On Being Restored

I'm finally writing a post related to my original intention for this blog: promoting Samuel Taylor Coleridge's theology. Up until now I've found myself writing in a much more ad hoc, occasional nature, giving my perspective on present controversies or pressing practical church matters. And if that's really what's drawn you to my work so far, don't worry: I still have every intention of providing my commentary on current events.

If you've been lucky enough (or unlucky enough) to have had anything approaching a serious academic conversation with me in the last four years, you likely have no doubts about why I'm interested in Coleridge as a religious thinker. If not, then let me explain: While Coleridge was indeed an amazing English Romantic poet, he was much more. At the core of his intellectual mission and vision was the search for a grand unifying theory of knowledge and practice. His poetic production provided a means of working out and expressing this vision artistically, but his literary work and interests always grew out of the primarily philosophical and theological ones. Especially later in his life, Coleridge sought the reconciliation of a particular Augustinian-Reformation-Platonist Christian theology (and one I'd argue owed much to early 19th century Anglican Evangelicalism) with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and his German Idealist successors, especially Schelling. As more people begin to engage with his thought, I strongly believe that Coleridge will rightfully take his place among the most intellectually significant voices in Anglican (and, if I'm right, evangelical) thought. Beyond this, Coleridge offers fresh and helpful solutions to the most pressing metaphysical, epistemological, and doctrinal questions that all of theology has contended with for the last 200 years. Of course I could shout Coleridge's praises till I'm blue in the face, but its probably more effective to just start presenting his thought and letting you be the judge of how helpful he may be.

One of the things that could certainly be said about Coleridge's thought is that its so highly organic and interconnected that a fuller grasp of any one part only comes when you've been exposed to the whole. The advantage of this is that we can go ahead and start with just about any theological topic, so why not talk about STC's understanding of the atonement?

This topic didn't come out of nowhere. This Eastertide I've been thinking quite a bit about the nature and purpose of the incarnation, and as a result I've been reminded that, despite its many strengths, one of the thinnest, weakest parts of so much Protestant thought (especially its contemporary evangelical forms) is an overemphasis (or even exclusive focus) on justification and substitutionary  atonement models. More often than not, such ways of thinking move people to think that the Christ only lived to die on the cross to secure the divine pardon. This has regularly struck me as odd and problematic because it seems to cheapen the profundity of the incarnation by making it a merely formally necessary prologue for the cross. Second, despite having read Cur Deus Homo and my deep respect for Anselm, I still am not convinced that the incarnation is even necessary if all the atonement accomplishes is that God forgives/stays the (however just but externally imposed) punishment for our sins. Now I know that some people will point out Anselm's rationale, which is that humans owed the debt so only a human could pay it off. I hear that. I just think that's intuitively wrong and I'm convinced Coleridge gives compelling reasons why.

In his book Aids to Reflection, Coleridge provides, among other things, a really extensive exposition of his understanding of Christ's atoning work (you really, really should get your hands on this book). Now, while this is a topic that I plan on looking at in depth in other posts, it'll help tremendously to briefly describe why Christ's atoning work is necessary at all. God created humans with their own wills and intellects to serve as the creaturely analogue to God's perfect, primal, and uncreated Will guided by Reason. In order for us to properly live into this, we must subordinate our wills to the Divine Will. However, while nothing necessitates that humans will chose to subordinate their wills to something other than God (because such necessity would destroy the nature of will), all human beings nevertheless have, do, and will refuse to subordinate our wills to God (how this is the case is precisely the mystery of Original Sin). In good Augustinian fashion, Coleridge understands all subsequent decisions of the will as colored by this primordial refusal, meaning that once humans chose not to subordinate their wills to God they become utterly incapable through their own power to reverse this decision (Coleridge's discussion of the original purpose of human beings takes places over various published and unpublished works; I plan to write on this in depth later, but in the meantime contact me by email, Twitter, or Facebook if you want to go more in depth on this point).

It is through Christ's atoning act that humans have their wills restored such that we can once again subordinate our individual wills to the Divine Will. Nevertheless, while the atonement is one act, it must still be evaluated according to who/what causes it, how it happens, what happens as a result of the act, and the consequences of these effects. For Coleridge, the first two answers are short and relatively straightforward. The agent is Jesus Christ and how he accomplishes the restoration of our will is ultimately "a spiritual and transcendent Mystery, 'that passeth all understanding'" comparable to the mystery of Original Sin (AR 332). By the way, this appeal to mystery does not mean that we cannot know either Original Sin or how the atonement happens, but only that we cannot understand them. Seem confusing? It is and it requires a detailed description of Coleridge's distinction between reason and understanding which I am not ready to do here today. Trust me though that Coleridge unequivocally does not believe that "mystery" means "irrational" or even "paradoxical."

It is possible nevertheless to understand the effect of the atonement. Coleridge lists five types of images in the New Testament that attempt to describe this effect: sacrifices/sin-offerings, reconciliation, ransom/freedom from slavery, forgiveness of a debt, and re-generation/new birth (Aids to Reflection 320-22). The first four categories, largely found in Paul's writings (and, in the case of the sin offering, the Letter to the Hebrews), Coleridge believes are primarily metaphors and should not be taken literally. Why? Because he ultimately thinks they don't accurately capture the human predicament in relationship to God. Coleridge spends the most time arguing against a literal acceptance of images of forgiveness of debt/punishment, but that works perfectly fine for our situation since that's the primary set of atonement theories I'm challenging.

And Coleridge's challenge to taking substitutionary atonement models literally is quite masterful. Central to substitutionary models of atonement is the ability to reason analogically from human relationships and conceptions of justice to the relationship between God and humans and the nature of divine justice. At this point Coleridge agrees: justice for God must denote that same thing as it does for any other agent, with the primary difference being that God's justice remains unmixed and perfect (i.e., we may not be able to comprehend it because the notion of perfect justice surpasses our imperfect grasp of it, but it can't be less than our understanding of justice). But if this is the case we must hold firm to the extremely significant distinction between things and persons. When it comes to things, substitutions can easily be made because things of the same type are interchangeable (or different types of things can be assigned the same value). If you owe another person a sum of money, anyone can step in and pay that sum for you. And this is precisely where most substitutionary models stop: they present what is owed in the relationship between God and humans as though what is owed is analogous to material things. However, when it comes to relationships, such substations don't seem possible. As an example, Coleridge points to a son who has failed to perform his duties toward his most estimable and worthy mother. In this case, the relationship is not restored by some other person stepping in and performing those sonly duties; if anything such behavior would simply deepen the feeling of hurt or betrayal on the part of the mother toward her son. Instead, because relationships are not between people in their abstract humanity, but rather in their irreducible uniqueness, restoring or repairing the relationship requires forgiveness on the part of the mother and repentance on the part of the son (Aids to Reflection 328-9).

Importantly, substitutionary atonement theories seem to recognize at some level this difference between things and people since they generally accept that what is owed cannot be paid by anyone, but must be paid by the offending party. Otherwise, there would be no necessity to God becoming human. However, where they get mixed up is in seeing the fracturing between God and individual humans as reducible to a fracture between God and abstract humanity.

At the same time, just because he says that substitutionary models of atonement do not literally describe the effects of Christ's atoning death, that does not mean that Coleridge thinks they are unimportant. Rather, they serve the important purpose of evoking the appropriate disposition of gratitude toward God by allowing people to associate God's saving act with feelings of gratitude toward human beings who have forgiven their material debts. These images illustrate "the nature and extent of the consequences and effects of the redemptive Act" and "excite in the receivers a due sense of the magnitude and manifold operation of the Boon, and of the Love and gratitude due to the Redeemer" (Aids to Reflection 327).

The image that does literally express the effect of the atonement is that of the "new birth" found in the Gospel of John. Christ's act makes possible the renewal of the will such that it can once again subordinate itself to God. Now I know what you may be saying: Isn't this still metaphorical? Well, it would be if physical birth were the only kind of birth there is. However, Coleridge understands "birth" to refer to a state of passing from non-life to life, which can be either physical or spiritual. Thus, "spiritual birth (or rebirth)" is analogous to "physical birth," but they both refer to literal "births."

Because of the emphasis in Coleridge's thought on the subjective transformation accomplished as a result of Christ's act, atonement and sanctification are much more intimately linked. The New Birth is precisely that: a birth. It is not the whole of our restored life. Instead, Christ serves as the model of the human will in perfect conformity to the divine Will, meaning that the New Birth inaugurates the process of our patterns of thought and behavior conforming more and more to those of Christ (through the power of the Spirit). As Coleridge himself explains, the consequences from this effect of the atoning act are "Sanctification from Sin, and Liberation from the inherent and penal consequences of Sin in the World to Come, with all the means and processes of Sanctification by the Word and the Spirit" (Aids to Reflection 332).

For what it's worth, I don't think Coleridge's perspective, while profound, is particularly original. In fact, I don't think he understands the way of salvation in a significantly different way from even John Wesley. What is important is that he seems to find a way to wed the evangelical emphasis on the New Birth and our natural inability to do anything to save ourselves with a much more robust understanding of salvation as the process of subjectively being conformed to the image and likeness of Christ, not just avoiding Hell and going to Heaven. This provides a greater dynamism in the Christian life as well as a responsibility for participating in God's saving act that so often seems to be underdeveloped or missing from much contemporary evangelical (and no small amount of non-evangelical) Christianity.  What's more, Coleridge shows that an emphasis on being "born again" need not imply the frequent evangelical diminution of the importance of the incarnation as well as its Docetic belief that salvation is escaping your body and going to heaven when you die.