Whew! Thanks for staying with us so far. In the previous post, we looked at the way the Bible offers a metanarrative of brokenness: that man experiences spiritual, social and even environmental separation, and that God’s great redemptive plan is to put the broken pieces back together.
Spiritual separation highlights two of man’s greatest needs: the need for identity and the need to determine who can be trusted.
A conceptual artist once summarized the human condition in three questions: “Who am I? Where am I? Why am I?” The rock band The Killers ask, “Are we human or are we dancer?”
The need for identity is a common one. It often has seemed, at least to me, that this area more than others is related to the question of God. If there were no God, what is it that anchors man’s true identity? In Rebel Without a Cause, the narrator comments, “Man, existing alone, seems himself an episode of little consequence.” It’s no wonder that existentialist author Albert Camus once observed that man’s only real choice was whether or not to commit suicide.
Where man sees uncertainty and purposelessness, the Bible speaks of value and dignity. The Book of Genesis speaks twice of man’s implicit value as the bearer of the imago Dei, the “image of God.” Does this mean we look like God? No, but it does mean that both male and female share in certain of God’s attributes, such as his creativity and volition.
Cult of Aloneness
But most people I know wouldn’t describe themselves in terms of the imago Dei. Most people feel terrifyingly lost in the world, directionless and haunted by their own persistent loneliness. Poet D. H. Lawrence commented on this sense of alienation:
“we want to delude ourselves that love is the root. It isn’t. It is only the branches. The root is beyond love, a naked kind of isolation, an isolated me, that does not meet and mingle, and never can….It is true, what I say; there is a beyond, in you, in me, which is further than love, beyond the scope, as stars are beyond the scope of vision…”
More recently, novelist Douglas Coupland has spoken of the “cult of aloneness,” defined through man’s sense of self-imposed isolation. In Generation X, Coupland writes:
“All looks with strangers became the unspoken question, ‘Are you the stranger who will rescue me? Starved for attention, terrified of abandonment, I began to wonder if sex was just an excuse to look deeply into another human being’s eyes.”
Alienation: The Coherence View of Sin
What happened? How did we get this way? The Bible uses the word “sin,” a fundamental violation of God’s character. For many, “sin” might sound like a word thrown around by slick-haired televangelists or the local religious wack-job you try and avoid eye contact with at work.
But interestingly, most Americans still believe in sin, albeit not necessarily defining it as a violation of God’s character. In a previous post, we spoke of the shift in epistemology in the present generation – that young people tend to see truth as a system of interrelated ideas evaluated based on their “coherence.” In this “web” system, there is no foundation, and hence no clear moral foundation. So sin is therefore seen differently, almost amorphously. Lee Strobel describes it as a “free-floating sense of guilt, and inevitably there’s harm caused to oneself or others.” Young people still recognize that their actions often carry negative consequences, often alienating them from their friends or loved ones.
A number of years ago Frank Warren started a community art project called “PostSecret.” The idea was that across the country, people would send in post cards on which they wrote their worst secrets. Several years and four books later, the secrets are still rolling in, some of which are funny, others are horrifying. But as you sift through the mess of secrets, you can’t help but notice that most confessions reflect at least one of two fears: (1) “I will never be loved” and (2) “I will never be forgiven.”
Love and forgiveness are the very soul of the gospel message. Man has a profound sense of estrangement, of being lost, and ultimately, whether aware of it or not, this lostness stems from separation from God. As the ancient writer prayed, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it rests in thee.”
18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)
The key concept here is “reconciliation.” The idea here is restoring a relationship between two parties. Author John Stott calls reconciliation “the opposite of alienation.” In the New Testament, God is the offended party to whom man must be reconciled, a feat achieved through the redemptive work of the cross.
While theories of the atonement abound (currently the Christus victor motif is gaining ground over penal substitution, an ideological change that has profound impact in the emerging church climate…more on this some other time), these theories emphasize the process rather than the results. Earlier I suggested that the primary result of sin is estrangement. Here I argue that the primary result of the atonement is reconciliation.
Therefore, for younger generations, the gospel is a powerful tool for reaching their deepest needs. Everyone understands and emotively engages with the concept of relationship – the divorce rate in the U.S. bears solemn testimony to the pervasive state of broken relationships.
The doctrine of reconciliation provides a theologically and Biblically sound to the deepest needs of the human condition. This is why the cross must remain the central focus of the church, so that the gospel may be proclaimed to a lost generation.
In our next post, we shall move from reconciliation in its vertical (man and God) implications, to reconciliation in its horizontal (man and man) implications.