Much of what I "accept" I do so symbolically or figuratively or allegorically. Some of those things I choose to accept also as literal, but even then I often do so in my own way from a symbolic or figurative foundation.
The Atonement is one of those things.
I accept the concept or principle of an atonement (a process by which we can become one with all mankind and God) as literal (that it can happen for those who strive to make it happen), but I accept "The Atonement of Jesus Christ" as symbolic - even as I accept that the earthly events might have been literal. In other words, I accept the possibility of Jesus of Nazareth as God's Son literally incarnate and the resurrection as a literal event, but I also accept Jesus of Nazareth as the great symbol of the love of God, the Father, for His children no matter if those things are literal or not.
I will try to explain:
The sacrificial lamb was a POWERFUL symbol in ancient times, as was the scapegoat. I take the combination of those powerful symbols and honor / value them. I talk of the "atoning sacrifice" as if there was a real, imbued power in it, since I believe there really is power in something in which people place power - and since I want to believe that there really was divine power in it. However, when I personally speak of "the Atonement", I speak of the grand, timeless process of becoming one with God and all mankind - the process that started in the pre-mortal life and will end only when mankind is exalted and godlike. I do that because, for me in my own lifetime and culture, that process is more powerful symbolically than just one event within that process. (I don't mean to devalue Gethsemane and Golgotha in ANY way by saying that. As I said, I value those events and the powerful symbolism they provide too much to reject them in any way.)
I had a Religion professor who taught a class called "Jesus and the Moral Life". In it, he compared the teachings of Jesus to the teachings of the founders of all other major world religions. One of his examples was analyzing the parables from the viewpoint of what he called the "Zen slap" - the conclusion of a Zen Buddhist story that came out of left field and "slapped" the hearer upside the head in a totally unexpected way. He talked about how many of Jesus' parables did just that - seemed to lead in one direction and then veered suddenly into an unanticipated and even shocking direction.
I see much of that in the narrative of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, of Nazareth - the life that pointed toward political liberation and sovereign power but ended "triumphantly" in public crucifixion and release from a tomb. I see great symbolic power in that narrative, and it is powerful for me whether or not it was historically accurate. I can believe that GOD chose someone to represent his commitment to bring all His children back to Him in unity and peace, whether that choice was made in a pre-mortal existence or retroactively upon that person's death. I can believe that GOD inspired someone in this life to teach the "life", the "truth" and the "way" - or that He chose someone who was a God before the creation to do so. I can lean toward the symbolic without discarding, rejecting or denying the literal.
I can view the Atonement as both literal and symbolic - and that combination opens all kinds of possible understandings and power that limiting it to only one option would exclude.
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