Fear, Freedom, Atonement

In this sacrament talk from the late 1990s (when I was a medical student in Boston), I argued that Atonement is a perfect proximity, something like a mid-point between the traditional poles of the inscrutable (and to some, capricious) grace of Calvinism (though in its current version within evangelical Protestantism it comes off surprisingly Arminian at times) and the divine rubber stamp on Pelagian perfectionism (the disputed but still arguably “traditional” Mormon view).

I have since read and struggled with Gene England’s “Weeping God of Mormonism,” something like a celebration of a finite God and human perfectionism. I was a little surprised to see how Protestant I sounded in this original talk, despite the less-than-Calvinist views I have expressed in various settings. I have never thought of myself as neo-orthodox, either, though an emphasis on something more like grace would place me at least near that camp. In any case, I believe that there is still much to learn about Atonement. How important are weakly theological approaches to Atonement? What do people think about this notion of proximity?

Sacrament meeting talk, Cambridge, MA ca. 1999

Atonement and its siblings, grace and perfection, have been topics of great controversy in Christian belief and practice for millennia. In my own short life, I have seen the contrary themes microcosmically reenacted through the course of my cyclic spiritual walk. As many of us, I experience shifting seasons of religious devotion: sometimes I am consumed by the vernal ardor of spiritual passion; at other times I brace my shoulders skeptically against the howling winds of winter and try to forget. My understanding of the significance of sin, atonement, and the possibility of perfection fluctuates in complex interdependence with my skepticism and religious commitment.
I have come to understand the Atonement in terms of the human needs it fills. Not because God is limited or is required to sate our appetites and sooth our nerves, but rather to understand in a personal way the scope of the Atonement. To me, recognizing the need addressed by the theology of atonement does not imply that it is psychological artifice, the clerical repackaging of a human appetite, as the empiricists and relativists might argue. Rather, I find this approach vitalizes my religious experience. At its heart, atonement is the question of reconciling our love of and yearning for perfection with our patent imperfection, our hopes for the world with the disappointing reality we actually live.

The Two Fears

I now see our theology of atonement, as well as our intimate, ineffable experience of that event, as flowing from two fears, while it represents—hopefully, hungrily—the salve that will soothe us in our terror. I do not mean to imply that the world is a dark, angry place, although there is certainly scriptural precedent for such a claim. I do not intend to argue with Joseph Smith’s largely optimistic view of human nature and potential.
The missionary discussions present the two obstacles to divine Communion as physical and spiritual deaths. I believe that these deaths are the source and metaphor for our two basic fears. We are scared that we are of no consequence at the present moment, and we fear that we will be of no consequence at a later moment. The first we might characterize as fear of inadequacy, of a lack of comeliness that humans (or the elements, society, posterity, the gods) should us desire. It is closely allied with a recognition of our sinfulness, so bluntly stated by Paul: “None is without sin, not one.”
The second obstacle is the fear of extinction and the related concern that our physical extinction will be followed by endless anonymity, that our lives are “writ in water,” that the perturbations of history that chronicle our passing are as temporary as ripples in a pond struggling to recall the pebble that conjured them for their brief lifespan.
I was raised in Rocky Mountain towns that teetered between the rural and the suburban fringe, idyllic and provincial, at a time when neither was terribly objectionable. I moved to the East for college and am now a medical student in Boston. The slow transition of the last decade has opened my eyes to the tenuous compromise with fear that pervades many, if not all, of our encounters. I watch myself and my colleagues, and I see us afraid of being found out, confused about whether and why we are valuable, hungry for acceptance and respect. I also find myself in an unceasing state of evaluation, hungry for approval and frightened of the specter of ignorance. We rush between patients, confronting their mortality, too mortified to deal with our own hidden mediocrity. The atmosphere of frenetic self-validation makes it hard to stop and experience much beyond the elemental fear.
I watch my younger brother, a high school senior, frantic with worry over whether he’s Ivy League material. I see colleagues at the Harvard schools visibly straining, almost in prayer, for the confirmation of their worth that comes with acceptance, matriculation, and diploma. I hear the university’s name spoken as a Shibboleth, watch the hopeful eyes of new proselytes to the secular, all-encompassing religion of Excellence.
In my medical encounters, I see us using drugs and sex to our detriment, as we flee our weak selves, addicted to the power of their enticements. Many of us will die, cowering in a corner, of cirrhosis, drug overdose, or AIDS. I find only the hunger for Atonement in these settings, a famine of Biblical proportions in a land where bread cannot be allowed to be bread.
In religious settings, I hear the more openly desperate admission of this fear, often in the form of a refrain, “I am an unworthy soul, who is afflicted with pain and peril. Without God, I would be enveloped by my lonely worthlessness.”
A final reminder of the engine of fear underlying God’s revelations lies in the fact that the prayers leading to contemporary visitations of Jesus, God, and Moroni were specifically the result of young Joseph’s concern about the salvation of his soul, including his worthiness before God. My Book of Mormon idol, Alma, son of Alma, experienced his great epiphany at the time that he realized his hopeless corruption with perfect clarity. The fear of inadequacy lingers in the hearts and minds of all of us.
The second great fear requires less introduction. I live daily with our anxious, unsettled, sometimes angry fear of death. Far too often, if we are wealthy, we try to stave off the effects of death by philanthropy or an ironclad will and testament, our contract with our offspring that they will ever bear our memory. If we are poor, we die without fanfare.

Atonement as Response to Fear

The first fear, familiar to us all at least from adolescence, is the source of our recognition that we require saving, that we “once lost” must be “found.” For whatever reason (and there is no dearth of debate on this topic) we are capable of, even required to, conceive of a better place, a more perfect condition, both for our world and for ourselves. And we are simultaneously doomed to fail to match that ideal. How shall we deal with this ever-present knowledge of our imperfection? For some it is to be shrugged off as irrelevant, for others it is made moot by submission (islam) to God. For Christians, it is a void the size and shape of the cross. I do not pursue the difficult theology of proxy punishment here. Suffice it to say that we as Christians believe in the mystical (some would say magical) significance of Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation.
Here I think the salience of our greatest fear is most clearly seen in the teachings of the so-called “glassy-eyed sectarians”, the evangelistic “born-agains” who maintain in the crude caricatures on their newsprint tracts that the prayer in 24-point type on the back cover, once uttered, spells eternal salvation. For them, Jesus answers the question, “Am I lost?” with an unqualified and definitive “Never again.”
Many of us dismiss this theology, whose foundation lies in a rich legacy traceable to Paul, as an illogical and irresponsible pipe dream. The system is not that easy, we LDS often remark; we must always be progressing and can never have that perfect assurance. The self-styled repairer of the breach, trying to share complementary insight, will often cite Nephi, “for it is by grace that we are saved after all that we can do.” But what then is Atonement if it can only work after we’ve done everything ourselves? To many it must (and does) seem only to be an abstract promise of the technical possibility but virtual implausibility of human perfection. Each of us must continue frightened, sometimes painfully, of our eternal incompetence, of the stain that can never be washed out. The fear, for many, remains.
Why are we so offended by the claims of easy salvation? One wonders whether we are concerned, with the parable’s morning laborers in the field, that those who come in the evening share our reward whereas we were forced to carry7 the load. Could we possibly fear that concerted efforts at piety are a waste of time if they do not confer differential access to salvation? Or would salvation by grace corrupt heaven by forcing association between Saints and sinners? If heaven is freely available to every mortal, how is it different from earth? Such a celestial goal can hardly speak to our idealism, and on a philosophical level, I am sympathetic to our dislike for salvation purely by grace. On a personal level, the pervasive fear that ought to have been cast out by the perfect love of Jesus argues strongly for a more graceful notion of salvation.
We are much less bothered by such straightforward answers to that second basic human fear. In Mormonism, we have captured both the Jewish and the Christian solutions to the conundrum of obvious human mortality and the irrepressible drive at least to last, if not to live, forever. With the Jews we share the powerful belief in generations to come, in salvation from personal extinction by the “fruit of our loins.” With the Christians we share the reassurance that Jesus’ empty tomb signifies, per the Apostle Paul and the Bishop Donne, the death of Death. Ironically, some of the same Christians so eager to conquer our fear of inadequacy are often reticent to allow freedom from death to all. For them, resurrection is a free gift reserved for those who accepted Jesus. For the LDS, even the worst of sinners will be resurrected, thus saved from death. For us as LDS, this step channels all the fear of death back into the first fear. Given that we will automatically live forever, will it be as epic heroes or pitiful mockeries? Sinners in charismatic Protestant theologies are at least spared endless existential pain by their complete annihilation.

A well-publicized movement in LDS popular theology, backed by scores of books detailing “proaction,” “paradigms,” “traits,” and “habits” appears to me to be at loggerheads with the Atonement. The proponents of this view seem to imply that through sheer force of human will the foibles of mortality can and must be eliminated. “Binding” God to grant us salvation, we accumulate vouchers for his grace through each carefully executed transaction of time, energy, and goal-realization. The notion that the Atonement merely allows us to be rewarded for our mortal excellence with eternal increase flows naturally from their theses.
Our evangelical colleagues think we’re buying our way to heaven; I think we haven’t been bought from fear. They argue that our view bespeaks an understanding of Atonement much weaker than theirs, one capable only of saving those who no longer need it. I’m inclined to agree with them. The fear that remains, that almost irrepressible Angst that we don’t measure up, continues to prevent our Communion with God.
I remember well the confession of one senior missionary I encountered in the mission field: “I’ve just come to terms with the fact that I’m not celestial material. They say the terrestrial kingdom is beautiful, and I’ll just have to settle for that.” Her son had died out of the faith, and no amount of sacharine assurance of God’s grace could convince her that she could be redeemed in the face of her abject failure as a mother in Zion.

Atonement as Proximity

It is much easier to denigrate than create, and I do not wish merely to criticize. I believe that a doctrine of Atonement must contain means to save all who desire it and none who do not. I believe that it must ultimately free us from sin and its sibling fear.
In trying to work through this over the years, I have come to view the Atonement as a place, salvation as a perfect proximity. The secret hiding place, reserved by children for weeping, healing, and wondering, is an early harbinger of the Atonement to come. There in our sacred place, our inadequacy is swallowed up in the perfection of the location built for us, thus an extension of our being. Our chief task is to seek entrance to the garden. I am grateful to LDS theologians for their persistent emphasis on the Garden at Gethsemane, for its ironic juxtaposition of the height of human perfection (as Christ drank the bitter cup) and the depths of crass human indifference (as the disciples slept the time away). It is this saving approximation, in a sacred place, of Christ’s perfection and our imperfection, which constitutes, in my practical, admittedly non-theological, view, the Atonement.
Other Christians may emphasize Golgotha, but I am glad for Gethsemane. A special garden, available to all who wish to be present there. Some may be upset at the implication that a thief could call out for forgiveness and be heard, then return to his ways, but that reservation is our burden, not his. I would hate to live in a world where the Atonement could not save any of the truly fallen.
Understanding divine reconciliation in this manner vouchsafes us freedom from that gnawing, voracious fear of human inadequacy. I am allowed to recognize that my imperfectly seeking Christ is the path of my perfection. I do not have to perfect myself; that is his task, consciously, carefully, and lovingly assumed most visibly in the Garden of Gethsemane (recall that heaven is populated by “just [people] made perfect”). Lest I offend those who fear the masquerade of spiritual laziness as newfound righteousness in Christ, I would add that in the end a very similar life is outwardly lived. In the quest for Christ, I think we will all eventually embrace study of scripture, careful meditation, kind deeds of charity, and respect for community and stewardship. But it will be part of a quest, by imperfect but no longer fearful mortals, for the perfection that resides in Christ. Perhaps that journey is what Christ meant when he encouraged us to be perfect as he and his father are perfect. It is time for us to recognize that the Atonement contains the only and final liberation from fear, for “perfect love casteth out all fear.”


  1. observer fka eric s says:

    This is great for a Sunday morning, thanks. The phase of nihilism came and went. I think that when I came to terms with not fearing insignificance and The End, the fears left and went somewhere (at least for now). Once those things naturally phase away and drop off, self significance becomes a function of expressing love and compassion at each passing moment until we’re done. Such expressions range from a simple smile at another, to teaching a child to spell a difficult word using a fun song, or speaking to God about how beautiful the ducks look on the lake this morning.
    And the atonement, I feel, is the process whereby fears fall away after thousand, millions of moments of expressions of love occur.

  2. georgebhandley says:

    This is a really beautiful Sunday sermon. Thank you for posting.

    I think of Phil 4:11-13 as stating something similar to what you are saying here. It seems the Atonement is meant to allow us to persist in strength through the contradictions of feeling.

    11 Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.

    12 I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.

    13 I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.

  3. Thanks, Eric and George. George, I love that passage and agree with your insight.

  4. smb, your two fears have articulated exactly my own struggle. I feel that I need some time to consider more fully notions of proximity because I have often used that idea to speak about atonement but it seems we are using that term in slightly different ways. Really looking forward to this book, Sam.

  5. This is a lovely statement. Thanks for it, Sam.

    Proximity as a metaphor may be a genuinely ripe and rewarding way to approach the Atonement: it holds in tension notions of closeness and scalar distance in space and time; it implies a neighborhood, a transversible space, not a singularity or indivisible point, across which life journeys can unfold. Whatever the metaphor of choice may be–an aqueduct, a trading zone, a journey, an event horizon, a boundary space, etc.–it, like love itself, should allow for motion and change, while at once scaling out to the universal, embracing all regardless of our situations, as well as microscoping back to the particulars of personal situations, where sensitivity to those same situations is the hallmark of showing love. There’s room for transition, difference, and growth in the language here that feels right, and that, as you so nicely put it, shutters paralyzing fear. To be proximate to something strikes me as signifying orientation toward something but not ontological identity. (Taking upon oneself a name but not a being.) Like an analogy, to be close but not the same. No one should expect one metaphor to do the Atonement justice (does that phrase even make sense?), of course, but I like that proximity lets us articulate that the Atonement could be that which allows us to be comfortable in our proximity to Christ, that is to find peace living with Christ as life’s orientation, although not its destination. And that seems like a great start to me.

    Plus you use freedom as a keyword here without inviting the all too frequent business school self-authorship zeal for my tastes, and although you don’t use the word that way here, I don’t think that common usage grooves entirely with a God who lets His children get lost and, perhaps this is the way to put it instead, would have His children authoring themselves collaboratively after Him. Kudos!

  6. Peter LLC says:

    So, did your brother end up being Ivy League material?

  7. Very thought provoking, and nicely captures for me the competing demands of perfection, grace, and agency that make up the Atonement and make it such a paradox, at least from my viewpoint. Thank you for sharing this.

    Everything I have heard about that Cambridge Ward seems magical. I try to imagine someone giving a talk like this in our ward, and even with a lot of bright tech folks and a few attorneys, I sense that there would be a lot of head scratching, blank looks, and the occasional sleepy rumblings brought up short by a spouse’s elbow to the ribs. Something to aspire to here, I think.

  8. All of my siblings are material of a very fine quality…

  9. I always cringe when I hear the phrase “after all we can do”, because it implies an order rather then a recognition of what ultimately saved us.

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