16 March 2008 at :00 am
In the previous two Matins sermons in this month in the Abbey I have been considering the matter of atonement, the notion that in some way through the death of Jesus a new way is opened up for humankind it relation to God. I have looked at the idea that the death of Jesus was an example in the way he faced it, or a ransom sacrifice, or a satisfaction in some way to the demands of justice, and I have also looked at his death as a victory. If any of you are interested you can find the first two sermons on the Abbey web-site.
But today I want to approach it is a slightly different way, because that word, Atonement, is the title of a novel by Ian McEwan, which was made into a very successful film of the same title which, among other things, won the BAFTA best British film of the year award earlier this year.
It is a moving tale of a young girl’s involvement with other, older members of her family and their friends, and her complete misinterpretation of events which she observed leading to her making a quite incorrect allegation against someone that resulted in his going to prison for a crime he did not commit. The man concerned is released from prison in time for the start of the Second World War, where he joins the army and he gets caught up in the evacuations from Dunkirk. If you have not read the book or seen the film I will not spoil it by telling you about the final twist in the last few pages, but the girl grows up to become a successful novelist, and the story ends with her preparing to tell her story, so setting the record straight, some fifty nine years after it all started, but with it only to be published after her death and that of some of the other characters involved. The writing of her account is, for her, an exercise in atonement, and McEwan puts into her writing the following statement towards the very end of the book.
‘The problem these fifty-nine years has been: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.’
Now that could seem a fairly bleak assessment, but it is worth thinking about it for a moment in the context of theology. Of course in the book McEwan was writing about a human being trying to make atonement for a wrong done to another human being, but what about that notion of an author being, at least in the terms of his novel, God. Can we see the life of the world as a novel written by God himself?
Well, of course we cannot completely. I believe we human beings do have genuine free-will, it is not just an illusion, so God has less control over us than a novelist has over his or her characters. But let us just play the game for a moment. Let us suppose we do view the life of the world as a novel written by God. In view of some of the things that have happened in the world it is a fairly gruesome novel. The consequences of the free will given us or allowed by the author have been ghastly in some cases, think of the holocaust, or 9/11 or even what is happening in the Middle East at the moment, to say nothing of the more natural disasters over which human beings have little control, earthquakes or tsunamis. And there is that strange verse in the book of Genesis chapter 6, which the Authorised Version has as ‘It repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.’
It is probably heretical to suggest it, but I wonder whether it is possible to see the crucifixion as God’s act of atonement for the destruction and evil that is in the world he brought into being. Certainly if we see Jesus as participating in God’s nature then God is not, as it were, above the fray, like a sort of puppet master, but he is caught up in his novel that is the world as well, and he too suffers in it. It was the German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoffer, who once wrote ‘Only a suffering God can help’, but a suffering God is precisely what is on offer. Part of the difficulty as it seems to me of many of the older, more orthodox descriptions of the atonement, is that they somehow either make God an object within the Universe, rather than God as the whole universe itself seen as divine, or they make the atonement an action instituted by God, but somehow carried out on his behalf. But if we do see God suffering at Calvary, and not just at Calvary but in Auschwitz, and in the twin towers, and in the killing fields in whatever part of the world is facing such disasters, or in the devastation after an earthquake or a tsunami, then we can see God as making atonement for what has happened in the world he created. Of course completely to make atonement is, as McEwan put it, an impossible task. But then, as he went on to say, ‘that precisely was the point. The attempt was all.’ And I venture to suggest that can bring God very close, at one with us.