishment” is in fact the natural result when sons of god, gods in embryo, enter the path of sin, and this result can only be overcome by an infinite sacrifice. It is as if the Father, in the beginning, in coming to know all things, could see how how lives would diverge once we began sinning, could see that we wouild enter a course that would be irreversible, and was so horrified by what He saw there that he established commandments to PROTECT us from the punishments, and sent His Son to provide us an escape from same and to bring us back to the divine path to Godhood. This idea seems to carry an intimation that God is truly and fully FREE, but we are not, at least not yet, and so we can make choices that end up forcing us into grooves and paths we can’t get put of. God can get us out of these, but only thanks to the Atonement. So, perhaps only in this limited sense, could we say that the Father was dependent on the Son to effect the Atonement, but I don’t want to say what Blake Ostler seems to say, that Christ learned things the Father couldn’t. (I think that’s well written baloney, though I’m sure he means well.)

  10. April 22, 2004 at 2:13 pm

    Nate, once again you reward me for my reprehensible ignorance with an avalanche of knowledge. With such learned friends, what incentive have I to learn things for myself?

  11. April 22, 2004 at 2:17 pm

    Let me push you a bit on your use of the term “flawed analogies and metaphors,” though by doing so I may be misunderstanding or even misrepresenting what you are saying. Apologies in advance if I am.

    Paul used the metaphor of redemption from slavery to talk about the Atonement. Others have used judicial metaphors. Still others have used substitutionary metaphors. Where is the flaw in these? Presumably it is in the fact that none adequately captures what is going on in the Atonement. But if they did capture it in a conceptually and logically satisfactory manner, they wouldn’t be metaphors. Of course there are flawed metaphors–the “bridge story” is, I think, a perfect example of a metaphor that doesn’t do the work set for it. But you seem to assume that metaphors are in themselves flawed. Why should we think that is true?

    You ask “what if we are _only_ able to approach the Atonement through analogy and metaphor?” That suggests that you think analogy and metaphor are ultimately inadequate substitutes for something else, presumably conceptual and logical clarity. There are all kinds of issues at work here, far more than we can deal with in this thread. But why assume that thinking is always best when it is conceptually and logically clear? Why assume that everything can ultimately be accounted for in a conceptual and logical way? If we grant that assumption, then all forms of expression take a back seat to conceptual, logical expression: love for a spouse, painting, music, history, . . . . All of these take on a second-class status in my mental life. I think that is a mistake.

    We could say that no one of the things I do and say to express my love to my wife is “adequate” to my feelings for her, meaning that none of them represents that love accurately in a concept. But that would be a mistake. Why conclude that my expressions of love for her are inadequate? (They may be, but that’s another question.) Consider a different example: I like Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” very much. (Kristine will recognize that this illustrates the naive state of my music education, and I confess.) It has moved me to tears. If asked to say something about it, I probably could. (After all, I am a philosophy professor, one of those who can go on about anything, whether or not we are qualified.) But nothing I said would be conceptually or logically adequate to Bach’s piece. Would that mean that what I said was flawed, that it is INadequate to the piece? Not necessarily; that doesn’t follow logically. Even if my expression is not logically and conceptually adequate, it doesn’t follow that I’ve expressed myself inadequately—unless logical and conceptual adequacy are the only forms of adequacy. But that is at least questionable and, I believe, false.

    Thus, the inability to reduce some kinds of expression to conceptual and logical thought is not an illustration of the flawed character of those modes of expression. It is just a demonstration of the limitations of that kind of thought. I take it that many of the metaphors we use ARE adequate, though no one of them is “the” way of talking about the Atonement and they do not lead us to a conceptual representation of it.

    In my life Paul’s metaphor of the Atonement as redemption from slavery has meant a great deal. To be honest, I think it is an adequate explanation of the Atonement—as a metaphor (by which I do not mean “only a metaphor”). But there are also other adequate explanations in other metaphors.

    Were I to put all of this in philosophical terms (which is a warning that I’m going to), I would say that the Atonement (as also everything else) always exceeds the ways in which it shows itself. Conceptual and logical thought are a way of dealing with the particular in terms of the universal and, so, of removing the excess of particular things. Without those kinds of thought we couldn’t function. I’m not exactly an opponent of logical and conceptual thought, but there is no reason to suppose that the universal is primary, that it is any more than an abstraction from the particular. And there is no reason to assume that, in order to be understood, all expression must eventually be universal rather than particular—conceptual and logical rather than analogous and metaphorical. There are numerous ways of responding to things that draw our attention to what exceeds the universal, to things as particular. Metaphor and analogy are among them.

  12. Kaimi
    April 22, 2004 at 2:21 pm

    There is a recurring idea I’ve heard at church and I believe in church sources (I think it may be derived from C.S. Lewis), that the damned won’t exactly be cast out of heaven, but rather that they will distance themselves from God because the are uncomfortable in His presence.

    I.e., can an omnipotent God allow sinners into Heaven? Yes. Does a loving God want to be as close to His children as possible? Yes. But, if he is too close to sinners (and they to Him, and they to the righteous who are in Heaven), they will feel overwhelmed by a sense of their own unworthiness. So they distance themselves.

    If this idea is right, then it (strangely) makes the atonement appear to be a way for imperfect humans to feel more comfortable in the presence of God.

    It is then a mechanism that allows the sinner to recognize and remember her sin, and be fully aware of the gravity of the sin, and yet feel comfortable in the presence of God because (1) Christ suffered for that sin (and all other sins), and (2) the particular sinner has taken steps to show thanks, reverence, and obedience — i.e., the steps of repentance — to recognize and accept that atonement.

    So, why do we need the atonement? Why couldn’t God have just said, “well, just tell me you’re sorry, and it will be okay”? I suspect that it may be the atonement that allows the sinner to recognize and appreciate the true harm of the sin, while at the same time retaining enough confidence to stand in the presence of God.

  13. Julie in Austin
    April 22, 2004 at 2:33 pm

    Probably an unpopular opinion, but I think that we are as fundamentally incapable of understanding the atonement as my 2 year old is of understanding why we pay money each month for something called ‘insurance.’ This leads me to two conclusions:

    (1) We need to be careful in our efforts to explain the atonement, lest we convey the impression that we really do understand it (note: this is not directed at anyone who has posted, just in general)

    (2) we can understand little bits (‘line upon line’), just as my 2 yo learning to count and learning that sometimes bad things happen sets the foundation for someday understanding what insurance is.

  14. April 22, 2004 at 2:49 pm

    Serves me right for asking questions to which I have no answers!

    Grasshopper, you said “Atoms and molecules are understood through symbols and analogy. Computers are understood through symbols and analogy.” That’s partially true. We build computers with our hands; we see the experimental evidence of atoms and molecules with our eyes. No such empirical analysis exists for the Atonement (and if somebody counters with Moroni’s promise, I’ll scream).

    Jim, you seem to be asking, “what’s wrong with metaphors?” Good question. I think my beef has something to do with the divide between signifiers and the signified, that the metaphors we often choose fail to account for all of the nuances behind the Atonement. All analogy is limited in its ability to fully represent the underlying ideas.

    I would say to both Jim & Grasshopper, linking their comments together, that while metaphor and other devices are useful tools to convey meaning that defies words, these devices are ultimately not enough. In grasshopper’s examples, analogies about atoms won’t help you much in making new compounds, and those about computers certainly won’t help you figure out the nuances of MT! In Jim’s case, I still don’t think that metaphor is enough. You need to invent more and more images to convey the differing aspects of the Atonement, and eventually all you’re left with is an analogous and metaphorical world, where the ‘reality’ is unknown. A pinch of conceptual logic, I think, would go a long way with the Atonement.

    I’m not asking to completely understand what’s happening. But I’d like to start with it, at least. Nate’s right, “we have processes that work,” so we have the luxury of giving this subject as much or as little attention as we want. I was just thinking, if we are to become “Saviors on Mount Zion” in our own right, shouldn’t we get the lowdown on how the whole thing works?

  15. Grasshopper
    April 22, 2004 at 2:50 pm

    Jim wrote:

    “There is no reason to suppose that the universal is primary, that it is any more than an abstraction from the particular.”

    Clark, do you want to quibble with this? ;-) (Or should this be a question for LDS-PHIL?)

  16. April 22, 2004 at 2:52 pm


    I’ve been thinking precisely along these lines lately. In both 2 Nep 26 and 3 Nep 27, for example, it says that the purpose of the Atonement (or, at least, the crucifixion, which is mentioned specifically) is to “draw all men” unto Christ. In this sense, our relationship to the atonement would seem to have a strong psychological aspect: the extremity of the suffering moves us to seek divinity. What kind of act could we call this, the atonement, then–not just a sacrifice, but an extreme act of art, perhaps?

    I suppose this doesn’t necessarily exclude the idea that the atonement does effect some kind of metaphysical transaction. Still, I think Kaimi is on to something here.

  17. Frank
    April 22, 2004 at 3:07 pm

    Kaimi, you say:

    “So, why do we need the atonement? Why couldn’t God have just said, “well, just tell me you’re sorry, and it will be okay”? I suspect that it may be the atonement that allows the sinner to recognize and appreciate the true harm of the sin, while at the same time retaining enough confidence to stand in the presence of God.”

    Can we take that one step further, and say that the atonement is necessary because in order to feel enough confidence to stand in the presence of God, we need to have attained some of God’s power/light/goodness/attributes, and that the atonement is a means whereby we can achieve this.

    This may be an aspect of the atonement that other religions and philosophers have overlooked. Its obvious that most of the theories of the atonement, discussed above, focus on the removal/eschewal of sin. My question for the well-read among us is, how many theories, besides LDS ones, incorporate the aspect of the atonement that helps us to progress and actually become like God? (See Elder Oak’s talk, On Becoming, from a few general conferences ago, as well as the writings of Bruce Hafen.) In the LDS view, the atonement can not only gets rid of the sin, but also can make an exalted being out of the sinner. It seems to me that any satisfactory explanation of the atonement must take this into account as well.

  18. Kevin
    April 22, 2004 at 5:48 pm

    Kaimi, Jeremy, and Frank posit a strong psychological component to the efficacy of the atonement. I think it’s a good theory, but some of the implications make me uneasy. For instance, if the atonement is only as effective as our reaction to it, then the amount of suffering incurred is immaterial. It is only how much we *think* he suffered that matters.

    I, for one, have a problem grokking that suffering. I assume it was worse than other examples of torture that I’ve read about, but how *much* worse? What does the Book of Mormon mean when it speaks of an infinite atonement? Should I assume that his pain was beyond any possible finite (whatever that means) pain, thus infinite? It seems, assuming the proposed theory, that I *need* to assume that in order for the atonement to be optimally effective. If I assume that the atonement involved suffering that was just *really* bad, do I lose some of the psychological impact?

    And there’s the question of how much we can be impacted by an event that we didn’t experience or even witness. Do I need to see “The Passion” in order to make the atonement effective?

    If I remember right, Eugene England mixed the psychological and metaphysical theories. He said that the atonement achieves its purposes through its effect on us, and is absolutely necessary due to an inherent shortcoming in our spirits. According to England, without that demonstration of love, we’re incapable of following Christ to the degree that we need to. But we’re still left with the issue of not fully understanding the suffering that took place. Will this possibly be made clear to us in a future phase of our existence?

  19. April 22, 2004 at 6:14 pm

    Steve: “I think my beef has something to do with the divide between signifiers and the signified, that the metaphors we often choose fail to account for all of the nuances behind the Atonement. All analogy is limited in its ability to fully represent the underlying ideas.”

    But that isn’t only true of metaphor and analogy. The divide between signifiers and the signified exists in all language, conceptual or otherwise. In ordinary contexts, our language functions ostensively, through pointing, as well as by signifying. Without that pointing, ordinary and conceptual language is as problematic as metaphorical language. So you are complaining that language cannot be a perfect mirror of what it speaks of. That is an odd complaint since it is true by definition.

    In other words, you are complaining that language doesn’t do what it, in principle, cannot do. So the question cannot be “why doesn’t metaphor (or conceptual language or . . .) represent all of the nuances of its object?” What it means for a use of language to be adequate must be measured by something other than that kind of representation. It seems to me that whether a particular use of language is adequate depends not on how well it represents fully that which it refers to, but on how well it accomplishes its goal as a speech act. If I am in my office and speak of a book, the context, my gestures, etc. as well as my language usually make it clear what I am talking about. That speech act is adequate. The adequacy of metaphors used to explain the Atonement must be judged similarly, without assuming that there is one explanation of it that is behind all of the others.

    In addition, metaphor has an advantage precisely because it is explicitly _not_ an attempt to represent that which it speaks of. It is another way of using language to allow certain things to show themselves, including the inadequacy of logical/conceptual language for the discussion at hand. I would deny that “metaphor and other devices are useful tools to convey meaning that defies words.” Language is not a tool, so metaphor is not a tool. (The tool metaphor assumes that purposes, ideas, etc. exist independent of language which is not a good assumption. I’m not adverting to a Whorffian thesis, just claiming that purposes and ideas don’t exist apart from language.) Even if we ignore the problem with speaking of metaphor and analogy as tools, it is strange to speak of them as conveying “meaning that defies words.” They do, after all, occur in words.

  20. Gary Cooper
    April 22, 2004 at 6:34 pm


    just to address two of the points you ask about. First, the BoM does make clear that Christ’s suffering was not just hurting a lot, but that he suffered “more than man can suffer, except unto death”. No question, at leasdt to me, that Christ suffered EVERYTHING we have ever suffered, which I can’t begin to fathom but which I try to be greatful for nevertheless. Second, evidently we really can’t fully understand the Atonement in this life, and will have to have more revealed in the hereafter. We can comem to understand enough to walk on the straight and narrow path in mortality and insure our exaltation in the beyond; some few people can even get to a point in mortality where they can have their “calling and election made sure”, which among other things appears to include further revelation. Hope this partially answers your questions.

  21. April 22, 2004 at 6:37 pm

    “Whorffian thesis”

    Does that have something to do with Star Trek? :)

    Don’t we refer to Sapir along with Whorf anymore?

    Jim, I’m aware of the limitations of language in general, and I know that my complaint isn’t very interesting (or well-executed). Perhaps the problem as I see it isn’t just the incapacity of language to express the atonement, but our inability to understand the atonement at all, whether via language or otherwise (I know, I know, there is no “otherwise”).

    What I’m getting at isn’t so much the inadequacy of metaphor or language, but that even with a million words and tropes at our disposal, we wouldn’t be able to describe the Atonement because we fundamentally don’t know what it is. Metaphors work, technically speaking, because we are familiar with both the image and the implied meaning. With the Atonement, there’s no guarantee that we can understand or get to the noyau dur of what’s happening (pardon my French — is there an English equivalent?). So I’m wary of metaphor or analogy in this context, because I’m not certain anyone (besides Christ himself) could express in any meaningful way what happened.

    “metaphor has an advantage precisely because it is explicitly _not_ an attempt to represent that which it speaks of”… not sure about that. Metaphor is a tool of implicit comparison: “no man is a island.” While it doesn’t work explicitly, to be sure (that’s simile), it does try to represent that which it speaks of.

    As for “Language is not a tool, so metaphor is not a tool,” as a rhetor I disagree: turns of phrase, figures of speech and their ilk are tools like hammers or wrenches, to build speech and make convincing arguments. I’d agree though that language, in its fundamental sense, isn’t a tool because it is innate to our existence. Fun!

  22. April 22, 2004 at 7:14 pm

    I’m torn between this discussion and the need to grade papers. Guess which one is winning.

    I don’t think Sapir gets mentioned: “Whorffian” is already a mouthful. Think what “Sapir-Whorffian” would be.

    _noyau dur_: how about “kernel”?

    On metaphor being a tool: I give–a little. Of course it can be used as a tool, but I don’t think that is the basic way to understand it. Its use as a rhetorical tool is parasitic on its
    predicative and hermeneutic uses rather than the reverse. (See Paul Ricoeur’s _The Rule of Metaphor_ [_La Métaphor vive_] for the argument.) As Ricoeur says in his introduction, “Metaphor is the rhetorical process by which discourse unleashes the power that certain fictions have to redescribe reality” (7). That’s more than a tool.

    Finally, saying what happened, explaining what happened, and understanding what happened don’t necessarily mean the same thing. For example, I understand what happened when I got married. I’m not sure I did then, but I think I do now. But it doesn’t follow that I can explain what happened when I got married. References to hormones, cultural expectations, divine commandments, etc. would be relevant, I’m sure, but I wouldn’t know how to fashion those into an adequate explanation. Nevertheless, I understand what happened and continues to happen. The biblical metaphor of becoming one flesh “captures” that understanding very well, even adequately. But it doesn’t explain. Why not? Because understanding doesn’t always require explanation.

    So though I agree that we cannot explain the Atonement, I don’t agree that we cannot understand it.

  23. April 22, 2004 at 7:56 pm

    “understanding doesn’t always require explanation”

    I don’t think I’ve been saying that we can’t “understand” the Atonement in a general sense, or in the sense like you understand your marriage. But we don’t understand it in any logical sense; and it bothers me, somehow, that something deemed central to our religion is completely beyond our grasp. It seems too important a thing not to try and explain.

  24. April 22, 2004 at 11:09 pm

    Steve: we come back to my original point, namely that you take conceptually and logically clear language to be the sine qua non of linguistic expression. “It seems too important a thing not to try to explain” says that important things at least ought to have, perhaps in principle, conceptually and logically clear explanations. Why should we believe that? Why is explanation always superior to or more desirable than understanding?

    By the way, I don’t think my understanding of my marriage is general. I think it is quite specific. I think that, via the metaphors we use to talk about the Atonement, such as redemption from slavery, I understand the Atonement specifically and not just generally.

  25. April 22, 2004 at 11:15 pm

    Steve, if you and I keep this up we are going to make the top ten list on our own. I’m interested in what you have to say in response to my last post, but unless you really provoke me (always possible, and never yet negative), I think I’ll lay low for a little while to see if others will join in.

  26. April 22, 2004 at 11:25 pm

    “Why is explanation always superior to or more desirable than understanding?”

    Because explanation demands understanding as a prerequisite: it is understanding + the ability to communicate that understanding.

    As for using metaphors to understand the Atonement specifically and not generally, I’d suggest that it is by applying the Atonement in your life that you’ve gone from general to specific. The metaphors have thus become more meaningful — it’s your personal experience that have enriched them. But I might be wrong.

  27. April 23, 2004 at 12:18 am

    Okay, you provoked me! I agree that understanding with the ability to communicate that understanding is better than not. In fact, I would go so far as to say that understanding without that ability is not yet fully understanding. But why assume that explanation is the only way or the best way to communicate one’s understanding? Why isn’t it possible that metaphor (or poetry or art or music) is a better way to communicate some understandings?

    You keep assuming without argument the very thing that I am contesting, namely that conceptual-logical language is the highest form of human expression.

  28. April 23, 2004 at 12:20 am

    Addendum: I’m enjoying this, and not only because it takes me away from grading papers. It is fun. But I wish someone else would join the fray. I’m a little self-conscious about holding what has turned out to be a private conversation. Besides, you could use some help holding up your side of the debate.

  29. Rob
    April 23, 2004 at 12:51 am

    OK, I’ll bite…at the expense of working on my dissertation.

    Lately, in reading the BOM, I’ve been repeatedly attracted to the concept of redemption. On my part, I think I’ve neglected to think about what redemption itself means. In the BOM, and in the OT, redemption seems to be the primary metaphor or explanation for Christ’s atonement.

    So, what is a redemption?

    The reclamation of lost property. Lots of good stuff on this on the web…from the Hebrew original terms, to the right of the nearest kin to redeem that which has been lost or sold.

    So, for me, to understand the atonement is to understand Christ as my redeemer. The one with the right to reedeem me. Now, how he has that right, and how he performs my redemption, are pretty mysterious to me…but that won’t stop me from putting in my own thoughts.

    When we sin, Satan owns us. We become his. Not exactly sure why or how this is, but it seems to be so. So when we are redeemed, we are redeemed from Satan. If I fell into debt and had to become a slave, someone in ancient times could redeem me–pay off my debt.

    I’m not sure how Christ’s suffering could possibly pay off my debt, or ransom me from sin (part of the redemption idea)…since I’m not sure how the debt is actually incurred–why should I be in bondage to Satan if I sin?

    However, it may have to something to do with the fundamental makeup of the universe…something that D&C 88 hints at. Somehow, whatever happened in Palestine all those years ago allowed Christ to ascend above all things and descend below all things to become in and through all things…to be able to make a claim on all things in order to ransom them from death and (conditional upon repentence) the bonds of sin.

    We don’t really know much about the universe…either we don’t understand Newtonian dynamics, or we can’t find the 90-99% of the universe that is dark matter. When we get down to “elementary particles” there aren’t really even particles there. Since we don’t understand the true nature of the universe, it can be difficult to understand the true nature of sin, death, spirit, creation, and atonement.

    To redeem something, it has to be yours in the first place. There may be something to the gospel plan, in that by accepting Christ and the ordinances, we become His, allowing him to reclaim us. If we don’t, the redemption can overcome physical death, but not the separation from God caused by our sinful state.

    I think the problem with the atonement is we have so many metaphors that they get mixed together and we don’t understand how they fit together. What does paying a ransom have to do with paying a debt or washing away sins that are as scarlet?

    Sheesh, this is getting long. I guess for me, in order to understand the atonement, I have to understand this concept of redemption. I’ve read every verse in the scriptures tonight that contain the word redemption, but I’m still at a loss. And my trusty BOM seems to leave me puzzling about it.

    –How do we become owned by Satan through sin?
    –How can the suffering of Christ ransom us from Satan?
    –In what sense are we a) originally owned by Christ (through kinship? as in the original Hebraic custom?) so he can b)redeem us?
    –What are the metaphysical underpinnings of such a redemption, where an act of suffering can somehow unite Christ with the ruling principles of the Universe (as per D&C 88)?

    Though we may not need to understand this to take advantage of the atonement (at least on one level), just like we don’t need to fully understand microwaves in order to use them to reheat our leftovers–if we don’t understand the atonment enough, we may inadvertantly perform the spiritual equivalent of trying to reheat our cold mac and cheese in a metal bowl, and not get the results we were hoping for.

  30. April 23, 2004 at 12:52 am

    Yeah, I kind of wish someone would bail me out here too. You clearly have an advantage over me in this field.

    I didn’t know that I was assuming that conceptual-logical language was the highest form of human expression. I know mathematicians and logicians that feel this way, but I don’t have any particular proof to offer on that topic. I’m pretty sure that I haven’t said that this was the only/best way to communicate understanding, though — only that I’d like to see some of this understanding begin to relate to the Atonement. I know better than to speak in absolutist terms!

    Well, I read you loud and clear about us being the only two chickens left in the coop on this thread…

  31. April 23, 2004 at 1:15 am

    Steve, my apologies. I didn’t realize how condescending my remark about you not holding up your end sounded until I reread it and your response. I need to go back and reread the last thread you started. It seems possible to condescend to others than new members.

    I don’t think you intend to valorize conceptual-logical language, but I think that valorization follows from what you say about understanding + ability to communicate when you don’t allow metaphorical, poetic, musical, etc. language to count equally as communication.

    Rob, I think you are very much on the right track. The only thing I would add (for now, since we both need to be doing other things) is that I am arguing that we can understand the Atonement by understanding the metaphors used to discuss it.

    In my case, and it seems in yours, the metaphor of redemption is powerful. But we don’t have to be able to explain how the Atonement is effected in order to understand the metaphor of redemption, so we don’t need to explain the Atonement in order to understand it. We understand it in our metaphors. I think we can also understand it in other ways, perhaps musically, for example. None of those will explain it, but explanation is often over-rated.

  32. greenfrog
    April 23, 2004 at 1:43 am

    *gobble gobble*

    I’ve frankly abandoned understanding Atonement with a capital A because it seems to be the realm of things which I’m not supposed to be able to understand. And I’m enough of a skeptic that when people start telling me that something is something that can’t be understood, I usually assume that they just don’t have any idea what they’re talking about (literally). And in my experience, they aren’t the best ones to go to to get understanding.

    So lacking a particularly good foundation in what others have to tell me about Atonement, I’ve tried to consider what I know of in my life about atonement. My musings go something like this:

    Suppose I sin against my wife by lying to her. She has asked me to help manage the kids on a particular evening, and I don’t want to. So instead of coming home from work at the regular time, I stay an extra hour and surf the Web. When I get home, I apologize for getting home late, and I tell her that I was tied up at work. Then let’s suppose that the next day, I repent of my sin against my wife, I confess my sin, and I ask her to forgive me.

    I have harmed her. I have betrayed her trust, and I’ve imposed on her not just more kid-wrangling than was right, but I’ve compounded it by lying to her to cover my sin. Then, I confessed to her and asked for forgiveness. Now she has a decision. She can forgive me and restore our relationship, or she can do any of a number of other things that would not restore our relationship to the position it was in prior to my sin.

    Let’s suppose that she frankly forgives me, and we both put the matter behind us, me by repenting, her by forgiving.

    We are, again, at-one.

    So far as I am concerned, so far as I can understand the idea of atonement in the slightest, my wife just atoned for my sin.

    In religious terms, she accepted the suffering caused by my sin, and she decided to take its pain upon herself willingly, rather than rejecting it (and me) or passing it on to others.

    So what is the role of Jesus’ death in this scenario? I’ve been told that even if my wife atoned (small a) for my sin, in some way that is not readily explicable, my sin has offended God such that God will require the death of Jesus to Atone (capital A) for my sin, as well. That part, I confess I don’t understand. If my innocent (in this regard) wife has willingly taken upon herself the suffering caused by my sin, what more is there for Jesus to carry? And why would God demand such a thing?

    Now one answer is that by sinning, I’ve sold myself to Satan, and Jesus must redeem me. None of those ideas seems to have any bearing on what I experience in life.

    An analogy I’ve heard proffered is that by sinning, I’ve incurred a debt that I cannot repay, and that Jesus steps in to do so, imposing His own (different) terms of repayment on me. I think I can understand the idea of a loss, but in my example, it looks to me like my wife is paying the debt, not Jesus. And I don’t get the idea that God is somehow extending the original credit each time I sin.

    Another answer is that the Universe requires punishment, and Jesus had to undergo it, as He was the only perfect person. That, too, doesn’t seem to have any bearing on what I experience in life. In my very limited experience, the Universe doesn’t do any such thing, though human psychology (and apparently the psychologies of at least some other social species) does require something like justice. And something like mercy.

    So when Atonement comes up, I tend to think, instead, of atonement. And I can recognize that while a nice neat hypothetical scenario could impose the harm neatly on a single person, in most cases, life is vastly more complicated than that. Our actions have illimited effects. So just as I need my wife to accept the harm from my sin, I also need a Universe that can accept the less neatly confined harms from my other sins.

    And, with respect to my community, I need a community of persons who are willing to accept the harm associated with living in my proximity. So I need not only to be married to a woman who (at times) becomes (like) Christ, I also need a whole ward full of (people who at times act as) Christs.

    And I tell myself that such a need isn’t all that remarkably heretical or new, since we have all already covenanted to take upon ourselves the name of Christ. I assume that is more than a bumper-sticker sort of taking a name upon us.


    I don’t mean to sound as though I belittle other more exalted or metaphorical conceptions of the Atonement. I really don’t. I just have no real way of taking the words people use to describe their concepts and turning them into anything linked to what I experience in life. My version, as wanting as it may seem, at least provides me with a way of acting upon what I understand to be the principle of atonement.


  33. Rob
    April 23, 2004 at 2:11 am

    Jim-Though I see where you are coming from, I’m not quite convinced. At least in my case, unless I can better explain how the atonement is effectuated, the metaphor of redemption doesn’t have as great a hold on me as it possibly could. I’d like to more closely link the metaphors to my physical reality. For me, its hard to have understanding without explanation. That could just be a sign of my having been educated beyond my intelligence, relying upon the arm of fleshy materialist assumptions, or hardening of heart due to overlong wanderings in a secular world.

    I hate to think that the atonment is entirely beyond explanation. I may not be able to do the math to fully understand quantum mechanics, but I can read enough popular treatments to gain a rudimentary understanding of quarks and super-strings. I may not fully understand the nature of The Light of Christ, the atonment, and their connection to quantum and phenomenological reality, but I’d like to think that I could somehow come to understand that real connection– through either better metaphors or a more metaphysical explanation.

    Interested in possible musical understanding of atonement…some sort of Pythagorean harmony of the spheres, perhaps?

    Anyway, a lot to ponder as I prepare for another all-nighter…

  34. April 23, 2004 at 9:33 am

    As I’ve written elsewhere, the overtone series does map quite nicely onto the hierarchical periods described in Abraham 3, with Kolob as the fundamental…

  35. Gary Cooper
    April 23, 2004 at 1:20 pm


    You make some interesting points. Let me add my two cents worth, maybe building a little on your foundation.

    First, I don’t think that, when we sin, that Satan owns us. He of course makes this claim, but he is a liar and usurper. He claims to be the prince of this world too, but that’s a lie also. Rather, because of sin, we are estranged from God and fall out of His protection. This makes us vulnerable to Satan, who exploits our weaknesses and ignorance and gains power over us. The best analogy would to look upon God as a father who leaves us alone in the house, telling us to lock all the doors and not answer the door until He comes back. We don’t listen, are careless, and Satan comes in and takes possession of us and the home. God sends our older brother to evict Satan and claim rightful possession again of us and our home.

    But then again, this analogy really isn’t “best”, and it breaks down in a lot of ways. Perhaps Satan’s power over us is psychological, and the Atonement serves to convince us of our own noble birthright, and persuade us to stand up and re-claim what is ours from the usurper Satan.

    Hmmm, now I think I’m begiinning to understand Steve’s and Jim’s debate here (I was kinda clueless before). In any case, Satan has no “right” to us because of sin, but he does have power over us, IMHO.

  36. Grasshopper
    April 23, 2004 at 2:51 pm


    It seems to me that, while Satan is a liar and a usurper, there is a sense in which his claim upon us is real and of our own making. That is, it’s not just that we’re weak and careless (though wer certainly are that) and Satan can therefore seize power; it’s also that we choose Satan as our father when we choose sin (John 8:37-44, Moses 7:37). If God will not or cannot override our will in this regard, he must persuade us to change our minds, turn around, repent, and choose him as our Father.

    Today, we don’t consider the parent/child relationship to be one of ownership, as Rob says is necessary for redemption. But was this the case anciently? I think this may also tie in to Paul’s use of the concept of slavery.

    For those who choose Satan as their God, he actually *is* their God unless and until they choose otherwise.

  37. Gary Cooper
    April 23, 2004 at 3:07 pm


    Yeah, the more I mull this over in my mind, I think you are correct, in that there really is a sense, especially for those who have knowledge of Jesus Christ and the Gospel, that when we sin we are choosing Satan as our father and god, rather than Heavenly Father. What’s the statement in the Old Testament, by Samuel? “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.”

    Perhaps this explains why the BoM indicates that the Atonement covers the sins of those who sin ignorantly (children, people who never heard of Christ, etc.). The ignorant do things that are wrong, but it is not as clear to them as it is to us, who are enlightened. They are not “choosing” Satan, because they don’t even know or realize that he exists, in any full sense. We, on the other hand, who have been baptized and received temple blessings, are a different story. I’ve often wondered if this might explain why so many people in non-Christian areas of the world, or areas that are nominally Christian but only recently so, have suffered so much famine, war, murder, oppression, and poverty. Is Satan going all out to harm these poor people throughout the centuries because he knows ultimately he will have power over almost none of them in eternity? Here is the rich, educated, lily-white Western World, however, all he has to do is lull us into carnal security—we know what we do is wrong, but we do it any way, and so we are his (unless we repent). Just speculating…

  38. Scott
    April 23, 2004 at 4:35 pm

    Are Mormons obligated to believe that the atonement is an utterly impenetrable concept (or, in Catholic parlance, an “absolute mystery”)? If so, why?


  39. April 23, 2004 at 4:41 pm

    Are Mormons obligated to believe that the atonement is an utterly impenetrable concept?

    No. In fact, I think we’re quite hopeful that someday we’ll completely understand it, as we come closer to God. However, while we have this aspiration, we acknowledge that here in mortality, our perspectives are limited and that the Atonement is grander than we know. Not an absolute mystery, then, but a mystery nonetheless.

  40. Grasshopper
    April 23, 2004 at 4:42 pm


  41. Grasshopper
    April 23, 2004 at 4:53 pm

    My “No” was in response to Scott’s question, not Steve’s response.

  42. Gary Cooper
    April 23, 2004 at 5:31 pm

    Perhaps the LDS view of our ability to understand the Atonement is similar to the Russian Orthodox view of existence itself–it is like a great cave, full of wonders and quite finite, but so large as to escape any one person’s ability to grasp, though all of us, exploring different aspects of the cave, can have different perspectives that benefit all. The difference in the LDS view would be that while we may not have enough time in mortality to “completely explore the cave”, to fully grasp all the Atonement is about, still our learning will continue beyond the grave, so at some future point we will all of us, at least those who are heirs of the celestial kingdom, will eventually come to a full understanding.

  43. greenfrog
    April 23, 2004 at 6:45 pm


    That sounds like not only a good approach to the Atonement, but to learning of all varieties. It seems valuable to me to believe that there is always more that we can (and should?) be learning.

  44. Grasshopper
    April 23, 2004 at 7:07 pm


  45. Adam Greenwood
    April 23, 2004 at 7:19 pm

    I’m intrigued by the thought that we have sold ourselves into slavery, and that dealt with the devil to buy us out of thrall, offering the Fiend what he really wanted–a direct opportunity to make Christ suffer and try and break him, make him give in to some temptation. That would comport very well with what we know of the devil–his envy and his injured and unspeakable pride both being aimed at Christ. Even ourselves, though we do rise to the dignity of being hated by the devil, are mainly preyed on by him to pain the Father and the Son.

    But I don’t know that this is exactly an alternative explanation for the Atonement. It’s really just a variant on Nate’s super-divine law or inherent universal order that God can’t violate though he would wish to. Here, this super-divine law specifies that God can’t free us from the Devil merely because he wishes to but must get the Devil’s consent.

    This all sounds shockingly libertarian–we have freely submitted ourselves to the Devil, Christ and the Devil make a contract to free us, we choose whether to accept the terms of that contract, and so forth.

    I think where this theory break down is in explaining how it is that the atonement (1) saves children and the ignorant (can one unconsciously enthrall oneself) and (2) in explaining how it is that the atonement allows us to be made better than we are, not just saved but sanctified. Perhaps we could obviate choice number one if we assume that each of us sinned, or voluntarily put ourselves in Satan’s power, when we chose to come to earth.

  46. Rob
    April 23, 2004 at 8:22 pm

    Ok…back from a long night of writing and a day of napping and birding.

    I think we have to admit that if we don’t understand the atonement that we (and I’m totally implicating myself here) haven’t really given it enough attention. I think the tenor of the original question is a not-so-veiled criticism of our obsession with other things–including running church programs, coming up with good activities, entertaining ourselves with popular media consumption, etc. at the expense of not really seeking out an understanding of the central doctrine of the gospel–and maybe the most important truth of our existence. What would be more important than understanding the atonement? Aren’t we possibly too glibly dismissing it as a mystery for some other time? If the atonement is a mystery, and the scriptures say it is, we are still commanded to seek after it. So, back to more fasting, reading, praying, living, repenting. The stuff that evidentally the Sons of Mosiah had to do to know the atonement.

    I like the Lectures on Faith for the idea that we have to sacrifice everything if we are to expect to get the saving knowledge that we need. I, for one, have a lot to still give up.

    A challenge for us all? Less blogging? More pondering and praying? And sacrificing?

    To tie another thread in here, if we want to be Gospel He-Men and Warrior Princesses, maybe we need better testimonies and understandings of the atonement and what is really at stake…rather than the pasteurized baby story understanding (or lack thereof) that we currently pass off as our testimonies as we slump onto the couch or the back pew of the chapel (of course, I’m probably just talking about myself here).

    I for one feel a need to repent…to rise up from the dust and get with the real program–and not just the one with the 13 articles of temple worthiness that I check off every two years.

    Gotta run…haven’t read my scriptures for the day.

  47. April 23, 2004 at 10:28 pm

    Let me start by apologizing for this long post. I’m embarrassed to be hogging Steve’s blog, but he shouldn’t have posted such an interesting topic. My bad behavior is his fault.

    I think most of the responses to what I’ve said, though not all, either misunderstand or ignore the arguments I’ve made that we _do_ understand the Atonement and that we do so by means of metaphor. I know that argument goes against the grain. I’m even more aware that I’ve not fleshed it out fully (which would require at least a long paper rather than a too-long post). Nevertheless, in my vanity I think that it is an argument at least worth refuting rather than ignoring. (Am I being defensive here? Probably, though I think my defensiveness is intellectual rather than emotional.) What is wrong with my argument?

    With that general whine, let me make a few particular responses:

    Greenfrog: It seems to me that your post demonstrates that you do understand the Atonement with a capital “a,” in spite of your claim to the contrary. You can’t explain it. Agreed. But it doesn’t follow that you don’t understand it. Is there more that might be said? Yes, but that doesn’t imply that you don’t understand it. Consider an everyday example: I understand what the trash can sitting next to my desk is. Does that mean that I can give a complete explanation or description of it? In principle, no. There is always something more that I could say about it, but that doesn’t imply that I don’t understand it. Neither does the fact that there are things that remain to be said about the Atonement imply that you don’t understand it. I think we too often accept a false dichotomy: either I understand a thing, event, concept, practice, etc. completely or it remains a an epistemological mystery. I’m arguing against that false dichotomy. —And I like very much the comparison you made to Orthodox understanding.

    Rob: I’m not surprised that you don’t agree. Indeed, I would be surprised if most agreed with me. I know I’m taking a minority position and, so, bear the burden of proof. I think I agree that to some degree your longing for an explanation is the consequence of a particular education and intellectual/cultural inheritance. But my question for you is the same one I’ve been asking of Steve: why should I think that intellectual, logical, conceptual explanation is the sine qua non of understanding? There are very many things that I understand without being able to explain how I do so. Perhaps the most obvious is that I understand how to get about in the world without being able to explain how I do. In fact, I can’t offer a hypothetical explanation of how I do unless I _already_ understand how to do so. Also: why shouldn’t I think that the poet is expressing his understanding of the world in the poem and that his poem cannot be reduced to or superceded by a logical/conceptual explanation or that the same thing is true of the artist’s painting? Searle has claimed that metaphor, poetry, etc. are parasitic on logical and conceptual language. (“Parasitic” is his word, not mine.) In doing so he makes explicit what is generally assumed, but why should I believe that is true? Thus, no, I’m not suggesting “some sort of Pythagorean harmony of the spheres,” though I’m also not denying that possibility. Instead I’m suggesting that there may be hymns or cantatas or requiums. . . that express our understanding of the Atonement musically, not only in the words they employ (assuming that they have a text), but in the music.

    However, though we don’t agree as to whether the Atonement can be understood, I think the point of your last post is an important one: we owe the doctrine of the Atonement more attention than we normally give it. Steve has done us a favor by raising the issue.

    Gary Cooper and Adam Geenwood: Satan isn’t the only one who says he is the prince of this world. Jesus also describes him as that, as does Paul (John 14:30, 16:11; 2 Corinthians 4:4). As Grasshopper has pointed out (and as Gary Cooper recognizes in his second post), there is an important sense in which, in sin, we _do_ belong to Satan. Besides the scriptures to which Grasshopper has pointed us, Lehi says that we are “free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil” (2 Nephi 2:27). Once we’ve chosen captivity and death, however, we don’t have any way to free ourselves from that captivity. That’s why I think the redemption metaphor is so powerful: By sinning I have sold myself into slavery and captivity, but Jesus buys my freedom from my owner, Satan. As a result, I owe Jesus everything that I have. I am his, but rather than keep me as a slave, he makes me part of his family and promises me the possibility of becoming his friend. Of course, much of the power of the metaphor comes from the fact that in the ancient world slavery was very real and much more obvious to those writing than it is today. But I think that if I understand that metaphor, then I understand the Atonement—even though I cannot explain it.

    Scott: “Are Mormons obligated to believe that the atonement is an utterly impenetrable concept (or, in Catholic parlance, an ‘absolute mystery’)?” It is tempting to answer “no,” but I think a better answer is “That’s not the right question.” I don’t think it is the right question because I think it implicitly assumes that conceptual understanding is _the_ form of understanding, that all understanding that is not conceptual and logical is defective. Only if I accept that assumption can I answer either yes or no, but I don’t accept the assumption.

    Steve: I think we are going to continue to disagree about whether logical, conceptual explanation is required for adequate understanding. (I suspect that is the case.) But the word “mystery” is an interesting one. The Latin for “mystery” is “sacramentum,” from which we get “sacrament.” The Greek word, “mysterion,” originally referred to an encounter with a god. The New Testament retains some of that sense, using the word to mean the revelation of God in Christ or the revelation of a heavenly reality. So, I agree that the Atonement is a mystery. I may even agree that it is a conceptual mystery—that conceptual, logical thought is inadequate to it. But I don’t think it is a mystery in the sense of something hidden and inaccessible. It is an event in which we encounter God, in which he reveals who he is. In fact, it is THE event in which he does so. All other such events merely refer to that one. Perhaps that is why the Atonement is ultimately intractable to conceptual thought, because it is an event of revelation. (Here I am tempted to go off about thinkers like Marion and Henry who talk about what the event of revelation is, but I’ll settle for a—self-serving—citation: Jean-Luc Marion, “The Event, the Phenomenon, and the Revealed,” in _Transcendence in Philosophy and Religion_, edited by me.)

  48. Rob
    April 23, 2004 at 11:51 pm

    Jim–thanks for the thoughtful post. Maybe “we” cann or do understand the atonement through metaphor, but I still don’t feel like “I” do…yet. I can understand the redemption metaphor, to a point, but I still don’t understand it very well…and not to the point that it really captures me. I fantasize that if I had a better explanation for how it works, that I would understand it better. Maybe that isn’t actually true. I don’t know, and I hope I’m open to additional understanding–light and knowledge–no matter how it comes. So, for that, pray for me/us.

    On that note–I’m struck by Alma the Younger’s description of being “snatched” by the Lord. I’m going to get a bit existential here, and mix my metaphors. But I’m wondering about the Heideggerian notion of being thrown…and how that relates to being in the world (with or without hyphens) as a mortal. Can this help me understand my state as someone in mortality, separated from God to allow me to make choices, which (runnng to the redemption metaphor) eventually see me in the bonds of sin, from which I can be “snatched”–not just from sin but eventually back into the presence of God–sort of like the “anti-thrown”?

    I know Heidegger had a very different metaphysical understanding from our common Sunday School view. Is this at all useful? I am struggling to see our material world (including the Light of Christ) somehow brought into being from the physis (with all its currently unknowable dark matter) through some primordial creative act, and an ascension and descension back into that physis which gives Christ the power to snatch us back.

    Maybe I’m just muddled here…trying to peer through my dark glass. But hoping to avoid looking beyond the mark to find the mystery/mysterion.

  49. April 24, 2004 at 1:23 am

    Rob, the short answer is, yes I think Heidegger’s understanding can be helpful. I don’t want to equate “being thrown” with “being fallen” (even though Heidegger gets the language he uses in B&T from theology). But we find ourselves in the world as mortals making choices and bound by sin. The promise of the Gospel is that we can be snatched from that. In Heideggerian terms, the promise is that even though we cannot give ourselves a new being-in-the-world, God can put us into the world differently. (How’s that for mingling the scriptures with the philosophies of men?)

  50. Rob
    April 24, 2004 at 4:05 pm

    Quoting Jim:
    >(How’s that for mingling the scriptures with the philosophies of men?)

    Love it! Thanks.

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