Ilia Delio

    Lamb of the Free by Andrew Remington Rillera

    I have a small handful of theological books in my past that I look back on as turning points - books that spoke to me at my particular place and time, opened my eyes, and set my thinking about God in a new direction. The first of those is NT Wright’s Surprised By Hope; the second is Ilia Delio’s The Unbearable Wholeness of Being. I’ll give it a week or two before I inscribe this in stone, but I’m inclined to think that Andrew Rillera’s Lamb of the Free is the next one. Let me try to explain.

    In the Protestant church (at least), there has been much ink spilled over the years to systematize atonement theories, that is, to organize all the teaching about Jesus’ death and how it works to save us into some sort of coherent, synthesized framework. In the conservative evangelical world of my first 40 years as a Christian, the predominant, nay, the only acceptable atonement theory is penal substitutionary atonement, usually abbreviated PSA. PSA says that each of us, as a sinner, deserve God’s punishment, but that Jesus died in our place, taking that wrath upon himself. The children’s bibles usually summarize it as “Jesus died so I don’t have to”.

    Rillera says that PSA fails to pay attention to how sacrifices worked in the Old Testament, and as such then horribly misreads the New Testament (particularly Paul and Hebrews). This may be the book that inspires me to go back to where I always get bogged down in the Bible In A Year reading plans, and do a close reading of Leviticus.

    Rillera starts right off the bat in chapter 1 by making the assertion that

    There is no such thing as a substitutionary death sacrifice in the Torah.

    He notes that “for sins that called for capital punishment, of for the sinner to be “cut off”, there is no sacrifice that can be made to rectify the situation”, and that far from animal blood on the altar being a substitute for human blood, human blood actually defiled the altar rather than purifying it. Neither was that animal sacrifice about the animal suffering; to maltreat the animal “would be to render it ineligible to be offered to God”, no longer being “without blemish”. Already you can see the distinctions being drawn between this close reading of Levitical sacrifices and the usual broad arguments made in favor of PSA.

    Lamb of the Free takes 4 chapters - a full 150 pages - to review OT sacrifices. I’m not going to try to summarize it here. But I have a new understanding and appreciation for paying attention to those details now! Then in chapter 5 he turns the corner to talk about Jesus, and summarizes his arguments thusly:

    (1) According to the Gospels, Jesus’s life and ministry operated entirely consistent with and within OT purity laws and concern for the sanctuary.
    (2) Jesus was a source of contagious holiness that nullified the sources of the major ritual impurities as well as moral impurity.
    (3) Thus, Jesus was not anti-purity and he was not rejecting the temple per se.
    (4) Jesus’ appropriation of the prophetic critique of sacrifice fits entirely within the framework of the grave consequences of moral impurity. That is, like the prophets, Jesus is not critiquing sacrifice per se, but rather moral impurity, which will cause another exile and the destruction of the sanctuary.
    (5) But, his followers will be able to experience the moral purification he offers.
    (6)The only sacrificial interpretation of Jesus’s death that is attributed to Jesus himself occurs at the Lord’s Supper. At this meal Jesus combines two communal well-being sacrifices… to explain the importance of his death. However, the notion of kipper [atonement] is not used in any of these accounts…

    There’s a lot there, and Rillera unpacks it through the second half of the book. (I was particularly enthusiastic at his point (2), as it dovetails neatly with Richard Beck’s Unclean, where Beck argues that Jesus’ holiness was of such a quality that indeed, sin didn’t stick to him, but rather his holiness “stuck to”, and purified, other people’s sin and sickness.) Rillera says that Jesus’ death conquered death because even death was transformed by Jesus’ touch, and that Jesus came and died not as a substitution but rather as a peace offering from God to humankind. (His unpacking of Romans 3:25-26 and the word hilastērion was particularly wonderful here.) Jesus’ suffering under sin and death was in solidarity with humankind, and uniquely served to ultimately purify humankind from death and sin. (Really, I’m trying to write a single blog post here and summarize a 300 page book. If you’ve gotten this far and you’re still interested, go buy the book and read it. If you want to read it but it’s too pricy for you, let me know and I’ll send you a copy. I’m serious.)

    I’ll wrap this up with a beautiful paragraph from a chapter near the end titled “When Jesus’s Death is Not a Sacrifice”. In examining 1 Peter 2, Rillera says this:

    First Peter says that Jesus dies as an “example so that you should follow his steps”. In short, Jesus’s death is a participatory reality; it is something we are called to follow and share in experientially ourselves. The logic is not: Jesus died so I don’t have to. It is: Jesus died (redeeming us from slavery and forming us into a kingdom of priests in 2:5, 9) so that we, together, can follow in his steps and die with him and like him; the just for the unjust (3:18) and trusting in a God who judges justly (2:23; 4:19). This is what it means to “suffer…for being a ‘Christian’” (4:15-16). It does not particularly matter why a Christ-follower is suffering or being persecuted; it only matters that they bear the injustice of the world in a Christ-like, and therefore, a Servant-like manner.

    There are a dozen other bits I’d love to share - maybe in another post soon. But for now, I’m thankful for Andrew Remington Rillera and his wonderful work in Lamb of the Free. I’ll be thinking about this for a long time.

    Some quick thoughts as I synthesize Beck and Delio this morning...

    Richard Beck has a post this week addressing “intellectual problems with petitionary prayer”, or to put the question another way: how does prayer “work”? He critiques a vision of God sitting at a distance from the world and being convinced to reach in and intervene in a Creation that otherwise ticks on autonomously. He calls this the “magic domino theory” - the idea that prayer is to get God to reach in and tip over the magic domino that knocks over other dominos to make things happen.

    Beck’s latest book, as I understand it (having read his posts about it but not the book itself) argues for a re-enchanted view of the world. In this post he builds off of Gerard Manley Hopkins' line that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”:

    God isn’t at a distance. God’s energy and power suffuses creation. Creation isn’t ticking along autonomously, like a machine. Creation is alive and exists in an on-going radical dependence upon God. We are continuously bathed in God’s sustaining light and love, and should God ever look away from us we would cease to be.

    Now I love this, but I am also internally screaming “but what does this really MEAN?” After a lifetime in fundamentalist evangelicalism being told to accept a broad disconnect between the reality of creation and the “mystery” of God in it, I need something more tangible.

    This is where I appreciate being able to read Ilia Delio alongside Beck. Delio, I think, would agree with Beck’s vision of creation being imbued with God’s presence. But she would then start to talk about what that permeation might actually mean at a level of quantum mechanics. And this is so helpful to me because even though, to adapt Arthur C. Clarke, sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic, I need to at least conceptually be able to ground that “magic” (or to use Beck’s word, “enchanted”) view of God’s interaction with creation in the real, scientific world somehow.

    And even though my understanding of quantum physics is quite limited, Delio’s push to bring theology into discussion with modern cosmology has been a key to my ability to stay within the stream of Christianity. I couldn’t deal any more with the disconnected, capricious, judgmental God that evangelicalism gave me. But that we could personify “God” as a conceptualization of the mysterious relational charge running through the fabric of the universe? That somehow uniquely enlightened and enlivened Jesus of Nazareth? That’s an approach that can unite my head and my heart as I (like everyone else) try to grapple with the mysteries of life.

    Keeping theology coupled with cosmology

    I was introduced to Dr. Ilia Delio a couple weeks ago on a podcast. Her thoughts about God, evolution, and the quantum realm fascinated me such that I went right to Amazon and bought three of her books. This morning I started in on the first one (The Unbearable Wholeness of Being) and ran across this stunning thought in the introduction:

    Raimon Panikkar said that when theology is divorced from cosmology, we no longer have a living God but an idea of God. God becomes a thought that can be accepted or rejected, rather than the experience of divine ultimacy. Because theology has not developed in tandem with science (or science in tandem with theology) since the Middle Ages, we have an enormous gap between the transcendent dimension of human existence (the religious dimension) and the meaning of physical reality as science understands it (the material dimension). This gap underlies our global problems today, from the environmental crisis to economic disparity and the denigration of women.

    Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, p. xix

    She’s going to have to do some convincing for me to accept the conclusion of the last sentence, but the bigger thought that our theology needs to continue to develop along with our cosmology so that they can be coupled in a way that God is more than an “idea” in the modern age is one I’m going to be chewing on for a while. Looking forward to the rest of this book!